"If I were an American voter, I would vote for Mr. John McCain ..."
(06-27) 23:23 PDT HAIPHONG, Vietnam (AP) --
John McCain has an unusual endorsement — from the Vietnamese jailer who says he held him captive for about five years as a POW and now considers him a friend.
"If I were an American voter, I would vote for Mr. John McCain," Tran Trong Duyet said Friday, sitting in his living room in the northern city of Haiphong, surrounded by black-and-white photos of a much younger version of himself and former Vietnam War prisoners.
At the same time, he denies prisoners of war were tortured. Despite detailed POW accounts and physical wounds, Duyet claims the presumed Republican presidential nominee made up beatings and solitary confinement in an attempt to win votes.
His statements seem to echo the communist leadership‘s overall line on America: It insists the torture claims are fabricated, but that Vietnam now considers the U.S. a friend and wants to lay the past to rest. Duyet said one of the reasons he likes McCain for president is the candidate‘s willingness to forgive and look to the future.
Duyet, 75, grew testy during the interview when repeatedly questioned about torture and why so many other former POWs say they too were mistreated. He preferred to talk about McCain as an old buddy.
His photo collection doesn‘t include one of him with POW McCain, and he said they have not met on any of McCain‘s postwar visits to Vietnam. But Duyet said he often met the young Navy pilot when off duty, that McCain would correct his English, and that he had a great sense of humor. And although they never saw eye-to-eye on the war that killed some 58,000 Americans and up to 3 million Vietnamese, he said they listened to each others‘ views.
"He‘s tough, has extreme political views and is very conservative," Duyet said. "He‘s very loyal to the U.S. military, to his beliefs and to his country. In all of our debates, he never admitted that the war was a mistake."
Duyet also talked about prisoner volleyball games and said the captives were fed the same meals as average wartime Vietnamese in Hanoi. The same propaganda is depicted in photos of smiling American POWs displayed at the Hoa Lo prison, now a museum for tourists.
McCain spent 5 1/2 years behind bars in Hanoi. His flight suit and parachute were recently added to the museum display, which includes a recording of bombs falling and air raid sirens shrieking.
McCain still bears the evidence of his wounds and has described being repeatedly bound and beaten by his captors. After his plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile during a bombing mission over Hanoi in 1967, McCain ejected and suffered a broken leg, two broken arms, and was briefly knocked unconscious. The Vietnamese mob who found him smashed his shoulder and he was bayoneted.
He says medical attention was delayed in an attempt to get him to reveal information and he was held in solitary confinement for over two years.
Other former POWs also say they were tortured by communist forces at the jail, and many say they still suffer physical pain from it.
"They are liars. What they said is not true," said Duyet, who was a jailer at Hoa Lo from 1968 until the POW release in 1973, serving as prison chief the last three years. Duyet claimed McCain "invented that story that he was tortured and beaten to win votes."
Asked for a response, the McCain campaign referred The Associated Press to Orson Swindle, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who was imprisoned with McCain. Swindle said Duyet "has no credibility on every utterance he makes."
"For him to say that no one was tortured, he‘s a damn liar, and the history books in the aftermath of Vietnam were replete with stories of what prisoners went through. I‘ve got friends that died up there from torture."
"He says John McCain would make a great president. How the hell does he know? He has absolutely no credibility," Swindle added.
McCain has returned to Vietnam several times and visited what‘s left of the old prison, whose pilots‘ section has been replaced by a gleaming high-rise of offices, apartments and shops.
McCain was instrumental in pushing for normal relations between the two former foes, and the friendship was highlighted by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung‘s trip to see President Bush at the White House on Wednesday.
McCain‘s wife, Cindy, was in southern Vietnam last week doing charity work. She said if her husband wins the election the couple would delight in paying a presidential visit to the country.
If that happens, Duyet said, "I hope to meet with him again as two old friends. At that time, I would toast to congratulate him as U.S. president.
"We would talk about the future, and we would not talk about the past."
Now share this tidbit about Songbird with your conservative pals.
Over the years he's played many roles and worn many titles, including Navy aviator, prisoner of war, hero, congressman, U.S. senator, Washington insider, maverick outsider and, now, presidential candidate. But the one title of which few are aware is that of "service ace."
