Vietnamese pay tribute to Sen. John McCain

From tokens left at a war memorial to signing a condolence book at the US embassy in Hanoi, people in Vietnam are paying their respects to the late Sen. John McCain. CNN's Ivan Watson reports.

Posted: Aug 31, 2018 5:08 AM
Updated: Aug 31, 2018 5:22 AM

The first time Le Tran Lua laid eyes on John McCain, he wanted to kill him.

"With a knife in my hand, I intended to stab him. But the people nearby shouted stop," he recalls.

Now, more than half a century after that dramatic first and only encounter with a US Navy pilot, Lua laments Sen. McCain's passing.

"I am very sad," Lua says of his former enemy's death. "I always wanted to meet him [again] since this was such a milestone in my life."

Lua is a rail-thin Vietnamese grandfather with a gray ponytail who makes a living painting calligraphy next to Buddhist temples.

The 68-year-old sips sweet coffee in a Hanoi cafe as he recalls the afternoon when he first spotted McCain's parachute.

It was October 26, 1967. Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, a US Navy aviator, was piloting a bombing mission targeting a power plant when a surface-to-air missile hit his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. He ejected from the stricken plane, deep inside enemy territory.

That day, Lua, then 17, was a mechanic at a paper factory. He says he was hiding in an air-raid shelter when he caught a glimpse of McCain's parachute.

"I immediately ran to my kitchen and grabbed a knife," Lua says. "I thought this was an invader who was trying to destroy our power plant and our city as well."

McCain splashed down in Truc Bach Lake, in the heart of Hanoi.

Lua says he dove in and swam straight toward the downed pilot.

"I grabbed his hair immediately," Lua says. "I did not speak English, so I shouted out in French 'haut le mains!'"

In other words, "Hands up!"

For Lua, the capture of an enemy pilot was one of the proudest achievements of his life. For McCain, it was the beginning of an ordeal as prisoner of war that lasted more than five years.

Flowers for an enemy

A small monument next to Truc Bach Lake celebrates the downing of McCain's plane. "The citizens and military caught Pilot John Sidney McCain," the statue's engraving says. "This was one of 10 aircraft shot down that same day."

But in the days after McCain's death, this monument has been transformed into a makeshift shrine. Admirers have been laying flowers, incense and money at the statue. The US Embassy in Hanoi laid a wreath there.

"We're not American," says a South African tourist, posing next to the monument for a photo with his wife. "But we respect the man."

After his capture, the North Vietnamese authorities brought the badly wounded McCain to Hoa Lo Prison. The former French colonial jail was infamously nicknamed by its American inmates the "Hanoi Hilton."

McCain spent much of the next five-and-a-half years in captivity within its thick walls. Today, they block almost all reception from the city's cellphone towers.

Nowadays, Hoa Lo Prison is a state museum, frequented by throngs of young tourists dressed in shorts and sandals.

During his time in captivity here, McCain and other prisoners of war said, they were repeatedly beaten, left in solitary confinement, forced to sign confessions and denied medical treatment for serious injuries and wounds.

"I dreaded rope torture more than most other forms of abuse," McCain wrote in his 2005 memoir "Character is Destiny."

"We were made to sit for hours on a stool a few inches shorter than the chair our interrogator occupied, with our arms behind our back, trussed in ropes wrapped in tight loops around our biceps and cinched around our waist... some prisoners, but not I, were hung by their ropes on hooks in the ceiling of the interrogation room. Others, again not I, were kept for weeks in ankle stocks or leg irons. Often, our interrogators beat the heck out of us."

The North Vietnamese offered McCain, whose father was the commander of US forces in the Pacific, an early release from captivity in exchange for a confession. In his 1999 memoir "Faith of my Fathers," McCain explained why he rejected the offer. He argued it would be a breach of the military's code of conduct, and serve as a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese.

Former jailor

"I first met John McCain in 1967," says Tran Trong Duyet. "He was a tough and strong man. He was loyal to his ideology."

From 1968 to 1973, Duyet was the warden of Hoa Lo Prison. Today, the prison museum displays black-and-white photos of Duyet addressing rows of American inmates, shortly before their release in the winter of 1973 as part of the Paris Peace Accords.

McCain was among the prisoners sent home then.

Now 85 and long since retired, Duyet mourns the death of his former prisoner, a lawmaker whom he credits with helping reestablish diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. "If I met him now, I would wish him good health as a good friend always does," he says.

"Could you please send my deep condolences to his family and his wife. I wish to see his family and his wife in Vietnam," he adds.

But Duyet denies that McCain and the other POW's were mistreated during captivity. "I think McCain told a lie in his book," he tells me.

"If we had tortured him, there would not have been the image of McCain coming back to Vietnam so many times and stimulating the Vietnam-US relationship."

Daniel Kritenbrik, the US ambassador to Hanoi, says there is no doubt that US prisoners were tortured. "It's absolutely clear and indisputable the torture that many of our veterans suffered," the ambassador says, speaking to CNN in a hallway of the US Embassy, which has been decorated with an American flag, bouquets of flowers and a portrait of McCain.

