How the Hanoi Hilton Got Its Name

By Bob Shumaker, 1 May 2016

In May of 1965 I was a prisoner of war detained in North Vietnam, my aircraft having been shot down. I had been in solitary confinement for about three months in a room later known as Room 19.

Once a day a guard would open the door and direct me to a latrine area some 50 yards away where I could dump my “honey” bucket. The latrine had once been a functioning shower area, but it was in great disrepair.

My wooden cell door had a small worm hole in it about two feet off the ground, and it allowed me to survey a portion of the outside courtyard including the latrine area. Much to my surprise one day I noticed another American heading for the latrine after I had returned to my cell. I just knew I had to make contact with him.

Before capture I had taken a course in probability, so I calculated my chances of getting caught and decided it was worth it.

A previous tenant of my cell had apparently dropped some ink on the floor, so I reconstituted it with a few drops of water. I used a bamboo stick from a broom and wrote a note on the rough toilet paper I had. Besides making contact I was merely trying to cheer up the new prisoner.

The note read: “Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton; if you get this note scratch your balls on the way back”. Carefully concealing the note, I placed it over the shower drain in hopes that the new guy would spot it when he later followed me. Sure enough, as I peered through my worm hole, he scratched away.

We later established a secret drop hole in the latrine and were able to shore up each other’s resistance. And the name stuck! The prison has been known ever since as the “Hanoi Hilton”.