Established in September 1965, the Zoo (Cu Loc) was situated on the southern outskirts of Hanoi, near Bac Mai Airfield and the Cu Loc suburb. Housed within an old French film studio, it was enclosed by a 10-foot-high wall with glass shards and electrified barbed wire. Individual 11-foot walls surrounded inner buildings, creating small compounds for each cell. The main compound included a deserted, foul-smelling swimming pool filled with garbage and debris.

The Zoo, alongside the Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo), played a significant role as a POW camp. A majority of the 495 captured aircrew in North Vietnam experienced time in either the Zoo or its adjacent facility, the Zoo Annex. While the Zoo served as a long-term holding facility for some, it was frequently utilized as a staging camp for POWs. In 1971 and 1972, its purpose shifted from detention to that of a “showplace” for propaganda, drawing parallels to the Plantation POW Camp. 

 

As the Zoo POW camp grew in size and population, its reputation for primitiveness and harsh torture tactics grew accordingly. The general treatment of prisoners was Spartan, offering limited bathing opportunities and scarce food. The compound consisted of five old concrete buildings with tiled roofs, each divided by interior brick walls into several cells. Windows were barred and sealed with bricks to block outside views. The original French louvered double doors were replaced with thicker, more secure doors equipped with padlocks. Each cell had its own courtyard. 

Various structures within the compound, like the Auditorium, Barn, Chicken Coop, Garage, Pigsty, Gym, Outhouse, and Stable, were mainly used for torture and extended punishment. Severe treatment was consistently administered indiscriminately, irrespective of rank, duration as a POW, or health condition. 

The Auditorium, formerly a movie theatre, held a punishment cell intentionally kept in complete darkness. The Outhouse punishment cell, lacking windows or ventilation, confined Jerry Denton, Jim Mulligan, John Borling, and four others for a month, restrained with leg irons and handcuffs. The Gatehouse, near the Zoo entrance, featured dark, dirty, and hot cells without air circulation or mosquito nets, subjecting over 100 POWs to full-fledged interrogation sessions from July to December 1966. 

The Barn initially lacked beds in its seven cells, later adding sawhorses and wood planks; the Pool Hall had two-man setups with wooden pallets for beds. The Stable and the Pigsty, initially housing two prisoners per cell, later accommodated four to six inmates each by 1970. 

The Zoo’s punishment cells, exceeding 100 degrees in summer, while prisoners’ were subjected to three-week stints in darkness without mosquito nets, with ankles in stocks and hands handcuffed. Once daily, POWs were released daily to dump latrine buckets in a sewage receptacle, washing both themselves and the buckets before returning to cells. 

Rodney A. Knutson
Earl G. Cobeil

On October 1965, guards discovered POW-created policy and resistance documents which triggered a crackdown on defiance and clandestine activities. This resulted in widespread torture, with nearly every inmate facing severe brutality, including beatings and deprivation of food and water. Lieutenant Rod Knutson, who had killed two Vietnamese during his capture, was the first victim of intensified treatment, including the notorious “rope trick” torture. This marked the start of the “Middle Years” or “Extortion Era,” designed to break down POW resistance, lasting until the fall of 1969.  

In August 1967, three Cubans arrived at the camp, assuming control over two groups of 10 POWs. Proficient in English, the Cubans aimed to completely break all 20 men. Air Force Captain Earl Glenn Cobiel died from the harsh treatment inflicted by the Cubans, leading the Vietnamese to swiftly remove the Cubans. This experimental torture period, known as the “Cuban Program,” concluded in the summer of 1968. 

The Zoo Annex

The “Zoo Annex” was added in October 1967 at the southwest side of the Zoo compound. It shared a 10-wall with a connecting door in the center. The camp included a sewage drainage pond dubbed “Lake Fester.” During food shortages, the green sewer-plants from Lake Fester were harvested, boiled, and fed to the POWs. The Annex had four buildings, each with two rooms, and each had a high-walled compound with a well and outhouse latrine, measuring about 20’x20’. These eight cells accommodated nine prisoners each. The 72 junior officers, all at or below the rank of Captain for Air Force and Lieutenant for Navy, received the same treatment as the POWs in the Zoo. 

