War history for children

Sunday, January 12, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Just a few stark cells are all that remain of the Hoa Lo prison where Lt. Cmdr. John McCain spent three years in captivity during the Vietnam War and where a faded picture of the Navy officer greeted his children during a recent visit.

For three of the senator's children, the eight days in Vietnam were their first to the country where their father was imprisoned for 5 1/2 years. McCain, R-Ariz., said he believes the trip gave them a deeper appreciation of Vietnam -- both the war and the nation itself.

Before the trip, he said, they would ask about what kind of food he ate and the conditions under which he lived there. By the visit's end, they were discussing what caused the war, why the United States was there and why it lost.

"Sometimes it seems a little like reading about ancient history," said McCain. "I think being there they appreciated it more."

McCain, his wife, Cindy, and his children -- 18-year-old Meghan, 16-year-old Jack, 14-year-old Jimmy, and 11-year-old Bridget -- mixed tourist fare with visits to China Beach and Truc Bach Lake, where McCain was captured in 1967. They also saw the Hoa Lo prison -- the Hanoi Hilton, where McCain, both his arms and one leg broken, was detained for three years.

"It's a little unsettling just to walk through that, just because I can't imagine the suffering he must have gone through seeing some of the rooms they had to stay in and the conditions they had," Jack McCain said.

At Truc Bach Lake, where McCain landed after ejecting from his plane in 1967, a crude cement statue depicts McCain being dragged from the water. The inscription notes his capture and misidentifies him as an Air Force pilot.

"It is a great insult. I was in the Navy," said McCain, a third-generation officer in the Navy.

McCain had been back to Vietnam several times since he was released from captivity in 1973, first as a military envoy and later as a congressman.

During a trip in 2000 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the senator nearly caused an international incident by declaring the "wrong guys" had won the war. This time, he had only one official meeting, with Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

But the trip around New Year's, the senator's longest stay in the country, was for the family. But McCain and Jack, who accompanied his parents on the 2000 trip, were struck by Vietnam's transformation.

"He was amazed at how much it had grown," said Jack McCain. "He said every time he came back it just got bigger and bigger and there were more and more people. ... I don't think the country has a grasp of how much Vietnam has changed."

For example, a modern high-rise has been built next to the Hanoi Hilton.

The senator said a visit to China Beach -- an American outpost where troops could take respite from the war -- stuck in his mind.

"Along the beach there are three or four buildings that were obviously built and used by the United States -- a place where you could take a shower and check out a towel or something. They're all crumbling and run-down," he said. It is far different from when he was there as a soldier. "They were bustling and people by the hundreds, servicemen and women, were on the beach and now the beach was deserted. It was kind of eerie."

"I thought it might be nice," McCain said, "to have my children see the country and the place where I spent so much of my time, but also enjoy the attractions of a very beautiful country."

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