Duluth man was POW with McCain
BY BRANDON STAHL
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
From the picture window of his Hawk Ridge home overlooking Lake Superior, David Wheat thinks back more than 40 years, when he stood atop another prisoner's shoulders to peer out a barred cell window. For several months Wheat communicated through makeshift sign language with another airman being held in a cell perpendicular to his own.
Next week, Wheat will see that person again in St. Paul as he watches John McCain accept the Republican presidential nomination.
Wheat, 68, and his wife, Ginger, are invited guests of McCain's, and will get a close-up view of the convention, including staying in the same Minneapolis hotel for the entire week as the Arizona senator.
Wheat also happens to be a donor and supporter of McCain's.
In 1967, when the two were being held in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," Wheat remembers McCain was known even then for being a maverick -- though with a different connotation than the one he enjoys now.
"He liked to have fun," Wheat said. "He didn't finish at the bottom of his class for nothing."
Wheat was brought to the prison camp in 1965, two years before McCain became a prisoner there. Wheat was in the back of an F-4 as a radar intercept officer flying his 80th mission when he was shot down. He ejected and tried to hide from his captors, but was eventually found and marched through Hanoi, where he said onlookers spit on him.
Once at the Hilton, Wheat said, he was subjected to frequent torture, including being whipped, while other times his hands would be cuffed behind his back. The metal dug into his bones, he said, to the point that after his hands went to sleep, intense pain would set in.
"You take it as long as you can," he said. "Eventually, you say, 'OK, I'll write.' "
Wheat said his captors wanted him and the other prisoners to provide them with information about their missions, their superior officers and family. Wheat said he would lie, giving them names like Dick Tracy or Clark Kent.
"We hoped that if that got to the outside world, they'd know you were being tortured for answers," he said.
After two men tried to escape, Wheat said, the small brick cell he was kept in with 12 others -- which had no running water and a 5-gallon bucket as a toilet -- was sealed up in the middle of the summer.
"We weren't allowed to bathe," he said. "We had no medical attention. I got boils all over my body."
The prisoners weren't allowed to communicate with airmen outside their cell, but they found ways around that by tapping on walls or using notes or sign language. When Wheat would use sign language with McCain, he said, the two would talk about new camp policies or names of other airmen and where they were being held.
But he never actually talked to him.
"He never lived in the same cell as I did," he said.
After his release, 7½ years after being captured, Wheat said he saw and spoke with McCain a few times at reunions, and most recently they met two years ago when the senator was in Duluth to stump for Gov. Tim Pawlenty during his re-election bid. McCain talked about Wheat in his speech.
"He said something to the effect that I got shot down two years before him and I wasn't as good a pilot," he said.
Wheat, who grew up in Duluth and moved back in 1989, said he's been a supporter of McCain's since 2000, when the senator ran against George W. Bush, in part because McCain was known for reaching across the aisle.
"I don't go along with this hard-line party business at all," he said. "We should all be independent and vote for what's right and wrong."
Asked if McCain has moved more to the right to hit his base, Wheat acknowledged that he has, but that hasn't dampened his support.
"I see that only because, so much now, you have to say what people want to hear to get the votes. That's true of any candidate," he said. "But do you want a guy in there who has military experience and congressional experience, or do you want a guy that has no experience?
"Know who does have the experience? John McCain."