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World Perspective | VIETNAM

His Life Is Linked to the Pilot He Saved

Mai Van On hopes that Sen. John McCain, the former POW he aided 30 years ago, can now help their countries reconcile.

June 06, 1998|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HANOI — Mai Van On heard some news the other day that pleased him: Sen. John McCain might, as he put it, "make an application to be president." In a roundabout way, On now understands why he saved McCain's life during the Vietnam War.

"There is a reason for everything," the 81-year-old On said, stroking his wispy Ho Chi Minh beard. "Consider: I save an unknown pilot. He becomes a famous man and leads the way for America and Vietnam to become friends. If I had let him die, would this have happened?"

On is such an enthusiastic proponent of reconciliation that when Douglas "Pete" Peterson arrived in Hanoi last year as the first U.S. ambassador to Communist Vietnam, On went to the airport and rushed past security agents to embrace him.

"Who the heck was that?" the ambassador asked an aide.

On's desire for reconciliation, like that of many Vietnamese, is rooted in two beliefs: first, that the United States can play an important role in helping Vietnam's economy; and second, that the war ended a long time ago and that dwelling on the past is an unhealthy preoccupation.

"Life is life," said On, a retired factory worker who, with his wife of 42 years and two unemployed adult sons and several grandchildren, lives on a monthly pension of $18. "What's done is done. I never hated Americans, only the American government, and I never regretted what I did that day, even though a lot of people wanted to kill your pilot, Mr. McCain."

*

McCain was a Navy lieutenant commander that day, Oct. 26, 1967, headed for a power plant in downtown Hanoi, when a Russian-made missile struck the right wing of his Skyhawk bomber. He ejected from the crippled plane and parachuted into Truc Bach (White Bamboo) Lake, his right leg and both arms broken.

On, then a North Vietnamese militiaman, had been hiding in a lakeside bomb shelter during the attack by a squadron of planes. Although he still can't explain why he did it, he grabbed a bamboo pole as a float and paddled 100 yards into the lake to drag McCain to shore.

An angry crowd gathered around McCain. One smashed his shoulder with a rifle butt. Others kicked him.

"I told them, 'Please don't kill him,' " On recalled. And McCain was spared, to spend more than five years as a prisoner of war.

But a funny thing happened to On. When he returned to his job, factory workers applauded him as hero for capturing a pilot. Then, a few days later, when Hanoi discovered that McCain was the son of the admiral who commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific, and thus a bargaining chip, local security units started taking credit for his capture.

And when the war ended and McCain eventually became a Republican senator from Arizona, numerous Hanoi residents started saying they had saved McCain, apparently hoping for a reward. On felt slighted.

"I didn't want compensation," he said. "I just wanted recognition for being a patriot."

On still lives in the same lakeside shanty with a view of McCain's crash site, and a few years ago a neighbor, Chuck Searcy, resident representative of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, heard of On's search for recognition and went to investigate.

*

"I checked newspaper clips, I talked to people, I saw the bamboo pole Mr. On still keeps that he paddled out on," Searcy said. "There was no doubt in my mind this is guy who saved the life of a future U.S. senator."

Searcy helped arrange a meeting in Hanoi between McCain and On in November 1996.

On was so on edge with excitement that, dressed in his only suit, he showed up an hour early.

McCain--who remembers little of his capture--called On "a wonderful man" and gave him a souvenir Senate key chain.

In April, Searcy visited On again in his shanty. Then he inquired about putting On on a foundation retainer for "services rendered" or providing him with a cash grant. For various reasons, neither was plausible. But Searcy, a veteran who has lived here since 1995 developing humanitarian programs, found a way to help out On.

Starting this week, On is getting a new pension: $30 a month--from Searcy's personal checking account.

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