November 09, 1992 12:00 PM

AT FIRST GLANCE THE BLACK-AND-WHITE photograph, of men in water up to their shoulders, looks as if it might have been taken at a swimming party. John McCain stares at it for a long moment and then sets it on the table beside his chair at his weekend home near Cottonwood, Ariz. “I only remember it vaguely, because I was pretty dazed,” says McCain, 56, the Republican junior Senator from Arizona. “What it reminds me of is how much pain I was in at the time.”

The photograph was taken 25 years ago, minutes after McCain’s Navy jet was shot down over Hanoi. It shows an injured McCain being rescued in Hanoi’s Western Lake by North Vietnamese. It is also one of 4,800 wartime photographs the Vietnamese government turned over to an American delegation in Hanoi just two weeks ago. The snapshots—of subjects including battlefield dead, prisoners of war and the wreckage of downed American aircraft—give new hope that the fate of 2,265 U.S. troops still officially missing in Southeast Asia may finally be determined. “There is far more important material to come,” says retired general John Vessey Jr., who advises President Bush on MIA-POW affairs. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Western intelligence analysts have known for years that the Vietnamese exhaustively photographed their side of the war. But it wasn’t until recently that the Pentagon learned that Hanoi maintained enormous archives of helmets, ID cards, letters and other personal papers found on Americans killed in action. Even so, no one was more surprised than McCain, who spent 5½ years in POW camps, when a Vietnamese colonel pulled him aside during his recent trip to Hanoi.

“We have found these pictures and think you might be interested,” the colonel told McCain. He handed the Senator an envelope with five photos inside—all of McCain in captivity. Three show him lying in primitive hospital beds. (Among other injuries, his right leg and both arms were broken when he crashed.) “The wonderful thing about pain is that you forget it,” McCain says. “But this picture reminds me of what I went through.”

The existence of the 4,800 pictures was discovered by a former United Nations relief worker, Ted Schweitzer, 50, last winter. He had been hired by the Vietnamese government to write a book on the war, but after multiple rejections from New York publishers he turned over the information he had uncovered to the Pentagon. Three weeks ago, Hanoi and Washington quietly began talking about releasing the material. Until then, the Vietnamese had stonewalled the Americans, refusing to release more information on MIAs, insisting that military files were off limits to foreign eyes. Hanoi’s willingness to negotiate was seen as a breakthrough in itself. “I believe the Vietnamese are desperate for economic assistance,” McCain says. And, no doubt, diplomatic recognition.

In mid-October, Hanoi finally agreed to let the U.S. see its war archives. President Bush quickly sent a delegation to Vietnam to formalize the deal. Vessey was chosen to head the group, but McCain was its star. “The Vietnamese have tremendous respect for Senator McCain—a respect that transcends country and culture,” explained the President. “Senator McCain was critical to the mission.”

McCain is something of a war-era celebrity in Vietnam. I here is a statue of him on the shore of Hanoi’s Western Lake, where his A-4 Skyhawk dive-bomber crashed on Oct. 26, 1967. “It’s about 5 feet or 6 feet tall. It says USAF, which is the greatest insult of all, because I was in the Navy,” McCain says. “In the center there’s a carving of a pilot on his knees with his hands in the air.” It is also a local attraction. “I’ve gotten letters from Vietnamese who claim to have pulled me from the lake,” he says. He doesn’t know whether to believe them. “I’ve been told by Vietnamese that there are several thousand men who claim credit for it. It’s like Roger Maris hitting his 61st home run. Everybody saw it.

His status in Vietnam is something of a mystery to him. “I can’t explain it,” he says. “All I know is that when I walk down the street, people point and stare and shout, “Mack-cane! Mack-cane!’ ” He discovered that he was a local hero in 1985, when he returned with Walter Cronkite for a television special on the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. “I told Cronkite that this was the only place in the world where we could go where I was more recognized than he was,” McCain jokes.

He returned to Vietnam in 1991 on an MIA mission, which was not nearly as fruitful as the one he made last month. None of the trips have ripped him up emotionally. “It’s not difficult going back,” he says. “It’s just kind of depressing. Their economy is so bad and the people are so poor.

Vietnamese adulation for McCain never stopped. One reason might be McCain’s family background—his father and grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy. Indeed, when McCain was first captured, the Vietnamese would not give him medical assistance because he refused to answer their questions. But when they learned his father, the late John S. McCain Jr., was a high-ranking officer, they changed their minds.

A few months after McCain’s capture, his father was promoted to commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Hanoi promptly offered to release McCain—for propaganda purposes. McCain refused. “I did it because I thought I could live, even though I was in pretty bad shape,” says McCain, who was often beaten, kept in solitary and existed on a near starvation diet. “And also because our code of conduct clearly says, ‘You do not accept parole.’…I think that made a distinct impression on them.”

McCain was eventually released in 1973 along with 590 other POWs, including Ross Perot’s running mate, Adm. James Stockdale. McCain’s incarceration took its toll on his marriage. He and his first wife, Carol, who have three children, were divorced in 1980. He has since remarried. He and his second wife, Cindy, 38, had three children—Meghan, Jack and Jimmy—and adopted two others—Cari and Bridget.

Until recently, McCain’s political prospects seemed limitless. He served two terms as a Representative from Phoenix and in 1986 was overwhelmingly elected to succeed Barry Gold-water, who was retiring as Senator. Then, in 1989, McCain was named as one of five Senators accused of misusing their influence on behalf of corrupt savings-and-loan executive Charles Keating. Although McCain was essentially cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee, he is no longer mentioned as a possible candidate for higher office. However, he is expected to be reelected to the Senate this week.

As for the new evidence from Vietnam, the first 4,800 photographs may lead to the identification of only a small number of dead servicemen. Most of the photos are either duplicates or of servicemen previously accounted for. Even so, MIA groups were pleased, and the few families receiving new information were comforted—although it meant seeing pictures of dead loved ones. “We know now, for sure, that [my father] is dead,” Cindy McClanahan, daughter of Joseph Morrison, an Air Force pilot who disappeared in 1968, told ABC News. “And that is…that is a relief.” It is also a beginning. “These archives should go a long way toward resolving the POW-MIA issue,” McCain says. “And they should end this terrible nightmare for so man) American families.”


JOHNNY DODD in Cottonwood and ROCHELLE JONES in Washington, D.C.

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