By Norman Stockwell, AlterNet
October 28, 2008.
Forty-one years after McCain was shot down in Vietnam, the man who
saved his life has died in obscurity.
Sunday, Oct. 26 marked the 41st anniversary of John McCain's plane
being shot down over Hanoi. It's a narrative that has become a
central theme of McCain's presidential campaign -- but in the four
decades since his capture, the story has become revisionist history.
In March of 2008, I traveled to Vietnam for the 40th anniversary of
the incidents in Son My village that have come to be known to the
world as the My Lai Massacre. During my visit, I spent some time in
Hanoi visiting the museums and relics of what the Vietnamese call
"the American war." One of these trips took me to the notorious Hoa
Lo prison, or "Hanoi Hilton" -- formerly a French prison where
independence fighters were jailed during the decades of French
colonial rule, but which had later been turned into a stockade for
U.S. pilots shot down over Hanoi from the mid-1960s to early 1970s.
It was here that John McCain spent most of his 5½ years in captivity
as a prisoner of war. Today, the prison museum features photos of
McCain, both as a prisoner between 1967 and 1973 and on a return
visit as a U.S. senator.
McCain was a hot commodity in Vietnam during my visit. According to
my official translator from the Foreign Press Center, many other
translators had been assigned to various foreign news crews around
Hanoi that were all gathering material on McCain's time in Vietnam.
McCain is well known to the Vietnamese; they all seemed familiar with
his Senate career and his runs for the White House. The Vietnamese
press was writing about McCain too; one article from a local paper
particularly caught my eye. It was the story of McCain's rescue from
Truc Bach Lake, accompanied by a grainy photo of a battered John
McCain being dragged to the shore on a long bamboo pole. McCain had
been reunited with his rescuer, Mai Van On, in 1996.
Upon returning to the United States, I looked for the story of
McCain's rescuer but found little mention in the English language
press. But in late March, Britain's Daily Mail published a story that
made me realize that I knew the U.S. veteran who had helped reunite
McCain with On. His name was Chuck Searcy, and he is now the country
representative for the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund. So in early
August, I called Searcy in Hanoi and interviewed him for WORT radio
in Madison, Wis.
Norm Stockwell: Let me start by asking how you first came to meet Mr.
Mai Van On and your connection with getting him in touch with Senator McCain.
Chuck Searcy: In 1995 I rented an apartment on the Truc Bach Lake,
which is the lake where John McCain parachuted in when he was shot
down. Some time during that year, an old man who was my neighbor
sought me out (along with) another veteran who was living on the
other side of the lake.
And he found us and wanted to tell us this story, that he was the guy
who pulled McCain out of the lake. Of course, we didn't know whether
to believe him or not. But he had a letter that he asked me to
deliver to McCain. And I asked my landlord and my landlady and
neighbors and others who were living around the lake if what he had
said was true, and they said yeah -- the ones who remembered that day
back in 1967 when McCain was shot down -- they said yes, that's the
way it happened.
So I had the letter translated and sent it off to McCain. … And I got
a reply from a staff person who sort of discounted the letter and the
suggestion that this may have been the man who pulled McCain out of
the lake, because apparently they had heard some such allegation
before. So I just sort of let it ride -- until I saw McCain in
Washington, I guess that same year, at a Veterans' breakfast and I
mentioned it to him. And he said, "Oh, let's see if we can, I'd like
to meet the guy, next time I come to Vietnam." And so that's how it happened.
NS: So then Senator McCain was involved with some of the discussions
going on about normalization of relations between the United States
and Vietnam in 1995, and he came to Hanoi, and you actually
facilitated a meeting with Senator McCain and Mr. On. What took place there?
CS: Well, as you said, McCain, yes, was very much involved in the
reconciliation efforts; he and Senator John Kerry really paved the
way for President Clinton to declare normalization of relations with
Vietnam, which occurred in 1995.
It was about in October, I think, of 1996 that I got a call from the
U.S. Embassy one morning and they said that Senator McCain had just
landed (in Vietnam) and he would like to meet Mr. Mai Van On in the
afternoon if that was possible.
So I went to his house because he had no telephone -- he was quite
poor -- and asked him if he would meet with McCain and, of course, he
was excited, and he said yes. So that afternoon, they met at the
offices of the Vietnamese Union of Friendship organization, the
Vietnam-USA Society, which is very near his house and near my house,
also. And so they met for the first time since that day in 1967 when
McCain was shot down.
NS: And Mr. On told McCain the story of what happened that day and
then McCain gave him a gift.
CS: Mr. On described what happened that day in a very animated way,
and he was quite excited to tell the story, because I think it was
quite a highlight in his life.
And McCain listened, with some interest, I guess, because McCain was
badly injured when he ejected from his plane. I think he broke both
his arms and he broke one leg, so he was in very bad shape and
apparently he was mostly unconscious, and so he said, at the outset
of the conversation, that he didn't remember much about that day, and
he asked Mr. On to describe it, which he did in great graphic detail,
with a lot of excitement.
NS: Now, in fact, he, Mr. On, actually saved McCain's life twice that
day. Talk about that a little bit.
CS: That's true. McCain would have, (or) he might have, drowned if
Mr. On and his neighbor had not jumped in the lake. They swam out to
the middle of the lake where McCain's parachute was and, because of
his injuries, McCain was hardly in condition to survive in the water.
