How McCain Turned His Back on the Vietnamese Man Who Saved His Life

Election '08

Sunday, Oct. 26 marked the 41st anniversary of John McCain's plane being shot down over Hanoi. It's a narrative that has become a central theme of McCain's presidential campaign -- but in the four decades since his capture, the story has become revisionist history.

In March of 2008, I traveled to Vietnam for the 40th anniversary of the incidents in Son My village that have come to be known to the world as the My Lai Massacre. During my visit, I spent some time in Hanoi visiting the museums and relics of what the Vietnamese call "the American war." One of these trips took me to the notorious Hoa Lo prison, or "Hanoi Hilton" -- formerly a French prison where independence fighters were jailed during the decades of French colonial rule, but which had later been turned into a stockade for U.S. pilots shot down over Hanoi from the mid-1960s to early 1970s. It was here that John McCain spent most of his 5½ years in captivity as a prisoner of war. Today, the prison museum features photos of McCain, both as a prisoner between 1967 and 1973 and on a return visit as a U.S. senator.

McCain was a hot commodity in Vietnam during my visit. According to my official translator from the Foreign Press Center, many other translators had been assigned to various foreign news crews around Hanoi that were all gathering material on McCain's time in Vietnam. McCain is well known to the Vietnamese; they all seemed familiar with his Senate career and his runs for the White House. The Vietnamese press was writing about McCain too; one article from a local paper particularly caught my eye. It was the story of McCain's rescue from Truc Bach Lake, accompanied by a grainy photo of a battered John McCain being dragged to the shore on a long bamboo pole. McCain had been reunited with his rescuer, Mai Van On, in 1996.

Upon returning to the United States, I looked for the story of McCain's rescuer but found little mention in the English language press. But in late March, Britain's Daily Mail published a story that made me realize that I knew the U.S. veteran who had helped reunite McCain with On. His name was Chuck Searcy, and he is now the country representative for the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Fund. So in early August, I called Searcy in Hanoi and interviewed him for WORT radio in Madison, Wis.


Norm Stockwell: Let me start by asking how you first came to meet Mr. Mai Van On and your connection with getting him in touch with Senator McCain.

Chuck Searcy: In 1995 I rented an apartment on the Truc Bach Lake, which is the lake where John McCain parachuted in when he was shot down. Some time during that year, an old man who was my neighbor sought me out (along with) another veteran who was living on the other side of the lake.

And he found us and wanted to tell us this story, that he was the guy who pulled McCain out of the lake. Of course, we didn't know whether to believe him or not. But he had a letter that he asked me to deliver to McCain. And I asked my landlord and my landlady and neighbors and others who were living around the lake if what he had said was true, and they said yeah -- the ones who remembered that day back in 1967 when McCain was shot down -- they said yes, that's the way it happened.

So I had the letter translated and sent it off to McCain. … And I got a reply from a staff person who sort of discounted the letter and the suggestion that this may have been the man who pulled McCain out of the lake, because apparently they had heard some such allegation before. So I just sort of let it ride -- until I saw McCain in Washington, I guess that same year, at a Veterans' breakfast and I mentioned it to him. And he said, "Oh, let's see if we can, I'd like to meet the guy, next time I come to Vietnam." And so that's how it happened.

NS: So then Senator McCain was involved with some of the discussions going on about normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam in 1995, and he came to Hanoi, and you actually facilitated a meeting with Senator McCain and Mr. On. What took place there?

CS: Well, as you said, McCain, yes, was very much involved in the reconciliation efforts; he and Senator John Kerry really paved the way for President Clinton to declare normalization of relations with Vietnam, which occurred in 1995.

It was about in October, I think, of 1996 that I got a call from the U.S. Embassy one morning and they said that Senator McCain had just landed (in Vietnam) and he would like to meet Mr. Mai Van On in the afternoon if that was possible.

So I went to his house because he had no telephone -- he was quite poor -- and asked him if he would meet with McCain and, of course, he was excited, and he said yes. So that afternoon, they met at the offices of the Vietnamese Union of Friendship organization, the Vietnam-USA Society, which is very near his house and near my house, also. And so they met for the first time since that day in 1967 when McCain was shot down.

NS: And Mr. On told McCain the story of what happened that day and then McCain gave him a gift.

CS: Mr. On described what happened that day in a very animated way, and he was quite excited to tell the story, because I think it was quite a highlight in his life.

And McCain listened, with some interest, I guess, because McCain was badly injured when he ejected from his plane. I think he broke both his arms and he broke one leg, so he was in very bad shape and apparently he was mostly unconscious, and so he said, at the outset of the conversation, that he didn't remember much about that day, and he asked Mr. On to describe it, which he did in great graphic detail, with a lot of excitement.

NS: Now, in fact, he, Mr. On, actually saved McCain's life twice that day. Talk about that a little bit.

