The Hoa Lo prison was completed by the French in the 1890s when they ruled Vietnam as a colonial power and Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. The city block-sized structure, called Maison Centrale, held up to 2,000 Vietnamese political prisoners in squalid conditions. After the French departed in 1954, it would be re-opened as a prison in 1965 to hold American POWs—until March 1973. Located in central Hanoi, it was the most notorious of all the Vietnam POW camps, known to Americans sarcastically as the “Hanoi Hilton.” The Hilton served as the Vietnamese headquarters of the prison system for American POWs in North Vietnam.
From the beginning, the POWs endured miserable and unsanitary conditions at the Hilton including meager rations of food (rice and boiled vegetables) and the constant threat of brutal treatment. They experienced interrogations, torture, and long periods of isolation. Prisoners sent to different camps were often brought back to the Hilton for additional interrogation, often resulting in more instances of torture. The Hanoi Hilton came to symbolize the overall American POW experience.
The Hanoi Hilton’s 20-foot perimeter wall with guard towers—topped with electrified barbed wire and broken glass—prevented any attempts of escape. The filthy, infested prison compound contained four areas to hold POWs, each given nicknames by the POWs such as New Guy Village, Little Vegas, Heartbreak Hotel and eventually Camp Unity.
New Guy Village: In Hoa Lo prison, near the main entrance, the “Knobby Room” on the ground floor served for immediate interrogation and torture of new arrivals. The room, named for sound-deadening plaster clumps, had a central hook for hoisting POWs into stressful positions. Officer quarters and their families lived on the upper floors above the village. Children playfully peeked through door cracks at the bound POWs, creating a chilling atmosphere.
The Vietnamese goal was to break POWs’ resistance to the Code of Conduct. English speaking interrogators quickly moved beyond basic information (ie, name, rank, serial number and date of birth), pressuring POWs to disclose military details and personal family information for potential extortion later. Anticipating deception, interrogators forcefully sought war crimes confessions, both written and oral. Medical treatment for ejection injuries was denied. The Vietnamese would use injuries as a more effective method to inflict pain. They wanted condemnations of the President and the U.S. war effort. They demanded written apologies for bombing dikes and pagodas—all of which were not true.
Over the years, only a few POWs complied with captors’ demands; no man endured the brutal treatment fully. All 495 aircrewmen were “broken” in some way. The Vietnamese treatment of captured and injured pilots was barbaric. Many of the 28 deceased pilots, despite adhering to the military Code of Conduct, died in the Knobby Room.
The third goal of the interrogations aimed to completely break the aircrewmen of their very souls, to make them compliant in every way. The focus was on identifying weak resistors who could serve as subservient lackeys, especially for propaganda broadcasts on Radio Hanoi. After days and even weeks of torture, they had their answer. The hardline American resistors with “bad attitudes” were isolated in solitary cells in Little Vegas. Any POW displaying even slight weakness was kept away from contact with influential senior officers, receiving special treatment to extract useful propaganda for the North Vietnamese cause.
Little Vegas: From mid-1965 until late-1967, Little Vegas was the primary holding area inside the Hilton. The POWs quickly named its various buildings the Desert Inn, Golden Nugget, the Mint, Riviera, Stardust and Thunderbird. Each building contained a varied number and size of cells.
Commander James Stockdale, wing commander aboard the U.S.S. Oriskany, was shot down September 9, 1965. After brutal interrogations, he was moved into Little Vegas. He quickly learned the tap code brought in by Smitty Harris who had been shot down April 4th. Stockdale assumed command as the Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) of 25 pilots captured before him. By that time, all 25 incoming POWs had learned the tap code. In his leadership position, Stockdale put out his policy as to how each POW should resist to the best of their capabilities for the duration of the war.
His policy was simple and direct, easy to remember: BACK US.
B – Don’t bow in public. Avoid cameras.
A – Stay off the air. Make no broadcasts or recordings.
C – Don’t admit to “crimes.”
K – Don’t kiss the Vietnamese goodbye, meaning show no gratitude upon release.
US – Unity over self.
Stockdale’s policy guidelines lifted morale in Little Vegas. It was easier to remember than the full Code of Conduct. Of more far-reaching effect, it would become a moral legal compass for a prisoner to conduct himself for the remainder of the war. After the war concluded in 1973, Stockdale’s wisdom was incorporated into the re-writing of the Code of Conduct for U.S. servicemen as POWs. Lt. Colonel Robinson Risner, USAF was shot down 16 September 1965, a week after Stockdale. Risner then took over as SRO and fully backed Stockdale’s sage policies.
Heartbreak Hotel: In April 1965, four of the first seven pilots captured were placed in a building with seven solitary cells. The building had an eighth room used as a sewage dump station. The building was named Heartbreak Hotel by the pilots. It was located across a courtyard from another building which later became known as New Guy Village. While there, Smitty Harris taught Bob Shumaker, Bob Peel, and Phil Butler the tap code he had learned while attending an Air Force survival class before leaving the United States for his assignment with the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Korat Air Base, Thailand. The tap code spread to hundreds of newcomer pilots over the next seven years. Communication, primarily by tap code, became crucial for maintaining sanity, providing strength, organization, leadership and inspiration to continue resistance. Heartbreak Hotel continued for years as a miserable punishment area for hardline resistors with “bad attitudes.”
Camp Unity: The Son Tay Raid on 20 November 1970, directly led to the creation of Camp Unity. In response to the rescue attempt, poorly defended POW camps were abandoned, and around 300 POWs from outlying camps were transferred to the Hanoi Hilton on November 23rd. The remaining 56 POWs from the Zoo moved a month later into the Hilton.
Upon arrival, the POWs were quickly placed in five of the seven “Big Rooms”, each accommodating more than 50 individuals. Camp Unity, a previously unseen section of Hoa Lo by any POW, had housed hundreds of South Vietnamese POWs evacuated to make room for the Americans. Anti-aircraft guns were placed on rooftops to guard against further rescue attempts by American Special Forces.
In the midst of the move, the POWs quickly organized and created lines of communication, identifying Col. John Peter Flynn as the Senior Ranking Officer (SRO). Isolated in solitary for over two years, Flynn took command, and Lt. Colonel Risner ceded leadership. This consolidation of 356 POWs under one command led to the adoption of the name “Camp Unity.”
The move to Camp Unity brought improved treatment, with most POWs receiving mail and packages from home. In each room, collaboration thrived, as men shared knowledge, taught classes, and showcased raconteur talents by reciting books or movies from memory for their fellow POWs’ enjoyment. For the next 26 months, the Vietnamese adopted a “live and let live” policy, mostly leaving the POWs alone. In response, the POWs dialed down their rhetoric of hardline resistance, patiently awaiting the war’s end.
American POWs were released and returned home as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973. It began with three C-141 transport aircraft landing in Hanoi’s Gia Lam airport on February 12, 1973, to bring the first released prisoners home. From February 12th to March 29th, 54 flights took place returning 591 POWs (566 military plus 25 U.S. civilians) home … All Returned with Honor.
Notable POW's held at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War
Thanks to Scott Dillingham for his research and composition of the above introduction to the “Hanoi Hilton POW Camp.”