of John Clark, who got to know John McCain in Vietnam.
Former POW shares experiences living with McCain
By JONATHON BRADEN
About two years ago, John Clark hollered at Republican presidential candidate John McCain at a convention of American prisoners of war. He walked up to the senior senator from Arizona, shook his hand and exchanged a few pleasant words.
After a brief visit with his fellow prisoners of war, McCain was on his way.
Clark’s relationship with McCain is distant these days. The two haven’t talked much since McCain was elected a U.S. senator in 1982.
But there was a time when the two men were closer than either would have liked. Clark and McCain were prisoners of war together at the Hoa Lo prison, or the “Hanoi Hilton,” in Vietnam.
They endured solitary confinement, the cement slabs the North Vietnamese called beds and the torture inflicted upon them. They also experienced the camaraderie that is borne out of captivity.
They played bridge. They shared story after story. And they made it home to talk about it.
Clark calls the 30 or so men who were held at the Hanoi Hilton toward the end of the Vietnam War some of the “meanest and ornery” Americans captured during the war. He speaks of McCain with the highest regard.
Yet, as McCain and Barack Obama vie for every last vote as Election Day draws near, Clark isn’t saying whether he’ll be voting for McCain or Obama.
“I know there can’t be anybody that cares about the country more than John McCain,” Clark said. “I have great regard for him as an individual and as a patriot.”
In May 1972, the North Vietnamese moved a large group of American prisoners to near the border of China and Vietnam from the Hanoi Hilton. But almost 30 of them remained at the Hanoi Hilton, Clark said, including himself and McCain.
Clark said the North Vietnamese held back the chosen American prisoners of war to guard against U.S. bombing of Hanoi, which, if it was Vietnam’s strategy, didn’t work. But he excludes himself from the group’s tough distinction. Clark said he was held back because of his illnesses.
“I just wasn’t as tough and mean as those guys,” Clark said.
For most of the almost six years Clark was a prisoner of war, he battled the occasional severe cases of asthma and malaria.
The native and resident of Columbia said he acquired malaria in the summer of 1967, a few months after his RF-4C fighter plane was shot down near the border of Vietnam and Laos. The asthma started during the winter of ’67.
“I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t talk and I was very weak. I was pretty close to dying,” Clark said. “I didn’t have any medical care. I just had to survive on my own.”
Fellow prisoner of war Dan Glenn lived with Clark for a time in Vietnam.
“The first few years you sort of lived in terror of somebody coming in and taking you out,” Glenn said. “You never knew what was going on.”
He wasn’t held back with the last Hanoi Hilton group. But he remembers well the 20 x 60 foot room they stayed in.
A 14 x 45 concrete slab rested in the center of the room. Initially, all of the prisoners were to sleep there. But some offered to sleep on the concrete floor, so each prisoner on the slab had about 28 inches from side to side.
Busted up concrete exposed the aging prison. Grease spots soaked the slab, places where other bodies had laid for years.
“You knew you weren’t the first person that lived there,” Glenn said.
Plain, whitewashed walls symbolized the dullness of the prison. Straw mats blocked the view of the outside world through the arched windows with metal bars.
“But it was good to have roommates,” said Glenn, who lives in Cuchara, Colo., and sees Clark at least once a year.
The men taught each other foreign languages, such as Spanish, French or German. At night, someone would tell the story of a movie, Glenn said.
They also fixed things, or at least Clark did. He earned himself the nickname of “Gyro,” after Disney’s “Gyro Gearloose,” because of his mechanical skills.
The prisoners stayed in Hanoi until American B-52s began heavily bombing the city around Christmas 1972. Clark and others remained inside the Hanoi Hilton during the air raid, peeking out the windows and often cheering the American forces.
In February 1973, after five years and 11 months as a prisoner of war, John Clark regained his life.
He returned to a wife who had moved on, but Clark had new freedom. He earned his M.B.A. from MU, eventually retiring as the water engineer for the city of Columbia.
He has been awarded two Purple Hearts, two Legions of Merit and an array of other military honors. His home office is chalk-full of military books. As he talks, he thinks about penning one himself about all of his experiences, something he’s been approached about in the past. He says he’s OK for now, though.
Since McCain returned to the states, he’s written articles and books about leadership and his experiences. He eventually pursued the career that has him days away from possibly winning the presidential election.
At the time, in the Hanoi Hilton, Clark said he didn’t see McCain as a future senator or president. He saw a comrade struggling to survive like the rest of them.
“You were respected for that time, that place and who you were,” Clark said. “(McCain) was just another one of the guys who had overcome enormous difficulties.”