Wartime rescuer of John McCain dies a forgotten hero

June 27th, 2008 - 9:51 am ICT by IANS  

By Simon Parry
Hanoi, June 27 (DPA) Of all the tales of wartime courage peppering John McCain’s presidential campaign trail, there is one example of selfless heroism that stands out. Only in this story, the hero is not McCain but a humble Vietnamese peasant. On Oct 26, 1967, Mai Van On ran from the safety of a bomb shelter in Hanoi at the height of an air raid and swam out into the lake where Lieutenant Commander McCain was drowning, tangled in his parachute cord after ejecting when his Skyhawk bomber was hit by a missile.

In an extraordinary act of compassion at a time when Vietnamese citizens were being killed by US aerial bombardments, he pulled a barely conscious McCain to the lake surface and, with the help of a neighbour, dragged him towards the shore.

Then, when a furious mob at the water’s edge began to beat and stab the captured pilot, On drove them back.

Nearly three decades later, the Vietnamese government confirmed he was indeed the rescuer and, in a 1996 meeting in Hanoi, McCain embraced and thanked On and presented him with a Senate memento.

From that brief encounter to his death at the age of 88 two years ago, On never heard from the senator again, and three years after their meeting, McCain published an autobiography that makes no mention of his apparent debt to On.

In his 1999 autobiography, “Faith Of My Fathers”, which laid the ground for his first, unsuccessful run for president in 2000, McCain wrote a Boy’s Own-style narrative of his rescue: “When I came to, I was being hauled ashore on two bamboo poles,” he wrote.

What followed, according to McCain, was five-and-a-half years of torture and brutal beatings as a prisoner of war - an account that has given a steely edge to his candidacy by establishing him as a true American war hero.

But the story is at odds with the version uncovered by Vietnam veteran Chuck Searcy, who lives in Hanoi and is in charge of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Fund.

“In 1995, On gave me a letter he wanted me to deliver to McCain.” said Searcy. “It said, ‘I am the guy who pulled you out of the lake and I have followed your progress over the years. I wish the best for you and your family and I hope some day you will be president of the US’.”

“No one thought of McCain as a future president at that time. I thought it was endearing. I sent the letter to McCain’s office and I got back a sniffy response from some assistant saying, ‘McCain isn’t interested in these fanciful stories’.”

Searcy, 63, said: “There had been a lot of preposterous claims and I was sceptical at first. But I asked the neighbours around the lake if it was true and they said that was exactly how it happened.”

Later the same year, Searcy met McCain at a veterans’ reunion in Washington. “I mentioned the story of Mr On to him,” he said. “He said ‘Do you think this guy is for real?’ and I said ‘Yes, all the neighbours have confirmed it’. And he said ‘Hell, I would like to meet this guy - next time I come over there, I’ll set it up’.”

“That day, Mr On saved McCain twice - once from drowning and a second time from maybe being killed by the mob.

“McCain listened to Mr On. then he just nodded, said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and gave On a little Senate seal.

“It was the kind of thing you buy in the souvenir shop in the Senate basement. But Mr On, to the day he died, treated it as if it were a Congressional Medal of Honour.”

Although McCain appeared to believe the story, it was one he would later seem to ignore in his autobiography and there was no more contact between the two men.

A decade later in 2006 when On died, an email was sent to McCain’s office by a family friend requesting a message of condolence for the family. There was no response.

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