On this date in 1967, a third-generation U.S. Navy officer climbed into the cockpit of his A-4 Skyhawk and headed off in the first wave of a strike group targeting the Hanoi thermal power plant. It was the flier's 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam, and it would be his last.
The name of the lieutenant commander piloting that plane was John Sidney McCain III, and the outlines of his subsequent ordeal at the "Hanoi Hilton" and the long political career that followed his release at the end of the Vietnam War are familiar to you.
The U.S. Navy's bombing mission over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, was a disaster. The American pilots came screaming in over the city at 9,000 feet before diving to 4,000 feet so they could see their targets. But at that altitude, they could be seen by the city's defenders, who tracked them on radar attached to Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns.
Alerted by his plane's warning systems that he was tracked, McCain descended further to 3,500 feet before unleashing his bombs. None hit the target, but the Vietnamese didn't miss: a missile slammed into his A-4 Skyhawk, tearing a wing off. As McCain ejected at high speed, he slammed into the crippled and falling plane. The force broke both arms, shattered his left kneecap, and knocked him unconscious. Two other planes were downed by anti-aircraft fire; the power plant was left untouched.
McCain's ordeal of torture, bravery, release, and eventual triumph has been well-chronicled in "The Nightingale's Song," Robert Timberg's superb book, and later in McCain's own autobiographies, co-written with Mark Salter.
The portrait of this scion of the sea that emerges is not a linear one. McCain's father and grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy. John S. McCain Sr. was a four-star admiral in World War II. His son -- John McCain's father -- was known as "Jack" McCain, and he was also a four-star, who commanded all the Navy units in the U.S. Pacific Command, including his son's.
Despite a reputation as a hard-partying flyboy who wrecked airplanes and earned low grades at Annapolis, where he led a group of rebellious midshipmen known as "The Bad Bunch," many of his comrades-in-arms believed John McCain was destined for lofty heights as a military officer. Certainly, the North Vietnamese assumed this: They called him the "Crown Prince" and tried to barter his early release into a propaganda victory. Lt. Cmdr. McCain would have none of it, which earned him years of enhanced torture as well as bizarre opprobrium from a future commander-in-chief.
"He's not a war hero," presidential candidate Donald Trump said in a televised one-on-with with Frank Luntz in July 2015. "He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured, okay?"
McCain wasn't a hero merely because his plane was shot down, of course. He was a hero because of the bravery he showed in the face of his horrific captivity, which included two years in solitary confinement.
His five-and-a-half years in a POW prison didn't turn out to be the end of an impressive story, however. Instead, it was the defining period in a lifetime of public service. In "Faith of My Fathers," the first volume of his memoirs, McCain revealed as much.
"In prison, I fell in love with my country," he wrote. "I had loved her before then, but like most young people my affection was little more than a simple appreciation for the comforts and privileges most Americans enjoyed and took for granted. It wasn't until I lost America for a time that I realized how much I loved her."
McCain then talked about friends he missed, and the industry and energy of the United States, and sports and music and the free flow of information, before adding:
"It was what freedom conferred on America that I loved the most -- the distinction of being the last, best hope of humanity; the advocate for all who believed in the Rights of Man. Freedom is America's honor, and all honor comes with obligations."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.