Veterans Talk

By Rick Onate

U.S. Army

  In 1919, Conrad Hilton pur-chased his first hotel in Cisco, Texas. In the next ten years, Hil-ton went on to buy and build three hotels in major cities in Texas. During the 1950s and 1960s, with Hilton at the helm, the hotel chain began worldwide expansion. It was the world's first international chain and set worldwide standards for hotel services.

   The most infamous "hotel" was the Hanoi Hilton, located in Hanoi, North Vietnam. While not really a part of the famed Hilton hotel chain, it came to notoriety during the Vietnam War. The "hotel" was actually the Hoa Lo Prison (pronounced hwa lo) in Vietnamese. The prison was built by French colonials  in 1886 to 1889 and was demolished in 1995 by the Vietnamese government. The name Hoa Lo, translates to "fiery furnace" or  even "Hells Hole."  The French called the prison Maison Central, which translates to "Central House." 

  The French used the prison to hold Vietnamese political prisoners, particularly political prisoners demanding independence from France. The prison was later used to house captured U.S. prisoners of war. During this later period American POWs began calling it the Hanoi Hilton.

  A small section of the Hoa Lo Prison still stands and houses a museum. Visitors must pass through the original main gate to enter the museum. Former Vietnamese prisoners call the gate "the Monsters Mouth."  Whether it be Vietnamese citizens imprisoned by the French, many of whom were former prisoners themselves in the 1930s and 1940s, or American POWs held in captivity by North Vietnam, the horror stories told by both groups of former captives abounded. The prison lived up to its name of "Hells Hole."  It was built in the center of Hanoi to intimidate and remind the Vietnamese citizens of what failure to live under colonial rule could bring.

 The sentences handed down by French Magistrates were exceptionally long, especially for political prisoners wanting independence. Prisoners were subject to torture and unauthorized death sentences from the portable guillotine kept inside prison walls. Torture would include being suspended from ropes, over-crowded conditions, ankles corralled in stocks for days at a time, starvation, subhuman conditions, and daily beatings.

By the time the French were forced from the country in 1954 there were over 2000 prisoners incarcerated in a prison designed to hold 600. By this time the prison itself had become a symbol of colonial exploitation and it was a reminder to the Vietnamese people of their hatred towards the French.

By the early 1960s a war was brewing between the two-halves of the newly independent Vietnam. U.S. foreign policy officials, seeking to put a stop to communism, brought America into the war on the side of South Vietnam.

 Hoa Lo Prison had been abandoned for ten years. But in 1964, the first U.S. pilot was shot down over North Vietnam; as the war expanded, there would be hundreds more of American POWs. These actions called for a change of plans for the prison and smaller prisons throughout the country as well.

 As stated earlier in the column, many prison officials and guards were themselves imprisoned and tortured under the hands of the French. There is no doubt that these same officials took revenge and retribution on the captured American POWs. In trying to extract information, many of the same brutal torture methods were used on these POWs that they themselves had faced.

 On the home front there were great concerns from public officials and the American public as well about the inhumane treatment and lack of information on American POWs in Southeast Asia. These overpowering concerns brought together a group of  wives of missing POWs. They formed the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

 In 1972, this group was responsible for creating the POW/MIA flag. The group campaigned Congress to gain widespread acceptance and use by the U.S. government, local governments and civilian organizations as well. The flag is black, with a white disk bearing in black the silhouette of a man, watch tower with a guard on patrol, and a strand of barbed wire; above the disk are the white letters POW/MIA framing a 5-pointed star; beneath the disk is the motto: "You are not Forgotten."

  Members of the United States Armed Forces were held as POWs during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1973. On February 12, 1973, the first of 591 U.S. prisoners would be coming home. The U.S. still lists roughly 1,350 Americans as prisoners of war or missing in action. The U.S. also seeks the return of roughly 1,200 Americans reported killed in action but whose bodies were not recovered.

All gave some...some gave all 

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Its never too early to begin recruiting young men for the next session of Illinois Premier Boys State.  If you know a young man that will be completing his junior year of high school next spring, encourage him to enroll in Boys State.  For all Division/District/Post Boys State Chairman, now is the time to begin putting the word out to teachers, counselors, principals, etc., about the program.  If you need help, JUST ASK!  
Just so you know, the 2nd Division sent more boys last year than any other Division (193), and the 11th District sent more than any other District (77).  Although those numbers are good, we need to work to try and double those numbers for 2019.  We need each post to send one more boy than last year. 

Put your Post on the Centennial Website and share your Post history

2019 marks the 100 year anniversary of the American Legion. You can start preparations now by adding your Post history to the website. Your history will be part of the American Legion as a whole. Download the Post History workbook found on the centennial website. Learn what you can do now to start preparing for this celebration.

Charles Lynch,
Jul 29, 2019, 3:18 PM
Charles Lynch,
Oct 14, 2014, 8:33 AM