HANOI — Workmen on Sunday knocked through a wall of a prison nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by U.S. servicemen held there during the Vietnam War. A luxury hotel is to be built on the site.
One former POW, retired Navy Capt. Cole Black, carried away a few souvenir bricks from the prison, a place of pilgrimage for returning veterans.
Black, 62, of Escondido, and his wife, Karen, along with other American tourists on a bus tour, peeked in the front gate at the intact cellblocks.
"They liked to put people in irons--medieval-type punishment," Black recalled. "The treatment was very bad."
At the rear of the structure, workers with a backhoe and sledgehammers opened a hole big enough for trucks to enter.
The prison, whose real name is Hoa Lo, was built by the colonial French government and held Vietnamese nationalists and Communists during the 1940s and 1950s. The first wife of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the guerrilla forces that drove French forces out of Vietnam in 1954, died there in the 1940s.
After the United States began sending troops to prop up non-Communist South Vietnam against the Communist North, the prison became notorious for holding American POWs, who coined the nickname.
The prison's last residents, young Vietnamese convicts, were transferred to another facility earlier this year, officials said.
Burton Engineering of Singapore and the Hanoi Construction Co. plan a 22-story luxury hotel at the site.
Many Vietnamese are eager to replace the city's wartime relics with the modern trappings of economic development. Hanoi authorities already have cleared the wreckage of a downed American B-52 bomber from Lenin Park to make way for another foreign hotel.
Black was unsentimental about his visit to the prison where he was held on and off for seven years until being released in 1973 after the United States and North Vietnam made peace. He was shot down and taken prisoner about 60 miles northeast of Hanoi on June 21, 1966.
Black said the visit was mostly at the urging of his wife, who is writing a fictionalized account of his war experiences.
"I had no special feelings about it," he said. "I never really had a good look at it from outside. Any time I'd been taken in or out I'd been blindfolded."