For three days this week, the US Embassy opened its doors to the public, allowing well-wishers to sign a book of condolences.

Among the Vietnamese visitors are a 35-year-old accountant named Vu Ngoc Son, who crosses himself and bows before McCain's portrait.

"Thank you very much Senator John McCain," Son writes in the condolence book. "Please help and continue supporting US and Vietnam -- stronger and happier."

That message was echoed by Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam's deputy foreign minister and former ambassador to Washington.

"I came to show the deepest respect for Sen. John McCain -- a great man, great statesman and a great friend of Vietnam," Vinh told CNN.

In 1995, McCain applauded the Clinton administration's decision to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

Kritenbrik argues that as a soldier and then a peacemaker, McCain played a central role in developing the extraordinarily close ties now enjoyed by two former enemy states. "It's close to miraculous to see how far we've come over the last few decades," the ambassador says.

"To go from the experiences of the war and the experiences of Sen. McCain and what we had here initially, to now be here today where we're talking about a partnership and a friendship."

McCain's indelible mark on Vietnam can be seen on the walls of the prison where he once languished. Not far from pictures of him as a wounded POW, there is a photo of a smiling McCain on a tour of the museum in 2000.

The senator often stopped in to the "Hanoi Hilton" during more than 20 trips to Vietnam. On one of those visits, the former prisoner left a short message in the museum's guest book. It reads:

Best wishes, John McCain

US Senator Arizona

Huntsville/Redstone
Clear
53° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 53°
Muscle Shoals
Partly Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 48°
Feels Like: 54°
Huntsville/Madison
Clear
51° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 51°
Decatur
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 52°
Fort Payne
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 52°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 490220

Reported Deaths: 9744
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson704661342
Mobile35810721
Madison32203443
Tuscaloosa23961409
Montgomery22417489
Shelby21773211
Baldwin19635272
Lee14883147
Morgan13571248
Etowah13118312
Calhoun13090283
Marshall11212203
Houston10036257
Limestone9321133
Elmore9313179
Cullman8864177
St. Clair8771220
Lauderdale8570210
DeKalb8419173
Talladega7450162
Walker6492249
Jackson6466102
Autauga617285
Blount6072125
Colbert5978118
Coffee5229100
Dale4614106
Russell401431
Franklin397675
Covington3948105
Chilton383196
Escambia376670
Tallapoosa3559139
Clarke342749
Dallas3396140
Chambers3393103
Pike292771
Lawrence281284
Marion280793
Winston245665
Bibb243759
Marengo238554
Geneva238468
Pickens223554
Barbour209550
Hale208464
Fayette199356
Butler195165
Henry182341
Cherokee176338
Monroe165638
Randolph162740
Washington156233
Crenshaw143353
Clay143254
Macon140543
Cleburne136539
Lamar131632
Lowndes130148
Wilcox120825
Bullock116534
Conecuh106523
Perry105327
Sumter98231
Coosa86823
Greene86732
Choctaw54723
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 768946

Reported Deaths: 11266
CountyCasesDeaths
Shelby866001472
Davidson80790841
Knox45241571
Hamilton39979454
Rutherford37906375
Williamson25011202
Sumner21166312
Montgomery17207207
Out of TN1667091
Wilson16194209
Unassigned15662125
Sullivan14169273
Blount13929178
Bradley12734138
Washington12671231
Maury12141159
Sevier11889161
Putnam10537168
Madison10049226
Robertson8886118
Hamblen7958161
Anderson7893155
Greene7258144
Tipton6896101
Coffee6264114
Gibson6168140
Dickson6148103
Cumberland6072117
Carter5926152
McMinn586289
Roane581795
Bedford5756117
Loudon563164
Jefferson5580116
Lawrence554681
Warren529875
Monroe526389
Dyer5222101
Hawkins518793
Franklin470684
Fayette463771
Obion435794
Rhea411773
Lincoln410561
Cocke396192
Marshall388354
Cheatham385743
Campbell378158
Weakley377559
Giles371095
Henderson361173
Carroll346881
Hardeman337663
Macon335073
White333965
Hardin329762
Lauderdale309342
Henry298975
Marion290244
Wayne286430
Scott285042
Overton283757
Claiborne273666
McNairy265051
Haywood264359
Hickman262840
DeKalb261548
Smith253336
Grainger240746
Trousdale237922
Morgan228537
Fentress228344
Johnson215038
Chester200647
Bledsoe198210
Crockett196946
Unicoi179347
Cannon173628
Polk173621
Union168930
Lake167326
Grundy166330
Sequatchie153927
Decatur153137
Humphreys151321
Benton149939
Lewis145724
Meigs125421
Jackson124834
Stewart123124
Clay106230
Perry102527
Houston102330
Moore93616
Van Buren79120
Pickett74723
Hancock49312

Community Events