Monday, January 31, 2011

The Hanoi Hilton: American POWs in the Vietnam War

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I discuss the harsh conditions experienced by American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.

A common GI experience in the war was bewilderment when locals seemed indifferent to the fate of Americans. Other soldiers felt they were the targets of icy hatred. Undoubtedly war atrocities like those mentioned above, even in the context of extreme communist bloodshed, belied the supposed purpose of the American war effort. The killing of civilians, the burning of villages, and the dropping of napalm alienated the South Vietnamese population, even those who previously had been anti-communist but who now saw a North Vietnamese victory as preferable to American occupation.

A perception of American cruelty may have contributed to, or at least provided a rationale for, the inhumane treatment suffered by American GIs languishing in North Vietnamese prisons. Downed bomber pilots and flight crews made up most of the 591 prisoners of war released as part of “Operation Homecoming” at the end of the war. In April 1993, Harvard economist Stephen Morris discovered North Vietnamese documents indicating that Hanoi held 1,205 American prisoners as late as September 1972, a short time before prisoner releases began.

Whether the discrepancy between the number of American prisoners released through Operation Homecoming and the number mentioned in the report represents a clerical error, a translation mistake, or evidence of the mass killing of American POWs remains a mystery. When the United States pulled combat forces out of Vietnam in 1973, about 2,000 servicemen remained unaccounted for. A larger number of Vietnamese soldiers remain missing.

Released prisoners, including future Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, reported being tortured. North Vietnamese guards beat prisoners with rifle butts, clubs and fists, deprived them of sleep and adequate nutrition and mocked them when news arrived of tragedies in the prisoners’ families. Many were forced to sit through interminable “re-education” sessions and were told 5,000 years of Vietnamese history through the Hanoi regime’s perspective. Withholding medicine became a common method of weakening prisoner resistance. Interrogators sometimes sought intelligence, but just as often they simply wanted to shatter the spirit of their hostages. The POW camp at Hao Lo gained particular infamy and was given the sarcastic name “Hanoi Hilton.”

Porter Halyburton served as pilot in a two-man Navy F-4 Phantom that was shot down while bombing a bridge on a road connecting the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, to China. Parachuting over hostile territory, he quickly fell into the hands of North Vietnamese soldiers who put him in an animal shed, giving him rice, water, and cigarettes until a jeep arrived to carry him to Hanoi. “They told me, ‘If you cooperate with us, and repent for your crimes, we will move you to a nice camp, a really nice place. You’ll be with all your friends. You’ll have nice food and you can play games and write to your family. But if you refuse, we’ll move you to a worse place.’”

Halyburton refused to provide the information sought by interrogators and wound up in a facility his captors called “the Zoo.” He spent days in the dark before guards transferred him to a coal storage area. “Ants, rats, mosquitoes by the ton,” he said to author Christian J. Appy. “They would put my shitty little bowl of rice outside the door and leave it there for hours. By the time they finally gave it to me, it was completely covered with ants. It was inedible. I had dysentery by then and was getting disheartened. I hadn’t talked to an American in months. The constant interrogation and indoctrination were wearing me down.”

The jailers threatened worse treatment. Hoping to play on the now well-known racial tensions within the U.S. military, the guards placed Halyburton in a cell with a black member of an American flight crew and commanded, “You must care for him. You must be his servant.” The manipulation didn’t work. “I think they thought that would be the worst thing they could do – order a white to be a servant to a black guy,” he said. “They very definitely tried to pit the two of us against each other, but it didn’t take us long to be friends.” His cellmate, Fred, almost lost an arm when his F-105 crashed and his foot broke. The Vietnamese operated, but his injuries became infected. Halyburton ended up bathing and feeding his disabled friend. Fred gave Halyburton credit for saving his life, and Halyburton returned the compliment.

“Taking care of Fred gave me a sense of purpose outside of my survival,” Halburton said. “It was very liberating. It was really the beginning of the idea that we were all in a brotherhood, all part of a big family. We could do anything for each other.” This strength would be needed after the Americans bombed an oil and lubricant storage area on June 29, 1966. The Vietnamese claimed that the Americans had targeted civilian areas.

They forced POWs to march through Hanoi, handcuffed two-by-two. Made to bow their heads, the prisoners suffered a blow to the back of their heads every time they looked up. At the urging of the guards, the crowds screamed, “Yankee imperialists! Air pirates! Murderers!” The North Vietnamese then confined Halyburton in a remote prison nicknamed “The Briarpatch.” The guards wanted him to write a confession. “First, they just beat the crap out of you to soften you up,” he said.

"Or they made you sit on a little wooden stool for days . . . We found that you could get a little water by faking sleep. They’d throw water on your face to wake you up and if you opened your mouth you could get a little swallow.

After that, the torture began. The method they used on me we called “max cuffs.” Your arms were pulled up behind your back and then they put these handcuffs on the upper part of your arm. Then they tied a rope on your wrists and pulled it up. I could actually see the fingertips over the top of my head when they did that. It pressed the nerves against the bone. It was like molten metal flowing through your veins – just indescribable pain."
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This last round of abuse broke Hayburton’s resistance. He signed confessions, gave biographical information and listed all his flights over North Vietnam. They asked him to write the same information over and over. “Psychologically, I think this was more damaging than the physical torture because you felt like you completely failed,” he said. “You had given up. You had capitulated. You had violated the code of conduct. You let everybody down.” It was only after the war that he found out that his breakdown had been universal.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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