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One Minnesotan got to know the late Senator John McCain the hard way, over more than five years of mutual confinement as fellow POWs during the Vietnam War. Naval flight officer David Wheat of Duluth had already been at the Hanoi Hilton for two years by the time McCain checked in.
But Wheat told the Duluth News Tribune the two men soon became acquainted through the prisoners’ make-shift communications system.
There were large cell blocks in the prison and McCain was in a cell perpendicular to Wheat’s cell. The POWs maintained silent communication with each other, using one hand to signal letters and numbers through windows high up in the walls.
“I would get up on top of one of my big guys’ shoulders and I could look out the corner window across at their corner window and there’s John McCain over there. We were on the communications team and we communicated that way, silently. We communicated face to face for six, eight months, something like that. Never lived in a cell situation directly with him, but we all knew who he was, of course, and he was just another one of us,” said Wheat, who also met McCain’s father, a four-star admiral in the Navy, during his time in the military.
Wheat and his fellow POWs admired McCain for refusing the North Vietnamese’s offer of special treatment, due to his father’s military position. He kept up with McCain at POW reunions over the years and supported his old prison-mate’s 2008 campaign to become president.
“I look at him as being a very devoted, honest individual. He didn’t agree with everybody … but he did what he, in his own mind, thought was the best answer, the best result. I think by making one of the largest efforts you can ever make — and that’s running for president of the United States — he lived by the code of honor that we had, that we practiced over there: Nobody’s going to go home early unless they’re dragged out of there or they have permission from the senior ranking officer there,” Wheat said.
For Wheat, McCain’s 2008 campaign catchphrase was more than a slogan, but a way of life: “Country First.”
“Sorry he didn’t go all the way, but he’s a good man and he puts country first over everything,” Wheat said. “He’s always good for a joke or a smile, always a cheerful atmosphere.”