In all the tales of wartime courage peppering John McCain during his presidential campaign trail and following his death in August 2018, perhaps the most outstanding example of selfless heroism involved not the Senator but a humble Vietnamese peasant.
On October 26, 1967, Mai Van On ran from the safety of a bomb shelter at the height of an air raid and swam out into the lake where Lieutenant Commander McCain was drowning, tangled in his parachute cord after ejecting when his Skyhawk bomber was hit by a missile.
In an extraordinary act of compassion at a time when Vietnamese citizens were being killed by US aerial bombardments, he pulled a barely conscious McCain to the lake surface and, with the help of a neighbor, dragged him towards the shore.
And when a furious mob at the water’s edge began to beat and stab the captured pilot, Mr On drove them back.
Nearly three decades later, a Vietnamese government commission confirmed he was indeed the rescuer and, in a 1996 meeting in Hanoi, McCain embraced and thanked Mr On and presented him with a Senate memento.
From that brief encounter to his death at the age of 88, Mr On never heard from the senator again, and three years after their meeting, McCain published an autobiography that makes no mention of his apparent debt to Mr On.
It is a snub Mr On took to his death.
His widow, Bui Thi Lien, 71, said: “In his last years, my husband was very sad sometimes.
He would say, ‘Mr McCain has forgotten me.’
”Mr McCain would be dead if it weren’t for my husband. He would never have returned to his family and he wouldn’t be in the presidential race today.”
Last week on a visit to Britain to meet Gordon Brown, McCain paid tribute to the role played by British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – comments that carried extra weight in the light of McCain’s own wartime exploits.
In his 1999 autobiography, Faith Of My Fathers, which laid the ground for his first, unsuccessful run for president in 2000, McCain wrote a Boy’s Own-style narrative of his rescue: “When I came to, I was being hauled ashore on two bamboo poles.
“A crowd of several hundred Vietnamese gathered around me as I lay dazed before them, shouting wildly at me, stripping my clothes off, spitting on me, kicking and striking me repeatedly.”
What followed, according to McCain, was five-and-a-half years of torture and brutal beatings as a prisoner of war – an account that has given a steely edge to his candidacy by establishing him as a true American war hero.
But the story is at odds with the version uncovered by Vietnam veteran Chuck Searcy, who lives in Hanoi and is in charge of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund.
“In 1995, Mr On gave me a letter he wanted me to deliver to McCain,” said Searcy.
“’It said, ‘I am the guy who pulled you out of the lake and I have followed your progress over the years. I wish the best for you and your family and I hope some day you will be president of the United States.’
“I thought it was endearing. I sent the letter to McCain’s office and I got back a sniffy response from some assistant saying, ‘Mr McCain isn’t interested in these fanciful stories.’“
Indeed, claiming to have saved McCain had by then become something of a cottage industry in Hanoi.
Searcy, 63, recalled: “There had been a lot of preposterous claims, but I asked the neighbors around the lake if it was true and they said that was exactly how it happened.”
The story was also confirmed by the Vietnamese government.
Later in 1995, Searcy met McCain at a veterans’ reunion in Washington.
He said: “I mentioned the story of Mr On to him, and told him it was true. He said, ‘Hell, I would like to meet this guy – I’ll set it up.’“
McCain, then a senator closely involved in rebuilding US-Vietnam relations, visited Hanoi in 1996, and a meeting was arranged with Searcy and Mr On.
Searcy said: “Mr On was a wiry little guy. He looked as if he had only ever shaved once or twice and he had his old uniform on.
“He raced up to McCain and kept repeating his name as he embraced him.”
Then, through an interpreter, Mr On recounted the events of that day as McCain listened.
“He launched into a very emotional description,” said Searcy.
“Suddenly they saw this parachute coming down into their small lake.
“Everybody was afraid because they knew it was an American pilot and they didn’t know what to do.
“He said he just instinctively grabbed this big bamboo log and threw it into the water and jumped in after it.
“One of his neighbours joined him and the two of them swam out to the parachute.
”Apparently McCain had broken both arms and one leg, and had sunk to the bottom, but they pulled him out of the lake.
“When they got to the bank, a couple of men attacked McCain, breaking his shoulder with a rifle butt and stabbing his leg, before Mr On stopped them.
”That day, he saved McCain from drowning and then from maybe being killed by the mob.
“McCain listened but there was no dramatic response. He just nodded, said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and gave Mr On a little Senate seal.
“It was the kind of thing you buy in the souvenir shop in the Senate basement.
“But Mr On, to the day he died, treated it as if it were a Congressional Medal of Honour.”
