When Sen. John McCain looks back on the nearly six years he endured as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, what he remembers most is the Americans who saved him when he was left for dead by his North Vietnamese captors.
McCain, a Navy pilot, was taken prisoner after his plane was shot down over Hanoi during his 23rd bombing run, on Oct. 26, 1967.
After ejecting from the plane, McCain hit the aircraft as he fell, breaking his left and right arms and his right knee. He landed in a shallow lake, where he was pulled from the water by angry North Vietnamese civilians, who beat him and broke his shoulder with a rifle butt before soldiers arrived to take him to prison.
"I was terribly injured and near death and was put into a cell with two other Americans: (Air Force majors) Bud Day and Norris Overly. Bud was convinced the North Vietnamese put me in there to die. But with their (comrades') tender care, and I do mean tender, they nursed me back to health."
McCain went on to suffer beatings and torture by his captors, who kept him in solitary confinement for two years. But his strongest memories are of the bonds he forged with his fellow POWs, whom he refused to leave behind even when offered an early release by his captors because his father was an admiral.
To this day, McCain's most influential advisers are men imprisoned with him from late 1967 until his release in the spring of 1973.
"They call me and I call them," said the 76-year-old senator and senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I get more advice and counsel from them than any other group of Americans."
"What I get is mostly criticism," McCain added, chuckling. He doesn't mind. "Those I know best and love most are still those I was in prison with."
Unlike the Vietnam War vets who were greeted with scorn when they returned from the war, McCain and the other POWs were welcomed home warmly by the nation.
"If there was any group that were treated as heroes, it was the POWs," McCain said. "But I'd like to add that Americans learned a lesson from their failure to honor those who served in the Vietnam War. And today, whether people support or oppose the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, they still honor those who serve."
The other major lesson of the war, McCain said, was that the government should not become embroiled in a war that lacks the support of the American people.
As a senator, McCain pushed the United States to normalize relations with Vietnam.
Normalization was completed in 1995 during the Clinton administration.
"It was in the best interests of the country, especially those who fought in Vietnam, to go through the reconciliation process, to heal the wounds," he said.
To Americans too young to remember Vietnam, McCain makes a plea. "Don't forget when you're in Washington, D.C., to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial," he said. "See those 55,000 (58,000) names etched in black granite. They answered their country's call. They never came home. Don't forget them."
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