John McCain and the Church Riots: A Firsthand Account

I met John McCain for the first time in the courtyard of the Hanoi Hilton, 47 years ago.  I considered him a friend until his death.  We frequently disagreed on political policies and tactics, but I have known few men whom I have respected as much as John McCain.  My respect was based on the circumstances under which I met him.

In 1970, I was one of 57 American prisoners of war (POWs) held at a camp 25 miles northwest of Hanoi, called Son Tay.  For unknown reasons in July we were moved out of that camp to another one nearby.  We learned later that the U.S. government was planning a raid on Son Tay.  We believed they knew we were no longer there, but the raid would wreak havoc on the morale of the North Vietnamese as well as boost our morale.  Both aims were achieved, in spades.

The raid took place on November 21, 1970.  It so alarmed the North Vietnamese that on November 24, they took POWs from all outlying camps and took us to the Hanoi Hilton, where their hold on us would be more secure.  We were put in a section we had never seen before.  Unlike our earlier stay, this time, we were in large cells, and we met POWs we hadn't come across before.  We immediately began to organize.  We established communication throughout the camp and began holding classes of every kind as well as religious services.

On January 1, 1971, our captors announced that we could not continue to hold these services.  The rank and file immediately said that under no circumstances would we go along with this.

This resulted in growing friction between the camp authorities and the prisoners.  Finally, in early March, they took away the four senior men in my cell, Room 6, and the four senior men next door, in Room 7.  This was a misjudgment.  After taking away the senior four men in that cell, that left Air Force colonel George E. "Bud" Day as the senior man.  Bud was the most decorated warrior in American history and no shrinking violet.  But even he was not the leading troublemaker in that cell.  That was John McCain.

We could not make contact with the eight missing men, and this made us angry.  Over the course of the month of March, we increasingly showed our anger. Finally, on the evening of March 18, men in my cell, me included, went out with the crew to wash dishes after the evening meal and acted as though we were about to start a riot.  This clearly scared the hell out of the North Vietnamese.

We knew that the next provocation was likely to initiate serious retaliation.  Nevertheless, at 10:00 the next morning, the men in Room 7 sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" at the top of their lungs.  This was open defiance of camp regulations.  At noon, they sang every verse of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." 

As written, the song contains these words: "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.  As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free..."  In more recent times, the words were often changed to "let us live to make men free."  The men in Room 7 sang the original words.  Hearing that, I knew that the men realized that by their open defiance, they might well be signing their own death warrants.  By tapping on the wall, the men next door told us that the singing had been organized not by Bud Day, but by John McCain.  To this day I cannot listen to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," or even attempt to sing it, without choking up thinking of Americans volunteering to die for their freedom to practice their religion.

That night, March 19, 1971, they took 36 of us out of our cells after dark and seated us in the courtyard.  Our arms were tied behind us, our hands were tied in front of us, and we were blindfolded.  The man next to me nudged me and said, "Who are you?"  "I am Jim Warner.  Who are you?"  He replied, "I'm John McCain."

He went on: "In a communist country, when you defy the authorities and they take you out at night from where you live, tie you up, blindfold you, and surround you with people with guns, what happens next?  Well, we know that they f--- up everything they set their hands to, so when they start shooting, it will probably be okay."  He also muttered a line from the poem "Horatius at the Bridge" in Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome: "How better for man to die than in facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the altars of his gods."

The guns did not fire that evening, and John McCain went on to a long and storied political career. 

On fundamental principles, John McCain was an absolute rock.  He did not give an inch.  He had two broken arms and a broken leg when he was captured.  No one would have faulted him had he accepted early release.  He thought it was wrong, and he would not do it.

A man who believes that there are fundamental principles so important that he is willing to die for them, and to convince others to risk death to uphold those principles, is a man to be respected.

For your final voyage, John Sydney, may God grant you fair winds and following seas.  Farewell, my friend.

James H. Warner is a retired attorney.  He was a Marine officer who flew F-4s in Vietnam.  Captured in 1967, he was imprisoned until 1973.  He served as a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1985 until 1989.

