Fellow POWs recount McCain and Vietnam

HONOLULU — When John McCain first arrived in a Vietnam prison, fellow inmates saw a hard-nosed, impatient Navy pilot who wouldn’t tolerate mental weakness from his peers against their communist jailers.

But even the tough, belligerent McCain was broken and humbled over 5 1/2 years of torture and degradation at the so-called Hanoi Hilton, said Jerry Coffee, also a Navy pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War and spent much of his seven years of imprisonment with the future Republican presidential contender.

McCain entered his cell as a rigid soldier with a hot temper; he left as a mellowed man who understood the need for moderation.

“It turned out we weren’t as tough as we thought we were. He wasn’t any tougher than anyone else. We all were broken at one time or another,” said Coffee, who now heads McCain’s Hawaii campaign. “You learn that you’re only human, and you can’t expect more of yourself than you’re capable of.”

McCain’s years of torture, abuse and imprisonment gave him the temperance he would need in his political career, Coffee said.

Coffee and McCain’s paths first crossed shortly after McCain was shot down during a bombing mission Oct. 26, 1967. Coffee, whose plane had been downed during a reconnaissance mission Feb. 3, 1966, heard of McCain’s arrival from other soldiers in their solitary confinement prison because he was the son of a top admiral.

They finally met face to face when they were moved to the Hanoi Hilton in late 1970 or early 1971.

It was there that the two became close friends, talking to each other from a small bench in a cavernous cell bay while the other POWs slept under their mosquito nets.

“They looked at us as resources to be exploited, and that’s why the kept us alive,” Coffee said.

McCain was beaten, kept in solitary confinement and tied up in ropes. After four days, McCain signed a confession to crimes against the North Vietnamese people.

“I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine,” McCain wrote in a 1973 account of his imprisonment.

McCain showed little sympathy for POWs who talked too much or accepted early release before it was their turn in line. McCain refused early release himself, which his captors had hoped to use as a propaganda ploy as his father was about to become commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific.

“He didn’t have a lot of patience for people who weren’t tough. He expected everyone else to adhere to the same high standards that he felt he had to,” Coffee said. “There was a time when maybe the charge of him having a temper would have been valid, but it’s just amazing how he’s evolved. You learn how to forgive yourself.”

Coffee was among the early groups of POWs released in February 1973 because he had been there so long. McCain followed him home one month later, on crutches and permanently incapable of raising his arms above his head due to his war injuries.

Another POW cellmate of both McCain and Coffee, former Marine pilot Orson Swindle, said the terrible wartime conditions forced them to grow as people.

“We were all feisty when we were young, and we all mature,” said Swindle, a former member of the Federal Trade Commission who owns a condo in Honolulu. “The experience we suffered in Vietnam in prison helped focus him on what he would do the rest of his life.”

McCain has said he keeps in close contact with his old war friends. Coffee last spoke with McCain about five months ago. Swindle, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, talks to McCain at least once a week.

The war changed McCain, making him more forgiving despite his mistreatment, Coffee said. For example, McCain pushed for normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, a step that angered some families who believed Americans were still being held against their will.

“If you hate someone, you’re just allowing them to continue to control you,” Coffee said. “John put unfortunate events behind him and he moved on.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

This photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions shows a submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic. In a race against the clock on the high seas, an expanding international armada of ships and airplanes searched Tuesday, June 20, 2023, for the submersible that vanished in the North Atlantic while taking five people down to the wreck of the Titanic. (OceanGate Expeditions via AP)
A new movie based on OceanGate’s Titan submersible tragedy is in the works: ‘Salvaged’

MindRiot announced the film, a fictional project titled “Salvaged,” on Friday.

Craig Hess (Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office)
Sultan’s new police chief has 22 years in law enforcement

Craig Hess was sworn in Sep. 14. The Long Island-born cop was a first-responder on 9/11. He also served as Gold Bar police chief.

Cars move across Edgewater Bridge toward Everett on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, in Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edgewater Bridge redo linking Everett, Mukilteo delayed until mid-2024

The project, now with an estimated cost of $27 million, will detour West Mukilteo Boulevard foot and car traffic for a year.

Lynn Deeken, the Dean of Arts, Learning Resources & Pathways at EvCC, addresses a large gathering during the ribbon cutting ceremony of the new Cascade Learning Center on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, at Everett Community College in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New EvCC learning resource center opens to students, public

Planners of the Everett Community College building hope it will encourage students to use on-campus tutoring resources.

Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman announces his retirement after 31 years of service at the Everett City Council meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett police chief to retire at the end of October

Chief Dan Templeman announced his retirement at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. He has been chief for nine years.

Boeing employees watch the KC-46 Pegasus delivery event  from the air stairs at Boeing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Everett, Wa. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Boeing’s iconic Everett factory tour to resume in October

After a three-year hiatus, tours of the Boeing Company’s enormous jet assembly plant are back at Paine Field.

A memorial for a 15-year-old shot and killed last week is set up at a bus stop along Harrison Road on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Teen boy identified in fatal shooting at Everett bus stop

Bryan Tamayo-Franco, 15, was shot at a Hardeson Road bus stop earlier this month. Police arrested two suspects.

A memorial for a 15-year-old shot and killed last week is set up at a bus stop along Harrison Road on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Rival gang members charged with killing Everett boy, 15, at bus stop

The two suspects are accused of premeditated first-degree murder in the death of Bryan Tamayo-Franco, 15.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Snohomish in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Witnesses contradict gunman’s account of killing Monroe prison officer

Dylan Picard, 22, was driving on South Machias Road when Dan Spaeth approached his car to slow it down to avoid hitting a deer.

Most Read