John Sidney McCain III is known among many of his Vietnam flight buddies as "Ace" McCain. This title has not been bestowed upon McCain because he destroyed five enemy aircraft. On the contrary: It was five on our side -- in fact, five of his own. Since throwing his hat into the presidential ring, the fact that McCain was graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy nearly at the bottom of his class has been publicized. His star-crossed flying, on the other hand, remains unknown to most.
Robert Timberg, author of The Nightingale's Song, a book about Annapolis graduates and their tours in Vietnam, wrote that McCain "learned to fly at Pensacola, though his performance was below par, at best good enough to get by. He liked flying, but didn't love it." Timberg counts himself a friend of McCain and has written a McCain biography.
It wasn't long after arriving in Pensacola that McCain racked up the first of his five crashes, beginning in 1958, on his way to becoming a "reverse ace." As told by Timberg, "McCain was practicing landings; his engine quit and he plunged into Corpus Christi Bay. Knocked unconscious by the impact, he came to as the plane settled to the bottom."
There was, however, no engine failure with the aircraft. According to one of McCain's former flight instructors, "The engine was removed from the aircraft that afternoon, mounted on a test stand and a new propeller installed. [It] was flushed with fresh water and started. It ran just fine. So the theory of engine failure was proven false."
The instructor added that McCain was "positively one of the weakest students to pass our way, and received consistently poor marks and a number of Dangerous Down grades assigned by more than one instructor. He had no real ability and was clearly out of his element in an airplane, and way over his head even as a junior naval officer."
The second of McCain's crashes occurred while he was deployed in the Mediterranean. "Flying too low over the Iberian Peninsula," reports Timberg, "he took out some power lines [reminiscent of the 1998 incident in which a Marine Corps jet sliced through the cables of a gondola at an Italian ski resort, killing 20] which led to a spate of newspaper stories in which he was predictably identified as the son of an admiral."
Crash three occurred when McCain was returning from flying a trainer solo to Philadelphia for an Army-Navy football game. According to Timberg, McCain radioed, "I've got a flameout." He went through the standard relight procedures three times. At one thousand feet, he ejected, landing on the deserted beach moments before the plane slammed into a clump of trees."
By 1967, McCain was ready for battle and assigned to the USS Forrestal as an A-4 Skyhawk pilot. While seated in the cockpit of his aircraft waiting for takeoff, a freak accident occurred when a rocket slammed into the exterior fuel tank of McCain's plane. Miraculously, McCain escaped from the burning aircraft, but dozens of his shipmates were killed and injured in the explosions that followed.
McCain's final downing came just three months later when his A-4 Skyhawk was hit by antiaircraft artillery over Truc Bach Lake near Hanoi, North Vietnam. McCain spent the next five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war and, upon return to the United States in 1973, like the other returning POWs, McCain became an instant hero. The POWs had been treated abominably, yet stood up to their torturers and were deserving of the accolades they received. But some questioned the number and types of medals bestowed upon "Ace" McCain, the son of the admiral commanding in the Pacific as well as the grandson of another admiral.
"McCain had roughly 20 hours in combat," explains Bill Bell, a veteran of Vietnam and chief of the U.S. Office for POW/MIA Affairs -- the first official U.S. representative in Vietnam since the 1973 fall of Saigon. "Since McCain got 28 medals," Bell continues, "that equals out to about a medal-and-a-half for each hour he spent in combat. There were infantry guys -- grunts on the ground -- who had more than 7,000 hours in combat and I can tell you that there were times and situations where I'm sure a prison cell would have looked pretty good to them by comparison. The question really is how many guys got that number of medals for not being shot down."
"John McCain," says another Navy pilot and acquaintance of that era, "was the kind of guy you wanted to room with -- not fly with. He was reckless, and that's critical when you start thinking about who's going to be the president," The old pilot laughs, and then continues: "But the Navy accident rate was cut in half the day John McCain was shot down."
On a more serious note, however, there has been no discussion of what actions were or were not taken in dealing with McCain after each of the aircraft losses. Neither McCain's senatorial nor campaign offices returned Insight's calls on these matters. But a Navy insider notes that "after every such incident an inquiry is conducted to conclude the cause of the crash. If it were anyone other than the admiral's son, his wings would have been pulled. But that's where that kind of father comes in handy."
"Thank God not all pilots are like McCain," jokes another pilot, "or the government would be buying a hell of a lot more planes."
1. Nieman Watchdog': McCain Should Release Navy Records on 3 Accidents
So why did the NVA call Songbird the "Prince?" - why won't the media ask him?