A Duluth man who spent years with John McCain in a Vietnamese prison camp joined him again Thursday.
Of the thousands of John McCain supporters at the Xcel Energy Center on Thursday night, David Wheat of Duluth may have one of the deepest connections.
Wheat, 68, spent several years with McCain as a prisoner in North Vietnam, suffering some of the same torture as the man who is one step from the presidency.
"He's one of us," said Wheat, who was one of 24 Vietnam prisoners of war invited by the McCain campaign to be in the crowd for the Republican presidential candidate's nomination acceptance speech.
Wheat, shot down in a Navy fighter jet over North Vietnam in 1965, was a captive for 71/2 years. He believes it is the longest war captivity any Minnesotan has ever endured. Two years later, McCain was shot down and brought to the same prison camp. In time, he got to know the admiral's son; the two would communicate by hand signals through high windows while sitting atop others' shoulders.
Tortured and humiliated and unable to help one another, the prisoners still developed an intense bond, Wheat said. Most endured the torture to postpone the same treatment for others, and learned ultimately to sign personal biographies and other statements that were "nothing but a pack of lies," Wheat added. "But they [their interrogators] didn't know."
Wheat grew up in Duluth and spent 23 years in the Navy, retiring as a commander. He taught industrial arts and for the past eight years has been a bus driver for Minnesota Coaches. If he weren't among the VIPs in the Xcel Center tonight, he said, he would probably be waiting at the steering wheel of a bus outside.
He and McCain have met several times since their releases. On Wednesday McCain spent a few minutes with Wheat and the other POWs at the Minneapolis Convention Center while helping pack relief kits for victims of Hurricane Gustav.
McCain is well-suited to be a presidential candidate, Wheat said.
"He's always had a position where he was serving his country," Wheat said.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646