Clearing The Record On John McCain’s Record Of Service In The Navy

Prisoner of War, Lt. Commander John McCain shown in black and white photo in North Vietnamese Hua Lo prison hospital

by Richard Cameron


 

Due to the proliferation of fictitious accounts of the late Senator John McCain’s actions and experiences while serving in the United States Navy during the Vietnam conflict, I made the decision as Editor in Chief of National Compass, that we must correct the record regarding the most frequently cited episodes – his role during a catastrophe that took place on the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Forrestal, his time as prisoner of the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi, and allegations that he was a supporter of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S.S. Forrestal Episode

Let’s begin with the widely disseminated allegation that John McCain, Navy Pilot on the U.S.S. Forrestal, was instrumental in a series of events that resulted in a massive fire on the carrier – and consequentially, 134 fatalities. 

The fictional account blaming McCain for the inferno, appears to have originated from noted Libertarian and Ron Paul protege of the alt-right net, Lew Rockwell.  Whatever might be said of Rockwell’s various other historical revisions, this one is so lacking in documentation, citations  and a basic accurate understanding of the operations of a 1967 era Aircraft Carrier, that it casts a shadow on most anything else he claims to comport with reality.

There have been, at this point, dozens, perhaps hundreds of regurgitations of the accusation  of McCain’s involvement in the tragedy, but here is a generic paraphrase of the many similar versions in existence on the internet:

In 1967, the USS Forrestal suffered near catastrophic damage from a fire that raged on-board for nearly two days.  John McCain was stationed on the Forrestal at the time and was quite likely responsible for the fire that killed 134 sailors and injured 62 others.  Hot dog pilots were well known for their “wet-starts,” a process which allows fuel to build up in the engine before hitting the plane’s start switch.  The result of the wet-start is a long flame erupting from the tail of the plane.  

It was done simply for effect, a showy procedure meant to draw attention to the pilot.
On June 29, 1967, John McCain is alleged to have used a wet-start to “shake up” a pilot in the plane behind him. The result was a fired rocket, dropped bombs and a fire that raged for nearly two days.  134 sailors lost their lives and another 62 were badly injured.  McCain never had to answer for the incident.  His father and grandfather were Navy admirals with a great deal of sway.

That is the widespread contention. What actually did happen on July 29, 1967 on-board the U.S.S. Forrestal?

The Official Report from the Judge Advocate General

According to the official report dated 19 September 1967 from the office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG), to the Chief Of Naval Operations, none of the above account from Rockwell, is confirmed.  Note that in this transcript of the original, names of the C.O.s – (Commanding Officers) have been assigned a “(b) (6) redaction”, which according to the Pentagon, is a redaction which  “applies to information release of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of other individuals.”  In the declassified copy of the report, released August 21, 1969, the basic outline of events is as follows:

The catastrophic fire aboard the Forrestal resulted from a chain of events starting at about 1051 local time on 29 July 1967.  The Forrestal had been on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin since 24 July and had been launching airstrikes against North Vietnam since 25 July. Other carriers in the area were the Oriskany and Bon Homme Richard. The Intrepid was on route Yankee Station and the Constellation was moored in Subic Bay (Phillippines). 

Captain __(b) (6)    , USN, was commanding Forrestal; Real Admiral ___(b) (6)    , USN, was commanding the Task Group comprised of Forrestal and Destroyers Rupertos and Tucker. Commander __(b) (6)  , USN, commanded Fighter Squadron Eleven, which was assigned to Air Wing Seventeen at the time. 12 A-4, 12 F-4 and 3 A-6 aircraft were on the deck ready for a launch to begin at about 1100 (hours). Each airplane was variously loaded with bombs, missiles, rockets and 20MM ammunition. 

