We arrived at Hoa Lo prison, more affectionately known as the Hanoi Hilton, early in the morning on August 3rd,,1965. The prison was originally built by the French when they ruled Indochina. I was initially taken to a cell in an area we named “Heartbreak”. The area consisted of seven small cells, each about seven by seven feet square, containing two concrete beds with built-in leg stocks. The Vietnamese used Heartbreak as a holding area for newly captured prisoners. Medical treatment was withheld during a prisoner’s time at Heartbreak, which ranged from a week to ten days. It is in my belief that they used this practice to avoid spending money and time on those who were in bad shape, believing they were going to die anyway. Some did die there.
My entire body was bruised and swollen from the impact of the ejection. I could not distinguish my knees or ankles from the rest of my legs. When they took me to my first interrogations, which we referred to as quizzes, I could only advance my feel about one foot at a time. The questions asked during these initial quizzes were quite a surprise to me. They were not interested in military information. Instead, I was given a history lesson on Vietnam, with an emphasis on the “unjust, illegal, and immoral war” the United States was waging against the Vietnamese people.
The interrogator would say, “Why are you here? We did not invite you.”
I would answer, “If your people didn’t shoot back, we wouldn’t be here.”
They were not torturing POWs at this time.
That was to change in a couple of months.
After about my third day of quizzes, I was to meet my first fellow POW. I guard opened the cell door and let another POW in to empty the bucket that severed as my toilet. The Vietnamese called these buckets your “Bo”. Shortly after capture back at Than Hoa, they had put a pair of small shorts on me, and after my arrival at the Hanoi Hilton one of the guards cut the crotch out so that I could use my ‘Bo’. When they POW entered, he said, “My name is Paul Kari, USN. There are seventeen of us here. We will pray for you.” I now knew that I was the eighteenth living prisoner of war being held by the enemy in North Vietnam. While in Heartbreak, we were fed twice a day. These meals consisted of a small bowl of soup usually made from greens with a little pig fat in it, and a small piece of bread. Since I could not use my arms, a Vietnamese medic fed me.
My time in Heartbreak lasted a little more than a week. Upon leaving, I was told that the doctors were going to operate on my arms. Guards came up to my room after dark, placed a blindfold over my eyes and led me to a waiting Jeep. I was taken to a hospital and led inside before they removed the blindfold. An interrogator was waiting in the room who was known to the prisoners as “Rabbit”. There was another person in the room, and Rabbit told me this person was a doctor. We all were seated, and then Rabbit said, “Before the doctor can operate, he wants to hear about your strike against the bridge.” There was a tape recorder sitting on the table. I didn’t want to give them anything in the way of information, and we argued for two full hours. I didn’t know why, but I finally recorded a full description of the attack for them, telling about bombing the bridge.
When the talking was over, they cut the casts off my arms, gave me a shower, and took me into the operating room. They injected what I believe to be sodium pentothal into a vein in my ankle. I was in considerable pain when I awoke the following morning. I was given a shot for the pain, which I think was morphine. That would be the only medicine for pain that I would receive during my entire captivity. Once the shot was given, I was blindfolded and transported back to Hanoi Hilton.
Now a survivor of Heartbreak, I was taken to a room close to the prisons kitchen. My left arm was in a new cast, and my right arm was wrapped into a metal frame splint. I could only lay in one position, which was flat on my back on the wooden mattress. This lack of any change in position led to my developing a large bedsore at the base of my spine. I would get on my knees and use my teeth to fold the small blanket I had been given into a ticker square, then place the pad so I could center the bedsore. This helped relieve pressure on the bedsore, and eased my pain somewhat.
About three weeks after the operation, several Vietnamese came into the room, most dressed in white smocks. One held a camera. The interpreter said they were going to change my bandages. I welcomed this, because the right of my arm had developed an infection and the bandages had not been changed since the operation. The “medics” took the clean bandages and wrapped them over the old bandages while the photographer took pictures. I’m sure they published the pictures showing the “lenient and humane treatment provided by the Vietnamese People to the Yankee Air Pirates”. Another week passed before they actually changed the bandages.
My first roommate was LCDR Ray Vohden. He was shot down in April of ’65 and broke his right leg hitting the ground following his ejection. After capture, he was operated on, where they removed about four inches of his shinbone. He used crutches to get around. When we became roommates, I was still unable to care for myself very well. Ray took over the duty of feeding me. The day after he moved in, the guard let us out the back of the room to take a bath. Ray bathed me. He soaped up a rag and squeezed the soap out, allowing it to cleanse the bedsore. After two or three weeks, the bedsore disappeared. Later, Ray told me that I was the dirtiest human he had ever seen.
Ray and I were moved to a larger room with two other POWs, Quincy Collins and Bob Peel. Quincy had a broken leg, so Bob was the only healthy one out of all four of us. We lived together there at the Hanoi Hilton until October of ’65, when the four of us were transferred to a camp we called the “Zoo.” I would spend the next four years at the Zoo.