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Ex-commando recalls the horror of jail

Update: July, 24/2012 - 16:58


Monument to brutality: Phu Quoc Prison is now a popular tourist site but the memory of treatment there still haunts former prisoners. — VNS Photo Trung Hieu
Service awards: Former commando Nguyen Viet Vinh shows the medals he earned in the Viet Nam Navy force. — VNS Photo
Phu Quoc Prison is synonymous with chains, chuong cop (tiger cages) and the savage torture of revolutionary soldiers. However, all these things could not defeat the prisoners and lower their fighting spirit. Commando Nguyen Viet Vinh luckily survived the torture, but returned home with both mental and physical scars.

Vinh was born in 1947 in Tien Lang District's Cap Tien Commune in the northern province of Hai Phong. Like other young men, he joined the army to fight for the liberation of the country. In 1965, he was trained in the Naval High Command in Ba Che District of Quang Ninh Province and then moved to Van Hoa Port in Van Don District to guard a weapons dump. He and his comrades fought in more than 150 battles to keep the facility safe.

In 1967, Vinh was appointed to the Commando 126A unit of the Vietnamese naval forces in Quang Yen Town, Quang Ninh Province. He covered himself in glory by capturing an American pilot alive during a fight against the US air war against NorthViet Nam. President Ho Chi Minh visited the North East Military Zone and awarded him a medal. Vinh recalled President Ho's words: "You have accomplished this to protect the North, but it has also made a big contribution to the battle for the South, and will go a long way to uniting the country. I wish you good health and many more victories."

After finishing his commando training at the end of 1967, he was sent to Gio Linh District's Cua Viet Town in Quang Tri Province. At that time, fighting was intense, as the enemy used the river to transport supplies. Vinh's mission was to attack enemy ships and take their weapons, which were then sent to the battlefields to aid liberation fighters in the South.

In May 1968, after identifying a target, his team dived into the water and tried to attach mines to the hull of a warship. However, they were spotted and the enemy opened fire. Many people died and Vinh was captured. When he woke up, he was lying in a cell at Non Nuoc prison in Da Nang City.

Non Nuoc Prison was well-known for its persecution of liberation fighters. While imprisoned, Vinh shared a cell with five people. He was told stories about a jailer who often beat prisoners ruthlessly. "When I got there, I thought there was little chance of escaping death. I heard stories about the vicious guard, and decided I was going to kill him. I discussed the plan with my cellmates," Vinh recalled.

The plan was carried out when the jailer was conducting roll call. Vinh and the other prisoners hid in a corner of the cell and pretended to be playing chess. The jailer came into the cell and started to hit them with a baton, but they overpowered him and beat him to death. Then they buried him in the cell. The prison authority looked everywhere for him, but to no avail, and it was only the smell of his decomposing body that gave Vinh and his cellmates away.

The jail wardens tortured six liberation soldiers to find out who killed the jailer. Vinh told them that he had acted alone, but he and his cellmates were transferred to Phu Quoc Prison. They were locked in tiger cages under the scorching sun surrounded by barbed wire, and tortured at random.

The jailers considered Vinh to be the leader of the group. They tied copper wires to his ears and teeth, and electrocuted him. To compound the pain, they also used pliers to break his teeth. It wasn't until 1973 following the US troops' withdrawal from South Viet Nam that the Sai Gon regime finally released him in Quang Tri Province, but the damage was done. His jaw was practically hanging off, and even today he hears a buzzing in his ears when the weather changes.

At the end of 1973, Vinh convalesced in Nam Ha (Ha Nam Province today). Having not heard anything from his family, he had little choice but to stay in a local hospital. When he had recovered sufficiently, he returned to his hometown, only to find tragic stories about his younger brother waiting for him.

During his imprisonment in Non Nuoc and Con Dao, no one had heard anything of him. His comrades thought he was dead and sent notification of his death to his family. His father and brother were devastated by the news, and his brother Nguyen Thanh Vien volunteered to fight to protect the northern border, where he was later killed.

His first son Nguyen Quang Tri, born in 1974, was named after the province in which he fought many battles. His second and third sons Nguyen Van Bien and Nguyen Van Gioi, born in 1976 and 1978, were named to commemorate his brother who died on the Viet Nam-Laos border (Bien Gioi means border).

The old soldier still suffers from the torture he endured, and the memories that the enemy left him with all those years ago. — VNS

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