‘The Hanoi Hilton’ and the day of tragedy in my own hometown
By Linda Cavanaugh, 1998 Inductee
From the air, it was a beautiful sight. Our plane had begun the descent to land in Vietnam, and I marveled at the number of small blue lakes that dotted the countryside. Former Vietnam prisoner of war and Navy pilot Dan Glenn—who hadn’t seen the country since his release decades earlier—took a look and said matter-of-factly, “Those are rain filled bomb craters.”
It was the beginning of a trip that would take him back to a time when he and other U.S. military prisoners of war were held in conditions so harsh and inhumane that atrocities were a wat of life.
“All the movies tell you when the pain gets too bad, you pass out,” he said, “You don’t pass out.”
We didn’t know it at the time, but out April 1995 trip back to Vietnam would make history.
It was a journey months in the making.
I had contacted Glenn at his home in Norman, Oklahoma, to ask if he would consider returning to Vietnam.
I explained that I was producing a documentary to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and the end of the war in Vietnam. The controversial war had captured headlines during my high school in college years– and took the lives of many of those still smiling from the pages of my yearbooks.
At first, he declined.
But then, several weeks later, Dan called me to say he changed his mind. He was willing to go back.
After weeks of planning, Glenn, photographer Tony Stizza, and arrived in Vietnam to begin a trip that would take us into the notorious Cu Chi tunnels– the underground layer where Viet Cong lay in wait for U.S. infantry. After several requests, we were able to talk with a formal Viet Cong general, who, with his family, lived in a hut on the outskirts of the jungle.
But our ultimate goal was to return to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the prison where Glenn was taken in 1966 as a 26-year-old Navy pilot, shot down and captured four days before Christmas.
“I was worried about surviving the day,” Glenn said.
he had no way of knowing that one day would turn into a six-year nightmare of incarceration.
Yet, he wanted to return.
Our request for entry into the abandoned prison was not the first to be made by journalists. All had been declined. But we persisted. We stood outside of the locked gate and waited. For 8 hours, we waited.
Finally, a man arrived with a large metal key, walked up to the gate and opened it.
We became the first journalist to enter the notorious prison where hundreds of American POWs had been interrogated and tortured.
When the gate swung open, Glenn didn’t hesitate. He headed directly to the room where he was first taken and introduced to “The Rabbit,” a man known for his especially cruel torture techniques. Glenn remembered a meat hook that hung from the ceiling.
After a few minutes, he began to cry. I suggested that we step outside for fresh air. He hesitated, looked at me, and said something I’ll never forget.
“I’m crying because I’m remembering the incredible love POWs had for each other in this place.
My family and friends worried about our safety in Vietnam period but, one night as our trip was nearing its end in Hanoi, I awakened to hear a voice on the hotel television frantically describing a scene of horrible destruction. The voice sounded oddly familiar. It was one of our Channel 4 reporters.
I got out of bed and walked toward the screen to see smoke pouring from a building whose front was torn away. Papers were still floating down from the top stories. First responders were rushing into the debris of a downtown Oklahoma City building. It was April 19, 1995.
Linda Cavanaugh has been called “Oklahoma’s First Lady of Television News.” Her journalism career spanned more than four decades. Linda began her career in newspapers before working in New York as a magazine writer. She returned to Oklahoma City to begin her broadcasting career.
Hall of Famers Linda Cavanaugh and Tony Stizza shoot footage in the countryside near Hanoi, Vietnam. April 1995.