"Hanoi Hilton" is the nickname given to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam, by American POWs. John McCain, who was held there for five years, said of the memorial: "The ‘museum’ is an excellent propaganda establishment with very little connection with the actual events that took place inside those walls.").
What is the Hanoi Hilton? The Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs during the Vietnam War, began as a French colonial prison. It was built over a period of 15 years, from 1886 to 1901, and named Maison Centrale (Central House). In 1913, it was renovated to hold 600 prisoners, though overcrowding swelled the number to 2,000 by 1954. The prison and its poor conditions were a focal point of hatred and resentment of French rule among the Vietnamese. Locals dubbed it Hoa Lo, translated as "fiery furnace" or "hell's hole."
Who was in the Hanoi Hilton? During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese re-purposed the prison to hold POWs, and the North Vietnamese government used extreme methods of torture on Americans to extract information. Much of this torture occurred in the infamous Blue Room. Among those housed and tortured at the prison are Sen. John McCaine, Navy Cmdr. James Bond Stockdale, and Brigadier General Robinson Risner. Many have written books about their experiences.
In 1966, Admiral Jeremiah Denton went on camera to describe conditions for POWs at the Hanoi Hilton. He described the food and clothing as adequate and noted that prisoners had access to medical care. While he spoke these words, he was blinking a great deal. His blinks conveyed a Morse code message of what was really going on: "T-O-R-T-U-R-E."
Denton spent seven and a half years at prison camps in Vietnam after his plane was shot down in July 1965. After his release in 1973, he became the first Republican Senator from Alabama since Reconstruction, and wrote a book about his captivity called When Hell Was in Session.
The Vietnamese justified torture by claiming the Americans were political prisoners, not prisoners of war, and therefore not beholden to the same rules.
The almost ubiquitous isolation experienced by many POWs at the prison was so thorough they often went months without seeing a fellow inmate. Some were in solitary for years. During Lt. Cmdr. Bob Shumaker's first four months in solitary, he noticed another American dumping his slop bucket outside and managed to jot down a message on a scrap of toilet paper: "Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton. If you get note, scratch balls as you are coming back."
He hid the note in a crack in the wall by the latrine and later saw his fellow American scratching his balls furiously as he walked back through the courtyard. He managed to leave his own note, identifying himself as Ron Storz, captain, USAF. Unable to otherwise communicate, the POWs utilized a tap code invented by Americans during the Korean War. It was used instead of Morse code because the North Vietnamese would have caught that.
Solitary confinement might not seem terrible, but think about this: Navy pilot Everett Alvarez, who was interned in the Hanoi Hilton from August 1964 until February 1973, went in six moths after The Beatles first visited the US and was released three years after they broke up. He was so disconnected from the world he missed the entire British invasion and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy because he, and his fellow prisoners, had no news of the outside world.
POWs at the Hanoi Hilton regularly had their legs strapped in irons or stocks, leftover at the prison from the French Colonial era. The bindings were usually extremely tight, and cut into the legs, causing lacerations and infections. On top of that, soldiers were faced with a grim reality when it came to relieving themselves while being strapped to a bed, face up, for days on end - they had to do it as they lay and marinate in it as the rats and roaches crawled all over them.
Writing for Politico, Congressman Sam Johnson describes his brutal tenure at the Hanoi Hilton in great detail, including the tortures visited upon him and his fellow POWs.
In Johnson's words:
"As a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, I could recall nothing from military survival training that explained the use of a meat hook suspended from the ceiling. It would hang above you in the torture room like a sadistic tease—you couldn’t drag your gaze from it. During a routine torture session with the hook, the Vietnamese tied a prisoner’s hands and feet, then bound his hands to his ankles—sometimes behind the back, sometimes in front. The ropes were tightened to the point that you couldn’t breathe.
Then, bowed or bent in half, the prisoner was hoisted up onto the hook to hang by ropes. Guards would return at intervals to tighten them until all feeling was gone, and the prisoner’s limbs turned purple and swelled to twice their normal size. This would go on for hours, sometimes even days on end. Aside from leg irons and leg stocks—both of which were used on me for months and years on end—the meat hook was a favorite instrument of torture at the Hanoi Hilton."
Harry Jenkins, another Hanoi Hilton resident, was hung by the meat hooks solely from his wrists, which were tied behind his back. He was in so much pain he begged to die. Thereafter, he was forced to kneel in gravel so long the skin ripped from his knees.