Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and other former prisoners Donald Trump must not like

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John McCain in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 1967 - AP
  • AP
  • John McCain in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 1967

Donald Trump was saying the other day that John McCain isn't much of a hero. "He's a war hero because he got captured," said Trump. "I like people who weren't captured."

That leaves a lot of people for Trump to like. But my own view of it is that if we had to choose between drinks with a fighter pilot who spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton and a guy who once got to say "You're fired!" a lot on TV, the ex-POW would probably show us a more interesting evening. Mind you, my feelings are skewed by sentiment. I was a crewman on the aircraft carrier that James Bond Stockdale was flying from when he was shot down and captured in 1965. I corresponded with him a little bit years later (long after he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor), and Stockdale to Trump strikes me as on the order of gold to mud.

Actually, I got to know several POWs of the Vietnam war a little, and I thought they were all pretty interesting. I even kind of liked them, in the way of those people who are suckers for courage and stoicism while others have a soft spot for funny hairdos and lots of money. And then the other night I had dinner at the Lion’s Head, the Lincoln Avenue pub founded years ago by the late John Cordwell. As you may know, Cordwell was a British flier shot down and captured by the Germans during World War II; while a POW, Cordwell forged the documents carried by the prisoners who staged the breakout that would be celebrated in the movie The Great Escape. After the war he came to Chicago, where he practiced architecture, became city planning director, and built Sandburg Village. Trump might even have liked Cordwell—forgiving him his carelessness in getting caught because both men liked to build things.

Anyway, I got to thinking. Maybe Trump is right. Maybe most people who let themselves get captured aren’t particularly likable and Stockdale and Cordwell just happened to be exceptions. So I googled “prisoners of war famous people” and came up with some interesting names. Mind you, I won’t go so far as to claim any of these people were likable—that’s for you to decide. But they had their points.

Winston Churchill. He got himself captured during the Boer War.

John-Paul Sartre. German troops captured him in 1940. Later he wrote.

Pope Benedict XVI. A German soldier, he was captured by American soldiers as World War II ended and held for months.

François Mitterand. He escaped from a German camp in 1941 and went on to become president of France.

Bert Kaempfert. After the Danes finally let him go he organized a band and "Wonderland by Night" hit the top of the charts. Also gave the Beatles an early leg up.

Tito. The Russians captured him during World War I. Later, he ran Yugoslavia.

Kurt Vonnegut. Made the best of a bad situation by writing Slaughterhouse Five about it.

Nelson Mandela. Trump might cite his 29 years in prison as compelling evidence he was hard to like.

Richard the Lionheart. Coming home from the Crusades, he was waylaid by an Austrian duke who didn’t like him and held for two years before he was ransomed.

The list goes on.

Again, I make no claim as to the likability of any of these former captives, and it's possible they'd all rub Trump the wrong way. But he should be concerned that so many wound up running countries. As Trump has that in mind for himself, he might want to search his memory. Perhaps during the years of study that allowed him to claim four student deferments during the Vietnam era, there was an hour of detention.


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