2003 interview with Sen. McCain by historian recalls life of service

By MICHAEL HOLTZMAN | The Herald News, Fall River, Mass. | Published: September 1, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — About five years before Sen. John McCain ran for President, a USS Massachusetts Memorial Committee director of oral history traveled to Washington, D.C., to interview the Navy war veteran and POW about his distinctive military and political service coming from a family of Navy admirals.

The half-hour interview in the U.S. Senate recording studio on Jan. 29, 2003, conducted by Michele Kelly, the Battleship staff person, was among numerous oral histories done by the maritime naval museum in Fall River in partnership with the Veterans Oral History Project of the Library of Congress.

After McCain's death last Saturday at age 81, the Battleship Cove museum will be prominently showing the detailed interview to its patrons that was preserved on video tape.

"Sen. McCain was the personification of honor and valor. He is the true definition of what it means to be an American, and a hero. His video-history residing at Battleship Cove will preserve his voice of reason, dedication to what is right, and unwavering loyalty to his country for future generations to discover and learn from," said Cristoff Shay, Battleship Cove executive vice president.

In the video, McCain shows a sharp recall of his life's events starting with why he became a Navy fighter pilot.

"It was the most glamorous and exciting life any person could choose," he says smiling.

That juxtaposes with one of his concluding comments to Kelly: "I'm probably the luckiest person you will ever interview."

In between, he candidly answers with great specificity many questions about the war in Vietnam.

They included personal accounts of the explosive fire aboard the USS Forrestal that took more than 130 lives, and two plane crashes during combat, the second leaving him a North Vietnam prisoner of war for nearly 5 1/2  years when he ejected after his plane was hit during a bombing strike on a thermal power plant in Hanoi.

The conditions of his capture and long solitary confinement from other American prisoners of war were brutal, and he survived on food like cabbage greens and pumpkins at what dark-humored servicemen labeled the "Hanoi Hilton." McCain knew he was a special target for release as a POW because his father was the commanding admiral to United States forces in the Pacific.

When he followed the country's "code of conduct" established in the prior Korean War for those released to be by order of capture except for illness or injury, he declined early release while his fellow-servicemen remained. McCain proudly said in the interview, "It was the wisest decision I made."

He said he was beaten more severely for the next eight or nine months. He'd be imprisoned for another three years, though conditions improved. McCain stressed humor had been very important to survival. He recalled himself and other prisoners making fun of the guards and enjoying the radio broadcasts of Hanoi Hannah, the model for the acclaimed film "Good Morning Vietnam" with Robin Williams.

After his release, "It took me about 45 minutes to adjust," McCain said, saying he never had nightmares or flashbacks.

He talked about his post-service aspirations after more than 20 years of military service when he began post-POW life as a Navy liaison to the U.S. Senate. He was inspired by the hard work, knowledge and dedication of the senators he saw and met.

Passing campaign finance reform, national security improvements and normalization of relations with Vietnam were a few areas he told Kelly he was proud of in 2003.

She asked about his references to Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and about how his life and service had meshed with the philosophy in that novel.

McCain called Hemingway's protagonist, Robert Jordan, dedicated, selfless, brave and capable, but also stoic. "He recognized the cause he served was a flawed one, but he still served it to the point he was willing to sacrifice his life ... even if the blowing up of a bridge would have no effect on the conflict."

McCain seemed to smile ruefully more than 15 years ago in this interview while recalling the hero's final words: "The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for, and I'll hate very much to leave it."


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A visitor at the U.S. Capitol prepares to take a photo of a display featuring the late Sen. John McCain on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, as thousands came to pay their respects to McCain who was lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda.

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