The American War Crew: A Conversation with Tran Hong Hanh

Tran Hong Hanh is a knowledgeable and thoughtful man whose input as a producer during film production proved invaluable. Here he has written a few words about leading The American War film crew through the Phu Quoc Prison and explains to us, the audience, some of the history of the Vietnam War.

It was after dusk when we arrived on Phu Quoc Island. As the plane was descending, I looked out the window and caught zillion lights from the city, just as glistening as the reflection of the starry sky on the ocean surface. This was my second time visiting Phu Quoc, and my first time with my family. Phu Quoc Island welcomed us with a “locally” generous deal of rising wind. In the middle of an incredibly pleasant sound of the ocean, the coconut leaves, scooter exhausts, and scattered local street cries, I felt mixed feelings in me. I was relieved to see the beauty of such a pristine island yet anxious for what I was going to show my family in the next day – Phu Quoc Prison.

Picture1

First thing in the morning, we rented scooters and headed to the well-known Phu Quoc Prison. The ride was marvelous. Everywhere our eyesight reached, the scenes were captivating lush green and mountain landscapes. It felt like a stone’s throw when we reached the prison. Here is a quick overview about Phu Quoc Prison – it was built in the Indochina War by the French colonists and was originally designed to jail Vietnamese revolutionists who were considered dangerous to the colonist government. After the Geneva Accords were signed, French returned most prisoners here to North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, more prisons were built and reinforced across Vietnam, including Bien Hoa, Pleiku, Danang, Can Tho, Quy Nhon, etc. Phu Quoc prison, hence, became a P.O.W. camp under the administration of the Republic of Vietnam for detention of captured Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.

Picture2Phu Quoc prison covers an area of 40,000 square metres, divided by 12 zones, and housed more than 400 detention areas. There were four subdivisions named A,B,C, and D in each zone, each surrounded by half a dozen rows of barbed wire and stacks of mines. Guarding towers with machine-guns, constant patrols, and additional security during nightfall made Phu Quoc prison virtually impenetrable. The prison was manned by two thousand ROV staffs and wardens and about fifty American advisors. Each battalion of military police and each detention area was supervised by a corporal-rank American advisor. Overseeing Phu Quoc Prison was a ROV commander whose ranks were either lieutenant-colonel, a captain, or a warrant officer. There was always an American lieutenant-colonel and an American major sitting in the commander committee.

Picture3As we walked into the prison area, another world opened up in front of us, where ocean sound, rising wind and friendly local accents faded behind. In each subdivision, there were 9 rooms for prisoners and 2 others for interrogation, punishment or solitary confinement. The 36 square-meters prisoner room was built to house 50 people but actually had 100 to 120, sometimes 180 people. We walked by each subdivision to see the montages of tortures, trembled by the most poignant examples for the sheer brutality against human lives. Corporal punishment used included electric shock, waterboarding, hanging prisoners upside-down, nails driven into fingers, feet and head, thrusting burning metal to prisoner’s flesh, pouring boiling water onto the prisoner’s body, burning prisoners in a big wok, tightening prisoners in sacks and pouring burning coal onto them, burning prisoners alive, burying prisoners alive, and hurting prisoners with pounder, sticks and rod, pulling teeth.

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Wardens could sentence prisoners to death en masse by firing guns at them at once or using poison. Misery and pain inflicted on communist prisoners also included the well-known “tiger cage”, a cramped cage covered by barbed wire where prisoners were kept inside for days and nights. Huynh Duc – a subject in our documentary film The American War – was kept in one of these each time he plotted an escape. Beating was constant. With the systematic tortures and the worst living conditions, between June 1967 to March 1973, 4,860 prisoners were killed in Phu Quoc prison. Thirty-one times escapes were plotted, including prisoners digging trench four seperate times to get out, seven instances of rioting and fighting against the wardens and thwarting guns to escape, as well as the fourteen times prisoners escaped by climbing the walls and six times when prisoners just scattered and escaped successfully.

After walking around for a while, I was getting ready to leave. On my way out, I caught my youngest daughter standing quietly next to an old woman. The lady was telling my daughter about her annual visit to this place as her brother and sister-in-law died here. We didn’t have anything to say. Our minds were beset, and our hearts were heavy. The war, which we thought to have ended way back now laid out in our memory, explicitly more than ever.

Translated by Trang Tran

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