The Forgotten Story of John McCain

Well, if being beaten up by the Viet Cong once makes John McCain a better president, then he should be beaten again, because being beaten twice will make him an even better president,” said Mr. Iven, father of Max Png ’10, as he listened to my story just before Parents Weekend. Back in Vietnam, I traveled on a four-mile road to school every day. Beside this road stands an old moss-covered marker that reads: “Here on 26 Oct, 1967, the glorious people of Ha Noi our capital shot down and captured John Sney MaCan Lieutenant of US Air Force on an A-4 fighter bombing Yen Phu power plant. It was one of the ten aircraft shot down that day.” Surprisingly, for 10 years, I went down that road without the slightest idea about the marker. However, it was not because of ignorance that I didn’t know that a man as well-known as John McCain was shot down on that familiar road; whoever inscribed the marker misspelled his name. Before the presidential election, the vast majority of Vietnamese citizens were unaware of what that torn marker said or who “John Sney MaCan” was. Now at the climax of the 2008 United States presidential election, perhaps that vast majority has not shrunk in the slightest. No Vietnamese newspaper writes about the story of Mr. “Macan,” but when I Googled the story, three articles, one from the UK and two from the US, showed up. Even more ironically, it was not the marker that informed me that John McCain was shot down in close proximity to my home, nor was it a Vietnamese source. I learned this bit of information from the Wikipedia entry for John McCain while I was researching the American election several months ago. A sudden spark went off in my mind: “Ay, that must be the guy shot down in the lake over my house, the guy that monument talks about.” Many Vietnamese people discovered this funny fact that way, including the Hanoi bureau of tourism. Previously, possibly for sensitive “propaganda reasons,” the “Hanoi Hilton,” the notorious prison that used to detain US pilots and is now a museum, drew little attention to John McCain and the other US pilots kept there. Instead, it focused solely on the early history of the prison as a detention and torture center for Vietnamese patriots struggling against French colonial rule. The museum effectually ignores the prison’s function as a penitentiary for US pilots during the Vietnam War. Just six months ago, after learning that John McCain was running for president, the Hanoi city committee opened a new showroom about the US pilots shot down nearby and kept there. The number of visitors surged unexpectedly, causing a noticeable increase in the museum’s revenue. According to Hanoi citizen Mai Van On, the story of John McCain’s capture began on the afternoon of October 26, 1967. On was returning for lunch when the air siren rang. He rushed to the bomb shelter with 60 others. From the entrance of the shelter, he saw an aircraft hit by a missile. As the plane was going down, On jumped out despite the curses and warnings of people in the shelter, grabbed a bamboo log and hurried to rescue the drowning pilot. After three minutes, On reached the near-dead pilot John McCain, submerged in 15-foot-deep water, entangled in parachute cords, with his arm and leg both broken. On, with the help of some neighbors, dragged the pilot to the shore, where On saved him again, this time from an angry mob trying to beat their hated enemy. Mai Van On died two years ago in a tiny, two-story house he shared with eleven relatives. He never knew how different this year’s presidential election would be had he listened to his neighbors in the bomb shelter that day and decided not to swim out. He was never mentioned at any of John McCain’s rallies, in any of his speeches. Indeed, McCain did pay On a visit in 1996 during one of the six trips he made to Vietnam after the war, and gave him a simple souvenir seal, which On treated as though it was congressional medal of honor. However, according to William Lowther of Daily Mail Newspaper, when On died, an email was 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. How badly John McCain was treated in the Vietnamese prison is also unclear. The Vietnamese deny all allegation of mistreatment of prisoners of wars including John McCain. Rumors in Vietnam say McCain was singled out for better treatment because McCain is the son of an American admiral. The new exhibition room at the Hanoi Hilton hinted that prisoners were treated well. No one ever speaks about the so-called “torture.” But McCain still claims mistreatment to boost his presidential credential, rarely telling voters that he would not be alive today without Mai Van On. But that was 40 years ago. Vietnam is no longer in the midst of a war. Today Vietnam has a booming economy, and memories of the war have faded away. Standing on the road where the old John McCain marker stands, we can’t really notice anything saying John McCain was shot down there. But we can definitely notice the newly-built skyscrapers and luxury hotels situated around the beautiful lake. The southern streets of Saigon- where Northern tanks once rolled in and Southern evacuees desperately fled — are now laced with Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Calvin Klein and Chanel banners. People talk about money and business, they’re no longer concerned with the war. So what do the Vietnamese think about the election? “I support John McCain,” responded a Vietnamese elder who witnessed McCain’s rescue, “because if he became the president, then we can replace that worn-out monument by a brand new one, inscribing: here we shot down the president of the united states. That makes Vietnamese proud.” Toan Nguyen is a new Upper from Hanoi, Vietnam.