Ex-POW McCain visits 'Hanoi Hilton' Vietnam prison

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by BEN STOCKING

HANOI, Vietnam — Sen. John McCain paid a quiet visit to the "Hanoi Hilton" prison where he was held for more than five years during the Vietnam War on Wednesday, making a few deadpan remarks as he made his way through dark corridors and past musty cells.

McCain allowed reporters to follow him while he escorted Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina through the prison.

Vietnam’s communist government has turned the facility into a museum. It was originally used by French colonialists to hold Vietnamese revolutionaries, then used by the North Vietnamese after they took power to house Americans captured during the Vietnam War. The prison was called Hoa Lo but was widely known by the nickname "The Hanoi Hilton" among U.S. soldiers.

     

mccainvietnam

RIGHT: U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, tours the Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed "The Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners, in Hanoi, Vietnam, Wednesday, April 8, 2009. McCain was a P.O.W. at the Hoa Lo. Sen. McCain, on a visit to Vietnam where he was held prisoner of war, urged the Hanoi government Tuesday to follow through on economic progress with political reforms and improvement in human rights.  


McCain, the prison’s most famous detainee, says he and others were severely tortured during their time there.

The Vietnamese government says the Americans were treated well, and the exhibit includes a volleyball net used by the prisoners and pictures of them eating Christmas dinner.

"They took me to one of those dinners and I started shouting obscenities," McCain, last year’s Republican nominee for president who was defeated by Barack Obama, told his colleagues Wednesday.

Then he looked at a photo of former prisoners pictured with letters from home. "This always entertains me," McCain said of the scene. "A wonderful life!"

The museum features a display of what is supposed to be McCain’s former flight suit, but the senator said the boots didn’t look like the ones he wore and his old name tag wasn’t on it.

McCain made no comments to the press, and reporters could only hear bits and pieces of his conversation with Graham and Klobuchar.

While walking past a photo of Vietnam’s legendary Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, he offered praise for the man who masterminded battlefield victories over the French and the Americans, both of which later withdrew their troops.

"He really was a military genius," said McCain, who made a two-day stop in Hanoi as part of a weeklong Asian tour that is also taking him to Hong Kong, Japan and China.

McCain was held as a POW for 5 1/2 years after his A4 warplane was hit by North Vietnamese fire during a bombing run over Hanoi. He crashed into a Hanoi lake, breaking both arms and a leg. He became entangled in his parachute and was pulled from the water by Vietnamese civilians _ then beaten on shore.

In 1993, the Vietnamese knocked down most of Hoa Lo and built an office and residential tower where the prison once stood. One wing remains, but McCain’s old cell is no longer there.

He pointed to another tiny cell _ about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 0.9 meters) _ with nothing more than a bed frame with no mattress, just a straw mat. He told his colleagues it looked much like the one in which he was held.

"They kept the shutters closed," McCain said. "It was very hot in there."

During his captivity, McCain twice tried to hang himself using his shirt as a noose, but he was caught by guards who then beat him.

"I couldn’t control my despair," McCain wrote in his autobiography. "All my pride was lost, and I doubted I would ever stand up to any man again. Nothing could save me."

As an Arizona senator McCain became a leading advocate of normalizing relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. And on Wednesday, when he signed the Hoa Lo guest book, he wrote nothing more than "Best Wishes."

 

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