Return to Vietnam: Inside the Hanoi Hilton

Some prisoners at Hoa Lo in Hanoi, Vietnam, slept shackled on elevated concrete beds (WBAY photo)
Some prisoners at Hoa Lo in Hanoi, Vietnam, slept shackled on elevated concrete beds (WBAY photo)(WBAY)
Published: Mar. 7, 2019 at 4:28 PM CST
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Fifty-two local veterans have reached their final destination on their two-week return to Vietnam. Their Old Glory Honor Flight flew them from Hue to the capital city of Hanoi.

As Jeff Alexander reports in our Return to Vietnam coverage, the vets toured the prison where hundreds of American prisoners of war were held for years.

For the first and only time during their return to Vietnam, the veterans visited a city none of them has ever been to before.

And that's a good thing -- because if they had been in Hanoi during the war, there's a good chance they would've ended up here, the Hoa Lo prison.

"It was obviously a very brutal prison for a lot of people," A.J. McCaskey from Wautoma remarked.

During the Vietnam War, more than 500 American POWs were held captive for years inside the Hoa Lo prison-- better known in America as the "Hanoi Hilton."

"The home to a lot of American pilots that were prisoners of war," said McCaskey.

The most famous pilot -- the late Senator John McCain -- was a POW for five-and-a-half years.

"They really tortured that guy, making him shackled and laying like that, downhill and everything, I don't know how people could endure that," Burt Parkman of Green Bay said.

For some of the Navy veterans on this Honor Flight, their mission during the war was to find downed pilots before the North Vietnamese.

Gary Jonet of New Franken recalled his time board a destroyer, "I was on the

William B. Pratt

, a DLG13. We would launch a helicopter to pick up any downed pilot, whether it was aircraft or helicopter. We rescued seven pilots. Two could not be rescued because they were already dead and the pilots had to leave them because of heavy fire."

Seeing the evidence of war and imagining the horrors the POWs went through made for a somber visit to the prison.

"Pretty bad stuff as far as how they were treated, and the propaganda in there is definitely more for the Communists," Jonet said.

In the heart of what was once enemy territory, the vets think back to the war but they say ending up a prisoner here was not their top concern.

"The fear of capture probably was not there as much as just a fear of being maimed, killed or overrun by the enemy," McCaskey told us.

Tomorrow the veterans will spend their final day in Vietnam before packing their bags and embarking on their long journey home.