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McCain's time as POW and senator marked in Hanoi

  • Story Highlights
  • McCain's time in Vietnam marked at Hanoi Hilton and where he was captured
  • A portion of the Hoa Lo prison has been preserved and turned into a museum
  • McCain's flight suit, helmet and parachute are on display at the museum
  • McCain spent 5 years in the Hanoi Hilton and was released in 1973
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By David de Sola
Special to CNN
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HANOI, Vietnam (CNN) -- Forty years after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam and he was taken prisoner, presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's ordeal is included in a 12-minute biographical video.

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McCain was piloting an A4 Skyhawk on a bombing mission over North Vietnam when he was shot down.

Photographs and footage in the video of his time as a prisoner of war to have never been seen before on American television, a campaign aide said.

A unified Vietnam has capitalized on its American War -- as it calls it -- history and promotes war-related sites throughout the country to tourists.

McCain's time in North Vietnam is marked at two locations in Hanoi which came to define his life and military career.

One of the many French colonial-style buildings in the capital is the Hoa Lo Prison, better-known to most Americans as the "Hanoi Hilton," the infamous detention facility in which American pilots were held as prisoners of war. Most of the original complex was demolished during the 1990s, but a portion of the old prison originally built by the French was preserved and is now a museum.

Although most of the exhibits focus on events from the French period, a museum official estimates that about a fourth of the estimated 200 daily visitors are American tourists who are mostly interested in the two exhibits on American prisoners of war, the most famous of which is the Republican senator from Arizona. Video Watch McCain and Col. Bud Day talk about their experience as POWs »

McCain's flight suit, helmet, and parachute from the night he was shot down are mounted in a display case in the Hoa Lo museum. His picture is mounted on an adjacent wall, along with those of other pilots who were also held there.

None of the footage in the McCain campaign's video is on display at the museum but some of the photographs are, including his POW mug shot and a photograph of McCain being pulled out of a lake by a group of Vietnamese. A caption next to the mug shot notes that he is now a U.S. senator.

The caption next to the lake photo reads in Vietnamese and English, "Hanoi people and soldiers were saving American pilot who parachuted down in Truc Bach Lake in October 1967," but it does not identify McCain by name.

Context and accuracy of the exhibits are often sacrificed to maintain its consistent and unabashed pro-Vietnamese slant.

A few miles from the prison, the serene Truc Bach Lake was where McCain landed after his plane was shot down on the night of October 26, 1967 and he bailed out.

"Everything happened very quickly," McCain said recalling that night while visiting Vietnam in 2000. "I broke both my arms and a leg, and I was dragged ashore and I was beaten."

A stone monument on the shore marks the event. The inscription translated from Vietnamese reads "On 26 October 1967 near the Truc Bach Lake, the Vietnamese people in Hanoi caught [John Sidney McCain]. He was the captain of a group who flew planes in the sky who attacked Hanoi. The number of the plane was A4. The plane fell on Yen Phu power plant. This was one of 10 planes that fell on the same day."

McCain would spend the next 5 years in the Hanoi Hilton until his release on March 14, 1973.

Two decades later, McCain worked towards reconciliation and normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations and investigated the U.S. government's handling of POW issues as a member of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs.

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McCain returned to visit Hoa Lo in April 2000, a photo of which is included in the exhibit.

"I put the Vietnam War behind me a long time ago," McCain said at the time. "But I harbor no anger nor rancor. I'm a better man for my experience, and I'm grateful for having the opportunity of serving." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

David de Sola is a former CNN staffer and a graduate journalism student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California

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