I met John McCain for the first time in the courtyard of the Hanoi Hilton, 47 years ago.  I considered him a friend until his death.  We frequently disagreed on political policies and tactics, but I have known few men whom I have respected as much as John McCain.  My respect was based on the circumstances under which I met him.

In 1970, I was one of 57 American prisoners of war (POWs) held at a camp 25 miles northwest of Hanoi, called Son Tay.  For unknown reasons in July we were moved out of that camp to another one nearby.  We learned later that the U.S. government was planning a raid on Son Tay.  We believed they knew we were no longer there, but the raid would wreak havoc on the morale of the North Vietnamese as well as boost our morale.  Both aims were achieved, in spades.

The raid took place on November 21, 1970.  It so alarmed the North Vietnamese that on November 24, they took POWs from all outlying camps and took us to the Hanoi Hilton, where their hold on us would be more secure.  We were put in a section we had never seen before.  Unlike our earlier stay, this time, we were in large cells, and we met POWs we hadn't come across before.  We immediately began to organize.  We established communication throughout the camp and began holding classes of every kind as well as religious services.

On January 1, 1971, our captors announced that we could not continue to hold these services.  The rank and file immediately said that under no circumstances would we go along with this.

This resulted in growing friction between the camp authorities and the prisoners.  Finally, in early March, they took away the four senior men in my cell, Room 6, and the four senior men next door, in Room 7.  This was a misjudgment.  After taking away the senior four men in that cell, that left Air Force colonel George E. "Bud" Day as the senior man.  Bud was the most decorated warrior in American history and no shrinking violet.  But even he was not the leading troublemaker in that cell.  That was John McCain.

We could not make contact with the eight missing men, and this made us angry.  Over the course of the month of March, we increasingly showed our anger. Finally, on the evening of March 18, men in my cell, me included, went out with the crew to wash dishes after the evening meal and acted as though we were about to start a riot.  This clearly scared the hell out of the North Vietnamese.

We knew that the next provocation was likely to initiate serious retaliation.  Nevertheless, at 10:00 the next morning, the men in Room 7 sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" at the top of their lungs.  This was open defiance of camp regulations.  At noon, they sang every verse of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." 

As written, the song contains these words: "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.  As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free..."  In more recent times, the words were often changed to "let us live to make men free."  The men in Room 7 sang the original words.  Hearing that, I knew that the men realized that by their open defiance, they might well be signing their own death warrants.  By tapping on the wall, the men next door told us that the singing had been organized not by Bud Day, but by John McCain.  To this day I cannot listen to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," or even attempt to sing it, without choking up thinking of Americans volunteering to die for their freedom to practice their religion.

That night, March 19, 1971, they took 36 of us out of our cells after dark and seated us in the courtyard.  Our arms were tied behind us, our hands were tied in front of us, and we were blindfolded.  The man next to me nudged me and said, "Who are you?"  "I am Jim Warner.  Who are you?"  He replied, "I'm John McCain."

He went on: "In a communist country, when you defy the authorities and they take you out at night from where you live, tie you up, blindfold you, and surround you with people with guns, what happens next?  Well, we know that they f--- up everything they set their hands to, so when they start shooting, it will probably be okay."  He also muttered a line from the poem "Horatius at the Bridge" in Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome: "How better for man to die than in facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the altars of his gods."

The guns did not fire that evening, and John McCain went on to a long and storied political career. 

On fundamental principles, John McCain was an absolute rock.  He did not give an inch.  He had two broken arms and a broken leg when he was captured.  No one would have faulted him had he accepted early release.  He thought it was wrong, and he would not do it.

A man who believes that there are fundamental principles so important that he is willing to die for them, and to convince others to risk death to uphold those principles, is a man to be respected.

For your final voyage, John Sydney, may God grant you fair winds and following seas.  Farewell, my friend.

James H. Warner is a retired attorney.  He was a Marine officer who flew F-4s in Vietnam.  Captured in 1967, he was imprisoned until 1973.  He served as a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1985 until 1989.