by Dick Francis
On 27 June 1972, flying as a USAF F-4 Phantom WSO and dropping chaff, my plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) over Hanoi, North Vietnam. I was immediately captured and imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” spending my first month of captivity in solitary confinement in a section of the prison known as “Heartbreak Hotel”. Thereafter, I was moved into a 20×60 foot cell with Dave Grant, Bill Beekman, and more than 400 pumpkins. Pumpkin soup became our staple food source, along with a baguette of French bread.
Sometime in September I was moved to another cell of the same size, joining 24 other prisoners of war. Eventually, with the addition of more recent shoot-downs, the population of our 20×60 foot cell grew to 48 prisoners. The courtyard of the prison was sectioned so that the area outside of each cell was partitioned by bamboo and tar paper, enabling the North Vietnamese prison officials to keep the more recently captured prisoners, FNGs, isolated from those captured years earlier in the war, FOGs (feel free to use your imagination regarding the initials).
Then in October, 1972, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced “Peace is at hand”. The North Vietnamese, thinking that the Paris peace talks would lead to a cessation of hostilities, changed their attitude towards the segregation of FNGs and FOGs and their ability to communicate with each other, and removed the bamboo and tar paper fences. During “yard time” in the week or so that followed, I developed a friendship with one of the prisoners shot down earlier in the war, and we shared a great deal of our personal information and military history with each other. One day my new friend asked me, in all sincerity, if I thought he was crazy. When I questioned why he would ask such a thing, he replied that he had been in prison so long (five and a half years) that he no longer had a frame of reference for his sanity. Of course, I responded that he wasn’t crazy; he was as sane as the rest of us (if you don’t count landing jet fighters on an aircraft carrier).
It has always been a source of amusement to me that a naval aviator, future Congressman, U.S. Senator, and presidential candidate would ask me, an Air Force aviator, if I thought he was crazy! I share this story because fifty years ago today, my friend John McCain was shot down on a bombing raid over Hanoi on 25 October 1967. May God continue to bless you, John!