The church riot erupted after U.S. Special Forces raided a site about 40 miles from Hanoi trying to rescue prisoners who, it turned out, were no longer there. The Vietnamese, fearing more such raids, rounded up American POWs and moved them from other outlying camps into Hanoi. That meant an end to isolation, as dozens of prisoners were packed together."
We agreed that we were going to have a church service and told the Vietnamese, and they said no," recalled fellow prisoner Bud Day. But on Feb. 12, 1970, the prisoners went ahead anyway, holding a service and singing songs."
The Vietnamese broke in and seized the people who were standing against the wall doing the service," Day said. "They marched them out of the room at gunpoint. So I stood up and started singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' 'God Bless America,' 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' and every song we could think of."
The Vietnamese stormed back in, putting a definitive end to the service.
"We wanted to actually just have a chance to do what we felt was a fundamental human right ... and we got spiritual comfort from being able to worship together," McCain said. "We thought, look, if we're going to be together, then we're going to stand up. ... They'd done so many bad things that we weren't nearly as afraid of them as maybe we would have been if a lot of us hadn't gone through what we'd gone through."
For their efforts, guards moved McCain, Day, Swindle and about 20 others to a camp where the conditions were unsanitary and prisoners fell ill.
About six months later, they were back in the ironically named Hanoi Hilton, and Day, the senior officer, chose McCain as the group's chaplain. His first lesson — he doesn't like to call them sermons — recounted the biblical story of the man who asked Jesus whether he should pay taxes. Jesus replied, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's."
McCain's point was that the prisoners should not pray for freedom, nor for harm to come to their captors."What I was trying to tell my fellow prisoners is that we were doing Caesar's work when we got into prison, so we should ask for God's help to do the right thing and for us to get out of prison if it be God's will for us to do so," McCain said. "Not everybody agreed with that."
Swindle said he understood McCain's talk to mean that "the God we had come to know wasn't going to wave a magic wand and 'poof,' we would all be free. The God we knew would give us the strength to endure what we had to do, and it was up to us to take that strength and knowledge and do what we had to do."
McCain also shares a story of an improvised Christmas service he helped orchestrate as a POW. McCain read exerpts from the Bible about the birth of Christ as his fellow POWs sang "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Silent Night." "I recall it as if it happened an hour ago," said McCain, sitting in a chair in a suite overlooking the Susquehanna River near the end of a day. "It was cold, the guards were looking through the windows at us, the room was dimly lit because of the light bulbs [that] were in each corner. These guys had beautiful voices, I'm telling you. One was a bass, one was a tenor. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had." The men became tearful. "It wasn't because they were sad," McCain added. "It was because they were so happy to be able to celebrate Christmas with fellow Americans."