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Real American heroes

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By David Davis

EDITOR'S NOTE: I wrote this before Sen. John McCain died. It took awhile to get it the way I wanted and rather than take a chance on fouling it up, I left it in present tense.

I want to write about Sen. John McCain and how brave he is, but I can’t.

I don’t know the Arizona senator.

I don’t know how Sen. McCain’s years as a prisoner of war affected him, but I served for a time under a captain and commanding officer of an oiler. He was a Navy pilot who was shot down over Vietnam. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war for about four years.

He returned to active duty and since he was a pilot, he needed experience on a large noncombatant before he could take command of a warship. He was a good man and a good commanding officer – unless something did not go according to plan or he was forced to deviate from his daily routine. Unfortunately, something always went wrong on the nearly 40-year-old ship.

I was responsible for maintaining the sound powered phone system, which is nothing more than an upgraded version of two tin cans and a piece of string. The phones were generally very reliable, but nothing is sailor proof and the phones sometimes broke and when his malfunctioned he either got frustrated or angry — erupted — ripped the phone from its socket, threw it overboard — then returned to his usual congenial self. However, someone was always close at hand to provide him a new phone while the old man was on the bridge.

He was still the commanding officer when I left the ship, but I heard later that a lieutenant junior grade made a mistake on the bridge. The captain blew his stack and threw a cup of hot coffee at the young officer. That incident led to the captain’s retirement.

William (Bill) Norwood, of Cleveland, Tennessee, was a prisoner of war in Korea. Sadly, he died earlier this year, but I got to know him well. After he returned from the war, he married Liz. She knew he was an ex-pow but married him anyway. Being Bill’s anchor was her calling and with her support, Bill went on to have a successful corporate career.

He and Liz raised two children without his past becoming an issue.

However, Bill did have his quirks. For example, he could not go to church because he felt claustrophobic. He had terrible nightmares that forced Liz to sleep in a separate bedroom because Bill was afraid he would hurt her. When she heard him still fighting that long-ago war in those awful dreams, she got up out of her bed, went to his room and watched over him until the fighting ended for one more night.

How anyone survived the brutal treatment meted out by the North Koreans, or in Sen. McCain’s case, the North Vietnamese, is a mystery to me. It seems they clung to little things: an ideal, a memory, a belief. Bill, who enlisted when he was 17 years old, held on to a vision of his mother praying.

I don’t know Sen. McCain, but I knew one soldier who endured as a prisoner of war. Bill survived.

He came home and lived a productive life. I don’t believe Bill was ever an ex-prisoner of war.

Bill woke up each morning knowing that when he went to sleep that night, the soldier he once was returned to that prison camp in North Korea.

I strongly disagree with President Donald Trump who said in July 2015 at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit when moderator Frank Luntz brought up McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said.

Immediately modifying his original remarks, Trump said, “He’s a war hero ‘cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”

“Perhaps he’s a war hero, but right now he’s said some very bad things about a lot of people,” Trump said.

I don’t know Sen. McCain, but he, Bill Norwood and others who survived prisoner of war camps are real American war heroes.