A preliminary launch of on KA-3B and one EA-1F had been made at 1050. Launches of another KA-3B and one E-2A were in progress. Three KA-5C aircraft were on the starboard side of the flight deck, abaft (toward) the island.  A-4E #405, piloted by Lieutenant Commander __(b) (6)  , USN, was the third aircraft forward of the stern on the port side of the flight deck.  An F-4, #110, was spotted on the extreme starboard quarter of the flight deck, headed inboard at approximately a 45 degree angle to the ship’s head. 

Lieutenant Commander   (b) (6)  , USN, was pilot; Lieutenant (Junior Grade),   (b) (6)  , USN, was pre-flighting the rear cockpit. Eight crewmen were engaged in checking ordnance and assisting in starting and otherwise readying the plane for launch.  External electrical power was being supplied to the airplane in connection with starting the starboard engine.

Sermisedly (sic) due to a combination of material deficiencies and team operational procedures affording less than (optimal?) emphasis on safety, in the course of switching from externally supplied electrical power to the internal power system of the F-4, sufficient electric current reached one of three launchers on the port inboard wing station to fire a ZUNI rocket. 

The rocket crossed the flight deck and struck A-4 #405 some 100 feet away, rupturing the full 400 gallon fuel tank on the A-4 and igniting the jet fuel.  A fragment punctured the centerline external fuel tank of another A-4 just aft of the jet blast deflector of catapult #3. Fuel from this tank poured on deck and was ignited.  The burning fuel spread aft, fanned by 32 knots of wind from 360 degrees relative and by exhaust of at least three jets forward.

Fire quarters, then general quarters were sounded at 1052 and 1053. An AN-H65 1000 lb. Bomb fell to the deck from A-4 #405, came to rest in a pool of burning jet fuel, split and was observed to be burning brightly.  Within one and one thirds minutes after initiation of the fire, the first hose began to play salt water on the forward boundary of the fire. Some fourteen seconds later, a bomb exploded on the flight deck with 35 personnel in close proximity. 

This explosion decimated two hose teams and carried 27 other casualties, plus spreading the fire to three A-4 aircraft spotted across the stern. Nine seconds later, a second bomb exploded at the after end of the flight deck even more violently than the first, hurling bodies and debris as far as the bow.

The second major explosion extended the fire along 7 F-4s and toward the 3 RA-5Cs on the starboard side abaft the island.  Further, the second explosion interrupted effective fire fighting efforts on the flight deck. Five other major explosions followed, precluding resumption of effective fire fighting for some five minutes. During that five minutes however, jettisoning of ordnance, care of the injured and preparations for further fire fighting were carried on in the shelter of the island. 

Some 40,000 gallons of jet fuel aboard burning aircraft on the flight deck, fed the flames. Fuel flowed over the sides and stern, setting fires on the sides, sponsons, fantail and in Hanger Bay 3. The force of bombs exploding on the flight deck penetrated to Hanger Bay3, starting fires on the 03, 02 and 01 decks aft. The force of the explosions killed some fifty sleeping night check crew personnel and others for a total of 91 killed in the after areas of the ship.

The report, in its entirety, goes on to detail the fire fighting and damage control efforts and summarizes that 134 sailors were dead or missing and 161 sustained varying degrees of injury.  It also contains an exhaustive definition and description of all of the systems that were a factor in the tragic chain of events.

The JAG report attributes “poor and outdated doctrinal and technical documentation of ordnance and aircraft equipment and procedures, evident at all levels of command” as contributing causes of the accidental rocket firing, which “was the first event in the catastrophic chain”.

The more exhaustive version of the report, a  7,500-page “Manual of the Judge Advocate General Basic Final Investigative Report Concerning the Fire on Board the USS Forrestal (CVA-59)”, states in its above the line summary that, “A review of the voluminous material contained in the Report of Investigation establishes the central fact that a ZUNI rocket was inadvertently fired from an F-4 aircraft (#110) and struck the external fuel tank of an A-4 aircraft (#405)…”

It’s worth considering a few things here.  The pilot of A-4 #405, was later identified as Lt. Commander Fred D. White.  The findings of the report do not point to any specific wrongdoing or negligence on the part of either the aviators or the crew on the flight deck. Even with the redactions of the named fliers, it is clear that they are incidental to the system failures and in no way were they the cause of them. That is true of John McCain.

