On August 25, 2018, the world lost John McCain, one of the most famous Republican politicians, known for reaching across the aisle. He was also one of the most influential Americans of the last few decades, despite failing in his two bids at the Presidency of the United States. His time as a Senator was eventful and peppered with moments of heroism, like his vote against the repeal of Obamacare, but what happened to John McCain in Vietnam is what really cements him as an American hero.
During the Vietnam War, McCain was held prisoner at the Hoa Lo Prison, which literally translates to "hell hole." The facility was better known as the Hanoi Hotel or the Hanoi Hilton as an ironic reference to the horrors that really occurred there. What the Arizona Senator went through in the service of his country is no secret. John McCain’s time as a POW is well-documented, thanks to accounts from McCain himself along with fellow captives.
The inhumane treatment of POWs at the Hoa Lo Prison in Vietnam included solitary confinement, starvation, and outright torture in an effort to “break” prisoners. Many captives, including McCain, reached their personal breaking points, and beyond.
John McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese after he was forced to eject from his plane and parachute into a lake, a process that broke both his right arm and leg. The leg injury was particularly severe, but McCain’s captors denied him any medical aid for a few days until they ascertained that his father was an important figure back in America. Realizing that McCain might prove a valuable captive, the North Vietnamese finally offered him medical treatment, although it occurred in conditions so filthy that his life was put further at risk.
Regular beatings were a part of the weekly routine for many captives at the Hanoi Hotel, and John McCain was no exception. McCain was beaten so badly that his arm was rebroken along with several ribs, but other prisoners got it worse. Some POWs were beaten to death, while others received permanent injuries from the frequent assaults. The beatings were intended to coerce inmates to share information or to write anti-American statements by breaking their bodies and spirits.
The conditions that POWs were kept in at the Hoa Lo Prison were so squalid that disease was as deadly an enemy as the North Vietnamese. Dysentery ran rampant through the prisoner population, and John McCain fell victim to it. This disease prevented McCain from retaining any of the limited nutrients the prison menu offered, and his weight was as low as 105 pounds at one point during his captivity.
Modern research shows that solitary confinement can be among the most effective and damaging forms of torture, and it was a regular part of life at the Hanoi Hotel. Prisoners could expect to spend days or even weeks without interacting with any fellow POWs, and John McCain was one of many who found their minds stretched to the breaking point by endless hours of isolation. Fortunately, prisoners were able to develop a system of communication via tapping that helped ease some of the strain of solitary confinement.