McCain's Knife-Wielding Captor Leads Vietnam in Rooting for Him Hans Nichols Wed Aug 20, 11:06 PM ET Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Le Van Lua, the first North Vietnamese that Lieutenant Commander John McCain encountered in 1967, says he greeted the American aviator with the biggest kitchen knife he could find. He'd like to welcome McCain back as president of the United States. He isn't alone. Former prisoner of war McCain has some unlikely supporters in Vietnam, a country he bombed 23 times. Like Le, many Vietnamese are cheering for the self-confessed ``air pirate,'' absolving McCain-the-bomber and embracing the senator who pushed to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995. ``They love the man who looks to the future,'' said Nguyen Dai Phuong, an editor at Tien Phong, a Hanoi daily. ``They don't love the pilot who came to kill their family.'' McCain's role as a ``frontrunner'' in the normalization process has convinced Vietnam's ruling class that his White House would increase bilateral trade, which was about $11 billion last year. Some hold even higher hopes. Tran Trong Duyet, the former warden of Hoa Lo prison, better known as the ``Hanoi Hilton,'' where McCain spent 5 1/2 years, dreams of a free-trade agreement with his country's old capitalist enemy. Many are also convinced that McCain, 71, the Republican candidate for president, will repay them for having shown him ``mercy'' after his mission ended prematurely on Oct. 26, 1967, low in Hanoi's flak-filled skies. `Hands Up!' After the right wing of McCain's A-4 Skyhawk met with a surface-to-air-missile, he parachuted into a tranquil Hanoi lake. Le said he swam toward the Navy pilot. Worried that the American might be armed, he shouted ``hands-up!'' in French. He grabbed McCain by his hair and hoisted him atop two bamboo pontoons, his knife held to the bomber's throat, he said. ``We were once face to face in a very difficult moment, between life and death,'' said Le, then an 18-year-old mechanic. ``We would be good friends if he were sitting in front of me now,'' he said, citing McCain's push for normal ties. Le, joined by a crowd, paddled McCain to the shore. There, ``aggrieved citizens'' were waiting for him, as McCain writes in his memoir ``Faith of My Fathers.'' Moments earlier, he had released his bombs on the capital's Yen Phu power plant. The mob stripped him to his underwear, bayoneted him in the groin and smashed his shoulder with the butt of a rifle, shattering his bone. That added to his busted knee and arm fractures, from when he ejected from the aircraft. Taming the Crowd McCain, an Arizona senator, credits ``a woman, who may have been a nurse'' with yelling at the crowd and taming their anger. She offered him herbal tea and put bamboo splints on his broken bones. Today, that nurse, Nguyen Thi Thanh, says her ``first feeling was to look at him as a patient'' and not the enemy. The woman, now an 81-year-old grandmother of five, is also hoping for a McCain victory, because of the prospect of greater trade, she said in an interview, granted with the government's permission. He will remember that ``he has enjoyed the government's mercy'' and repay the country in kind, she said. McCain has a less charitable view of his years in Hanoi. In his memoir and on the campaign trail, he describes the torture as regular and routine. Eventually, the beatings broke his will. In 1968, he signed a false confession, admitting to being an ``air pirate.'' His signature haunts him to this day, he says. No Grudge Still, he says he bears no grudge against the Vietnamese and led the way, with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, to restoring relations 13 years ago, providing cover for President Bill Clinton from conservatives. He has returned to the Southeast Asian nation almost a dozen times. McCain's efforts were closely watched by some of those who knew him in captivity, including Duyet, 75, the former Hanoi Hilton commander. The retired colonel likes to pretend he could vote for McCain, turning old envelopes from his prison days into make- believe ballots, writing out his preference for McCain. ``I would vote for John McCain,'' Duyet, speaking with the government's permission, said at his home in Haiphong. He denied any torture took place under his watch. `Frankenstein' A McCain victory would lead to closer bilateral ties and possibly a free-trade accord, said the former warden, whose appearance and past job description correspond with a camp commander the American POWs called ```Frankenstein, for his bulging forehead and numerous facial warts,'' according to McCain's book. While McCain has made free trade a key platform of his campaign, Democrat Barack Obama has been more skeptical, pledging to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement and opposing pending deals with Colombia and South Korea. Like other Communist Party officials, Duyet sees no tension between the premium he now places on chasing profit in the global economy and the doctrines upon which a united Vietnam was founded. ``Lenin once said that he would spend a huge amount of money to hire a good capitalist'' to help him run the economy, said Duyet, who still considers himself a communist. The byproducts of capitalism -- and consumerism -- can be seen in Hanoi's traffic knots. Its streets, once the domain of bicycles and motor scooters, are choked with newly purchased sport-utility vehicles. Fake Armanis Electronic stock tickers adorn the front of banks. Much of the old Hanoi Hilton, built by the French colonialists, was demolished to make way for an office park. A small museum remains. Inside, across an exhibit depicting a French guard beating a Vietnamese prisoner, a stall sells fake Armani and Hugo Boss ties. Trade has been embraced by the government as the fastest way to make Vietnam a ``middle-income country,'' said Ayumi Konishi, the Asian Development Bank country director for Vietnam. Vietnam's exports for the first part of this year have increased more than 30 percent. ``It's not at all a communist country,'' Konishi said. Still, some older Vietnamese hold grudges against the American pilots, said Phuong, the newspaper editor. They join with another group, where Obama has strong support, he said. ``The young people, especially the ladies, prefer Obama,'' he said.