"They really
beat the devil
out of me . . ."

A story about John McCain
as remembered by Capt. Guy D. Gruters, USAF, POW 1967-1973

My story begins in the first quarter of 1968, when John could again care for himself, and when John and Bob Craner and myself were moved into adjacent cells in a building called the warehouse in a POW camp called the Plantation. We were placed at one end of the warehouse building, Bob Craner and myself at the end, and John McCain in the cell next to us. On the other side of John was an empty cell, and it was left that way to isolate him from the rest of the camp. The North Vietnamese desired to break John McCain at any cost. This was because John’s father was a famous Navy Admiral, a real combat proven Navy Admiral promoted from the famous submariners of the Pacific Campaign in World War II. Not only was John’s dad a Navy Admiral, but he was combat commander of the entire Pacific theater of operations for the United States of America, and the Vietnamese War was under his direct authority. You can imagine the blow to morale if the Admiral’s son would accept the special favor of a publicly trumpeted release in the world press. So the North Vietnamese interrogators went to every extreme treatment they had in those two years to try to break John McCain.

One of the classic preparatory punishments of such attempts is to keep the soldier in solitary confinement and John was in solitary confinement for the entire time we were next to him, which was approximately two years or more. His interrogations were constant and brutal and the reader is referred to John’s movie and book to see the details of a number of them. Bob Craner and myself were first hand witnesses to his struggle via his constant tapping through the walls and listening through the walls as they manhandled him. Please see the book and the film made about his struggle for real detail.

I will relate just one instance concerning communication with us that I do not remember John describing himself. Not only was solitary confinement imposed on John, but he was strictly forbidden from any contact with other POWs, even tapping through the walls. But this did not intimidate John, and he maintained constant contact with Bob Craner and myself and other POWs when he could, but especially with Bob Craner, who became and remained his great friend, until Bob died many years later. John McCain and Bob Craner risked torture every day for two to four hours by carefully clearing and prudently timing their communication with the various work cycles of the guards. There were little doors within the cell doors that could be raised to peek in on the POWs. One day, a guard managed to sneak up on John’s cell when the coast seemed clear, and slowly raised the little door, catching John with his ear to the wall, tapping to Bob Craner.

For the next three days, John was in one of the torture cells across from our warehouse building, and we watched through the crack under our door as there was a constant stream of guards entering the torture cell on a regular hourly basis with their standard clubs and buckets of water. It was wintertime, with the temperature in the thirtys and fortys. John was tied up tightly in the rope torture position with elbows touching behind his back with tight ankle irons on his feet. Each hour the guards would throw a bucket of water on him, day and night. Then they would beat him with their clubs. The guards beat him on the bony parts of the body, for example, shoulder blades, elbows, wrists, ankles, etc. Of course the rope torture was agonizing all by itself on top of the water and the beatings. They were obviously furious with John.

After three days and nights of this, we were relieved to see John being returned to his cell, heard the cell door open and close and the bars slammed home. Normally, when a POW was punished for communicating, generally not near as long as John was, he would ask for a few days of grace from the rest of us (no communicating) before starting up again. In John’s case, Bob and I heard the bars being put in place, then looked at each other in amazement as we heard the call-up signal on the wall about one minute later. Bob took the wall as I took position in front of our door to cover, and John tapped out the words, “Well, they really beat the devil out of me this time.” I remember Bob saying later, “Three days of torture, and they managed to intimidate him for sixty seconds!”

Bob Craner and I both felt that John McCain was an outstanding leader of the resistance in the prison camp, despite being seriously injured. We could not have had greater admiration and respect for every aspect of his behavior during those years. He and we understood clearly what a victory it would have been for the North Vietnamese if he gave in. His refusal to do so was an outstanding instance of unselfish love of his country, his family, and his fellow servicemen and women. It would be impossible to speak too highly of his conduct as a POW, again, one especially subject to extraordinary pressure because of the key command position of his father.