- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

HANOI A nostalgic John McCain mingled with crowds of Vietnamese as he returned yesterday to the Hanoi lake where in 1967 he was dragged ashore and beaten after parachuting from his downed warplane.
The bitter war has yielded to reconciliation, and the Arizona senator strolled with his family around the busy shorefront of the capital's Truc Bach lake, stopping at a sidewalk plaque marking his rescue. It identifies him as an Air Force pilot, not the Navy pilot he was.
"I put the Vietnam War behind me a long time ago," Mr. McCain said on arriving in Vietnam on Tuesday. "I harbor no anger, no rancor."
People on the street seemed to feel the same, even if the government often does not. A military museum presents Americans and South Vietnamese in the harshest light, and exhibits dog tags and pieces of the helmets and flying suits of dead American airmen in ways that often offend American visitors.
But crowds of Vietnamese gathered around Mr. McCain as he walked, greeting him as a friend and shaking his hand.
Mr. McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war here, is now a leading proponent of rebuilding relations with the impoverished communist nation.
Still, his seventh visit to Vietnam since 1975 was filled with war reminders.
Vietnam celebrates the 25th anniversary of the end of the war on Sunday, and the former Republican presidential candidate is the most prominent of the numerous returning U.S. veterans.
"My job here is to commemorate the beginning and continuation of a new relationship between the United States and Vietnam," said Mr. McCain, who was instrumental in restoring formal ties five years ago.
Still, his schedule was filled with war reminders.
Shortly after he arrived, Mr. McCain attended a solemn airport repatriation ceremony in which an 11-member military honor guard placed six small boxes of remains, believed to be those of U.S. servicemen, into silver metal coffins.
About 50 U.S. civilians and military personnel watched as the containers were draped with American flags and carried into the hold of a C-17 cargo plane heading to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for forensic analysis.
The remains were recovered this year as part of the ongoing American effort to account for more than 2,000 servicemen missing in Indochina, including about 1,500 in Vietnam.
Several hours later, Mr. McCain took wife Cindy and son Jack on a walk along the bustling sidewalk that borders the lake, and briefly recounted the downing of his F4A plane during a bombing mission Oct. 26, 1967.
"Everything happened very quickly," he said. "I broke both my arms and a leg, and I was dragged ashore and I was beaten."
Did he think he would survive?
"I wasn't sure. In a situation like that, you never know," he said.
Today, Mr. McCain will visit what is left of Hoa Lo Prison the "Hanoi Hilton," as POWs called it, where he spent his years in captivity. He has said his hardships there included beatings, a lack of proper medical treatment for injuries, and a total of three years in solitary confinement for what his captors called a "bad attitude."
He twice tried to hang himself, using his shirt as a noose, but was caught both times by the guards, who then beat him.
"I had the privilege of serving in the company of heroes," he said yesterday. "I observed a thousand acts of courage, compassion and love, and I will always treasure that memory above all others."
Most of the prison was torn down in 1993 to make way for Hanoi Towers, an upscale office complex and hotel in central Hanoi. One wing of the faded yellow fortress was preserved and opened as a museum three years ago. Now there's a real Hilton hotel in Hanoi carefully named the Hanoi Opera Hilton, hard by the old Hanoi Opera House, now restored.
The Vietnamese government has in the past rankled at Mr. McCain's accounts of his time in captivity, denying his claims of torture at the hands of prison guards.
During his unsuccessful presidential bid this year, Mr. McCain also raised the ire of some Asian-American groups when he said he and his fellow Americans referred to their captors with the derogatory term "gooks." Mr. McCain refused calls to apologize for his language.

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