Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the closing of Auschwitz, the concentration camp in which Hitler’s minions killed more than a million Jews during WWII. On the news last night, survivors told their stories, and they made me think of other prisons and the people who were subjected to beatings, torture and murder by their fellow human beings.
My father was a British POW for 5 years in Germany during WWII. He was not in a concentration camp, thank goodness. He was captured at Dunkirk, force marched through Germany (during which many of his fellow soldiers died), and held captive in three different East German prisons. Why three? Because he felt it was his duty to escape, which he did, twice. But each time he was recaptured and, I’m sure, punished severely and sent to a different stalag. As the war ended, the guards fled and left the prison gates open, and he was able to make his way back across Germany and France to England
A few months ago, I visited Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison, which is now a museum. It reminded me of my dad’s imprisonment and that we must be constantly on guard against the wars, hatred and divisiveness that causes such inhumane treatment of others.
Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French from 1886-1889 and 1898-1901 to hold mainly Vietnamese political prisoners agitating for independence during the French occupation of Vietnam when the country was part of French Indochina. The prison’s name can be translated as “fiery furnace,” Hell’s hole,” or “stove” because on the same-named street outside its walls in pre-colonial times could be found a concentration of stores selling wood and coal-fire stoves.
Originally built in Hanoi’s French Quarter to hold 460 prisoners, it was renovated in 1913 to hold 600. But it was nevertheless often overcrowded, holding 730 by 1916, 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954, it held more than 2,000 people in subhuman conditions and had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation. Some of those prisoners were women—300 at one count—held in a separate stockade measuring 270 square meters. One display extolls the bravery of these women as they “organized schools to propagate politics and culture in order to improve their ability to fight and make contributions to the revolution.”
The prison also exemplified the bitterness of the Vietnamese who were subject to torture and execution. The French called the prison Maison Centrale (Central House), which is still the designation for prisons in France that hold dangerous or long-sentence detainees.
During the 1910s through 1930s, street peddlers passed messages in through the jail’s windows, and tossed tobacco and opium over the walls. Letters and packets would be thrown out to the street in the opposite direction. Many of the future leading figures in Communist North Vietnam spent time in Maison Centrale during the 1930s and ‘40s.
Following defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords, the French left Hanoi, and authority for the prison passed to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The building served as an education center for revolutionary doctrine and activity, and was kept around to mark its historical significance to the North Vietnamese.
The Vietnam/American War
Americans refer to it as the Vietnam war. Vietnamese call it the American war. Whatever it’s called, Hoa Lo was used to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods—such as rope bindings, leg irons, beatings and prolonged solitary confinement—were employed, according to prisoners of war released from this and other North Vietnamese prisons during the Johnson administration circa 1969.
During 1969, Vietnamese officials broadcast a series of coerced statements from American prisoners that supported the notion that American prisoners were treated well. A photo of a smiling John McCain (imprisoned from 1967-1973) stands out on one wall as does another photo of smiling American prisoners playing basketball.
In the museum today, atrocities perpetrated by the French on the Vietnamese are cruelly depicted, while other exhibits show the “fun” that American prisoners had there. Of course, that was not the case, and some POW’s sarcastically nicknamed the place the “Hanoi Hilton.” A pilot named Bob Shumaker was the first to write it down, carving “Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton” on the handle of a pail to greet the arrival of Air Force Lt. Robert Peel. Vietnamese officials used the nickname to show that Americans thought of the prison as a hotel.
After the war, the Vietnamese government adopted the position that no prisoners were tortured during the war and that claims were fabricated, but that Vietnam wanted to move past the issue and establish better relations with the U.S. However, eyewitness accounts by American servicemen present a different account of their captivity. USAF fighter pilot and POW from 1965 to 1973 and senior ranking POW Robinson Risner wrote the book, Passing of the Night, which detailed his seven years at the Hanoi Hilton. His book and those by McCain (Faith of My Fathers) and dozens of others depicted Hoa Lo and the other prisons as places where murder, beatings, broken bones, teeth and eardrums, dislocated limbs, starvation, serving of food contaminated with human and animal feces, and medical neglect of infections and tropical disease occurred.
Two U.S. Air Force officers, Charles Tanner and Ross Terry, rather than face torture, concocted a story about two other members of their squadron who had been court-martialed for refusing to fly missions against the north. Thrilled with this piece of propaganda, the Vietnamese told the story to visiting Japanese Communists, and it filtered back to the U.S. Unfortunately for Tanner and Terry, they had called their imaginary pilots Clark Kent and Ben Casey (TV icons). When the Vietnamese realized they had been made fools of, the two prisoners were tortured.
The final prisoners were not released until 1973, some having been held since 1964. After the implementation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, neither the U.S. nor its allies ever formally charged North Vietnam with the war crimes committed there.
Despite pleas from war veterans and party members, the prison site was sold to a Singapore-Vietnamese joint venture and turned into a hotel and shopping complex. But as part of the deal, the developers had to leave a portion of the prison for use as a museum. Displays mainly show the prison during the French colonial period, including the guillotine room, and quarters for male and female Vietnamese political prisoners. Propaganda displays for American POWs show them playing chess, shooting pool, gardening, raising chickens and receiving large fish and eggs for food.
One display listing “Camp Regulations” starts out by stating, “American servicemen participating in the war of aggression by U.S. administration in Vietnam and caught in the act while perpetrating barbarous crimes against the Vietnamese land and people, should have been duly punished according to their criminal acts, but the Government and people of Vietnam, endowed with noble and humanitarian traditions, have given those captured American servicemen the opportunity to benefit a lenient and generous policy by affording them a normal life in the detention camps as practical conditions of Viet-Nam permit it and conforming to the situation in which the war is still on.” (I have reprinted this statement and the following regulations exactly as originally written)
It continues, “Detainees are to observe and carry out the following regulations of the camp:
I- Detainees must strictly obey orders and follow instructions given them by Vietnamese officers and armymen on duty in the camp.
II- Detainees must be polite towards every Vietnamese in the camp.
III- Inside the detention rooms, as well as outside when allowed, detainees must not make noise or create noise. Quarrel and fighting between detainees are forbidden. In time of rest, total silence is imposed.
IV- Detainees must not bring back to detention room any object whatsoever without the camp authorities permit it.
V- In case of sickness or sign of sickness is felt, detainees must immediately inform the camp for the medical officer to check and cure.
VI- Detainees must assure hygiene of the camp, take care of personal items provided by the camp as well as of any other thing for collective use.
VII- In case of air alarm, detainees must keep order and silence, and follow the camp regulations on security.
VIII- In need of something, detainees should address themselves to Vietnamese armymen standing nearby by announcing two words “BAO CAO” (means “report”), and should wait if no English-speaking people was available yet.
IX- In the detention rooms, every detainees are equal with each other. Anyone does have the right to free thinking, feeling, preying (sic.) etc… and no one is permitted to coerce any other into following his own opinion.
X- Violation of the regulations shall be punished.”
Many exhibits at the museum brought back memories of my father’s imprisonment in Germany, especially the remnant of an underground sewer, which was used by Vietnamese prisoners to escape. My dad told me how he and his buddies would leave the stalag through the sewer under the toilets, kill a pig for food, eat, and return before they were missed. It was the only way they could get any nourishing food.
I can only imagine the horrors that prisoners, both Vietnamese and American, suffered at the hands of their captors. Visiting former prisons such as Hoa Lo, and actually standing in the places where these atrocities took place makes me determined to fight the cruelty that human beings seem willing to exert upon each other.