Reported by Y Nguyen
December 26, 2007
Memories in black-and-white intertwine with interviews after the war
in a French documentary describing the conflict's fear and pain to
carry a message of peace
A documentary about American pilots captured during the 1972 US
carpet bombing of Hanoi and held prisoner of war in the Hanoi-Hilton
(also known as Hoa Lo Prison) will be seen tonight for the first time
The film uses rare footage from the People's Army archives which was
taken without the pilots' knowledge; capturing their interrogations;
their lives in the cells; in the courtyard of the prison; and during
the visits of famous US actress Jane Fonda and Joan Baez.
Seventeen years after the war in 1991 the director found two of these
pilots and filmed them with their families at home, reacting to the
archival film of their prison detentions which they saw for the first time.
A remote "dialogue" was established between them and the Vietnamese
colonel who had questioned them.
The French director, Daniel Roussel, has made several other
documentaries about Vietnam, including one about the legendary
General Vo Nguyen Giap.
"The Prisoners of Hanoi-Hilton" was made during 1991-1992, but
Roussel had been struck by the idea much earlier.
"While I was a correspondent for the L'Humanité newspaper in Hanoi
[1980-1986], I saw some Vietnamese stock film taken during 1967-1972
and decided to find the prisoners in the film."
It was hard because at that time Vietnam and the US had not
normalized diplomatic relations.
Roussel wanted to meet all six prisoners, but he could find only two.
One of them was identified as Captain Bean, whose B-52 was shot down
over Hanoi in 1972 during Operation Linebacker II, also known as the
"We knew almost nothing about the cause of the war. We just followed
orders," Bean said.
"It was hard to say that no civilians were killed in our raids. It
was hard to face the people whom I just bombed," he said.
The archival film taken at the Hanoi-Hilton showed the Americans ate
better meals than Vietnamese civilians and soldiers.
They enjoyed volleyball games, played the guitar and sang songs.
The only real threat they faced in Hoa Lo came from their fellow B-52
pilots who were doing the Christmas Bombings – the US Air Force's
largest heavy bomber strikes since World War Two, which lasted for
nearly two weeks from December 18 - 29.
On the evening of December 26, Lieutenant Colonel John Harry Yole was
sitting in an underground hideout, desperately covering his ears
while the B-52 Stratofortresses were carpet-bombing Hanoi.
The captured B-52 crew member Yole said, "I wondered what had
happened to my life. Just the other night I was flying over these
houses, scattering bombs. That night I wondered if I would be killed
by my own men's bombs."
But Yole survived and the 1990s footage shows him living happily with
He still kept his prisoner's mug and shirt as a memento.
The film's director also met officials who were in charge of the Hoa
Lo Prison and asked them questions which they had never been asked
before, such as whether Vietnam still kept American prisoners or
whether Vietnamese officials had tortured the prisoners.
He also asked the US pilots how they would have reacted if someone
had bombarded their children.
"I tried to pose the best questions to come as close to the truth as
possible," Roussel said.
He admitted there could be clips made for propaganda among the
footage from the war archives.
"For example, a clip showed a militia woman escorting an American
pilot prisoner on the Long Bien Bridge. She pushed his head down so
that he could see the devastation caused by US bombs. Those images
were obviously captured intentionally. The wreckage was true though.
And they were real-time clips, not re-makes."
Another clip showed two prisoners rushing to a bomb shelter, their
faces filled with fear.
"I'm not sure if they were running to hide from a B-52 raid. My
impression was, even the superpowers have fears. So, I was
propagandizing too," he said with a grin.
But overall he said every image in the documentary, from President Ho
Chi Minh's declaration of Vietnam's determination to fight the enemy
in the beginning, to the Memorial Wall in Washington at the end was
"100 percent real".
"We cannot deceive history," Roussel says.