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The Man Who Saved John McCain


Nguyen Dang Doanh

Nguyen Dang Doanh claims he rescued John McCain from a lake near Hanoi after his plane went down.

I think about Senator John McCain every day, because every day I walk my dog, Moto, around Truc Bach, or Bamboo Island Lake, not far from my house. It's just a 10-minute ride from downtown Hanoi.

The lake is where Navy pilot McCain went down in October 1967, during the height of the war in Vietnam. He was then, like other pilots, both a hated enemy, and a prize for the Hanoi leaders as they contemplated negotiating with Washington, DC.

During my walks, I often stop for a conversation with people around the lake. Few know about McCain's wartime story. Many who hang around the lake's cafes are too young -- born after the war against America. Then I come across a rather drunken old man who grabs me and shouts.

"I'm the one, I'm the one," Nguyen Dang Doanh keeps repeating. "I'm the one who jumped in with my comrades and plucked the American pilot McCain from this lake."

Nguyen Dang Doanh was 16 when McCain was shot down. He must have been a handsome young man. Now white-haired, he sits on the sidewalk outside his weather-stained apartment and drinks every afternoon. Competing with the annoying neighborhood loudspeaker, he tells me about his heroic moment.

"When we reached him, we wanted to punch him. But we first took off his helmet so he could breathe. Once we subdued him, we lost our anger and had sympathy."

"My feeling then was simply to catch the pilot," Doanh remembers. "We were young men, and we jumped into the lake as soon as his plane flew over and his parachute started drifting toward the lake. When we reached him, we wanted to punch him. But we first took off his helmet so he could breathe, and undid the zipper of his jacket. We took his pistol. Once we subdued him, we lost our anger and had sympathy, and no longer wanted to beat him up."

Anger was running high in the late '60s, as the U.S. bombed North Vietnam, and the government in Hanoi ran constant propaganda against the "American imperialists [for] committing atrocious crimes" against civilians.

McCain spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war. He has frequently described the torture he suffered. In his presidential campaign, that experience translates into a heroic profile.

Here in Hanoi, McCain has at least one devoted fan. Businesswoman Le Lan Anh was 14 when she first learned of John McCain in a village where she was sent to escape the bombings. She was told a fabulous story: that the U.S. and McCain's Navy family were ready to offer Hanoi a life-size statue of him, cast in gold, in exchange for his release.

Truc Bach, or Bamboo Island Lake, where McCain was rescued, is a 10-minute ride from downtown Hanoi.

The young girl was absorbed by the news of this important foreigner, but by and by she gave way to school, a marriage, and a business career. When we met in one of Hanoi's top French restaurants, she looked like she belonged on Wall Street, and she sounded like a McCain campaign worker.

"I admire McCain as a person full of strength, and always determined, never wavering. I really like such a man," Lan Anh says.

The woman is obsessed. Forty years after she heard about McCain, she's written a book based on him. She spent six years researching it, including two in New York, where she took some English classes and read everything she could about McCain. "My book took 40 years to write," Lan Anh tells me. "It's the first time there's a book in Vietnam in which an American is the leading role, a good soldier, beautiful, human."

"This is the 23rd time lieutenant James McClean -- often called Jim -- has flown into North Vietnamese skies," Lan Anh writes in her novel. "He flies back and forth between the USS Oriskany and North Vietnam, over the northern sea, as if he's the king of the sky and the ocean!"

"I see John McCain as an extraordinary man, he'd suffered difficult years in prison, but when he came back to Vietnam, he had enough courage to close the pages of history."

"Everything, from Jim's face to his body build, radiates courage and a forthrightness similar to the way it does on medieval knights. Indeed, if Jim had wanted to try his hand in Hollywood, surely he would shine no less than any famous movie star!"

Lan Anh did courses at Hanoi's famous Creative Writing School. I didn't bother to ask who taught her, or who edited her book. But there's no mistaking her admiration. She particularly admires what McCain has done after the war.

