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A most unlikely McCain supporter

Although Tran Trong Duyet hasn’t seen Senator John McCain for nearly 35 years, he says he’d vote for him if he could. The 75-year-old met McCain during the former Navy pilot’s incarceration in Hanoi as a prisoner of war. Duyet was McCain’s jailer. In an interview with the BBC, he called the Arizona senator a “friend” but admitted he didn’t know how McCain might react if they met again. Duyet, who ran the Hoa Lo prison—the Hanoi Hilton—recalled having frank, informal talks with McCain about the war and remembered him as “very conservative, and very loyal to his country and the American ideal.”

While Duyet praised McCain, especially for the senator’s key role in rapprochement between the former adversaries, he denies McCain—or any of the American POWs under his control—was ever tortured. “I can confirm to you,” he told the BBC, “that we never tortured him. We never tortured any prisoners. But I can somehow sympathize with him. He lies to American voters in order to get their support,” Duyet said.

Shot down in 1967 and held captive for five years, McCain has described months of solitary confinement and torture. Orson Swindle, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who was imprisoned with McCain, told the Associated Press Duyet “has no credibility on every utterance he makes…I’ve got friends that died up there from torture.”

Bush praises Vietnam prime minister on POW and MIA action

During an historic meeting in the White House between President George Bush and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung that focused primarily on the present and future relations between the United States and Vietnam, the difficult past did come up. Addressing reporters in the Oval Office, Bush said: “We had a good dialogue. We talked about economic cooperation. We talked about educational cooperation. We talked about the need to work together on the environment. I thanked the prime minister for his work on accounting for the POWs and MIAs.” The president added, “Our relationship with Vietnam is getting closer, in a spirit of respect.” In his comments, Prime Minister Dung said: “Both sides also agreed to strengthen cooperation to address humanitarian issues left over by the war, such as the American MIA issue, mine-clearing, remediation of the Agent Orange consequences, the Vietnamese MIA issue.”

Dung is Vietnam’s third high-ranking leader to visit Washington since relations were normalized in 1995, two decades after the Vietnam War ended. In the last decade economic ties have strengthened and the United States has become a leading trade and investment partner of Vietnam. According to U.S. government figures, trade between the countries topped $12 billion in 2007, an increase of 34 percent from 2006.

After meeting at the White House, Dung paid a visit to the Pentagon, where he conferred with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about closer military cooperation between the former enemies. Dung is the highest-level Vietnamese official to visit the Pentagon since the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the fall of South Vietnam.

With more than 400,000 active troops and a reserve force of 4 million, Vietnam has one of the largest armies in the world.

Swift Boat: Will it be a noun or a verb?

Anticipation is running high this political season about the next “swift boat” attack. Campaigns at all levels prepare for rapid responses to these strikes against their candidates. The term “swift boat” became synonymous with an act of political smear in 2004 when Vietnam veteran John Kerry’s presidential bid was seriously undermined by accusations and controversy about his Vietnam service as a swift boat commander.

Nearly four years later, the controversy continues. In November Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens offered to pay $1 million to anyone who could disprove a single claim made against Kerry in 2004 by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In June a group of veterans who served with Kerry in Vietnam sent Pickens a letter and documents that they say disprove claims that Kerry’s Navy service was anything less than exemplary. Pickens refused to pay on his challenge, and suggested that Kerry’s swift boat colleagues take up their disagreement with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Before 2004, a swift boat was nothing more than a Patrol Craft Fast (PCF), the 50- foot aluminum boat manned by an officer, five enlisted men and a Vietnamese interpreter. Swift boats were part of the “brown water navy” that patrolled the shallow waters near shores where the North Vietnamese were sending small craft filled with munitions and supplies. Swift boat crews conducted some of the most harrowing missions of the war.

According to the Swift Boat Sailors Association, about 3,600 men served aboard swift boats in Vietnam, 600 officers and 3,000 enlisted. Larry Wasikowski, who runs the Web site, said of the controversy in an interview with the New York Times: “It’s taken on a life of its own. The problem is, it’s on the wrong side. We would like to be remembered as the one operation in Vietnam that succeeded, totally.”

Montreal monuments unveiled

Montreal’s Vietnamese community recently unveiled two monuments commemorating the millions of Vietnamese who died in the 1954-75 war in Vietnam. Former ARVN combat medic Quang-Tien Le attended the ceremony in uniform. Now a family doctor, Le said he was taken as a prisoner of war when Saigon fell and was incarcerated for two years. He managed to flee to Japan, and moved to Canada with his family in 1983. Some 40,000 Vietnamese live in Montreal. Le said, “It is very important to remember the people who died for the liberty of our Vietnamese nation.”

Texas memorial in the works

More than 500,000 Texans served in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, and those veterans may soon have a new monument honoring their service. Plans are in the works to build an elaborate memorial for Texas Vietnam veterans on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin. The Texas Capital Vietnam Monument Committee wants to erect a memorial with life-size soldiers that would include five infantrymen—a Native American, Hispanic, white, African American—and a South Vietnamese Marine. It would be one of a few memorials to include a soldier from Vietnam. Vietnam veteran Al Erwin is pleased with the support the group and veterans are now getting. “When we came home,” he said, “what you did was forget about it.” But now Erwin says he and his fellow soldiers are being honored. “We learned a lot of hard and bitter lessons in Vietnam that were very painful to all of us. One of those is don’t confuse the soldier with the war, and don’t confuse the soldier with the political movement that started the war.”


Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.