When bombs rained down on Hà Nội

HÀ NỘI — Documents, photographs and memorabilia of American prisoners of war went on show at Tìm Lại Ký Ức (Finding Memories) in Hỏa Lò Prison yesterday and will run until February.

The event also marks the 45th anniversary of the historic battle against US B-52 bombers in December 1972 – the ”Điện Biên Phủ in the Air” as it is known. Many of the bombers were downed and taken into captivity by local people.

World outcry, including by the peace movement in the United States and other countries, helped push the Americans back to the negotiating table in Paris.

With more than 250 items, Finding Memories takes people back to the tough 12 days and nights in late December, 1972, as endless US bomber attacks pounded strategic links, including important bridges and even Bạch Mai Hospital. 

“The exhibition features stories about the daily lives of American prisoners of war in Hỏa Lò Prison,” Trương Minh Tiến, vice-director of Hà Nội Department of Culture and Sports, said at an opening event of the exhibition yesterday.

“Forty five years have passed, yet the heroic spirit of the “Điện Biên Phủ in the Air” victory will remain forever. Vietnamese people are always grateful to American peace lovers and aim to heal the pain of war and build a peaceful future together,” Tiến added. 

The show features four themes:  Facing B52, Hà Nội – Hilton Hotel, Coming Back Home, and Building Up the Future.

Finding Memories recreates the struggle of local people who overcame the sorrow and loss caused by the war. It gives visitors an opportunity to understand the severe destruction and painfully grim nature of war.

“I hope that the memories shaped by the pictures, displays, and descriptions in the exhibition will help people understand the depth of resilience of the people of Việt Nam and the rectitude of their cause, a free and independent country,” said Thomas Eugene Wilber, son of the US Commander Walter Eugene Wilber.

Former prisoner of war, who is visiting, Robert P. Chenoweth recalled:  “I stayed only a short time at Hỏa Lò. My stay began in the midst of the nightly B-52 attacks.  Everyone was worried about the damage happening around us and we hoped for the safety of the families of all the camp cadres.

“During this dangerous time, the guards and interpreters asked me if I would like to take home a small tea set.  I was grateful for this gesture of kindness.  I keep it at my home today.  Perhaps on another visit, I can bring it back to give to the museum,” said Chenoweth.

The former P.O.W. presented 12 memorabilia to Hỏa Lò prison, which included daily items he used in prison, such as clothes, towels, bowls and chopsticks. Chenoweth also gave the flag of Việt Nam that Colonel Trần Trọng Duyệt, former camp officer, presented to him.

“The flag became a powerful symbol of all the things I had learned during my captivity.  It reminded me of the long struggle of Việt Nam to protect its independence,” said Chenoweth.

On December 1972, the US launched an air attack deploying B-52 fighters over Hà Nội and other cities in the northern Việt Nam. The operation was intended to redeem the US’s failure on the southern battle front and to push Việt Nam to make concessions in Paris.

The US mobilised 197 of its 207 B-52 bombers and 1,077 other aircraft from three air force bases – plus six aircraft carriers – during the campaign.

Each wave of B-52 bombers dropped bombs onto Hà Nội and many other big cities, including Hải Phòng.

Up to 40 per cent of the 100,000 tonnes of bombs dropped on the North during the campaign rained down on Hà Nội. As many as 1,318 Hanoians were killed and 2,000 houses destroyed, cited the museum’s source.

The Vietnamese army and people shot down numerous aircraft, including B-52s, and captured many enemy pilots, who were then taken to Hỏa Lò Prison, where they were generally treated with kindness.

The “Hà Nội-Điện Biên Phủ in the Air” victory from December 18 to 29, 1972, forced the US to the Paris negotiating table. The Americans withdrew their forces from south Việt Nam, leading to national reunification two years later. — VNS

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