Duluth resident David Wheat crossed paths with U.S. Sen. John McCain over the years, beginning when they were prisoners of war in the "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War.
"We were shot down, both of us, in the month of October, except I was two years ahead of him," said Wheat, a retired U.S. Navy commander.
McCain, who was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, died Saturday at the age of 81. He spent more than five years imprisoned at the "Hanoi Hilton" in North Vietnam, where Wheat spent more than seven years as a POW before coming home to Duluth in 1973. Wheat said he respected McCain, who served in Congress for 35 years.
"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.
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.
Their paths crossed again in 1979 aboard an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, when McCain was working as a military liaison for politicians in Washington, D.C.
"He showed up on board the carrier Ranger, which I was stationed on, with a delegation so I ran into him halfway around the world," Wheat said.
McCain would attend the Vietnam War POW reunions and they'd get a chance to talk with him. When McCain ran for president in 2008, Wheat was in the the POW group who attended the Republican National Convention and had a private meeting with him during the convention, Wheat said.
"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."