HANOI, Vietnam -- Sen. John McCain's Vietnamese jailer said he respected his former inmate and felt sad about his death, as others in Vietnam paid their respects to the former U.S. Navy pilot.
McCain's Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and he was taken prisoner and held in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison for more than five years. He later was instrumental in bringing the wartime foes together, and the prison was demolished in the 1990s. Only the gatehouse now remains as a museum; the site is now the home of a high-end hotel and office complex where Vietnamese sip cappuccinos and shop for U.S.-branded golf equipment.
Former Col. Tran Trong Duyet, who ran the prison at the time, said he met with McCain many times while he was confined there.
"At that time I liked him personally for his toughness and strong stance," he told the newspaper Vietnam News, published by the official Vietnam News Agency.
"Later on when he became a U.S. senator, he and Sen. John Kerry greatly contributed to promote Vietnam-U.S. relations, so I was very fond of him," Vietnam News quoted Duyet as saying Sunday. "When I learnt about his death early this morning, I feel very sad. I would like to send condolences to his family. I think it's the same feeling for all Vietnamese people as he has greatly contributed to the development of Vietnam-U.S. relations."
In a later phone interview, Duyet denied that McCain was mistreated as a POW, and said the two spoke often.
"I thought that if the war ends, he would become a great politician," Duyet said.
McCain died of brain cancer at age 81 in his home state of Arizona on Saturday, about an hour after the sun rose in Vietnam on Sunday.
Scores of people in Hanoi paid their respects to McCain at the U.S. Embassy and at a monument to McCain by Truc Bach Lake, where he landed after parachuting from his damaged plane.
Speaking to reporters after writing in a book of condolences, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink said McCain was "a great leader and real hero" who helped normalize relations between the former enemies.
"He was a warrior, he was also a peacemaker and of course he fought and suffered during the Vietnam War, but then later as a senator, he was one of the leaders who helped bring our countries back together and helped the United States and Vietnam normalize our relationship and now become partners and friends," Kritenbrink said.
The bipartisan support from McCain and then-Sen. Kerry helped President Bill Clinton to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995.
"Because of John McCain, the U.S. and Vietnam were able to reconnect," said Adam Sitkoff, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi. The investment and trade that followed helped transform the Southeast Asian nation.
"In the past two decades, the per-capita income of Vietnamese has more than quadrupled," Sitkoff said. "It's a big part of his legacy."
In the decades after the conflict, McCain was relentless in pushing the U.S. government to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with its former enemy: The embassy said he made 23 trips to Vietnam. Though a critic of the nation's one-party system and human-rights record, McCain nonetheless sought closer ties and became a popular figure for many in the country.
"Landed in #Hanoi, where people always greet me in the most incredibly friendly manner," McCain tweeted on Aug. 7, 2014.
The two countries have gradually strengthened military ties, with Vietnam calling for greater U.S. engagement in the region to balance the increasing influence of China, which shares a border with Vietnam and has built facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea.
In March, Vietnam welcomed the USS Carl Vinson to the city of Danang, the first visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Vietnam viewed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as key to building closer economic ties with the U.S. and reducing its reliance on China, its largest trading partner. President Donald Trump withdrew from the pact shortly after taking office.
Hoang Manh Cuong, 60, recalled running to Truc Bach Lake in 1967 when news spread that the American pilot had been captured there. On Monday morning, he bowed and prayed at the concrete monument to McCain, which residents have turned into a makeshift shrine with flowers and incense.
"Although he was once our enemy, he did a lot to help restore relations between the U.S. and Vietnam," Cuong said. "That helped open the economy and improved our lives dramatically. We owe him for that."
The Vietnam News Agency said Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan sent messages of condolence to McCain's family and U.S. Senate leaders, while Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh paid respects to McCain at the embassy.
Pham Gia Minh, a 62-year-old businessman who signed the condolence book at the embassy, said he witnessed Vietnamese civilians being killed by the U.S. bombings of North Vietnam, including the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, but he still admired McCain.
"War is losses and suffering," he said. "But the will of a brave nation is to go beyond that to look to the future. The Vietnamese people have that will and Mr. John McCain has that will. ... We both have that will to overcome the painful past, overcome the misunderstanding to together build a brighter future."
Information for this article was contributed by Tran Van Minh of The Associated Press; and by John Boudreau, Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen, Mai Ngoc Chau and Nguyen Kieu Giang of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 08/28/2018
Print Headline: McCain's war jailer, others in Vietnam voice respect for him