McCain and a high school friend of mine remind us of an awful war — and its heroes

Clark Air Base, Philippines, March, 1973- Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III steps down from a plane that brought him back to freedom after 5½ years in a North Vietnamese prison. STARS AND STRIPES

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump trashed POWs’ stature as heroes

By Phil Riske | Senior Reporter/Writer

March 14, 2018

Forty-five years ago on this date, John McCain stepped off a plane and into freedom. He was released after nearly six years in a prisoner of war camp in Hanoi, Viet Nam after his jet fighter was shot down.

Today, he battles brain cancer, hoping to return to the Senate this summer, his daughter, Meghan McCain, says.

As I got ready to attend a high school reunion, my thoughts were about a high school friend who wouldn’t be there.

Born in Buckeye, Ariz., Ron Bliss grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., and graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1964.

Bliss, a decorated Vietnam War fighter pilot who also spent 6 1/2 years in the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp, died in 2005 after a long battle with a rare cancer. He was 61.

Bliss flew 35 missions over Vietnam before being shot down Sept. 4, 1966.

Ron Bliss on arrival in U.S. after release as POW

He was awarded two Silver Stars, one Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars, the Presidential Unit Citation, two Purple Hearts, one Air Medal, and a POW Medal.

Bliss’ ordeal, along with that of 19 other U.S. POWs from the Vietnam War, including McCain, was told in the 2000 documentary “Return with Honor.”

Bliss finished law school and went to work for former Watergate Prosecutor Leon Jaworski in Texas.

I had the honor to interview my old classmate several years after he came home, and he played down his role as a POW, but did say he was tortured.

When Donald Trump unbelievably trashed McCain’s military service and refused to apologize, he deeply insulted all POWs and their families.

And all Ron’s Cheyenne High School classmates.

The Reunion

Bliss’s widow, Charlene, donated Ron’s Air Force dress uniform complete with all his decorations, to The Nelson Museum of the West

In so many ways, Ron and that awful war were present at my high school reunion.

His widow, Charlene, donated Ron’s Air Force dress uniform, complete with all his decorations, to The Nelson Museum of the West, a museum owned by classmate Bob Nelson.

I had to touch and salute it.

On the wall next to the manikin dressed in blue, are two age-yellowed parchments titled “Rules of the Camp,” one written in Vietnamese, the other in English. Upon his release, Ron took the documents from the wall and secreted them in his clothing.

Rules to be broken, I guess.

Trump Postscript

Tension between Trump and McCain goes back years. Shortly after Trump announced he was running for president in summer 2015, he ridiculed McCain’s war records at a summit in Iowa. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said, adding, “I like people that weren’t captured.”

As Mitt Romney later put it, the difference between Trump and McCain was Trump shot himself down.


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