CS: That's true. McCain would have, (or) he might have, drowned if Mr. On and his neighbor had not jumped in the lake. They swam out to the middle of the lake where McCain's parachute was and, because of his injuries, McCain was hardly in condition to survive in the water. So apparently he had kicked himself up from the bottom of the lake a couple of times and he was going down maybe for the third and last time, when Mr. On and his friend reached the parachute, and they pulled McCain up by the straps and they rolled him across this bamboo log that they had floated out there, and then they kicked in to the lakeshore. When they got to the bank, there was a crowd of men -- mostly men and maybe a few women -- but some men jumped into the lake and helped to drag McCain out. But they were angry, and some of them were threatening -- and in fact, a couple of them started to attack McCain. I think one hit him, and somebody I think stabbed him in the leg, according to McCain's account. And Mr. Mai Van On and this wonderful old nurse who was there at the time -- Mrs. Teng was her name -- they both just, through the power of their persuasion, they stopped the crowd from attacking him. The old man said, "Look, when he was in the air bombing us, he was our enemy, but now he's on the ground and he's a helpless human being and we're not going to hurt him." And it sounds like the crowd was just sort of shamed into submission, and they backed away and stopped the attacks on McCain. So that really may have saved his life again.

NS: Now, this is a really touching story of friendship between peoples at a real people-to-people level, and yet, when McCain wrote his political biography, and told the story of that time, he doesn't really mention this incident at all. That was in 1999, I guess.

CS: Yes, McCain mentions being pulled out of the lake by the group of Hanoians who jumped into the lake as he got to the bank and he does not mention any details about Mr. Mai Van On -- maybe because he couldn't remember those details himself, and didn't want to include them in the book without having that personal memory, personal knowledge, I don't know. But in any case, right, he omitted the references to Mr. Mai Van On for whatever reason. He recounted the story, I guess, exactly as he remembered it.

NS: Now, McCain came back and visited (Hoa Lo) prison. He also came back and visited the lake where his plane had crashed. In the year 2000, I think it was, when he was running for president, there was an AP story about that. But he never really visited Mr. On again, did he?

CS: I don't think he ever visited him again. I suppose it was … I guess he had a busy schedule. I'm sure it was not very high on his agenda. I think the family was a little bit disappointed in that. But they probably put much more stock in those events than McCain did, who has, you know, had a very eventful and very highly publicized life. So it was probably just not very high on his agenda, I assume.

NS: Now, again at that meeting that you were able to facilitate (in 1996) for Senator McCain and Mr. Mai Van On, McCain gave him a key chain of some sort, a Senate key chain, which he kept throughout his life. He passed away, I guess, in 2006, but he kept it throughout his entire life as a … almost like a medal.

CS: Actually, yeah, as I recall, it was … I think it was more like a paperweight -- it was a replica of the Senate seal, I think. It was probably the kind of thing that senators can give out to people easily, but it's true, Mr. Mai Van On treasured it as if it were some kind of medal of honor. I think he displayed it prominently in his house until he died.

NS: One printed story in the media said that before he died, he told his family not to sell that, but to keep it because if they ever came to America, that it might be valuable as an entrée to get into U.S. society or something.

CS: Yeah, I think so. You know, like a lot of post-war mythology, it's sort of a touching story. It would not have been of any real value, but sentimental and emotional value to Mr. On and his family … although he attached much more value to it than that, I think.

NS: Now, I understand that when Mr. On died, that a message was sent to try to get Senator McCain to issue some condolences to the family. Do you know anything about that?

CS: Actually, I sent a message to one of the staff people, just to notify Senator McCain that Mr. On had died, but I don't even know if the message reached them or if it ever reached Senator McCain or not. I just thought it was something he might like to know about. I don't know if there were other notifications to him or not. I don't even know if the news ever reached him.

NS: Now, Chuck, you work on a day-to-day basis in Vietnam with people, and you see all kinds of evidence of reconciliation being built between our peoples, you know, in spite of the role the United States played during the war. How does this story fit into that general scheme of people-to-people friendship between the peoples of Vietnam and the United States?

CS: Well, the story is really a graphic illustration of a phenomenon which is difficult for us as Americans to really understand, and that is that the Vietnamese people never viewed the American people as their enemy, ever. They always felt -- and they still do feel -- that the U.S. government made some tragic policy decisions and made some terrible mistakes in bringing the war to Vietnam. But they're very forgiving of the American people and very respectful, and they've always had the view, even during the war, that one day they and the American people would be friends. So this incident back in 1967 just illustrates that, and there are thousands of other examples of that. I mean, I see it every day of my life over here. And it took me a while to understand and accept, (but) I know now that it's a fact. The Vietnamese people have never felt any hostility to America. And they just felt a lot of anguish and sadness and almost disbelief that there would be a war in their country involving Americans, for whom they have always had tremendous respect. So, for me and many other veterans who have been back to Vietnam and who work here, Americans who have come back and experienced that, it's a touching and remarkable learning experience for most of us.


Months after my interview with Searcy, I was in St. Paul, Minn., at the Republican National Convention. As I stood on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center, some 50 yards from John McCain as he accepted his party's presidential nomination, the projector flashed that same black-and-white photo image I had seen in Vietnam of McCain being dragged to the shore of Truc Bach Lake. Moments later, to my surprise, I heard McCain say: " … I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence. Those men saved my life." But McCain wasn't talking about the Vietnamese people who pulled him from that lake, people whose homes he had just bombed. He was talking about his fellow American POWs. Had McCain truly erased from his memory a touching reunion that took place just over a dozen years before?

I could only think about how different the narrative would be had McCain said: "I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence. Those (Vietnamese civilians) saved my life (because they understood the humanity in all of us that transcends government and country)."

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