Monday, May 25, 2020

The "Zoo" for Humans during the Vietnam War

ABOVE: In the Ngã Tư Sở section of Hanoi, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam's Cự Lộc facility (outlined in red) the northernmost section of which (in upper-middle surrounding rectangular pool) held American prisoners during the Vietnam War, was known to those detained there as the "Zoo." BELOW: The facility was also known to U.S. intelligence analysts, who had gathered enough information to have a very detailed model made of it.  The model is currently featured as a part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's exhibit, The 10,000 Day War at Sea, the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975 ("Tomlat" via Flickr/ M.C. Farrington)
By Matthew Headrick
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Located in the heart of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s new Vietnam exhibit is a model of a North Vietnamese prison that was given the nickname the “Zoo” by the pilots who were detained there. The windows were bricked. Rooms were padlocked, and there was just enough space for guards and livestock to look inside. We know the model was created by U.S. intelligence analysts, but there are still many questions regarding why the model was built.  

Defense Intelligence Agency personnel helped coordinate production of information relating to prisoner of war camps, including overhead reconnaissance, which contributed to the making of this model of Sơn Tây Prison, which was used in planning Operation Kingpin (its second phase was called Operation Ivory Coast) in 1970. (Defense Intelligence Agency)  
One of the more obvious answers is that it might have served the same purpose as a similar model of Sơn Tây camp, which was used to plan a rescue in 1970 that was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1970, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) received information that 61 Americans were being held there. The Special Forces night extraction by helicopter was code-named Operation Kingpin. Two days before the Special Forces mission was to kick off, word was received that the prisoners had been moved. The next day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Thomas Moorer received new intel that there was still a 50/50 chance the POWs had not been relocated. So, on November 21, 1970 the mission launched, and after exchanging small arms fire with the enemy, U.S. forces discovered that the original intel they received was correct. The prisoners were gone.
Shortly after the war, ex-POW Mike McGrath annotated this detailed map of Hanoi to show the location of prisons. He did it so he would not forget where the camps were. Out of the estimated 13 prisons and camps used to detain captured personnel during the war, only Cự Lộc (the Zoo), Hỏa Lò (the Hanoi Hilton), the Plantation (used as a model showpiece for foreign visitors and the press), and Alcatraz (where the most difficult-to-control prisoners were held) were close to central Hanoi. (Wikimedia Commons)
What is certain is that the Zoo itself had some very unique features and a very dark history. From September of 1965 through 1972, the Zoo, located near the village of Cự Lộc in North Vietnam, periodically operated as a POW camp. However, its purpose as a prison camp was multi-functional. It was not until September of 1971 that the camp was used as a long-term holding facility for prisoners of war. Its underlining purpose in 1972 was that of a “showplace,” which is why it is so often compared to the “Plantation Camp,” located in Northeast Hanoi. 
North Vietnamese propagandists, via the Eastern bloc press, presented an idealized picture of the Americans in their custody.  This picture was likely taken either at the Plantation or the Zoo camps, within easy reach of Hanoi-based correspondents from Communist and nonaligned nations. (Manhhai via Flickr)  
The Zoo served a similar purpose as the Plantation Camp, thus it has been regarded as that camp's primary replacement. The term “showplace” is an appropriate description of the camp's use. One might compare the prison to something of a staging prop. There were films made there capturing images of prisoners engaged in Christmas activities and even playing sports such as basketball. By the end of 1970, all captives held at the Zoo were transferred to Hỏa Lò. Only two men were held there in 1971. After their short stay at the Zoo, they were transferred to the “Rockpile” POW camp, located just south of Hanoi.
Another North Vietnamese propaganda photograph provided to Western media through Communist intermediaries shows Air Force Maj. David Hatcher and Navy Lt. David Rehmann beholding food "fit for a Vietnamese officer."  (Manhhai via Flickr)
Like some other camps, such as “Briarpatch,” located 33 miles northwest of Hanoi, the Zoo was established to address overcrowding in other prisons, only to later experience overflow itself.  Both the Zoo and Briarpatch opened in the summer of 1965 because Hỏa Lò was overflowing. The Zoo was a deserted French site that had once housed a movie studio and is believed to have been an art colony. 
