We hear a lot about John McCain’s military record. Most often we are hearing about it from John McCain, unless Sarah Palin is telling us how much he doesn’t like to talk about it.
Apparently there is one part he doesn’t like to talk about, and that’s how he was saved from drowning and being beaten to death by Mr. Mai Van On.
On October 26, 1967, Mai Van On ran from the safety of a bomb shelter at the height of an air raid and swam out into the lake where Lieutenant Commander McCain was drowning, tangled in his parachute cord after ejecting when his Skyhawk bomber was hit by a missile.
In an extraordinary act of compassion at a time when Vietnamese citizens were being killed by US aerial bombardments, he pulled a barely conscious McCain to the lake surface and, with the help of a neighbour, dragged him towards the shore. And when a furious mob at the water’s edge began to beat and stab the captured pilot, Mr On drove them back.
Chuck Searcy is a Vietnam War veteran in charge of the Vietnam Veteran War Memorial Fund, and he was given Mr. On’s letter in 1995.
I thought it was endearing. I sent the letter to McCain’s office and I got back a sniffy response from some assistant saying, ‘Mr McCain isn’t interested in these fanciful stories’.
After Mr. On was confirmed as the man who saved John McCain’s life, McCain was reunited with him in 1996. After Mr. On finished retelling the story of that day, McCain just nodded, said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and gave Mr On a small Senate seal. “It was the kind of thing you buy in the souvenir shop in the Senate basement,” said Mr. Searcy. “But Mr On, to the day he died, treated it as if it were a Congressional Medal of Honour.”
From that brief encounter to his death at the age of 88 two years ago, Mr On never heard from the senator again, and three years after their meeting, McCain published an autobiography that makes no mention of his apparent debt to Mr On.
It is a snub Mr On took to his death.
His widow, Bui Thi Lien, 71, said: “In his last years, my husband was very sad sometimes. He would say, ‘Mr McCain has forgotten me.”
Three years after the meeting, John McCain wrote his autobiography, The Faith of My Fathers. He omitted Mr. On’s rescue from it, but rather substituted his own Rambo version in its place:
When I came to, I was being hauled ashore on two bamboo poles. A crowd of several hundred Vietnamese gathered around me as I lay dazed before them, shouting wildly at me, stripping my clothes off, spitting on me, kicking and striking me repeatedly.
That makes for better Hollywood when you are a presidential wannabe, but it doesn’t stand up to reality. Mr. McCain would continue on this path of betrayal in his neverending quest to play his role in Vietnam into personal power at the expense of Mr. On.
In 2000, McCain, by then a presidential candidate, visited the lake that almost claimed his life.
“His entourage was outside our house but Mr McCain just passed by,” said Mr On’s widow, who insists she bears no grudge.
Theft of Valor takes many forms, Senator McCain. Your actions stole the valor of the man who saved your life, and diminished whatever valor you could have hoped to lay claim to.