John McCain's capture and imprisonment began on October 26, 1967. He was flying his twenty-third bombing mission over North Vietnam, when his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down by a missile over Hanoi. McCain fractured both arms and a leg, and then nearly drowned, when he parachuted into Trúc Bạch Lake in Hanoi. After he regained consciousness, a crowd attacked him, crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt, and bayoneted him; he was then transported to Hanoi's main Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton".
McCain being pulled from Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi and becoming a POW on October 26, 1967.Although McCain was badly wounded, his captors refused to treat his injuries, instead beating and interrogating him to get information. Only when the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a top admiral did they give him medical care and announce his capture. His status as a prisoner of war (POW) made the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
McCain spent six weeks in the hospital while receiving marginal care. Now having lost 50 pounds (23 kg), in a chest cast, and with his hair turned white, McCain was sent to a different camp on the outskirts of Hanoi in December 1967, into a cell with two other Americans who did not expect him to live a week. In March 1968, McCain was put into solitary confinement, where he would remain for two years.
In mid-1968, McCain's father was named commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater, and McCain was offered early release. The North Vietnamese wanted to appear merciful for propaganda purposes, and also wanted to show other POWs that elites like McCain were willing to be treated preferentially. McCain turned down the offer of repatriation; he would only accept the offer if every man taken in before him was released as well.
In August of 1968, a program of severe torture began on McCain. McCain was subjected to repeated beatings and rope bindings, at the same time as he was suffering from dysentery. After four days, McCain made an anti-American propaganda "confession". He has always felt that his statement was dishonorable, but as he would later write, "I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine." His injuries left him permanently incapable of raising his arms above his head. He subsequently received two to three beatings per week because of his continued refusal to sign additional statements. Other American POWs were similarly tortured and maltreated in order to extract "confessions" and propaganda statements, with many enduring even worse treatment than McCain.
Interview with McCain on April 24, 1973, after his return home.McCain refused to meet with various anti-war groups seeking peace in Hanoi, wanting to give neither them nor the North Vietnamese a propaganda victory. From late 1969 on, treatment of McCain and many of the other POWs became more tolerable, while McCain continued to be an active resister against the camp authorities. McCain and other prisoners cheered the B-52-led U.S. "Christmas Bombing" campaign of December 1972 as a forceful measure to push North Vietnam to terms.
Altogether, McCain was held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years. He was finally released from captivity on March 14, 1973. McCain's return to the United States reunited him with his wife and family. His wife Carol had suffered her own crippling ordeal during his captivity, due to an automobile accident in December 1969. As a returned POW, McCain became a celebrity of sorts.
McCain underwent treatment for his injuries, including months of grueling physical therapy, and attended the National War College in Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. during 1973–1974. Having been rehabilitated, by late 1974, McCain had his flight status reinstated, and in 1976 he became commanding officer of a training squadron stationed in Florida. He turned around an undistinguished unit and won the squadron its first Meritorious Unit Commendation.[