Guest Author - Vance R. Rowe
I was brought in through enormous steel gates, above which was painted the legend “Maison Centrale.” I had been shot down a short walk’s distance from the French-built prison, Hoa Lo, which the POWs had named “the Hanoi Hilton.” As the massive steel doors loudly clanked shut behind me, I felt a deeper dread than I have ever felt since.- Senator John McCain
The Hoa Lo prison was built in Hanoi, Viet Nam by the French and was used to house political prisoners when Viet Nam was still a part of French Indochina. The French named it Maison Centrale, which literally means “Central House”.
During the Viet Nam conflict, the North Vietnamese used it to house prisoners of war, mainly US Pilots who were shot down during bombing raids. The prisoners sarcastically referred to the prison as the Hanoi Hilton. The North Vietnamese had stated that the prisoners were treated well there but quite the opposite happened. The prison was used to torture and interrogate American servicemen. Some torture techniques were rope bindings, irons, beatings and long stays in solitary confinement. As some prisoners were released during the Johnson Administration, they told the tales of torture and systematic abuse of prisoners of war there.
However, with regarding treatment at Hoa Lo and other prisons in Viet Nam, the Communists had said that the prisoners were treated well in accordance with the Geneva Convention. In fact, in 1969, the North Vietnamese had coerced statements from prisoners saying that they were being treated well. The Communists also said that the treatment at the Hoa Lo was no worse than the treatment that POW’s were getting at prisons in South Viet Nam. The mistreatment of the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese prisoners and the dissidents of South Viet Nam did happen quite often as did the mistreatment of South Vietnamese prisoners and North Vietnam’s dissidents in the North Vietnamese prisons.
However, in late 1969, the handling of the prisoners at Hoa Lo and other prisons, did become less severe. In late 1970, there was a rescue attempt of prisoners at the Son Tay prison camp so most of the prisoners at the outlying camps of North Viet Nam were moved to the Hoa Lo prison so they had less camps to protect. This generated the “Camp Unity” communal living at the Hanoi Hilton which greatly reduced the alienation of the prisoners of war and in fact improved their morale.
United States Senator and 2008 Presidential hopeful, John McCain spent most of his time as a POW at Hoa Lo as did Medal of Honor recipient and 1992 Presidential hopeful, James Stockdale.
Most of the Hanoi Hilton prison is gone now but there is still a part of the prison that has been kept and is now a museum where visitors can go and see the how the prison was during the French colonial period, including the guillotine room, still with original equipment. There are also exhibits related to the American prisoners stay at the prison which include the interrogation room and that room is made to look a lot more comfortable than it really was.
There are also displays that claim Americans were treated well and not harmed at all. Some of these displays also cite the words “Hanoi Hilton” as proof that the inmates found the prison to be comparable to the famous hotel chain. Propaganda in the museum include photos of the American POW’s playing chess, raising chickens, gardening and even receiving large fish and eggs for food. Only the POW’s that were there know what really happened and how they were really treated.
Senator John McCain’s parachute and flight suit are also on display in the museum.