Beyond the bars of the ‘Hanoi Hilton’


Iron bars at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, North Vietnam once held back thousands of Vietnamese prisoners and hundreds of American prisoners of war. Several former POWs will gather at NAS Whidbey Island Feb. 12 to share their recollections of the “Hanoi Hilton” and Operation Freedom. Courtesy photo

The nondescript entrance belies the atrocities committed at Ha Lò Prison in Hanoi, in North Vietnam.

The prison was built by the French, beginning in 1886, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. The name over the door of the gatehouse, “Maison Centrale,” or Central House, is still visible , although the prison itself was demolished in the 1990s.

Built by the French, the door to the guard house of the “Hanoi Hilton” still reads Maison Central. Courtesy photo

Built to house Vietnamese prisoners, its original capacity was 460. A renovation project in 1913 expanded the capacity to 600 inmates, but it was frequently grossly overcrowded, its inmates held in horrendous conditions.

The prison came under the authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1954, where it was used as an education center for revolutionary doctine and activity and was kept because of its historical significance to the North Vietnamese. It was used once again to house prisoners during the Vietnam War — this time American prisoners of war.

The “Hanoi Hilton” as the facility was dubbed by American POWs, was used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Despite the provisions of the Geneva Convention,  more than 500 POWs were severely tortured, more to break their will than to acquire military information.

To mark the occasion of the freeing of the prisoners, the Association of Naval Aviation will hold two events on Tuesday, Feb. 12. The first, a luncheon at the Officers’ Club at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, will feature several former prisoners of war who will discuss the events of Operation Homecoming, which took place Feb. 18, 1973. The  second presentation will take place at 2 p.m. at the Skywarrior Theater on NAS Whidbey and will focus on the Vietnam War and the guest speakers will share some aspect of their experience at Ha Lò Prison.

According to Joe Crecca, a former POW inmate at the “Hanoi Hilton,” and president of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, it’s an event that is commemorated every year, but with special consideration every five years. This year marks the 40th year of freedom for Crecca and many others.

North Vietnamese guards patrol a courtyard area of Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, as POWs look out between the bars of the windows. Courtesy photo

“Can you imagine the feelings going through all of us when finally we were free?” asked Crecca. “It was just hysterical happiness. You’ll never have those feelings again.”

Crecca, an Air Force Captain assigned to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile near Hanoi in November, 1966.

He was released Feb. 18, 1973 in the second group of POWs sometimes referred to as “Kissinger’s Twenty,” a group of men who hesitated to be released until sure the U.S. government had agreed to the terms of their release. Today Crecca believes it’s important to share details of the Vietnam War and his experiences as a POW to paint a picture for those too young to remember.

“It  was seven Thanksgivings, seven Christmases, seven birthdays,” he said. “When I think about getting out of jail, it’s a euphoric feeling. So many [servicemen] weren’t even born then. I want to tell them about Vietnam, about why we were there, what we tried to do, and about the sacrifices of 591 prisoners and the 58,272 names on the wall.”

While the day he was shot down and the day of his release are burned in Crecca’s memory, he said he remembers a lot of what happened during his six years and three months in captivity.

“Some POWs were only there a couple of months, some over six years. There were some Vietnamese that were held 18 to 20 years,” Crecca said. “I think it made me more determined to defend the United States against foreign enemies.”

Crecca said his elation at being freed was quickly tempered by the realization of events that had taken place at home during his captivity.

“When I got home I discovered I had been divorced and my father had died five years prior,” he said. “Homecoming was not happy for me.”

Five months after coming home, Crecca was back on active duty, flying F-4s once again.

“The reason I joined the military was to fight against Communism; that feeling hasn’t changed,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get back in the fighter cockpit. I was full of fire and energy.”

Altogether Crecca spent 14 years in the Air Force. Today he is happy to share his story
at schools, before veterans’ organizations or other groups.

“Vietnam is a big part of American history — certainly the biggest part during the 1960s — and the controversy over the war lasted long beyond that,” he said. “Americans have a deep feeling for military men and the sacrifices we’ve all made, and that goes way, way back. It’s amazing what you can get a person to do when they love their country.”

Joe Crecca and other former POWs will share their stories at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12 at the Officers’ Club  and the Skywarrior Theater, respectively, on NAS Whidbey  Island.