Message of Peace from Memorabilia of an American Veteran

Visiting Hoa Lo Prison Relics (on Hoa Lo street, Hoan Kiem district, Hanoi) in early June 2024, visitors are introduced to many souvenirs, such as mugs, clothes, matchboxes, and letters. These are mementos of Navy Lieutenant Colonel Walter Eugene Wilber, an American pilot prisoner at Hoa Lo from 1968 to 1973.
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Documents archived at Hoa Lo Prison Relics state that: On June 16, 1968, Navy Lieutenant Colonel Walter Eugene Wilber was sent to Southeast Asia, with his colleagues on an F4J Phantom II aircraft to bomb the North of Vietnam.

The plane was shot down by pilot Dinh Ton, flying a MiG21 aircraft, in Do Luong (Nghe An province). Walter Eugene Wilber's teammate died. Wilber parachuted, falling into the fields of Thanh Tien commune, Thanh Chuong district, Nghe An province.

He was arrested and transferred to Hoa Lo prison. During 5 years there, Walter received humane and tolerant treatment. On February 12, 1973, he was returned at Gia Lam airport, Hanoi. He asked to bring all the items he used at Hoa Lo prison to the United States. After nearly half a century, Thomas Eugene Wilber, his son, donated many memorabilia to the Hoa Lo Prison Relics Management Board.

Among those memorabilia is a mug Walter used to drink water. The mug is made of enameled iron, with a top lid. This is a product of Hai Phong Enameled Iron - Aluminum Factory (now Hai Phong Enameled Iron - Aluminum Joint Stock Company). Established in 1960, this is the country's leading factory in the production of enameled iron and aluminum products. The factory's products all have a blue circular logo, inside the circle is a dove and the words "Enameled iron - aluminum, Hai Phong."

Message of Peace from Memorabilia of an American Veteran
The mug was used by American pilot Walter Eugene Wilber while detained at Hoa Lo Prison. (Photo: Records of artifacts in 2017/Hoa Lo Prison Relics)

Every morning, Walter uses the mug to hold water or coffee. Coffee is provided by his family, kept, and gradually distributed by the prison. Due to heavy use, the enamel at the lid, mouth, and bottom of the mug are peeling off. In addition to iron mugs, aluminum mugs were also provided by the prison for American pilots.

During his time in Hoa Lo, Walter wrote many letters to his family. One of those letters was sent to his eldest son during the Christmas season of 1970, when he turned 17 years old. The letter is kept at Hoa Lo Prison Relics.

The letter read: "Happy birthday son. Being 17 is a really fun time. The horizon is opening up before your eyes and you will become more confident. Don't miss any of the happy days of your youth, but keep on training your body and mind, especially learning how to think and solve problems. Be honest, but don't become afraid of crowds. I don't know what to send you other than my love and best wishes. You know, trust and peace are just empty words until they are practiced with discipline."

In many letters, Walter Eugene Wilber wrote about the lives of American pilot prisoners of war in Hoa Lo and encouraged his family to rest assured that he was in good health and was treated humanely by prison authorities. He always wanted this unjust war to end soon.

Another memento is a piece of wrapping paper that was sent by his son in 1972, which Walter kept and brought back to the US when he was freed.

Message of Peace from Memorabilia of an American Veteran
Thomas Eugene Wilber, son of Navy Lieutenant Colonel Walter Eugene Wilber, at the opening ceremony of the exhibition in December 2023. (Photo: Economy & Urban)

The memorabilia tells a vivid story about a part of the life of Walter Eugene Wilber as well as the American pilot prisoners during detention at Hoa Lo; affirming the humane treatment of the Vietnamese government and people towards American prisoners kept during the war to protect the fatherland. At the same time, it sends the message of peace from those involved to future generations.

The "Memorabilia of War" exhibition organized by the Hoa Lo Prison Relics Management Board in December 2023 was attended by Thomas Eugene Wilber. He said that during his lifetime, his father wanted to return to Vietnam and visit Hoa Lo prison, but he could not make it.

Thomas tried to fulfill his father's wish. He first came to Vietnam in 2014 and has returned 43 times. During those visits, he always went to Hoa Lo prison, which has now become Hoa Lo Prison Relics. Since his first steps on Hoa Lo relic, he felt connected to his father's footsteps more than half a century ago, like returning to his home.

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