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Fellow POW Remembers McCain As An Unequaled Public Servant


Now we turn to someone who got to know Senator McCain when he was Lieutenant Commander McCain and they were both prisoners of war in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Orson Swindle III's cell was next to McCain's in prison. They later were in the same cell. Lieutenant Colonel Swindle went on to become a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, and he was kind enough to talk to us now from Denver. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and we are so very sorry.

ORSON SWINDLE III: Thank you very much, Michel. It's a sad day, and I'm slowly getting my composure back.

MARTIN: Can you tell us how you first met?

SWINDLE: Well, he and I were singled out - not singled out, but about 25 of us were singled out as being bad actors, according to the Vietnamese. And they moved us to an outlying camp. And we actually met and first talked at that camp, and then we were moved back into Hanoi later on and were in a cell together with Colonel Bud Day, who the three of us became very close friends. And I slept side by side John for close to two years.

MARTIN: I remember your saying in an interview once that you were surprised when you actually first saw him because initially you were in these cells with, you know, walls. You could communicate by, like, tapping and stuff. But when you actually first saw him, you were surprised by how small he was - that he was actually a small guy. Tell me about that.

SWINDLE: Well, this was a common occurrence. We had people who tapped the walls for years and never saw each other. And when they first met, they'd say, you can't be that guy. You don't look anything like him (laughter) because we'd build up imaginary images of these people on the other side of the wall.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit, if you would - and, you know, I hate to take you back to that time, but...

SWINDLE: Oh, it's OK.

MARTIN: ...How you two got through it?

SWINDLE: You cry a lot (laughter). No, we all did the same stint. I mean, the experiences that John had, the experiences I had, they might be degrees apart in the brutality of the treatment and the - but the isolation, the sadness of being away from home and loved ones and so forth - all that is a part of the psychological aspects of being a prisoner of war in that day and time. And we got through it by figuratively holding each other's hands and getting through the bad times because there were lots of bad times, as you indicated. And anytime one of us got knocked down, words of encouragement would eventually get through when we could communicate again. And that helped us stand up again. And as Admiral Stockdale said, the real measure of men is not those who can resist torture to the death. It's those who, once tortured and beaten down, stand up to fight again. And he was so right. And John was the epitome of that, as were so many others.

MARTIN: What do you think that time in his life meant to him?

SWINDLE: Oh, I think it changed his life. Prior to becoming a POW, he was a rather resisting midshipman at the Naval Academy. He was rambunctious, and it followed him into prison. And then he got his block knocked off like the rest of us and brought down to the basics of who we were and what our job was. And John, I think, in that hardship, realized more than ever who he was and what his job was. Then he comes home and he becomes a senator, who was - I don't think there was an equal to John McCain and his overall, all-around role as a senator - just remarkable. I think prison changed him a great deal - made him far more serious.

MARTIN: Is there anything you would like us to remember most about your friend, your colleague, your fellow - your fellow officer John McCain when they call him to mind?

SWINDLE: I would like to ask people to exercise their right to vote. John craved liberty and freedom and democracy. And as you know, throughout his career, he traveled all over the world promoting that and trying to help people who needed help. John was unique in the Senate. He was a throwback to a time when I was a kid - you know, the '50s and the early '50s and before that, where senators had differences, but because the Senate rules, as established by our founding fathers, was that they would have different opinions, but they'd move together for the benefit of the country. John's about the last one that was doing that. We need at least 90 more John McCains in the Senate. And the only way we're going to get it is for people to wake up and start voting for people who love this country more than their job. He truly loved this country and its people more than his job, and he never stopped loving it.

MARTIN: That is Orson Swindle III, lieutenant colonel retired. He went on to become a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, and he was kind enough to talk to us about his friend, John McCain. Colonel Swindle, may I thank you for your service and your sacrifice, and thank you for speaking with us.

SWINDLE: Thank you, Michel. I appreciate that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.