The ‘Wet Start’ fallacy

There were no “antics” referenced in the Navy’s narrative of the event, by McCain or anyone. There is no mention anywhere in the report of any pilot “wet starting” or attempting to wet start a jet.  One expert on the incident, Gregory A. Freeman, interviewed surviving crew members in order to flesh out the specifics of the official report. His research resulted in a book, “Sailors To The End”.  Freeman strongly disputes the claims about McCain’s actions on July 29, 1967.

McCain felt a huge impact as the Zuni rocket tore through his plane on the right side and exited on the left side, ripping open his fuel tank with four hundred gallons of JP5 jet fuel. … The jet fuel was ignited soon by fragments of burning rocket propellant, but there was a delay of a second or so. 

Freeman specifically addresses the “wet start” fallacy, stating:

One incorrect but widely quoted theory has him triggering the Zuni missile with the exhaust of his own plane by “wet-starting” – deliberately dumping fuel into the afterburner before starting in order to shoot a large flame from the tail of the aircraft. This is a preposterous notion. For one thing, the tail of McCain’s plane was pointed over the side of the carrier and away from other planes at the time, and the F4 Phantom fighter that fired the missile was facing McCain’s plane from the opposite side of the deck.

This illustration – (courtesy of U.S.S. Forrestal researcher J.M. Caiella), recreating the photo images of the overhead view of the Forrestal, demonstrates the orientation of the Navy jets on the flight deck.

graphic illustration of the placement of Navy jets on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Forrestal

Freeman, posting on the book’s landing page, strongly disputes any notion that McCain was in any way responsible for the accident. “McCain was never suspected of causing the fire because investigators determined immediately that the rocket misfired from the other side of the flight deck.”

Fact Check.org, following their initial review of the claims regarding the Forrestal incident, was contacted by a pilot with extensive knowledge of the jet McCain was flying:

A former military pilot messaged us to point out an even more convincing reason why the “wet start” story must be false. The A-4 Skyhawk did not come equipped with an afterburner in the first place. We’ve confirmed that elsewhere. According to the Military Analysis Network site maintained by the Federation of American Scientists, the A-4 was powered by a “Single, Pratt & Whitney, J-52-P-408A non-afterburning, turbojet engine.” The manufacturer’s description of the aircraft also describes the powerplant as “One 11,187-pound-thrust P&W J52-P408 engine,” with no mention of an afterburner.

Let that sink in. There was no possible way any Navy pilot – in this case, Lt. Commander John McCain – could have “wet started” an A-4 Skyhawk

But let’s just for the sake of speculation, suppose that McCain was clever enough to cause such an effect despite the known capabilities of the aircraft – as you have seen, causing anything to ignite, much less a Zuni missile on a jet on the opposite side of the flight deck, would have been a physical impossibility. Why? Because the tail of McCain’s A-4 jet was pointed away from, not toward the deck area of the Forrestal. 

This is not speculation. The History Channel aired film footage (called PLAT footage) of the arrangement of the jets on the flight line on the Forrestal, so you can verify this fact visually.  As to the statements about “reports by witnesses” confirming the fictional account so widely in circulation – no witnesses have ever been cited.  However, in the preparation of the JAG Final Investigative Report, over 100 witnesses were interviewed by investigators. Not one of them recalled pilot misconduct on the part of Lt. McCain or any other pilots.

McCain had a brush with death during the incident. While he was exiting the cockpit, his flight suit was on fire and he sustained moderate injuries from flying shrapnel resulting from the ordnance that exploded.

