The former director of the infamous Hoa Lo prison, often referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton”, where John McCain was held prisoner during the Vietnam war, recalled the late senator as stubborn and a pleasure to debate.
“It was his stubbornness, his strong stance that I loved when arguing with him,” said retired colonel Tran Trong Duyet, according to the South China Morning Post.
In the decades following the Vietnam war, McCain – who died on Saturday at the age of 81 – forgave the enemies who once held him captive, and helped reconcile the two countries that today enjoy strong ties.
His five-and-a-half years in prison began in October 1967 when McCain was thrown into the French-built jail after his Skyhawk dive-bomber was shot down over Hanoi’s Truc Bach lake.
The discovery that his father was a navy admiral quickly earned McCain the nickname “Crown Prince” by his captors, as he endured captivity with about 500 fellow prisoners of war.
The early years were grim. McCain was held in solitary confinement and suffered from dysentery. For months on end, he was fed only bread and pumpkin soup. He communicated with fellow inmates by tapping codes on the thick concrete walls.
In his memoirs, McCain wrote that solitary “put me in a pretty surly mood” and that he would ward off depression by hollering insults at guards. And then there were the interrogations and beatings.
Duyet insists there were no beatings and that McCain and other prisoners were not mistreated, saying he punished any fellow guards who engaged in such behavior.
“There was no torture, Vietnamese people saved him,” Duyet said in an interview earlier this year at his home in the port city of Haiphong, where he displays both photos of American POWs and more recent images of himself in military uniform posing with US officials.
Duyet also said his relationship with McCain took on a warmer tone toward the end of the POW’s time in captivity:
“Out of working hours, we considered each other friends,” he said. “He taught me English … he had good teaching skills.”
In his post-prison writings, McCain said things got easier for him in the early 1970s, which he called the “coasting period”.
His former jailer preferred to focus on the rosier memories, recalling how they joked, shared stories about family and travel, and even dished about women.
“We laughed together and agreed that women are the same everywhere – they like flattery, they like to sulk, and they’re jealous,” he said.
Despite the senator's many trips to Vietnam in the years following the war, he and McCain never had the chance to meet again — but Duyet imagined how such a meeting might have gone:
“If he came to Vietnam, I would greet him, not as a former prisoner and a jailer, but as two veterans, from both sides of the battlefield, now meeting again in the spirit of reconciliation,” he said.
When informed of McCain’s death, Duyet said on Sunday he was “so sad”.
“Please if you can, convey my condolences to his family for me,” he said.
President Donald Trump, however, continued his taunts of McCain.
Here, months after McCain's death, Trump trashes the man to Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo:
"If you realize about three days ago, it came out that his main person gave to the FBI the fake news dossier. It was a fake, it was a fraud, it was paid for by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. They gave it to John McCain who gave it to the FBI for very evil purposes, that's not good...And the other thing he voted against repeal and replace, now he's been campaigning for years for repeal and replace. I'm not a fan. After all of this time, think of this, repeal and replace, we would have had great health care."
In front of crowds, Trump mocked McCain's capture, and called into question whether the Arizona senator was even a hero, something that Americans have unfortunately gotten used to.