- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2019

HANOI, Vietnam — To hear the official Vietnamese version, American soldiers imprisoned at the POW camp derisively named the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War were actually treated downright humanely.

A museum at the site of the old Hoa Lo Prison in central Hanoi, where the late Arizona Sen. John McCain and hundreds of other American POWs were held and tortured, is just a few blocks from the location of President Trump’s two-day nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Inside the yellow walls topped with barbed wire, the museum’s narrative about the merciful treatment of U.S. soldiers astonishes and disgusts many Western tourists.

“U.S. prisoners of war including pilots were humanely treated by the Vietnamese Government which gave them the best possible living conditions,” states the museum’s tour pamphlet.

POWs were offered “favorable conditions for entertainment, cultural and sports activities, chess playing, listening to Voice of Vietnam radio (English broadcasts) watching films and enjoying music,” the pamphlet contends.

A video presentation in one room boasts that “American pilots enjoyed freedom of religion” during their captivity.

The museum’s admission price is 30,000 Vietnamese dong, or $1.29 in current exchange rates.

U.S. officials touted Vietnam as an attractive host for the summit, both as a model of one party-led economic development that Mr. Kim could emulate and as an example of a onetime bitter adversary which now enjoys good relations with Washington and plays host to a number of U.S. and Western corporate investors. But it is clear the legacy of the Vietnam War remains contested historical ground here.

Some of the visitors to the museum on Tuesday said they were appalled by the curators’ take on the history of the conflict.

“I’m pretty sure if you brought some of [the former POWs] in here, they would tear the place apart because they wouldn’t agree,” said Alex Chang, a nurse from Washington state. “I guess you’d call it propaganda, what the life was like for the American prisoners.”

Margo Lange, a university student from Berlin, Germany, said she found the exhibit “too positive.”

“At the end of the exhibition, everything was about the friendship between Vietnam and the U.S.,” she said. “I’m a bit confused. I think it’s terrible, what happened 40 years ago. This is too positive. I think the exhibition was new for the Donald Trump visit.”

A portion of the museum features a mock summit conference table, with flowers and brightly colored banners proclaiming the summit hosted by Vietnam.

Simon Lange, a visitor from London, said he felt that the exhibit was “reasonably balanced.”

“I’m not sure that the prisoners were quite as happy as was presented here,” he said. “But it’s good to see it from the other side’s point of view. You’ve got a theme here that they’re looking for reconciliation.”

Bitter memories

American POWs who survived Hoa Lo Prison didn’t mince words about their experience. Former Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, an Air Force veteran who spent nearly seven years as a prisoner there after he was shot down in a bombing run, remembers in particular a meat hook suspended from the ceiling of a torture room. He called it “a favorite instrument of torture” for his captors.

“During a routine torture session with the hook, the Vietnamese tied a prisoner’s hands and feet, then bound his hands to his ankles — sometimes behind the back, sometimes in front,” he wrote for Politico in 2015. “The ropes were tightened to the point that you couldn’t breathe. Then, bowed or bent in half, the prisoner was hoisted up onto the hook to hang by ropes. Guards would return at intervals to tighten them until all feeling was gone, and the prisoner’s limbs turned purple and swelled to twice their normal size. This would go on for hours, sometimes even days on end.”

Other POWs described beatings; broken bones and eardrums, starvation and medical neglect.

McCain, who was imprisoned after his plane was shot down in 1967, described beatings every few hours that resulted in a broken arm and ribs. He spent more than five years as a prisoner.

The museum’s exhibit states that the Vietnamese treated U.S. prisoners well despite facing wartime “difficulties and shortages in their daily life.”

“Captured American pilot[s] in Hoa Lo Prison were given sufficient personal belongings including smallest things to meet their daily needs,” the museum’s guide booklet states. “In addition to treatment of their injuries, they were given periodical health check-ups and healthcare.”

Hoa Lo Prison was actually built by the French in 1896 and named “Maison Centrale,” or Central House. During the French colonial period, the prison held Vietnamese revolutionaries and others opposed to colonial rule. The French jailers also used torture; the name Hoa Lo translates loosely to “hell on earth.”

The old prison was torn down in the 1990s, and the main gate and wall are all that remain of the former facility. The museum was reconstructed to show the conditions that prisoners endured.

The narrative of the American POWs’ experience, too, has been reconstructed by the Vietnamese.

Mr. Johnson, a Republican, was writing in response to Mr. Trump’s criticism at the time of McCain having been captured during the war. He called Mr. Trump’s comments “ungrateful and naive.”

Mr. Trump, who feuded continually with the late senator, said in 2015 that McCain was not a war hero. “I like people that weren’t captured,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump received five deferments from the draft during the war — four as a college student, and later a medical deferment for having bone spurs in his heel.

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