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Utah POW recalls horrors of Hanoi Hilton at new exhibit

Published September 22, 2012 1:06 pm

Vietnam War exhibit features POW cell, list of Utah's dead.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Roy • The "Hanoi Hilton" cell replica at the Hill Aerospace Museum "is too clean and smells too good," but it gives visitors a glimpse into Jay Hess' world for 5½ years during the Vietnam War.

Hess, of Farmington, was a 37-year-old captain in the Air Force in 1967 when his F-105 was shot down. He bailed out and was captured by the North Vietnamese.

Hess spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war at Hoa Lo Prison, which the captives facetiously nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton.

According to the exhibit, 14 POW camps in the country held 661 members of the U.S. military and 110 civilians and other foreign nationals, and 113 died in captivity.

On Friday, Hess was the keynote speaker and helped cut the ribbon for a major new permanent exhibit on the Vietnam War at the museum on the northwest side of Hill Air Force Base.

Friday was National POW/Missing in Action Recognition Day, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Southeast Asia.

The exhibit has some 25 Vietnam-era and later helicopters and planes, and panels provide a timeline of the war, describe HAFB's role and name the 364 Utah residents who died or went missing in Vietnam.

In the Hanoi Hilton cell replica, mannequins created from Hess' and his cellmates' pictures share the cramped space with rats and bugs. Prison shirts and sandals made of tires that Hess brought back to Utah are also on display.

"In the night, there were grown men crying. And there were screams," Hess, now 82, told about 100 who gathered for the exhibit's opening. "It was a kind of a horror place."

Hess said he was tortured in various ways but was never shackled to his bed, and only once was tortured in one of the most horrific ways, sitting with legs straight out and having his arms forced backward and over his head.

"Poor Konnie [his roommate Konrad Trautman]. He went through it a dozen times," Hess said.

After returning to Utah, Hess retired from the Air Force in 1973 and helped establish the ROTC program at Clearfield High School, where he taught until 1995.

The exhibit, he said, should help Utahns "never, ever, ever forget," the war.

Base commander Col. Sarah Zabel said the exhibit will help educate a population that often seems to know more about World Wars I and II than Vietnam.

"The Vietnam War was a war within our society as well as in Southeast Asia," Zabel said, sharing personal reflections of growing up in a country deeply divided.

"The angst and the unhappiness of the war obscure the history," she said.

The United States may not have been able to declare victory in Vietnam, Zabel said, but "we won the war at home."

Today's servicemen and women and veterans are treated with respect, even by those who oppose the wars they fight, she says.

"On the streets, people will still accost you. But it's to thank you for your service," Zabel said.

The new exhibit, which fills a hangar, cost $300,000, most of which came via three grants from the Weber County Recreation, Arts, Museums and Parks program. The Aerospace Heritage Foundation of Utah secured funding and coordinated construction.

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Visit the museum

The Vietnam War exhibit, which opens Saturday, will be a permanent part of the Hill Aerospace Museum. It is open seven days a week year-round except for three days — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day — between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. The museum can be reached off Interstate 15 Exit 338 in Roy. It is not necessary to go through a Hill Air Force Base security checkpoint to reach the museum. —

How to contribute to the Vietnam War exhibit at Hill Air Force Base

Visitors to the Hill Aerospace Museum can submit information about their own or family members' service in the Vietnam War. It will be included in a searchable database as part of the Vietnam War exhibit. More information is available from Nathan Myers, curator. The museum's phone number is 801-777-6818.