In Vietnam, interest in one time POW McCain is mixed

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Hanoi (Vietnam), Sept.20 : Arizona Senator John McCain's decision to run for the post of United States President this year, has evoked mix reactions in Hanoi, Vietnam, the place where he was a prisoner of war in the late 1960s.

For most Vietnamese, the McCain POW story is an obscure artifact of a receding history.

In a week of interviews around Hanoi, neither his imprisonment nor his presidential candidacy seemed to arouse much excitement.

When McCain first announced that he was going to contest, his wartime jailer, Tran Trong Duyet, thrust two fingers into the air and shouted: "John McCain! My friend! Victory!"

Duyet was McCain's handler and friend in prison, and now, according to the New York Times, he feels hurt and offended when he hears McCain saying that his captors tortured him.

Duyet, 75, was head of the guard unit at Hoa Lo prison - nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, during McCain's five-and-a-half-year imprisonment, which began after his bomber was shot down over the city in October 1967.

He presided over the neglect and torture of McCain, which was witnessed by his fellow prisoners and which left him with lasting injuries.

The experience has become a staple of McCain's political biography, and it has given Duyet a place in a footnote of history, which he occupies with gusto.

Vietnam's relations with the United States are on an even keel, and Vietnam has little at stake in the election.

The McCain story, for the most part, has taken on an aura of wartime kitsch in Vietnam, like the self-parodying propaganda posters that are now sold in galleries, or the "Good Morning Vietnam" T-shirts popular with tourists. Those alive still to recall McCain as a POW include Duyet, the jailer with the vivid imagination, a nurse who treated McCain for a few minutes after he was shot down.

Mai Van On, the man credited with pulling McCain from the lake after he crashed, died two years ago. There is the little chunk of the prison, preserved as a museum when the rest of the building was razed to make way for a high-rise, with its half-hearted and anachronistic wartime propaganda.

Duyet's memories are in harmony with the carefully chosen exhibits in the museum; he pointed proudly to a sweater and a paper fan as evidence of the comforts the prisoners enjoyed.

The walls are hung with photographs of prisoners playing sports and making Christmas dinner and of McCain lying on a cot being treated by a doctor.

His greatest pride is his account of his relationship with McCain. "I used to meet with him in my office at the end of the day and debate with him. We debated quite fiercely, but there was never any personal prejudice between us. The debate was between two men in a manly style. But after that we were quite friendly. We didn't take it personally," he recalls. In 2000, Mr. McCain called his captors "cruel and sadistic people" and declared, "I will hate them for as long as I live."

"I'll call right now my interrogator that tortured me and my friends a gook," McCain added, using a particularly offensive term for Asians. "You can quote me," he said.

McCain has visited Hanoi several times in recent years, and although he has returned to the prison, he has not met with Duyet to compare memories.

When McCain says that he was bounced from pillar to post, kicked, scratched and laughed at, besides being beaten every two to three hours, Duyet insists that this is all pure fabrication of facts and political posturing.

"Some Americans still carry a prejudice toward Vietnam. So McCain has to say he was beaten to gain the votes of these people," he adds.

ANI

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