Grizzled veteran ensures history lives on

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 1997, 12:00am

Amid the sharp-suited diplomats and gleaming white Chevrolet limousines at Hanoi's Noi Bai airport for the arrival of Mr Peterson, war veteran Mai Van On ensured history was not swept aside.

In revolutionary tunic and cap, 80-year-old Mr On flung his arms around Mr Peterson to welcome him to Vietnam - a bright spot in a day subdued by diplomatic protocol.

'Welcome . . . It's good to see you . . . You still look so strong,' Mr On said before Mr Peterson was whisked away by aides.

'You're looking strong too. I'll say hello to Mr McCain for you,' Mr Peterson replied.

Mr On is well known by American war veterans resident in Vietnam as the ageing revolutionary who dived into Hanoi's Truc Bac lake to rescue John McCain, now a leading Republican senator, after his plane was shot down during the Christmas bombing at the height of the war.

Senator McCain and Mr Peterson both spent time as prisoners of war in Hanoi's vast network of jails for captured American pilots. Both men have worked in recent years to forge new ties with their former enemy, providing crucial support to controversial calls for normalisation with Hanoi.

'It's good that a veteran like Mr Peterson can return as a friend . . . We must not forget what happened, but we must let bygones be bygones,' Mr On said as he waited for Mr Peterson to arrive.

'The war is over,' he said. 'We should look closely at America now, they are so talented, they have knowledge. We need their help.' Mr On joined Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary Viet Minh brigade in 1945 as it stepped up its battle against France's continued colonial rule.

He returned to Hanoi from the jungles of the south in the early 1960s, moving into a house on the strategic Truc Bac lake to guard crucial stores.

He remains in the same house today, frequently entertaining visitors and showing the statue immortalising his efforts to rescue the badly injured Senator McCain, who has returned to Hanoi several times.