Black and White photo image of the crews fighting the various fires on the deck of the U.S.S. Forrestal in July 1967

Senator McCain himself, was interviewed about the Forrestal incident.  Recalling the moments during the explosion and the fire that ensued, McCain told the Arizona Republic in 2007, “I still remember joining other aviators as we escaped our aircraft; jumping to the burning flight deck below and rolling through burning jet fuel to avoid the heat and flame.  I still remember joining other aviators as we escaped our aircraft; jumping to the burning flight deck below and rolling through burning jet fuel to avoid the heat and flame.”

In the book, “Faith of My Fathers”, McCain said of the heroics of the crew managing the nearly uncontrollable blaze, “They fought the inferno with a tenacity usually reserved for hand-to-hand combat. They fought it all day and well into the next, and they saved the Forrestal.”

Documented facts versus unsubstantiated rumors and lies

McCain’s critics who persist in disseminating the worthless and dishonorable accusations, dismiss the findings of the JAG report, asserting that the report was a “cover up” intended to protect Lt. Commander McCain.

Common sense repudiates this. How reasonable is it to believe that the Navy, whether McCain’s father was an admiral or not, would concoct and publish a narrative of the fire, the purpose of which, was to shield a man from the consequences of intentional neglect that claimed the lives of 134 Navy personnel? 

Beyond that, the persons making these claims cannot bring forth a single, solitary individual who was aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal that day that will corroborate these indecent charges. Not one. So, your choice is to believe the attestation of witnesses who provided sworn testimony for the report – or the claims of persons, who for purely political reasons, found it expedient to smear John McCain’s reputation and service record.

The ‘Songbird McCain’ allegations

Dealing with the second of the evil trifecta of false narratives about John McCain, is comparatively a much simpler affair, due to the fact that there are not many moving parts to it. John McCain has been slurred with the title, “Songbird McCain” or alternately, “Hanoi Hilton Songbird”.  It is alleged by the purveyors of this attack on McCain’s loyalty to his country, that McCain:

  • was not tortured while in captivity in North Vietnam
  • provided the North Vietnamese officials with sensitive information voluntarily and not under duress
  • participated in the production of propaganda recordings

Let’s analyze these contentions. First, can it be credibly stated that John McCain was not tortured by his Vietcong captors?  The answer is a flat, no. The superintendent of the prison camp, Col. Tran Trang Duyt acknowledges that McCain was severely tortured and admired McCain for his endurance, emotional intelligence and resilience. That statement despite the fact that the official policy of Vietnam has been that the government does not admit mistreatment of captives during the war. 

However, the fiction peddlers rely on the statements of one of Duyt’s subordinates, made in 2008.  In an interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Nguyen Tien Tran, while admitting that conditions for enemy prisoners were “tough, though not inhuman”, added the claim that, “We never tortured McCain. On the contrary, we saved his life, curing him with extremely valuable medicines that at times were not available to our own wounded.” 

Tran, when asked how a 36 year old would leave prison with prematurely gray hair, asserted that it had nothing to do with harsh or brutal treatment, but rather that, “It’s that in prison you think too much.” 

That is it. That is the only shred of testimony that all of the surrounding allegations are based on. You can decide for yourself whether this low level prison official is credible or not, but there is a fundamental problem with his statement. There is a large body of evidence to the contrary.

McCain was not alone in the POW prison. There were 600 other men held captive. None of them have stepped forward and supported professions of non-torture. Just two prisoners have made statements that have been lifted from their proper context in order to bolster the false story line.  Ted Guy and Gordon “Swede” Larson, told the Phoenix New Times in 1999, that;

“Between the two of us, it’s our belief, and to the best of our knowledge, that no prisoner was beaten or harmed physically in that camp [known as “The Plantation”],” Larson says. “. . . My only contention with the McCain deal is that while he was at The Plantation, to the best of my knowledge and Ted’s knowledge, he was not physically abused in any way. No one was in that camp. It was the camp that people were released from.” 