The Annex camp initially included a few Majors and Lieutenant Commanders but swiftly transferred them to the main camp, the Zoo. Air Force Captain Konrad Trautman, a Korean Conflict veteran shot in the leg during his parachute descent, became the camp SRO. Despite unattended wounds, Trautman established contact with the other seven rooms, set common-sense POW conduct policies, and took charge when the Annex couldn’t communicate with its next-door neighbor, the Zoo, for almost two years.  

Vietnamese authorities prohibited exercise to keep Americans weak and docile, but the POWs responded with intensified personal routines. A competitive atmosphere arose among POWs in the Annex, with individuals like Irv Williams, Porter Halyburton, Bunny Talley, and others competing for the highest number of push-ups (2,250), sit-ups, and deep knee bends (7,223). 

 

After a year of planning, Air Force Captains John Arthur Dramesi and Edwin Lee Atterberry decided to carry out a daring escape plan. Dramesi’s roommates were alarmed.  They alerted Captain Trautman of the plan and of Dramesi’s deception which had gone on for months. By this time, the Annex had established contact with the Zoo using POW mute code. The Zoo’s SRO, Maj Larry Guarino, made his orders clear: no escape attempts without outside help. Trautman quickly ordered Dramesi to cancel all escape plans and obey the orders of Major Guarino.

Dramesi and Atterberry ignored Trautman’s order.  Within the week they climbed into the attic, contacted Trautman, and informed him they were leaving without the SRO’s permission. On May 10th, 1969, Dramesi and Atterberry escaped their Annex cell, scaled the prison wall, and were captured before noon the next day. Both were returned to the Zoo and placed in the Auditorium.  Their interrogations began immediately.

The SROs of each Annex room were brutally tortured to extract knowledge of the escape plans. Air ventilation openings for all rooms were bricked shut, many men were placed in leg irons or beaten with fan belts, and room temperatures reached an estimated 120 degrees. The POWs suffered from heat rash all over their bodies, endured frequent interrogations, and lived in miserable conditions. 

For four months after the escape, prisoners in both the Zoo and the Annex endured severe beatings, whippings, and leg iron placements. Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness described the torture as “systematic and horrendous,” comparable to the worst experiences throughout their time as POWs. Some, like Eugene “Red” McDaniel and James Helms Kasler, received over 100 strokes on the buttocks with a fan belt, leading to near-death beatings. Neither had prior knowledge of the escape plans. 

Dramesi endured 38 days of torture, including flogging with a fan belt, punching, and being strapped into painful positions with ropes 15 times. He survived six months in irons. Atterberry, tortured for eight days, did not survive. The captors believed all POWs were involved in the planned escape.  POWs in both the Zoo and the Zoo Annex suffered. 

After Communist leader Ho Chi Minh’s death on 2 September 1969, beatings and torture ceased in all North Vietnamese camps within 30 days. Cell ventilation was restored, and leg irons were removed. The POWs were no longer required to bow, indicating a significant change in treatment policy. While torture stopped, the POWs still could not contact each other or possess items like books, pencils, paper, or bibles unless issued to them. They had to wait for the war’s end, which was three years and five months away.  

On 14 July 1970, all 72 Annex occupants were relocated to Camp Faith. Following the Son Tay raid on December 26, 1970, the Zoo closed, and the remaining 60 to 70 prisoners were moved to Camp Unity in the Hanoi Hilton. In September 1971, approximately 50 POWs were returned to the Zoo. From then until January 1973, the Zoo mainly housed new shoot-downs. In February-March, it served as a staging area for release groups during Operation Homecoming from February 12 to March 29, 1973.

The Annex was replaced by a large apartment complex and the Zoo has been replaced by a multi-storied office building. Today, there is no visible evidence of their terrible dark past.

Thanks to Scott Dillingham for his research and composition of the above introduction to the “Zoo POW Camp.”