But although McCain appeared to believe the story, it was one he would later seem to ignore in his autobiography and there was no more contact between the two men.
When Mr On died in 2006, an email was apparently sent to McCain’s office requesting a message of condolence for the family. There was no response.
Whether or not McCain believed Mr On is unclear.
But his refusal to acknowledge his heroism is likely to fuel other, more damaging allegations that McCain exaggerated elements of his PoW ordeal in Hoa Lo prison.
Phung Van Chung, 70, who was a Communist Party official at the time, claims McCain was quickly singled out for softer treatment, adding: “I found out he was the son of an American admiral, so the top people wanted to keep him as a live witness so they could use him for negotiations.”
Mr On’s son-in-law, Nguyen Ngoc Toan, said: “Before he died, he told us not to sell the medal McCain gave him.
He said, ‘If any of the grandchildren ever go to America, having it might help them.’“
In 2000, McCain, by then a presidential candidate, visited the lake that almost claimed his life.
“His entourage was outside our house but Mr McCain just passed by,” said Mr On’s widow, who insists she bears no grudge.
Behind her calm words, however, lies an anxiety to right the injustice she feels her husband suffered.
As we prepared to leave she clutched my hand and said: “Please help us to remind Mr McCain what my husband did.
”Just a few words will be enough to let the family know that he is grateful.”
On March 25, 1999, two of his fellow POWs, Ted Guy and Gordon “Swede” Larson told the Phoenix New Times that, while they could not guarantee that McCain was not physically harmed, they doubted it. As Larson said, “My only contention with the McCain deal is that while he was at The Plantation, to the best of my knowledge and Ted’s knowledge, he was not physically abused in any way. No one was in that camp. It was the camp that people were released from.” Guy and Larson’s claims are given credence by McCain’s vehement opposition to releasing the government’s debriefings of Vietnam War POWs. McCain gave Michael Isikoff a peek at his debriefs, and Isikoff declared there was “nothing incriminating” in them, apart from the redactions.
McCain had a unique POW experience. Initially, he was taken to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp, where he was interrogated. By McCain’s own account, after three or four days, he cracked. He promised his Vietnamese captors, “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital.” His Vietnamese captors soon realized their POW, John Sidney McCain III, came from a well-bred line of American military elites.
McCain’s father, John Jr., and grandfather, John Sr., were both full Admirals. A destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, is named after both of them. While his son was held captive in Hanoi, John McCain Jr., from 1968 to 1972, was the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Pacific Command; Admiral McCain was in charge of all US forces in the Pacific including those fighting in Vietnam. ..The Admiral’s bad boy was used to special treatment and his captors knew that. They were working him.
For his part, McCain acknowledges that the Vietnamese rushed him to a hospital, but denies he was given any “special medical treatment.” However….two weeks into his stay at the Vietnamese hospital, the Hanoi press began quoting him. It was not “name rank and serial number, or kill me,” as specified by the military code of conduct. McCain divulged specific military information: he gave the name of the aircraft carrier on which he was based, the number of US pilots that had been lost, the number of aircraft in his flight formation, as well as information about the location of rescue ships…
On the other hand, according to one source, McCain’s collaboration may have had very real consequences. Retired Army Colonel Earl Hopper, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, contends that the information that McCain divulged classified information North Vietnam used to hone their air defense system…McCain told his North Vietnamese captors, “highly classified information, the most important of which was the package routes, which were routes used to bomb North Vietnam. He gave in detail the altitude they were flying, the direction, if they made a turn… he gave them what primary targets the United States was interested in.” Hopper contends that the information McCain provided allowed the North Vietnamese to adjust their air-defenses. As result, Hopper claims, the US lost sixty percent more aircraft and in 1968, “called off the bombing of North Vietnam, because of the information McCain had given to them.”
Earl Hopper spent 30 years with the Army in Airborne Special Services and with Army Intelligence and he was a founding member of the National League of Families, dedicated to returning living POWs and MIAs of the Vietnam War.
He and those interviewed allege that the narrative propagated by McCain, of his five and a half years as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam is about as far from the truth as one could possibly imagine. They allege that McCain, from the very first moments of his capture behaved as a COLLABORATOR and propaganda tool for his North Vietnamese captors.
McCain is described as engaging in no less than 30, and up to 38 anti-American propaganda broadcasts for Radio Hanoi during the period of his captivity. Far from the image of the dedicated American “hero” sweating it out in a North Vietnamese prisoner’s “hotbox” for five and half years, McCain was observed by fellow prisoners to be receiving special treatment by his captors, who were fully aware of his father’s and grandfather’s 4-star Admiral positions with the US Navy.
