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.”