Luck Of The Admiral’s Son Not For “Grunts”
By Ted Sampley
U.S. Veteran Dispatch
When two U.S. Army enlisted men were captured by the Viet Cong in 1963, they were plunged into an ordeal that would prove to be a relentless trial of body and spirit by torture. Once they were finally freed, however, their trials began all over again, when their statements critical of the U. S. Vietnam policy landed them in a military court facing a capital offense for violating the military Code of Conduct by “aiding the enemy.”
But, if your name is John McCain and your father and grandfather were famous admirals, violating the Code of Conduct by “aiding the enemy” translates into fodder for a political career, book deals, and adulation bordering on sainthood.
Even though news reports of McCain collaborating with the enemy continued from the time he was captured in 1967 through 1970, the Navy never considered prosecution as an option.
Instead, Pentagon pencil pushers chose a political spin that lifted McCain, the former POW turned U.S. Senator, up to a glorified pedestal where he sprouted a halo and wings and became America’s “POW-hero” and today a presidential candidate.
No such luck for the two lowly “grunts.”
After two-years of being held as prisoners of war under the most brutal circumstances in the steamy, mosquito infested jungle of South Vietnam, Army Staff Sgt. George E. Smith and Sp/5 Claude McClure could take the torture no more. They asked for and were granted parole. In November 1965, the two demoralized POWs were led across the Cambodian border and released by their Viet Cong captors.
Following their release, Smith and McClure held a press conference in Phnom Penh and made statements that opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Smith, 27, of Chester, West Virginia told the press: “I have known both sides, and the war in Vietnam is of no interest to the United States.”
McClure, 25, a black American from Chattanooga, Tennessee added, “The Saigon government is not the government of the people . . . The Viet Cong are the people.”
U.S. government officials were infuriated. Both Smith and McClure were Green Berets and they had clearly violated the military code of conduct which among other things, specifies; “If I am captured . . . I will accept neither parole not special favors from the enemy . . . [and] will make no oral or written statement disloyal to my country and its allies . . .”
After the press conference Smith and McClure were met by representatives of the Australian government who made travel arrangements and flew the two former POW’s to Bangkok, Thailand. There, US officials took them into custody and read them their rights under Article 31, which is the military version of the rights against self incrimination.
The two former POWs were then loaded aboard a military aircraft and hustled out of Thailand to Okinawa where they were placed under house arrest and turned over to intelligence agents for “debriefing.”
“Tell us everything that happened that’s important,” the intelligence agents instructed them at the beginning of the debriefings. “It will be helpful for Americans who become prisoners of war.”
During the debriefing, which lasted approximately three weeks, Smith and McClure were not allowed to talk to anyone without prior clearance by the intelligence agents and their mail was read and censored.
After the debriefing the Army informed them that they were being charged with violating Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice by “preparing, furnishing, and delivering to the Viet Cong certain documents, statements and writings inimical to the interest of the U.S.”
Shocked and demoralized, Smith and McClure quickly learned that the charge of aiding the enemy carries the death penalty and that they could be tried by a military tribunal without witnesses.
Then, the Army dropped another bomb shell in their laps. Their debriefings, which they had given freely and openly were to be used as evidence against them.
The Army moved Smith and McClure to a secret location away from the press and the Pentagon issued press releases implying that they had turned official papers over to the Viet Cong.
Members of the press accepted the Pentagon’s accusations against the two enlisted men without investigation or verification of the facts. Some elements of the media printed stories which referred to them as “turncoats.”
Prior to being captured November 24, 1963, there was nothing in the service records of Smith or McClure that indicated any lack of loyalty to the United States.
Both men wore the Green Beret of the elite Special Forces. They were captured with several other Americans after the Viet Cong overrun their Special Forces camp at Hiep Hoa, South Vietnam. Any sensitive documents that Smith and McClure might have had access to were destroyed by flames that engulfed their team house during the attack.
