'He was one of us,' says fellow Vietnam POW of John McCain

John McCain waits for his fellow prisoners of war to leave the bus before they are released by the North Vietnamese in 1973.


By JENNETTE BARNES | The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass. | Published: August 29, 2018

DARTMOUTH, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Navy pilot John McCain's reputation preceded him among the American prisoners at Hoa Lo, called the "Hanoi Hilton" by U.S. prisoners of war.

Navy veteran Fred Purrington knows the history firsthand. When McCain was captured and brought to the North Vietnamese prison in 1967, Purrington had already been there for a year and six days.

They did not meet face-to-face until after their release, but he knew who McCain was — the son and grandson of four-star admirals — and he heard about McCain's character from fellow prisoners.

"He was one of us," said Purrington, 77, in an interview Tuesday marking McCain's Aug. 25 death from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was 81.

What he heard about McCain inspired respect. And as it turned out, the prison grapevine was "pretty damn accurate," he said.

McCain had a habit of screaming obscenities at prison guards and spent three of his five-and-a-half years at the prison in solitary confinement, according to an Associated Press account published in 2000.

But perhaps his defining moment in the eyes of fellow prisoners came when McCain refused to accept early release offered to him because of his father's stature in the Navy. He reportedly refused to go unless everyone captured before him was released, following a "first in, first out" code of ethics.

For those who did accept early release, "there's no redemption there, in my mind," Purrington said.

A Navy pilot, Purrington was flying a reconnaissance mission looking for North Vietnamese trucks moving supplies on Oct. 20, 1966, when bad weather pushed him toward the Thanh Hoa Bridge, a location known for anti-aircraft fire, he said. His plane was shot down and he was taken to Hoa Lo.

The place was a dungeon, he said.

Prisoners' accounts, including McCain's, speak of beatings and torture. U.S. News & World Report published a lengthy first-person account by McCain in 1973.

McCain was already suffering from injuries sustained when the plane went down. He broke both arms and a leg when he ejected.

On the ground, a bystander smashed his shoulder with the butt of a rifle, and another stabbed him in the foot with a bayonet, McCain wrote.

Years later, when McCain was elected to the U.S. Senate and developed a reputation for speaking his mind and sometimes voting against his party, Purrington admired him still.

"He lived his beliefs right to the end," he said.

Purrington was released from Hanoi on Feb. 18, 1973, about a month before McCain. He was first flown to the Philippines and then to Weymouth, where he was reunited with his grandmother and with Maggie Cashman, the young woman who would become his wife.

Both of his parents had died while he was at war.

But even with everything that happened, Purrington said he feels grateful to have lived a full life. He continued his career as a Navy pilot and retired as a captain in 1988. He and his wife have three adult children and four grandchildren, including newborn twins.

He said he and McCain shared that appreciation of life.

"Like him, I consider myself one of the lucky ones," he said.

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U.S. Navy Cmdr. Frederick Purrington, salutes journalists and well wishers prior to boarding a C-141 Starlifter that would transport him to the United States on Feb. 20, 1973. He was released in Hanoi by North Vietnam on Feb. 18, 1973. He had been captured on Oct. 20, 1966.

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