"I see John McCain as an extraordinary man; he'd suffered difficult years in prison. But when he came back to Vietnam, he had enough courage to close the pages of history, and together with the Vietnamese look to the future. That's not something just anybody can do. I know there was a lot of reaction against him coming here, but he did anyway. He was determined."

Exterior of the prison dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton," where McCain and other U.S. pilots were held.

McCain did come back to his former enemy's nation, in 1985 and 2000, and played a large, bipartisan role with fellow veteran and senator John Kerry to repair relations between the United States and Vietnam. Now some here also believe that as an American president he'd be good for Vietnam. Not that any Hanoi officials would openly support his bid, but people like Nguyen The Son say they like the idea of a President McCain. Son runs a cafe by the lake, and I've always liked his gentle manner. Over a cup of tea, I ask him about the former POW who has locked up the Republican nomination.

"If he's the president of the U.S., with an understanding already of Vietnam, then it's good for both Vietnam and the Americans," Son answers. But Son's old enough to remember things from 40 years ago, and he repeats the old Hanoi claim that McCain was not treated harshly by his captors. "If we're talking about torture," Son says, "then I think the government of Vietnam would'nt do it."

Even McCain's devoted fan, writer and businesswoman Lan Anh, says she does not believe her hero was tortured. Her book, On Enemy's Territory, isn't selling too well here. Still, she wants it published in the U.S. "It may help clear up some issues," she says. Lan Anh argues that McCain -- the son of an admiral from a distinguished American military family -- was too big a fish for the North Vietnamese to badly mistreat him. "General Vo Nguyen Giap came to see McCain in prison. You think they'd want to torture him?"

I didn't want to question her about how she is contradicting her hero. In any case, Lan Anh says his years in prison made him a tough man who can run a country that has enormous influence not only in Vietnam, but in the world.

There are some here who think McCain owes them a debt of gratitude. My new drunken "uncle" Nguyen Dang Doanh says it's up to McCain to repay that debt.

Yet, there are some here who think McCain owes them a debt of gratitude. Vietnamese saved his life when they fished him out of Bamboo Island Lake. My new drunken "uncle" Nguyen Dang Doanh says it's up to McCain to repay that debt.

"I pushed McCain with my own hands from the middle of the lake, and if he thinks about it, he should be like the Vietnamese: Forget no favor. Hatred put to one side."

Fat chance, I'd say, especially during an election year. The last time McCain ran for president he was still calling his captors "gooks." He apologized then, and he's helped restore U.S. relations with Vietnam, but the racial slur is hard to forget.

Doanh offers an explanation: When you don't speak a common language, and when you're at war and don't understand your adversary, you use bad words against each other. "We called Americans 'Imperialist Pigs,'" Doanh says.

pilot uniform in case.

One of the downed U.S. pilot's uniforms on display in Hanoi.

But it was in 2000, not during the war, when McCain used the "g" word, I argue.

"McCain can say anything he wants," Doanh replies. "All I know is that we rose and fought the Americans and victory was ours to claim. Now, if McCain were to come back as a pilot, and fall again into the lake, we'd rescue him again. It is the duty of any Vietnamese citizen to render aid to those in need. Beyond that, I have no comments."

Still, I say to him, you saved the life of a man who could be president of the United States.

"How could I know? I was young then," Doanh says. "And since then, we've been preoccupied with life in Vietnam, raising our children, keeping a job, surviving, and keeping up with the rapid changes in our own society. My only hope is that, whether it's McCain, or anyone else, they would be a peace-loving president and they wouldn't start a war. The world would judge them. It doesn't matter whether I support a candidate or not. That's for Americans to decide, not for me."

Nguyen Qui Duc is a radio correspondent based in Hanoi. In 2003, he reported for FRONTLINE/World on how the war in Vietnam had affected his childhood. Over the years Duc has returned to his homeland as a journalist, reporting on the country's culture and establishing connections with writers and artists living in Vietnam. In "Looking For Home," Duc describes his journey as searching "for a bit of myself and for a country that always exists in my memory." You can read an interview with him and watch the original broadcast online here.