In l967, John McCain, the son and grandson of prominent Navy admirals and descendent of a Revolutionary War commander, was shot down over Vietnam. He was tortured, held in solitary confinement, and imprisoned for five and a half years. Ten years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives from the State of Arizona and then to the U. S. Senate.
McCain’s run for the Presidency in 2000 earned him the affection of millions of American who came to appreciate his honesty and the strength of his character. But whenever people talk about his courage during the war, he has always made a point of telling them about Mike Christian.
“In l971,” McCain says, “the North Vietnamese moved us from conditions of isolation into large rooms with as many as 30 to 40 men to a room. One of the men moved into my cell was Mike Christian. Mike came from a small town near Selma, Alabama. He didn’t wear a pair of shoes until he was thirteen. At seventeen, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy. Later, he earned his commission and became a Naval flying officer. He was shot down and captured in l967.”
In the cell they shared, McCain watched Christian gather pieces of cloth from the care packages sent to the prisoners of war. Christen found a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and made himself a bamboo needle. Over the period of a couple of months, he sewed an American flag inside his shirt.
“Every afternoon,” McCain remembers, “ before we had a bowl of soup, we would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall of our cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance. I know that saying the Pledge of Allegiance may not seem the most important or meaningful part of our day now, but I can assure you that – for those men in that stark prison cell – it was indeed the most important and meaningful event of our day.”
One day, the Vietnamese searched the cell and discovered Mike’s shirt with the flag sewn inside. They removed it and then returned that evening, telling Christian to come out. They closed the door of the cell and beat him severely for several hours, trying to make an example of him and succeeding in a way that they could not have imagined.
When they threw Christian back in his cell, McCain recalls, his comrades tried to care for him, but everyone knew there was little they could do. He was in bad shape.
“After things quieted down, I went to lie down to go to sleep,” McCain says. “As I did, I happened to look in the corner of the room. Sitting there beneath a dim light bulb, with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth, another shirt and his bamboo needle, was Mike Christian.”
Christian’s eyes were almost swollen shut. His fingers hardly worked well enough to hold the needle. But his spirit was unbroken. He was making another flag.
Through the years, millions of men and women, like Mike Christian, have fought to maintain the liberties we enjoy. Consider this: George Washington had a total of eleven thousand men at Valley Forge. By March, a third of his men were down with typhus, smallpox, or dysentery. Half of the living had neither shoes nor shirts. In the end, Washington was left with just over 3,000 men standing and able to fight for freedom.
Nearly five million Americans served in the armed forces during World War I. Over 100,000 lost their lives. Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. More than 400,000 died. Fifty-four thousand Americans died in Korea and 58,000 in Vietnam. Many more have since made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other distant places.
In his inaugural address, President Kennedy summed up this sacrifice. He said, “Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Repeatedly through the years, the valor of good men and women has proven this truth. Terrible as war is, those who defend liberty know there are many things worse, and they are heartened by the knowledge life is only worthwhile when it represents a struggle for a worthy cause.