Hiep Hoa was the first Special Forces camp to be overran in the Vietnam War. It was located in the Plane of Reeds between Saigon and the Cambodian border and was one of many Special Forces camps fortified and strategically located in the midst of known heavy enemy presence. Because of their isolated locations, camps like Hiep Hoa were vulnerable to attack.
Captured with Smith and McClure were Sgt’s Issac “Ike” Camacho and Kenneth Mills Roraback.
The Viet Cong force marched the captured GI’s from Hiep Hoa south deep into the jungles of the U Minh Forest to a crudely built POW camp that the Americans later nick named “Auschwitz.”
The American prisoners in “Auschwitz” were placed in bamboo cages four feet wide, six feet long, just tall enough to sit up in. Life for the POWs became an every day struggle for survival. Communist interrogators effectively used sleep deprivation and the withholding of food and medicine as tools of torture to intimidate and break the prisoner’s will to resist.
Other American POWs were brought to “Auschwitz” and chained in the cramped bamboo cages.
The new occupants included: Sgt.’s Harold Bennett and Charles Crafts who were captured December 29, 1964 during a fire fight with the Viet Cong in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam. They were operating as advisors to the South Vietnamese Army.
Marine Capt. Donald Cook, who was captured New Year’s Eve, 1964, while serving as an advisor to the 4th Battalion of the Vietnamese Marine Corps. Cook was wounded in the leg and later captured.
Army Capt. John Robert Schumann, who was captured June 16, after his unit was ambushed.
With the new POWs came an even more grueling barrage of indoctrination attempts by the interrogators: “Sign a statement declaring the United States imperialist aggressors and we will let you go home.
“If you don’t repent your crimes, you can stay here forever. This war can end tomorrow, but you can be here for the rest of your life.”
Any ranking POW who attempted to establish a chain of command in the camp would be severely beaten and isolated from other prisoners.
When Capts. Cook and Schumann, attempted to establish command of the POWs in “Auschwitz,” the Viet Cong responded mercilessly with beatings. They labeled the two captains “unrepentant reactionaries” and segregated them from the rest of the camp.
From the beginning of Roraback’s capture, he let his Viet Cong captors know that he believed in the Military Code of Conduct and had no intention of violating it while he still had the will to resist. From that point on, his interrogators set out with a pathological desire to break him.
When the guards ordered that no one in the camp was to talk to Cook, Roraback defied them by yelling a conversation with the captain who was isolated on the other side of the camp.
Roraback was soon isolated from the other prisoners.
Comacho escaped July 9, 1965 during a heavy rain storm. For four days he used his survival skills to avoid Viet Cong patrols and made his way back to friendly forces. He was the first American serviceman to escape from the Viet Cong.
In September 1965, Smith and McClure heard some horrifying news. National Liberation Radio was announcing to the world that the Viet Cong had executed three U.S. POWs: Capt. “Rocky” Versace and Sgts. Kenneth Roraback and Harold Bennett.
Soon after, Smith and McClure signed a promise that if released, they would join the anti-war movement upon returning to the United States. The were released in November 1965.
Cook and Schumann disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. The Vietnamese later claimed they died of illness.
Sgt. Crafts secured his freedom about a year later.
The Viet Cong National Liberation Front policy of terrorizing and torturing American prisoners by the intentional withholding of food and medicine was barbaric and premeditated. The percentage of U.S. prisoners of war who died in National Liberation Front POW camps in South Vietnam was double, if not triple, that of Union prisoners who died in the infamous Andersonville POW camp during the Civil War. Because so many U.S. prisoners died there, the U.S. government hung the Commander of the Andersonville POW camp, Confederate Captain Henry Wirz.
In April 1966, the Pentagon announced to the press that although Smith and McClure had not been totally cleared, the charges were being dismissed because there was “not sufficient evidence to prove a violation.”
Smith and McClure were given a less than honorable discharge and drummed out of the Army, their reputations tarnished forever.
