50 Years After Being Held as Prisoners of War, American Veterans Return to the Place They Were Held During Vietnam War
The Vietnam War came as a result of tensions between Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
The war began in 1955 and did not end until 1975, marking a conflict that spanned almost 20 years. The violence and sheer brutality of the war resulted in an astronomical number of casualties, with around 3.8 million people perishing in total. Now, brave American veterans are returning to Hanoi fifty years after they were once held there as prisoners of war.
Prisoners of War Battered and Mistreated
American prisoners were held captive at the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi during the war.
The prison, constructed in the 19th century, brings back memories of trauma and turbulence for many surviving soldiers. This includes retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Robert Certain, who was once trapped there and was interrogated by Vietnamese enemies who would frequently beat and interrogate him for inside information.
Colonel Certain Held Captive in Hanoi
As Colonel Certain toured the site where he was kept as a prisoner, he noticed a vintage photo of the wall of the prison taken from an aerial view.
He spotted his name on a historic sign and pointed it out. Certain was one of the first American soldiers captured during a battle in 1972 and held against his will at the Hanoi penitentiary. He was kept there for a month. From there, he was relocated to another prison where he remained until March 1973, making him a prisoner of war for four months of his life. Thankfully, Certain was released after a peace agreement in Paris afforded him the precious gift of freedom.
President Nixon Writes About the War in His Memoir
Richard Nixon’s memoir revealed that negotiations of peace with Vietnam were making progress in 1972, only for the war to wage on three additional years due to the inability of Hanoi and Saigon to come to an agreement.
By that point, more than 57,000 American soldiers had died, and many more Vietnamese people had been killed. Nixon discussed his choice to bomb North Vietnam, calling it “the most difficult decision I made during the entire war; at the same time, however, it was also one of the most clear-cut and necessary ones.”
Rigorous and Relentless Interrogations
75-year-old Colonel Certain recounted how the interrogation process began almost immediately after he arrived at the prison.
He was probed for 12 hours at a time about top secret information, including details on America’s nuclear weapons. Certain said he “played dumb” when interrogations were underway, and he gave his captors fictitious names of superior officers. He credits his military survival training for giving him the know-how to deal with such difficult situations.
Certain’s Captors Demand Information from Him
Certain’s captors threatened to kill him multiple times and he had several close calls with death while held in captivity in Hanoi.
When he refused to cooperate by giving enemies American intel, he got a rifle put to the side of his head and was shocked by a rope that had been tied around his neck. While Certain’s experience is incomprehensible to others, he hesitates to call it torture because he knows other prisoners of war had it much worse than he did.
Colonel Ed Hubbard Goes Through Hell as POW
Air Force Colonel Ed Hubbard was held as a POW for six and a half years during the Vietnam War.
The 85-year-old went on to publish a book about his experience, titled, Escape From the Box: The Wonder of Human Potential. While captive, Hubbard was subject to brutal beatings and solitary confinement. The physical abuse was so bad that his captors broke his jaw and punctured his eardrums.
POWs’ Stories Are Unfathomable
Hubbard described how he and other American captives were put in charge of a fellow POW who was “beaten so badly that he had lost touch with reality.” Hubbard and the others force-fed him for almost a year before he eventually died in solitary confinement.
Certain described how rats ran wild in the Hanoi prison and their droppings coated the floor of his cell. Prisoners of war were denied the ability to bathe for weeks at a time and were not permitted to receive necessary medical treatment. He detailed how he and other prisoners of war were forced to huddle together to stay warm in the blistering cold conditions.
Learning How to Adapt and Survive
The retired colonel shared how American prisoners of war were given minuscule meals consisting of “weak tea, cabbage soup, and bread with dead insects.”
Retired U.S. Navy aviator Bill Shankel recounted how he managed to survive seven years as a prisoner in North Vietnam. To stay sane, he replayed entire jazz songs in his mind and tried to solve complex math equations. He even learned French from a fellow POW.
Colonel Certain Finds Freedom in Dire Conditions
Joan Baez, an American singer who ventured to Hanoi during the war said that the local hospital was “completely obliterated.”
She continued by saying, “I saw corpses in a row. … There were people racing all around carrying bleeding patients piggyback out of the debris.” As Colonel Certain boarded a plane to leave Hanoi in March 1973, he worried whether the North Vietnamese would shoot the aircraft down on the way out. To his delight, he managed to fly away without any gunfire.
Veteran Prisoners of War Share a Unique Bond
Retired Air Force colonel Wayne Waddell was held as a prisoner of war for nearly six years beginning in 1967.
While the 88-year-old veteran was exposed to distressing situations, he was happy he made it back home in one piece. “I’m still here 50 years later,” he said, while he and Hubbard posed for pictures together in front of Hanoi’s prison. The men toasted with glasses of champagne as they bonded over their shared trauma while remembering the men who succumbed to the horrific events of the Vietnam War.
Remaining Grateful After a Highly Traumatic Experience
Certain was fortunate enough to live to tell about what he experienced first-hand during the war.
He was diagnosed with PTSD from everything he had endured during the Vietnam War. His mental health declines at the same time every year, December through March, representing the period that he was held prisoner in Hanoi. Despite being stuck with the long-term psychological effects of being a prisoner of war, Certain is appreciative of the incredible life he has lived.