“Forgive My Sins ‘Cause Here I Come”: A Naval Aviator On The Attack And In Prison In Vietnam

John Michael McGrath


Mike McGrath grew up with his parents in Delta, Colorado. His dad was a mining engineer and his mother was an executive secretary for the superintendent of schools. His small town was like “Happy Days,” and he was the captain of the high school wrestling team. He applied to both the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy because he wanted to be a jet pilot and accepted the nomination to Annapolis. On his first day at the Academy, he had to retake a physical exam to ensure that a high school knee injury had healed sufficiently to allow him to perform as midshipman. He passed, and went on to become the captain of the Navy Wrestling team, eventually making it to the national championships competition. Exposure to jets on summer training reinforced his desire to become a pilot, and he began flight training on A4s after graduation. He graduated at the top of his flight class and received orders to remain at the school as an instructor for the next year. He was then assigned to VA 146, a light attack squadron stationed at NAS Lemoore, deploying on both USS Ranger and USS Constellation for his two deployments to Vietnam in December 1965 and May 1967. On his first cruise, he planned the June 29, 1966, strike against the Haiphong petroleum storage facility, which was a complex mission requiring all planes to drop their bombs simultaneously from different directions to reduce the chances of misses due to the target being obscured once the first bombs exploded. On his second cruise, he was shot down on his 179th mission (June 30, 1967) and was seriously injured during the ejection from his aircraft. The force of the ejection broke his left shoulder, dislocated his knee, and fractured several vertebrae. Throughout his entire time in prison, he never received any medical care and his injuries healed on their own after nearly a year. After being captured, he was transported to the Hanoi Hilton, and his initial treatment by the North Vietnamese led him to believe that he was going to be killed. During interrogations, they twisted his arm behind his back so severely that it dislocated his shoulder and elbow. When the pain became too severe, he agreed to talk, and he made up answers to make the torture stop. For the first 15 days he was in and out of delirium, and was in solitary confinement for a few months. Once he learned the prisoner tap code, introduced by Smitty Harris, his life changed and he never felt alone again. The prisoners were able to rapidly communicate with each other, carrying on conversations by tapping. If the Vietnamese heard the communications, the prisoners were beaten, so they had to tap in secret. The prisoners could go months or years without seeing other Americans, but they knew each other through the tapped messages, and McGrath memorized 350 names to ensure that no one would be forgotten once they regained their freedom. He was finally released on March 7, 1973, and he spent his 7 months of convalescent leave rebuilding his family with his wife and children, who were now 8 and 9 years old (they were 2 and 3 when he was captured). He remained on active duty, and was assigned as a Battalion Officer at the Naval Academy before spending three years as a Naval Attaché. After retiring from the Navy, he became a commercial airline pilot. In this interview, Mike talks about his childhood, attending the Naval Academy, his experiences in Vietnam and as a Prisoner of War, and his service after returning home. He describes the challenges of flying from a carrier and planning an important bombing mission. He shares stories of the torture he endured as a prisoner and discusses learning how to cope in the Hanoi Hilton. Finally, he reflects on his service and what the Naval Academy means to him, especially considering that his son and grandson both graduated from Annapolis (USNA 87 and USNA 15).


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Leadership Teamwork Camaraderie P.O.W.s Returning from War USNA Navy War in the Air
interviewer David Siry
date 02 June 2022


name John Michael McGrath
institution USNA
graduation year 1962
service Naval Aviation
unit VA 146 Light Attack
specialty A4C / A7E Pilot
service dates 1962 1987