John McCain: Ultimate Survivor

He knows a thing or two about pressing forward in the face of diversity - from refusing to accept a early release from the infamous 'Hanoi Hilton' prison camp ...

March 06, 2008 Edition 1

Staff Writer, Reuters and Sapa-AP

John McCain shouldn't be the Republican Party's candidate for the presidency of the United States. He shouldn't even be alive.

The fact that he won the nomination this week - eight years after his first failed attempt and months after he had been written off - is remarkable.

But even more startling are his two battles with death, once in an exploding jet plane and later in Vietnam when he was caught by an angry crowd, beaten up and bayoneted.

This was followed by nearly six years of torture and ill-treatment in a Vietnam prison.

And there he had to face another demon, a confession that left him shamed and, he believed, scarred forever.

He is also a cancer survivor, having undergone surgery for two malignant melanomas in 2000.

Now the 71-year-old McCain will be the oldest American ever elected to a first presidential term if he is able to defeat the Democrats' choice in the November election.

Eight years ago this week, McCain folded his 2000 presidential campaign with a vow to "keep trying to force open doors where there are walls".

One wall after another presented itself to McCain in his quest for the nomination this time, and he broke through them all.

The long-ago front-runner for the 2008 nomination, McCain found his campaign in serious trouble by the time he made his candidacy formal last April.

He had to slash a bloated campaign staff as fundraising lagged and polls showed him sliding.

As his presidential campaign unravelled back home, McCain spent Independence Day 2007 at the sprawling American headquarters on the edge of Baghdad and watched in the heat as 588 US troops re-enlisted.

Afterward, the soldiers swarmed McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, to thank them for their support.

Depressed, doubtful his campaign could prevail, McCain turned to Graham on the flight home and said, "We can't give up on those kids. � We have to keep this campaign up."

McCain remembers the moment as a turning point.

Before long, he was travelling Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina on his "No Surrender" bus tour, an exhortation not only for the US course in Iraq but also for himself.

McCain's new resolve after the Iraq trip last year did not lessen the disarray he confronted upon his return home.

He had just laid off more than 50 campaign workers and slashed the pay of others.

He was running in single digits in the polls in Iowa and South Carolina. The death watch on his candidacy had begun.

John McCain came back by being John McCain. "Mac is Back," the signs proclaimed.

He rejected advice to shift his stance on Iraq. He picked himself up with a loyal coterie of aides and campaigned like he had in 2000, holding an unending string of town hall-style events.

Gone were the highly-paid consultants, replaced by a cadre of experienced volunteers.

McCain's first escape from death happened in 1967. By then he was a veteran pilot aboard the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam.

He was preparing to take off on a bombing run over North Vietnam when a missile accidentally fired from another plane, hitting the fuel tanks on McCain's aircraft and triggering explosions and fire.

McCain escaped from his plane by crawling onto the nose of the aircraft and diving on to the ship's fiery deck.

Before he could reach a fellow pilot whose flight suit was on fire, more explosions erupted, blowing McCain back.

When the inferno was finally contained 24 hours later, 134 men had been killed and hundreds more injured. It was called the worst non-combat-related accident in US naval history.

Three months later McCain was on a bombing mission over Hanoi. A missile struck his plane, shearing off the right wing.

McCain ejected, and the force of the manoeuvre knocked him unconscious and broke both his arms and a leg. He plunged into a Hanoi lake.

An angry mob dragged him from the water, broke his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted him. Fellow POWs at the "Hanoi Hilton" prison helped him survive, and he was imprisoned for five-and-a-half years.

Now McCain is steeled for whatever may come his way. His darkest moments are behind him.

During his imprisonment in Vietnam, he heroically refused to accept release before other US servicemen who had been held longer.

But his captors eventually broke his will and he signed a confession stating that he was "a black criminal and I have performed deeds of an air pirate".

"All my pride was lost, and I doubted I would ever stand up to any man again," he wrote later.

Time has proved him wrong about that.

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