Both men admit that they have no direct knowledge of what was done to John McCain in Hanoi – and “The Plantation”– a former French military compound, was not where McCain sustained the intense mistreatment that violated every provision of the Geneva Convention. That prison was the Hua Lò complex, nicknamed by American captives, the “Hanoi Hilton”

Ted Sampley – an author of one of the notorious flyers accusing McCain of cooperating with the enemy, and a deranged sociopath with a long history of unconscionable behavior, was also interviewed by the Phoenix New Times. The article summarizes the magazines’ assessment of Sampley’s claims:

Sampley offers no credible proof of these allegations, other than quotes from unnamed former POWs and suggestions that the Vietnamese still have film of McCain’s activities in the prison camps.

Sampley, consistent with his personal history, without a trace of verification, accuses McCain as being “an agent of the Vietnamese”.  Does this sound anything like the sort of hyperventilated fabrications being trafficked by the “Q anon” cult?

Rolling Stone magazine published a highly politicized article on McCain in 2008, just three weeks before the presidential election, in which they collated a narrative painting McCain as a rudderless party boy and womanizer without any firm objectives during his career as an officer and pilot.  No one really disputes that outline – not even John McCain himself. But even with the hit piece, the author of the article, Tim Dickenson, states clearly:            

There is no question that McCain suffered hideously in North Vietnam. His ejection over a lake in downtown Hanoi broke his knee and both his arms. During his capture, he was bayoneted in the ankle and the groin, and had his shoulder smashed by a rifle butt. His tormentors dragged McCain’s broken body to a cell and seemed content to let him expire from his injuries. For the next two years, there were few days that he was not in agony.

As to the matter of John McCain providing valuable information to the enemy – such is not the case. There was, despite the limitless innuendos in circulation – no actionable intelligence in anything McCain told his captors. In fact, consistent with one of the key facets of McCain’s well known objections to the use of torture to extract intelligence from a detainee – McCain, under physical coercion, fed his captors false information. 

The factual data given, was somewhat beyond the strict limits of what captured servicemen are permitted to comment on, based on the Military Code of Conduct (name, rank, serial number) but the final judgment on McCain by the Navy and the Pentagon, found no grounds for discipline. 

The price paid for resisting

McCain internalized his failure to maintain strict adherence to the code, “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine,” McCain wrote in a first-person account published in US News & World Report in May 1973.

John McCain paid the price for not complying with the violent coercion of the North Vietnamese. The interrogators broke bones repeatedly. They put him through repeated episodes of near starvation. McCain never gave his captors the home run in terms of a confession they were looking to exploit for propaganda. Prison authorities beat some of the captives to death as an example to McCain and other high value prisoners – and McCain witnessed some of them. One particular of many interrogations spanned 96 hours, with McCain drifting in and out of consciousness. 

By contrast, Donald Trump, the man who notoriously said, referring to John McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said sarcastically. “I like people that weren’t captured” – was living the life of a playboy in Manhattan, with his dad’s limo at his beckon call and a quarter of a million in pocket money at his disposal.  While McCain was being starved, Trump dined lavishly at New York City’s finest eateries. When hack medical personnel were inflicting permanent injuries on John McCain’s body, Trump was partying at “Le Club” – the Studio 54 of its era. 

Young, rich, draft dodging Donald clubbing in NYC in the 70s, while John McCain was staying in the exclusive Hanoi Hilton
Young, rich, draft dodging Donald clubbing in NYC in the 70s, while John McCain was staying in the exclusive Hanoi Hilton

McCain also was consciously aware of the situation he was in with regards to the offer by the North Vietnamese government to be released early.  “I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society.”

Historian David Foster Wallace, describes the emotional Catch-22 of McCain’s dilemma:

“Try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go?”

Robert Timberg, who interviewed several POWs while writing the biography, “John McCain: An American Odyssey”, told reporters that. “I’ve never known of any occasion in which Sen. McCain provided the North Vietnamese with anything of value.”

