Campaign 2008: Hanoi's Adopted Favorite Son

John McCain might not recognize Nguyen van Sy, but they used to be neighbors. Back in the 1960s, Sy was left behind as caretaker at the North Vietnamese Ministry of Culture's Film Institute after its staff was evacuated to the countryside to escape the U.S. bombing. The Hanoi regime converted part of the abandoned facility into a POW camp—"the Plantation," inmates called it—and the 31-year-old Navy pilot was taken there a few weeks after he was shot down over Hanoi in October 1967. Sometimes Sy climbed a tree for a peek at the prisoners. At night the caretaker huddled by the camp's wall while the city was being pounded: the Americans would never target their own men, he figured. Four decades later, Sy has a clear favorite in this year's U.S. presidential contest. "We hope McCain wins," says the 62-year-old Vietnamese. "He remembers us and will do good things for Vietnam."

Just about everyone in Vietnam agrees. They all know who McCain is, and no one seems to hold a grudge about the 23 bombing missions he flew against targets in and around Hanoi. That goes for ordinary Vietnamese, senior bureaucrats and people who met him during his captivity—the district nurse who may have saved his life after he was shot down, and the hard-line military officer who was his chief jailer for more than five years at the Plantation and the notorious Hanoi Hilton. They like the way McCain pushed Washington to normalize relations in the 1990s and the way trade has mushroomed from $1.5 billion in 2001 to $12 billion last year, and they believe he'll help them even more if he wins. It's a far cry from the day McCain parachuted from his disintegrating jet and was severely beaten and stripped to his underwear by the mob that pulled him from Truc Bach Lake.

The wail of air-raid sirens and the thunder of antiaircraft fire brought district nurse Nguyen Thi Thanh running. She expected to find casualties from another U.S. bombing run, she tells NEWSWEEK—but instead she saw "the face of the enemy." McCain mentions her in his book "Faith of My Fathers"—a woman "who began yelling at the crowd, and managed to dissuade them from further harming me" and then gave him first aid. Thanh told the mob to back off, poured two spoonfuls of antibiotics into McCain's mouth and put bandages and bamboo splints on his right arm and shattered right knee (his left arm was also broken) before he was hauled away to the Hanoi Hilton.

Today the 81-year-old grandmother lives beside a fetid canal in Hanoi. Like many other Vietnamese, she says McCain owes his life to his captors. "We shot him down but saved him, gave him clemency, released him and reunited him with his family," she says, adding, "I really hope he is elected." But win or lose, she's glad she helped him. After all, she says, "Uncle Ho taught us to treat the enemy humanely."

And what would Ho Chi Minh say to Tran Trong Duyet? The retired prison director, 75, says he too is rooting for the former POW ("an old friend of mine") and bristles at any mention of the graphic accounts given by McCain and other POWs of the abusive, humiliating and cruel treatment they endured in North Vietnamese prisons. "I totally refute any accusation of abuse or torture of the prisoners," Duyet tells NEWSWEEK at his mango-shaded house in Haiphong. He pulls out a stack of aging black-and-white photos of himself sipping tea with Americans in loose-fitting prison garb, and shows others of him addressing POWs at the Hanoi Hilton. "Look," he insists. "There is no hatred, and only camaraderie in these photos … I entirely reject Mr. McCain's and others' accusations that we mistreated or tortured them. No other people on this earth have ever treated prisoners better than we did."

Certainly not as he tells it. "I never had the POWs interrogated," Duyet asserts. "We already knew their targets and tactics from the maps, pictures and other documents we captured from their aircraft." His liaison officers were in daily contact with the prisoners—not to browbeat them, but to relay the POWs' difficulties and requests to him. In Duyet's telling, he and McCain were practically a debating society. "We had strong discussions," Duyet says. "He didn't agree with my assertion that U.S. intervention was wrong and an infringement on our internal affairs. But I didn't try to impose my contrary ideas on him." Duyet says he came to like McCain. "He had a very determined character, held strongly conservative ideas and was very loyal to the military and government of his country," the jailer says. "If I were an American, I'd vote for McCain."

Duyet's story is disputed by one of his former colleagues. McCain was among the roughly 200 American POWs Bui Tin says he interviewed between 1964 and 1973 for Hanoi's propaganda machine, and Tin says there was plenty of cruel treatment in Hanoi's prisons. "If the pilots agreed to sign a confession that Hanoi was right and their [the pilots'] actions were wrong and criminal, then they could live together with other prisoners," Tin says. "If not, they were kept in solitary until they agreed to cooperate." McCain spent two years in solitary confinement. Tin says Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale was one of the few who didn't crack. He was held for months in a fetid latrine in which he could neither stand up nor lie down, Tin says.

Still, Tin claims the abuse stopped short of systematic torture. "The prison authorities were authorized to slap [the POWs] around if they didn't speak the truth under interrogation," Tin says. "Slapping them hard was permitted, but no punching." Someone evidently forgot to tell McCain's interrogators. His refusal to cooperate resulted in a series of beatings over several days in 1968, ending with two broken teeth, several cracked ribs and his left arm broken again. He tried to hang himself, but guards cut him down. Nevertheless, he says he was treated more leniently than other prisoners. "My captors were more careful not to permanently injure or disfigure me than they were with the other prisoners," he writes. As the son of a U.S. admiral, he was considered too valuable a propaganda asset. He was finally freed along with his fellow POWs in 1973 under the Paris Peace Accords.

McCain and his aides declined to comment on the stories told by Duyet and other Vietnamese who say they met him during the war. The senator doesn't like to talk about his experience as a POW. "It's over," he once told a reporter. But he's returned to Vietnam at least 10 times since the war ended. His aide Mark Salter recalls a dinner with Vietnamese officials where one of them approached Salter and gestured to another man seated nearby, saying the man claimed to have been one of McCain's prison guards. Unsure how his boss would react, Salter hesitated before whispering the news in McCain's ear. Salter says the senator looked over and studied the man. "Don't recognize him," McCain said, and turned back to his meal.

Most of the Hanoi Hilton was razed in 1993, and only a sliver of it has been preserved as a tourist attraction. McCain's helmet, oxygen mask and a flight suit (he denies they're his) are on display. A concrete monument stands beside the lake, depicting an American pilot, hands raised in surrender. A plaque misspells McCain's name and lists his branch of service as the Air Force. According to one Hanoi official who is not authorized to speak to the press, Vietnam's leaders are pondering what to do with it if McCain wins: destroy it, give it to him as a peace offering or replace the plaque with something more tasteful? Asked if McCain would accept the plaque as a gesture from the Vietnamese government, an aide shrugs. "It's a concrete block," he says. "What's he going to do with it?"