The U.S. presidential race would have been much different if Mai Van On had listened to his angry neighbors 32 years ago.
Instead, even as others cursed him, he rescued a shot-down American pilot from drowning in Hanoi’s Truc Bach lake.
And while On isn’t happy about some of John McCain’s recent comments, he said Wednesday that a November victory for the senator from Arizona would still be good news. “I wish him good luck and prosperity,” On said.
On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain was a 31-year-old Navy fighter pilot who was part of a bombing mission on the North Vietnamese capital. On usually didn’t go home from work on his lunch break, but he did that cool, sunny autumn day.
Air-raid sirens sounded as On reached the thatched-roof house on the lake shore, and he rushed to join 60 people in a nearby shelter. Bombs soon were falling, and Vietnamese soldiers let loose with anti-aircraft artillery and missiles.
“I was at the entrance to the shelter, looking up at the sky, and I saw one plane hit by a missile. The tail was cut off, and it came down,” On recalled.
“I jumped out of the shelter. Others tried to prevent me from going out, saying it was too dangerous and cursing me, asking, ‘Why do you want to go out and rescue our enemy?’ I went anyway, grabbed a bamboo pole and swam to where he went down.”
McCain was below the surface of the 16-foot-deep water, entangled in the parachute cords. On said he cleared the ropes and pulled McCain to the surface.
“His head was drooping and his eyes were closed. They gradually opened, and I saw a look of relief that he was still alive,” On said.
He gave McCain one end of the pole as he held the other and swam with one arm. Another man helped them to shore. On recalled that McCain’s flight suit was torn, revealing a good-luck charm around his neck.
“He could not walk, so I had to help him. At first, I thought he had no injuries, but I later learned he had a broken arm and broken leg,” On said.
“About 40 people were standing there. They were about to rush him with their fists and stones. I asked them not to kill him. He was beaten for a while before I could stop them.”
McCain was handed over to the local police, and it wasn’t until years later that On learned the name of the man he had saved.
They finally met in 1996 during one of McCain’s six visits to Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. On was given a U.S. Senate key ring that remains in its small clear-plastic box.
“We shook hands and hugged each other,” On said. “He sat next to me and asked me: ‘I was your adversary; why did you rescue me?’ I told him: ‘You were about to die. Based on the humanitarian nature of the Vietnamese people, I rescued you.’ ”
While On is proud of what he did, calling himself a bridge between Vietnam and the United States, he said he was disappointed to hear that McCain claims he was tortured during his five years as a prisoner of war at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”
McCain has released medical records in which he talked of being mistreated so badly while a POW that he tried twice to hang himself. Vietnam has consistently denied torturing any prisoners of war.
On said, however, that he was saddened to hear of McCain’s comments. “I feel he has lost the kindness of the Vietnam people after all the good things they did for him,” he said.
McCain also has been criticized for using “gooks,” a derogatory term, to describe his prison guards.
His comments “have hurt the Vietnamese and Asian peoples,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said in a statement broadcast on national television.
On, who saw the broadcast, said that “the war has been over for 25 years. We should put it in the past and not talk about it.”
Vietnam and the United States normalized relations five years ago, and have been negotiating a trade deal.
Today, On is a spry but undernourished 83 who would like to visit the United States but doesn’t know if his health would permit it.
“I don’t know if John McCain would invite me. I would like to visit his home and family,” On said.