This is the main (and oldest) part of the compound featuring the pool (which, of course, was not used for recreational swimming during the time Americans were incarcerated there) and the auditorium.  If you look closely, the model makers included air raid shelter entrances, which look like manholes scattered throughout the compound. (M.C. Farrington)   
By February 1966, over 50 captives were being held there. In 1967, the Zoo held approximately 120 prisoners of war. In that same year, it too started to overflow with prisoners of war. So, in October, a section was added known as the “Annex.” As the POW camp grew in size and numbers, so did its reputation as being primitive and brutal.  
The southernmost section of the Zoo depicted in the immediate foreground of the model, furthest away from the main compound, probably housed guards and other personnel of the People's Army of Vietnam (note the larger number of air raid shelter entrances than in the section used for holding prisoners), while the middle compound beyond the gate (sandwiched between the foreground compound and the older main compound) was most likely the "Annex," added in order to house burgeoning numbers of American prisoners.  It was from here that two of them escaped on May 10, 1969.  Air Force captains Edwin L. Atterberry and John A. Dramesi were recaptured less than a day later.  Atterberry subsequently paid the ultimate price for this act of defiance, dying at the hands of his captors, while Dramesi barely survived the torture and six months in irons that followed his recapture.  (M.C. Farrington
Even though there were camps with more sophisticated techniques of torture, the Zoo was exceptional, with its own unique reputation for mistreatment and cruelty from when it first became operational, to the very end. Visually, the POW camp was quite menacing. The cells were old concrete buildings. The concrete floors served as prisoners' beds. One of the more infamous structures within the compound was an old movie theater turned dark torture chamber known as the “auditorium.” Former prisoners have described it as being nothing but a pitch-black room overwhelmed with rats and smelling of human feces. The North Vietnamese would go on to build a separate cell, strictly dedicated to interrogation and torture.
It is all but certain that this photograph taken in 1967 by Lee Lockwood shows Air Force 1st Lt. Joseph Crecca feeding turkeys near the edge of the pool at the center of the main prisoner compound at the Zoo.  However, as was the case with every other image the North Vietnamese authorities allowed the world to see, looks could be deceiving.  (Manhhai via Flickr)    
The yard was inhabited by farm animals and even included an old swimming pool that was used to house fish. The treatment men received there was as Spartan as the cement walls that surrounded them. POWs were hardly allowed to bathe. Most of the time, they were handed a bucket of water to perform any hygienic routines. Food was very scarce. It was during the years 1967 through 1968 that the camp was recognized by the U.S. Military as more of a torture facility than just a holding camp for prisoners. Unlike other camps, it did not matter how long a prisoner had been there. Everyone was susceptible to this type of harsh treatment. Some of the last POWs to leave Vietnam were assembled at the Zoo.
One of the few successful acts of defiance staged by the American prisoners (which wasn't rewarded with torture) at the Zoo happened on March 29, 1973, almost at the time of their final release. Resisting the stage management of their captors, who had laid out implausible accommodations for the international news media, expecting the Americans to play along, they instead turned their backs to the cameras. Air Force Major William Ellender explained to NBC News reporter Liz Trotta. “We object to having our pictures taken because this isn’t the way we live.” He tried to say more," said Trotta, "but the guards stopped him."  Despite their unwillingness to comply with their captors until the very end, they arrived safely at Clark Air Force Base, Republic of the Philippines, shortly afterward. (Manhhai via Flickr)
The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, which officially ended the war in Vietnam. It was on February 12th of that year when the first American POW was released. It took approximately a year for President Richard Nixon to announce the return of all POWs from Vietnam. One of the most striking artifacts in our gallery is the model of the Zoo.  It is one of many visuals on display at our museum that represents the hardships and struggles faced by POWs in the Vietnam War.
The approximately six foot-long model of the Zoo, known formally as the Cự Lộc (and the Ngã Tư Sở) facility, seen from its "north" corner, is displayed at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum near a life-size diorama showing conditions inside a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. (M.C. Farrington)  

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