From A POW Prison, John McCain Emerged A 'Maverick' McCain was shot down during the Vietnam War and was held captive and tortured for years. The ordeal helped fuel his political career.
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From A POW Prison, John McCain Emerged A 'Maverick'

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From A POW Prison, John McCain Emerged A 'Maverick'

From A POW Prison, John McCain Emerged A 'Maverick'

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to dedicate much of this program today to remembering the life and legacy of Senator John McCain. He represented Arizona for six terms in the Senate, and he died yesterday at his ranch near Sedona, Ariz., at the age of 81. Senator McCain had been battling a form of brain cancer for more than a year. Over the next hour, we'll hear from people who knew him, worked with him, were mentored by him and who reported on him. But even with four decades in office, much of McCain's lasting identity comes from his time spent as a U.S. Navy officer, especially the years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And we're going to start by looking at that important part of McCain's legacy. NPR's Don Gonyea has this report.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: John McCain was a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1958. In 2017, he was back talking to new graduates. The academy - a family tradition, he said - that for him included earning mediocre grades in the classroom.

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JOHN MCCAIN: My father was here and his father before him. Like me, their standing was closer to the bottom than the top of their class.

GONYEA: His father and grandfather would each become four-star admirals. McCain, who as a cadet collected more than his share of reprimands, would begin his career training to be a Navy pilot. By the mid-'60s, the Vietnam War was escalating, and McCain's squadron became part of that. In 1967, while on a bombing run over Hanoi, his aircraft was hit by ground fire.

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MCCAIN: Surface to air missile hit and took the right wing off my airplane. My airplane violently gyrated. I ejected.

GONYEA: He was knocked unconscious and landed in the lake below. That moment was portrayed in this McCain campaign film.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Quickly, an angry mob gathered seeking retribution for the rain of bombs. Dragging him from the lake, they broke his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted him repeatedly.

GONYEA: McCain recalled that mob in an interview on C-SPAN.

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MCCAIN: I don't blame them. We're in a war. I don't - didn't like it. But at the same time, when you're in a war and you're captured by the enemy, you can't expect, you know, to have tea.

GONYEA: He was a prisoner of war. Because of the prominence of McCain's family, his captors saw in him potential for propaganda. They offered him an early release from a prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. McCain repeatedly refused the offer. He spoke about it shortly after his release in 1973.

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MCCAIN: A number of times, they were very strong in their tactics trying to get me to possibly embarrass my father and our country.

GONYEA: McCain spent 5 1/2 years enduring torture, beatings and periods of solitary confinement. His time as a POW shaped him. His story helped fuel his political career. And as a senator, he could speak with authority on military matters, most notably when he challenged the George W. Bush administration and its enhanced interrogation of suspected terrorists. McCain declared the practice torture, something he knew firsthand. In the year 2000, Senator McCain paid a return visit to the prison where he'd been a POW.

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MCCAIN: I still despise those who inflicted pain unnecessarily on me and my fellow prisoners. But I hold no ill will towards the Vietnamese people, either north or south.

GONYEA: The former prisoner then talked about his many friendships with many Vietnamese in the years since, adding that he always admired and respected the Vietnamese people. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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