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The "Hanoi Hilton" and Other Prisons

Prison locations in North Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force)

Prison locations in North Vietnam. (U.S. Air Force)

Shortly after the war, ex-POW Mike McGrath annotated this detailed map of Hanoi to show the location of prisons. He did it so he would not forget where the camps were. McGrath also made drawings of his captivity, several of which appear in this exhibit. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Shortly after the war, ex-POW Mike McGrath annotated this detailed map of Hanoi to show the location of prisons. He did it so he would not forget where the camps were. McGrath also made drawings of his captivity, several of which appear in this exhibit. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - Typical bowls, plate and spoons issued to POWs. Knives and forks were not provided. Also shown is a toothbrush a POW received from a package from home, a towel that was issued to POWs, a sweater issued to Lt. Jack Butcher, a brick from the "Hanoi Hilton," a fan used during the hottest months and a folding fan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - Typical bowls, plate and spoons issued to POWs. Knives and forks were not provided. Also shown is a toothbrush a POW received from a package from home, a towel that was issued to POWs, a sweater issued to Lt. Jack Butcher, a brick from the "Hanoi Hilton," a fan used during the hottest months and a folding fan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - North Vietnamese uniform of the type worn by prison guards on display in the Return with Honor: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia exhibit in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - North Vietnamese uniform of the type worn by prison guards on display in the Return with Honor: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia exhibit in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - Recreated POW cells in the Return with Honor: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia exhibit in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio - Recreated POW cells in the Return with Honor: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia exhibit in the Southeast Asia War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The most notorious POW camp was Hoa Lo Prison, known to Americans as the "Hanoi Hilton." The name Hoa Lo refers to a potter's kiln, but loosely translated it means "hell's hole" or "fiery furnace." Hoa Lo's 20-foot walls, topped with barbed wire and broken glass, made escape nearly impossible. The filthy, infested prison compound contained several buildings, each given nicknames such as "Heartbreak Hotel," "New Guy Village" and "Little Vegas" by POWs. The cells replicated in the museum's exhibit represent the Hanoi Hilton experience. 

Prison Network 
Most prisons in the North Vietnamese system were in or near Hanoi. All of them had nicknames given by Americans. Conditions differed at each camp, and prisoners were routinely transferred between them. In Laos, communist Pathet Lao guerillas captured and held a small number of Americans. POWs in Laos were often kept in cages, huts or caves, and lack of food and water was common. Some POWs captured by Viet Cong guerillas were held in South Vietnam and Cambodia. One out of three Americans taken prisoner by the Viet Cong died from disease, injury, or by execution. 

The "Big Change" 
Beginning in late 1969, the North Vietnamese consolidated POWs in fewer camps, allowed them some freedom to mingle, and gave them more food. Several factors made this happen. First, worldwide publicity about torture and North Vietnam's refusal to say who they held captive hurt the communist propaganda cause. Communist leader Ho Chi Minh also had died, and some believed orders to torture came directly from him. Finally, in late 1970, the Son Tay prison camp rescue raid demonstrated that the U.S. was deadly serious about the welfare of the POWs. Prisoners saw the 1969-70 turning point in retrospect as "the big change."

Click here to return to Return with Honor: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia.

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