Butler: Yeah, I read anywhere from two to four, but that keeps coming up; it's three different airplanes that he crashed and least one or two of them were from pilot error—and there again, that's highly unusual, because normally, a naval aviator that crashes one or two airplanes immediately loses their wings and they find themselves to be a deck officer on a destroyer at sea.
Kall: I hear that at least one of those crashes, he disobeyed orders and that was why it happened too. Or he ignored orders or information or something like that. Do you know about that?
Butler: I don’t know the details, but that does come through as logical, and I believe that something on that order is true. That’s just part of the brinkmanship. He is fairly careless, he didn’t follow procedures closely, just like he didn’t at the Naval Academy, and I think he’s still pretty much that way. I think he still shoots from the hip. We used to have a saying in the Navy that we had certain kinds of senior officers that were “ready, aim, fire,” and some were “ready, fire, aim.” And I think John fits the latter category.
Kall: Now there’s an awful lot of talk about him being a hero, because of what he did while he was a prisoner. And you write, “John allows the media to make him out to be the hero POW, which he knows is absolutely not true, to further his political goals.” Could you get into that a little bit more?
Butler: Well, look, I think Americans have a distorted vision of heroism. All the time, we have young kids who are 18 and 19 years old who are being killed and horribly maimed, in wars like Vietnam all the way up through and including Iraq and Afghanistan now. I mean, many lose their lives, lose everything, and go home to poverty, just an incredible waste.
Prisoners of war, those of us who happened to find ourselves in harm’s way over North Vietnam, however many thousands of us there were who were shot down, and some became prisoners and some survived -- I always like to tell people that not one of us took an entrance examination to get into a POW camp. We were randomly selected by bullets and missiles, and we were just ordinary, college graduate guys who’d learned how to fly airplanes and were doing our job in a war that we at that time thought was the right thing to do.
So if you go around and pick college graduates all over this country, you have the same stock, you’ve got the same strong American psyche that can survive, that can cope with adversity. We were no different. So those of us who survived, by sticking together and by supporting each other and being a team, came home to incredible adulation, to the point of almost hero worship.
To me, quite frankly, I think a hero is somebody like a single mother who has children, and she’s homeless and has no job, and her husband has left her, and she manages to find work somehow and pull herself up educationally and get her kids through school -- those to me are the real heroes that we see every day in America.
Kall: From what you’ve written, there were about 600 prisoners who came home?
Butler: Well, no, there were actually 801, this is the final count that we have, of which 660 were American servicemen, and there were, if you do the math, 140 or so folks who were either foreign nationals or they were civilians, such as CIA or other civilian workers of one kind or another, USAID or whatever, and then nurses and what have you. There was a whole kaleidoscope of different kinds of people who found themselves captured and were not, by the way, with us up in the Hanoi area; they were kept separately.
Kall: How many of were there with you and John McCain?
Butler: Over time, it varied.
Kall: I just want to say this is the Rob Kall Show on 1360, WNJC, and I’m talking to Philip Butler, Ph.D., Commander, U.S. Navy, retired, Vietnam prisoner of war, who was a prisoner of war with John McCain. -- So, again, how many did you say?
Butler: Well, 660 U.S. military survived and came home. On August the 5th of 1964, the count was one, and then we worked our way up to seven when I was shot down on April the 20th of 1965. So they kept getting more and more of us. As we said, it got more and more popular to become a POW as the war went along. So John came along in October of ’67, two and a half years after I got there.
Kall: You know, it makes me think: There are no prisoners of war in Iraq. They all get killed.
Butler: Yes, this is pretty much true. It appears that the Iraqi soldiers on the other side are reluctant to keep American POWs. Some have been killed in brutal ways, shot and tortured and what have you, and we don’t have any there. The first Iraq war, there were POWs. There were, I believe, 20 or so, and they were brought home. This is back in 1991. So those folks are also part of our continuing prisoner of war medical evaluation studies that are going on in Pensacola, Florida.