50 Years After Being Held as Prisoners of War, American Veterans Return to the Place They Were Held During Vietnam War

By: Carissa Moore | Last updated: Nov 02, 2023

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.

U.S. Army troops in battle during the Vietnam War

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

A United States Army general in Vietnam in 1968

Source: Terry Fincher/Getty Images

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.

President Richard Nixon sitting at a desk holding papers

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

An aerial photo of The Hoa Lo prison that held American POWs captive during the Vietnam War

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

American soldiers in Vietnam during the war

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

American prisoners of war in Hanoi. Vietnam

Source: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

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.

American soldiers moving toward hill 875 during the Vietnam War

Source: Bettmann

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.”

View outside of the prisoner of war camp in Vietnam in 1973

Source: Historical/Getty Images

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.”

American soldiers take cover in a trench during the Vietnam War

Source: Terry Fincher/Getty Images

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.

American soldiers arriving in Vietnam during the war

Source: Bettmann/Getty Images

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.

U.S. troops in Camp Carroll during the Vietnam War

Source: Genevieve CHAUVEL/Getty Images

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.