For a long time I wanted to meet former prisoners that during the war we held in our prisons. Mr. Don Luce, who worked in Viet Nam for many years during the war, told me of of an old French island prison named Con Son, or as it is known by the prisoners, Con Dao. An estimated 20,000 prisoners disappeared while on that island under both the French and than under the regime of the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. About 2,000 bodies have been identified and given burials on the island. Women were held prisoner there. I have interviewed about 16 POWs, but in particular two men and two women. That is a long film and is directed toward those history enthusiasts. Here I have an 18-minute film where I visited the island with my assistant Nguyen Vuong. The old prison camp is large, and I trooped through and around the entire place. I went into different cells and cell blocks. I compared my notes of my interviews with what was on the ground. The torture and humiliations suffered by all the prisoners was hard to accept. Hard to accept in part as it was sponsored and financed by the United States government. We also had advisors there and interrogators and attempted to cover up what was happening. The South Vietnamese in charge of prisons and interrogations were the primary hands-on operators. The story appeared in Life magazine in 1970. Senator Tom Harkin was then a legislative aide visiting the island, and he assisted Don Luce in exposing the prison for what it was. The most infamous of the cell blocks were called the “Tiger Cages.” Maybe it’s my “Southern” upbringing, but the horrors done to the women made me more than angry. You know men suffer in war, but not what was done to these women. No.
These were political prisoners for the most part. Many were college students handing out anti-government leaflets. One of the women I interviewed was a nurse who worked to help wounded VC. They would have been let go if they would have saluted the flag of South Viet Nam and pledged allegiance to that government. Individually, one-by-one, they refused and ended up on the island. For years they were brutalized. Many were raped and some even had their nipples cut off. Still, they refused to salute. Then after the Paris Peace Accords and the release of American POWs, they were supposed to receive a like release. However, on the average they were incarcerated and suffered for another year.
I would like to note, however, that this takes nothing from the experiences of our American POWs held up North. I have the greatest respect for those Americans who suffered as POWs. I would hope that prisoners from both sides could get together some day. I would hope that it would never happen again, but I’m afraid it has. War is that way, as well as leaders who direct from the rear. I might note that I had free access to the prison and no one supervised my visit or has seen this film until now.