John McCain and his son Jack paid a visit yesterday to what remains of the Hanoi Hilton. "It's always interesting for me to be back here and show my son the place where I lived for a long time," he said.
ByMark Lander, April 27, 2000
HANOI, Vietnam, April 26 -- As he strode through the shadowy hallways and incongruously sunny courtyards, gesturing here, pointing to a detail there, Senator John McCain might have been a father showing his son his alma mater.
Except the landmarks on this tour were dank cells like the one where Mr. McCain spent two years in solitary confinement, and leg irons, which he once wore as a punishment for insulting the guards.
"It's always interesting for me to be back here and show my son the place where I lived for a long time," the Arizona Republican said as he paused next to a faded photograph of himself as a grim-faced, unmistakably defiant inmate. "But I put Vietnam behind me when I left."
Yet, as he guided his wife and 13-year-old son through the remnants of the grim jail known as the "Hanoi Hilton," Mr. McCain, long a proponent of better relations with Vietnam, betrayed feelings still raw a quarter of a century later.
"I still bear them ill will," he said of the prison guards, "not because of what they did to me, but because of what they did to some of my friends -- including killing some of them."
Mr. McCain and his wife, Cindy, had visited the prison, known as Hoa Lo, on one of his seven previous trips to Vietnam since his release in 1973. But Mr. McCain, whose visit comes just before the 25th anniversary on Sunday of the end of the Vietnam War, said he wanted to show his son Jack the place.
A sprawling French colonial-era fortress, the jail housed 300 American pilots at various periods during the war. The Vietnamese authorities tore down much of it in 1993 to make way for a luxury hotel and office complex called Hanoi Towers. But they preserved one corner as a museum.
Today, Mr. McCain seemed aware that the site had become just another stop on the tourist trail for people visiting Vietnam's now-popular capital. At several points during the self-guided tour he stopped to say hello or to have his picture taken with American tourists -- most of whom said they supported him during his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination this year.
He also offered an acidic commentary on how the Vietnamese portrayed life inside the prison. Alongside the pictures of Mr. McCain and his fellow prisoners, a plaque declared: "Though having committed untold crimes on our people, the American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead, they were treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter."
Shaking his head, Mr. McCain muttered, "That's entertainment."
Nearby, another set of photos showed the Americans receiving letters from their families, meeting with North Vietnamese journalists and attending Mass. Mr. McCain pointed out that one of the pilots photographed at Mass had placed his hand on his chin, with only his middle finger extended.
"I think that sums up how he felt about being here," Mr. McCain said.
Mr. McCain has described his five and a half year imprisonment as a nightmarish time, in which he was beaten and kept in solitary confinement. Twice he tried to hang himself, only to be cut down and assaulted by the guards.
Mr. McCain was captured on Oct. 26, 1967, after his Navy plane was shot down while on a bombing run over Hanoi. He parachuted into a lake, breaking both arms and a leg.
On Tuesday, Mr. McCain paid a visit to the lake, known as Truc Bac, where he described to reporters being dragged ashore and beaten by an angry mob. On this visit, several curious locals stepped forward to greet Mr. McCain -- some posing for photographs with his family.
In prison, Mr. McCain said the American inmates communicated by tapping on the walls of their cells. The prisoners nicknamed their cell-block Thunderbird, and Mr. McCain described how it was lighted with a single bulb. During the day, loudspeakers that hung from the ceiling would drone with music by North Vietnamese propaganda figures like the singer known as Hanoi Hannah. "I heard her every day," Mr. McCain said. "She's a marvelous entertainer. I'm surprised she didn't get to Hollywood."
The Vietnamese government has expressed anger at Mr. McCain's description of his treatment as a prisoner of war, especially in his recent memoir. Today, despite his sarcasm and fleeting bitterness, the senator seemed reluctant to add to his earlier accounts of that period.
Indeed, Mr. McCain has long advocated reconciling the two countries and was instrumental in the establishment of diplomatic relations with Hanoi five years ago. At his arrival here on Tuesday, he said he had come to "commemorate the beginning and continuation of a new relationship between the United States and Vietnam."
In meetings with senior Vietnamese officials, the senator said he discussed negotiations on a trade agreement between the two countries. A deal was agreed to in principle last July, but has bogged down since then as the Vietnamese have balked at several provisions.
Still, for this most celebrated of P.O.W.'s, the war is the shadow that lurks behind every meeting. On Tuesday, soon after he landed in Hanoi, Mr. McCain attended a ceremony on a sweltering airport tarmac, in which the remains of six people, believed to be American soldiers missing since the war, were loaded on an Air Force plane and flown to Hawaii for forensic analysis.
For Jack McCain, the
visit seemed to confirm the stories his father had told him. As he
left the prison, the young Mr. McCain said he had expected the cells
to be cramped and dark. Indeed, his knowledge of the prison seemed so
thorough that he expressed surprise at only one small detail: the
iron doors at the main entrance were wide enough that his father was
delivered through them in a truck.
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 2000 by Neil Mishalov