During the time the Americans caged in “Auschwitz” were enduring torture and deprivation, young Navy pilot John McCain was in flight training and having different troubles. Surviving a crash unscathed in Corpus Christi Bay, he managed to later collide another training plane into power lines in Spain.
Despite the crashes, he was allowed to continue flying as a Navy aviator. Luck, or maybe it was the admiral, had smiled on him.
In 1965, when Smith and McClure stepped from the horrors of a bamboo cage prison into the humiliation of a court-marshal for their anti-war statements, Navy pilot McCain and Carol Shepp, a tall Philadelphia model were married.
Two years later, on Oct. 26, 1967, the admiral’s son while flying his 23rd mission over North Vietnam, once again fell from the sky, this time landing in the hands of a brutal enemy. He was beaten and bayoneted. His shoulder was smashed and his right calf was nearly perpendicular to his knee.
The severely wounded McCain was finally thrown on the back of a truck and hauled to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp. Immediately, his captors began to interrogate him using sadistic methods they had perfected on hundreds of captured U.S. servicemen before him.
His interrogators demanded military information. When he refused, his guards kicked and pounded him mercilessly.
McCain admits that three to four days after he was captured, he promised the Vietnamese, “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital.”
McCain also admits that the Vietnamese rushed him to a hospital, but denies he was given “special medical treatment” because of his promise.
He claims he was given medical care normally unavailable to captured Americans only because the Vietnamese learned he was the son of Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., the soon-to-be commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific including those fighting in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese figured that because POW McCain’s father was of such high military rank that he was of royalty or the governing circle in the United States. Thereafter the communist bragged that they had captured “the crown prince”and treated him as a “special prisoner.”
Less than two weeks after McCain was taken to a hospital, Hanoi’s press began quoting him giving specific military information, including the name of the aircraft carrier on which he was based, numbers of U.S. pilots that had been lost, the number of aircraft in his flight, information about location of rescue ships and the order of which his attack was supposed to take place.
There is also evidence that McCain received “special” medical treatment from a Soviet physician.
After he was out of the hospital, McCain continued cooperating with the North Vietnamese for a period of three years. He made radio broadcasts for the communists and met with foreign delegations, including the Cubans. He was interviewed by at least two North Vietnamese generals one of whom was Vietnam’s national hero, General Vo Nguyen Giap.
On June 4, 1969, a U.S. wire service story headlined “PW Songbird Is Pilot Son of Admiral,” reported one of McCain’s radio broadcasts: “Hanoi has aired a broadcast in which the pilot son of the United States commander in the Pacific, Adm. John McCain, purportedly admits to having bombed civilian targets in North Vietnam and praises medical treatment he has received since being taken prisoner.
“The broadcast was beamed to American servicemen in South Vietnam as a part of a propaganda series attempting to counter charges by U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird that American prisoners are being mistreated in North Vietnam.”
McCain says he violated the Code of Conduct only when the North Vietnamese brutally tortured him. He further claims that he was so distraught afterwards that he tried to commit suicide. He has never explained why his “aid to the enemy” continued for more than three years.
Even though there are no reports in the public record from other POWs who witnessed McCain’s claims of torture and heroics or his attempted suicide, the American media has accepted his version of events word for word, no questions asked.
Yet, the same press that transformed the admiral’s son into an “incredible war hero–an inspiration to all Americans,” vilified the two grunts.
Comparing the incidents surrounding the fates of three POWs,’ who collaborated with the enemy, makes one question why two faced possible execution for treason, while the third won acclaim as a hero fit to be President of the United States.
Once more, Lady Luck had smiled on John McCain . . . or was it the admiral?
Sources for this report include: Newsweek, Dec. 13, 1965, Jan. 10, 1966, Apr. 25, 1966, U.S. News and World Report, May 14, 1973, POW-Two Years With The Viet Cong, By George E. Smith, Viet Cong Memoir, by Truong Ntu Tang, Five Years to Freedom, by Nick Rowe, Last Firebase Archives files, The Nightingale’s Song, by Robert Timberg, Faith of my Fathers, by John McCain.