Not a single contemporary captive interviewed here ever witnessed McCain’s alleged “torture” at the hands of his jailers and the consensus opinion of the other POWs in McCain’s camps was that McCain was actually NEVER tortured by the North Vietnamese.
McCain’s disgraceful and wholly reprehensible conduct (along with that of John Kerry) during the 1991-93 Senate Committee on POW/MIAs, where McCain made massive efforts to block the release of classified documents and is described here as the person who did the “most harm” to the movement of families who wanted to rescue any remaining loved ones, left behind in Vietnam and Laos. McCain is described by those interviewed in this clip as perhaps the person who did the most to quash this movement – and they suspect that this was because he didn’t want the truth to be revealed by them.
To them, his actions leave no doubt that McCain is a traitor to this country and its veterans and especially, to the [POWs and MIAs and their families].
Interview excerpt with former head of Vietnamese prison ‘Hanoi Hilton’ – BBC 6/23/08
But I can confirm to you that we never tortured him. We never tortured any prisoners.” Mr Duyet reminisces instead about how he often summoned the future US presidential candidate to his private office for informal chats….So is Mr Duyet implying that that Senator McCain lied about his treatment at the Hanoi Hilton? “He did not tell the truth,” he says. “But I can somehow sympathise with him. He lies to American voters in order to get their support for his presidential election.”
From: NATIONAL VIETNAM P.O.W. STRIKE FORCE
To: CBS News, 10/12/97
You did not do your homework well enough on “Hanoi John” McCain. If you had read the lengthy article about him in the April 1973 issue of U.S. News and World Report, you would have seen that in none of his quotes did he allege torture, except from the irate civilians at the scene of his crash. Once in captivity, he lived in relative splendor compared to his hapless cohorts who refused to denounce America on the radio and paid for their patriotism in blood, literally. Here are some other facts your sloppy journalism omitted:
- USAF Major Overly could not have cared for McCain’s “wounds” for very long; he collaborated and accepted early release in less than five months from shootdown.
- Another of McCain’s roommates “disappeared” and was not released at Homecoming I. McCain was kept in the camp for “progressives” (collaborators) and away from “reactionaries” (John Wayne types who spit in the face of their torturers). Other roommates were Day and Flynn, both of whom made propaganda broadcasts along with McCain urging pilots to return to carriers and soldiers to surrender.
- McCain returned from communist captivity 10 pounds heavier.
- Patricia O’Grady, daughter of a POW/MIA, on a visit to Hanoi to look for her father, was given a tour of the “Hanoi Hilton” prison. They showed her McCain’s cell. It had a writing desk, a large bed, a goldfish bowl, a flush toilet and a nice window of downtown Hanoi out the window.
- Both North Vietnamese Generals Giap and Bui Tin met with McCain in his cell. No other returned POWs reported meeting with high-ranking generals. I have a picture of McCain enjoying a large plate of food while talking to a Soviet KGB officer in the Foreign Ministry. A Soviet doctor was rushed to Hanoi to treat his wounds.
- In personal conversations I have had with General Bui Tin, he assured me they never touched McCain, saying that since he was the son of the Admiral, “He too important”.
- McCain said in 1973, he sustained his ordeal with his “love for his wife”. In a matter of months he had dumped her for a woman 1/3rd his age whose father owned the Coors Beer franchise in Phoenix. (His good friend Senator Kerry, about the same time, dumped his wife after fornicating with Jane Fonda.) McCain also has a secret “wife” in Hanoi and an illegitimate son.
- McCain would sit beside with army officers at a table when newly-captured pilots arrived and urged them to cooperate.
- McCain viciously fought against the formation of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA and then got on it and sabotaged any hopes of finding real answers. He called me and others crooks profiteering on the issue, yet he is the biggest loot recipient of the Keating Five.
- If the “Crowned Prince” of the “Plantation” does not stop his outlandish lies about his “torture”, several of his fellow POW’s “will” soon break their “code of silence”. McCain is a brainwashed Manchurian candidate who has fawningly supported Hanoi and the Communist Bloc countries ever since he entered congress. The man is a liar, a traitor and a crook. Any senator who uses the word “scumbag” 20 times a day addressing his employees is not fit to serve.
Also, CBS, you went on to a segment of a Latino who was on death row (wrongfully) in a “miscarriage of justice”. The biggest “MOJ” of this decade would be for traitor and Hanoi lover McCain to continue in office after the 1998 elections.