Witnesses to the truth

McCain’s fellow POW’s don’t concur with the unsubstantiated rumors and allegations regarding McCain.  Tom McNish, a prisoner who was in the neighboring cell to McCain’s at the “Hanoi Hilton”, says about the other men, including McCain – “If you’ve walked through a fire together like that, you’ve shared an experience very few people can relate to.”

Many of the men who knew McCain from the years at the prison, had laudatory views of McCain’s tenacity and ability to persevere in the circumstances they found themselves in. This testimony, from George “Bud” Day, is particularly compelling and credibly dispels the falsehoods in circulation about McCain as Prisoner of War;

Orson Swindle, one of McCain’s cellmates, recalls, “He was a dear friend; I loved him like a brother. We came home [from Vietnam] and we had a long friendship.”

Another American POW in an adjacent cell, Paul Galanti, “He came within a heartbeat of dying. He was put in a full plaster body cast and he couldn’t take it off for six months. His body just was becoming unglued.”

Major General John Borling, also a prisoner for six years, describes the maintenance of camaraderie among the detainees:

We were crouched in the dark or dull light often in conditions of climate that were either hot or cold, but we were together. For many of us this was something — to be able to interact freely with other human beings. This was our attempt to stay sane stay competitive, stay reinforcing one to another. John was highly contributory to that.”

Borling, as do others, say that they have at times, had policy disagreements with McCain, yet – Borling says, “When push comes to shove not only [did] he have my back and I’ve got his, but he’s got the back of the country in mind. I’ve always regarded him as a great American citizen. America’s better for his presence.”

John McCain, as a footnote, did not retire from service in 1973. He flew for eight more years and commanded an A-7 squadron in Jacksonville, Florida until 1981.

The ISIS Fabrication

The final of the triad of sensational, but fact challenged narratives in circulation, was fact checked by National Compass contributor, Janice Barlow:  

To whit, McCain had innuendos following him for the last five years heralding that he delivered inside information to ISIS. The fabrications state that McCain was in cahoots with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, and the most sought after enemy in the world.

There are images of a man, a commander of the Syrian Northern State Brigade, who looks like Baghdadi, visible in photographs with McCain. McCain even posted some of them on Twitter when he went to Syria in May of 2013. His purpose though, was to meet with a group that opposes ISIS – the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Barack Obama, who was president at the time, wanted to strengthen the FSA. The Syrian commander in the photograph is part of the FSA, not ISIS.

photo, which was widely circulated in alt-Right conspiracy theory circles as representing that the late Arizona Senator John McCain posed with ISIS leader al-Baghdadi
Photo, which was widely circulated in alt-Right conspiracy theory circles as representing that the late Arizona Senator John McCain posed with ISIS leader al-Baghdadi

So that there would be no easy debunking of this image, more of them appeared in photo-shopped formats. There was even one showing Senator McCain pinning a metal on Baghdadi’s chest. And the gullible among us soaked it all up and believed it. And they still do.  

Other rumors circulated by some veteran’s groups stated that McCain brazenly stood with ISIS militants, posing to be photographed. It’s all bunk.

But the rumor mill continued. The chairman of VoteVets, an Iraq war vet named Jon Soltz wrote that:
 …while Mr. McCain had visited Syria, “he paused for some photos — including some with ISIS militants.” The senator’s office reacted angrily, calling the assertion an “obviously false smear.”  

One does not have to look far to realize that a false smear is exactly what was intended. There are many credible sources showing that there was no meeting or photographs of McCain with the ISIS leader.

The bottom line in all of this is that one does not need to have agreed with McCain’s political history as a House member or Senator, in order to see the merit in the man. One need not paint him as a man devoid of moral failings and regrettable decisions, in order to find outrage in the cowardly and reprehensible personal attacks that were fashioned from the fabric of opportunism, spite and contempt.

John McCain, whether you define him as an American hero or not, would expect only an accounting of the truth and a setting straight of the record.

We felt he deserved no less.

 

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