So apparently he had kicked himself up from the bottom of the lake a
couple of times and he was going down maybe for the third and last
time, when Mr. On and his friend reached the parachute, and they
pulled McCain up by the straps and they rolled him across this bamboo
log that they had floated out there, and then they kicked in to the
lakeshore. When they got to the bank, there was a crowd of men --
mostly men and maybe a few women -- but some men jumped into the lake
and helped to drag McCain out. But they were angry, and some of them
were threatening -- and in fact, a couple of them started to attack
McCain. I think one hit him, and somebody I think stabbed him in the
leg, according to McCain's account. And Mr. Mai Van On and this
wonderful old nurse who was there at the time -- Mrs. Teng was her
name -- they both just, through the power of their persuasion, they
stopped the crowd from attacking him. The old man said, "Look, when
he was in the air bombing us, he was our enemy, but now he's on the
ground and he's a helpless human being and we're not going to hurt
him." And it sounds like the crowd was just sort of shamed into
submission, and they backed away and stopped the attacks on McCain.
So that really may have saved his life again.
NS: Now, this is a really touching story of friendship between
peoples at a real people-to-people level, and yet, when McCain wrote
his political biography, and told the story of that time, he doesn't
really mention this incident at all. That was in 1999, I guess.
CS: Yes, McCain mentions being pulled out of the lake by the group of
Hanoians who jumped into the lake as he got to the bank and he does
not mention any details about Mr. Mai Van On -- maybe because he
couldn't remember those details himself, and didn't want to include
them in the book without having that personal memory, personal
knowledge, I don't know. But in any case, right, he omitted the
references to Mr. Mai Van On for whatever reason. He recounted the
story, I guess, exactly as he remembered it.
NS: Now, McCain came back and visited (Hoa Lo) prison. He also came
back and visited the lake where his plane had crashed. In the year
2000, I think it was, when he was running for president, there was an
AP story about that. But he never really visited Mr. On again, did he?
CS: I don't think he ever visited him again. I suppose it was … I
guess he had a busy schedule. I'm sure it was not very high on his
agenda. I think the family was a little bit disappointed in that. But
they probably put much more stock in those events than McCain did,
who has, you know, had a very eventful and very highly publicized
life. So it was probably just not very high on his agenda, I assume.
NS: Now, again at that meeting that you were able to facilitate (in
1996) for Senator McCain and Mr. Mai Van On, McCain gave him a key
chain of some sort, a Senate key chain, which he kept throughout his
life. He passed away, I guess, in 2006, but he kept it throughout his
entire life as a … almost like a medal.
CS: Actually, yeah, as I recall, it was … I think it was more like a
paperweight -- it was a replica of the Senate seal, I think. It was
probably the kind of thing that senators can give out to people
easily, but it's true, Mr. Mai Van On treasured it as if it were some
kind of medal of honor. I think he displayed it prominently in his
house until he died.
NS: One printed story in the media said that before he died, he told
his family not to sell that, but to keep it because if they ever came
to America, that it might be valuable as an entrée to get into U.S.
society or something.
CS: Yeah, I think so. You know, like a lot of post-war mythology,
it's sort of a touching story. It would not have been of any real
value, but sentimental and emotional value to Mr. On and his family …
although he attached much more value to it than that, I think.
NS: Now, I understand that when Mr. On died, that a message was sent
to try to get Senator McCain to issue some condolences to the family.
Do you know anything about that?
CS: Actually, I sent a message to one of the staff people, just to
notify Senator McCain that Mr. On had died, but I don't even know if
the message reached them or if it ever reached Senator McCain or not.
I just thought it was something he might like to know about. I don't
know if there were other notifications to him or not. I don't even
know if the news ever reached him.
NS: Now, Chuck, you work on a day-to-day basis in Vietnam with
people, and you see all kinds of evidence of reconciliation being
built between our peoples, you know, in spite of the role the United
States played during the war. How does this story fit into that
general scheme of people-to-people friendship between the peoples of
Vietnam and the United States?
CS: Well, the story is really a graphic illustration of a phenomenon
which is difficult for us as Americans to really understand, and that
is that the Vietnamese people never viewed the American people as
their enemy, ever. They always felt -- and they still do feel -- that
the U.S. government made some tragic policy decisions and made some
terrible mistakes in bringing the war to Vietnam. But they're very
forgiving of the American people and very respectful, and they've
always had the view, even during the war, that one day they and the
American people would be friends. So this incident back in 1967 just
illustrates that, and there are thousands of other examples of that.
I mean, I see it every day of my life over here. And it took me a
while to understand and accept, (but) I know now that it's a fact.
The Vietnamese people have never felt any hostility to America. And
they just felt a lot of anguish and sadness and almost disbelief that
there would be a war in their country involving Americans, for whom
they have always had tremendous respect. So, for me and many other
veterans who have been back to Vietnam and who work here, Americans
who have come back and experienced that, it's a touching and
remarkable learning experience for most of us.
Months after my interview with Searcy, I was in St. Paul, Minn., at
the Republican National Convention. As I stood on the floor of the
Xcel Energy Center, some 50 yards from John McCain as he accepted his
party's presidential nomination, the projector flashed that same
black-and-white photo image I had seen in Vietnam of McCain being
dragged to the shore of Truc Bach Lake. Moments later, to my
surprise, I heard McCain say: " … I was beginning to learn the limits
of my selfish independence. Those men saved my life." But McCain
wasn't talking about the Vietnamese people who pulled him from that
lake, people whose homes he had just bombed. He was talking about his
fellow American POWs. Had McCain truly erased from his memory a
touching reunion that took place just over a dozen years before?
I could only think about how different the narrative would be had
McCain said: "I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish
independence. Those (Vietnamese civilians) saved my life (because
they understood the humanity in all of us that transcends government
Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and operations coordinator
at WORT-FM community radio in Madison, Wis. In March he traveled to
Vietnam to cover the 40th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre.