I never personally met John McCain, but I did spend several evenings with him many years ago. The first one was on Dec. 18, 1972 as I and co-pilot Jimmy Katter flew into Hanoi on the first wave of B-52 strikes code named Linebacker II, later known as the Christmas bombings.
Unknown to us at the time, McCain was 33,000 feet below us in the Hanoi Hilton where he’d been held for five years after being shot down in 1967. Hanoi was very heavily defended then and we took a lot of ground fire and some losses, including the bird directly ahead of us. However, we and most of the attacking force, drove on and struck our targets (all of which were, by the way, “infrastructure,” not as thought by some targeting innocents).
A B-52D carried 108 five-hundred-pound bombs and was extremely impressive on weapons impact, generating huge levels of noise and shaking the earth for miles around. We could not know it from altitude, but upon hearing and feeling the impacts, McCain and other American POWs cheered.
I later heard the story that when the guards came in and told them to shut up, McCain responded with some very unkind words not printable here and cheered ever harder.
My crew and I flew three more missions in that 11-day campaign, McCain cheering through them all. At that time, I thought, “Outstanding, my favorite, a stubborn rockhead — just like someone from home” (especially Eastern Kentucky). Actually, I don’t know if the talking back part of the story is true, but McCain many times hence showed legendary stubbornness and a hot temper, thus the account does fit the person.
What is fully confirmed is that the son of a four-star admiral voluntarily stayed a POW and endured torture — despite repeated offers of release — because he would not disgrace his country by accepting. We all memorized the Code of Conduct. McCain followed it, even in the most difficult circumstances. We all knew the Tap Code, too. McCain used it.
When he finally returned home, only with all other POWs, he continued on in the same courageous way.
I did not always agree with McCain over the years, but I always liked and respected him. Repeatedly he demonstrated the right priorities of country and principle over self or party — an example now so desperately needed by both Republican and Democratic parties and by our commander-in-chief.
Even more importantly, McCain never lost his faith in our country, in the ideal of America, the goodness of our people, and the necessity of doing the right thing. I will miss his humor, his terrific example, his decency and integrity, and his humility.
And whatever the truth of the old story, I will miss and celebrate that — when told to shut up — he always shot back. Respectful salute, soldier and patriot. Well done. God bless.
Brian Engle of Lexington was an aerial gunner in Strategic Air Command and served three B-52 tours and a ground tour in Vietnam.