BackArts & Culture » In Plain Sight » How a Plane Carcass Became a Museum and Community Hangout in Hanoi

How a Plane Carcass Became a Museum and Community Hangout in Hanoi

The massive chunk of metal greeted me as soon as I stepped through the gate.

Once hailed as a “fortress” in the sky, the metal now lay in ruin, rotting. It was like the carcass of a gigantic bird, its skin peeling, its bones baring. Instead of being buried, this corpse was proudly displayed by the people who shot it down. An understandable thing, really, for the bird was a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, and I was standing at the B-52 Victory Museum.

Growing up, I had heard stories of the B-52s and Hanoi’s 12 days and nights of “Operation Điện Biên Phủ in the air.” My dad was a medical intern at St. Paul Hospital when the B-52s bombed the capital. He witnessed stretcher after stretcher bringing in the wounded and laying them down separately from the dead.

Wreckage of a B-52 bomber shot down during the “Operation Điện Biên Phủ in the air.”

For my part, I didn’t know much about those days in Hanoi. I was taught about them in school, sure, but the memorized names and dates left my brain as soon as the exam was over. I had passed by this museum many times, and now I finally decided to go in and educate myself a little.

The museum opened at 8am, and I walked in at 9am. There wasn’t a ticket office as I'd expected, and I didn’t even know if there was a parking lot; I just left my motorbike next to a couple of others. Aside from me, there was another trio whom I took to be fellow visitors. Then a black SUV with a red license plate plowed through the gate and parked confidently next to the B-52 display; a few men in military uniforms spilled out. Probably here to relive the glorious olden days, I thought.

The tail and engines of the B-52 plane.

The men took out a measuring tape and began discussing moving the B-52 here or there. I realized they were planning to renovate the museum — a commemoration for the 50th anniversary of the victory: 1972-2022. The trio that I had seen earlier weren’t visitors either, they were contractors surveying the site. It seemed I was the only one who was interested in history that day.

Aside from the B-52 corpse, the museum’s yard contained other artifacts, mostly equipment used to bring down American planes. Six anti-aircraft guns with calibers from 14.5mm to 100mm; a radar device for scanning the air; and the prized exhibits: two surface-to-air missiles. All looked to be well-preserved, unlike the B-52. I like seeing big guns as much as any other boy, but there wasn’t any information about the battle itself. I hurried to the museum’s main building in hope of learning more.

(Left) A 14.5mm Anti-aircraft Machine Gun used by the Van Dien Fertilizer Plant's Militia. (Right) The SAM-2 Missile Launcher used by the 72nd Battalion of the 285th SAM Regiment to shoot down a B-52. The plane crashed in the lake at Hoang Hoa Tham street.

The first floor proved to be a disappointment. I guess the curator’s intention was to show an overview of Hanoi’s militia, but the exhibits seemed random and uninteresting. Aside from one mural, there wasn’t much about the B-52 battle. I wandered around hopelessly until, finally, I saw a sign through a glass door: “Exhibition continues this way.” Excited, I rushed to the door. I could see a staircase leading to the second floor, but alas, the door was locked. I tried all the doors I could find, but none were open. There was no staff anywhere to ask questions of either. Guess I’m not gonna learn anything today, I thought while leaving the building dejectedly.

(Left) Phạm Thị Viễn of the Hoan Kiem self defense team. Her team shot down an F111A aircraft on December 22, 1972. (Right) Phạm Tuân, the MIG 21 pilot who shot down a B-52 plane on December 27, 1972.

As I walked out to the yard, I overheard the contractors asking a museum employee about the second floor. The staff insisted that the door should be open, so I jumped in the conversation and confirmed that the door was indeed locked. “Then go to the admin building and ask for Ms. Mai,” the staffer told us and then walked away toward the military men. The contractors seemed to think the second floor wasn’t worth the trouble, because they just walked away. But I wasn’t going to pass on the chance; I went to the admin building and asked around. While I couldn’t find Ms. Mai, another employee helped me unlock the door.

The second floor was way more interesting. It actually had relevant information about the battle. Immediately upon entering I saw a mannequin recreation of the headquarters of the Hanoi People’s Anti-Aircraft Forces, which used to be at 4 Yec Xanh Street. There were artifacts from both sides: equipment from shot-down American pilots and broken possessions belonging to the Vietnamese who were bombed. I took a cursory look around before following the museum employee who had just unlocked another door.

(Left) An ejector seat and parachute of a downed B-52. (Right) Model of Hanoi People’s Anti-Aircraft Forces headquarter.

One step into this room and I was stunned. The room looked like a small opera hall. There were benches for an audience, but instead of a stage, a huge sa bàn, or scale model, stretched from floor to ceiling. The model was of Hanoi and its surrounding areas. There were miniatures of guns, missiles and airplanes, all intricately laid out. The wall and ceiling were crisscrossed with flight paths. The Vietnamese sure do love their sa bàn, I thought.

I had seen scale models like this before, but none were quite as big and most were broken. “Does this work?” I asked the staff.

“Sure it does,” she replied, “would you like to see it?”
“Yes, please!”

She walked over to a control booth and switched things on. Above my head, not one, not two, but three projectors whirred to life, projecting images on the wall. A narrator’s voice boomed through the speakers, but before I could understand what he was saying, everything stopped.

“I’m sorry,” the staff said, “The images, the voice, and the model have to be in sync. It is a bit tricky to do and I am not the main technician here. Let me try again.” She fumbled a few more times but it seemed not to be working out. “It’s ok,” I assured her, “please just let it play, I’m grateful to see it either way.” She seemed relieved and left me to the show.

A deep and heroic voice began to narrate Hanoi’s “Operation Điện Biên Phủ in the air” — a battle named as a callback to the decisive yet bloody victory over the French in 1954. Now, in 1972, North Vietnam was in a quarrel with South Vietnam and America. There was an attempt at a peace treaty in Paris, but the negotiation went nowhere. The Americans decided the best way to pursue peace was to keep dropping bombs.

“On December 14, 1972,” the narrator said, “the American President Nixon officially approved the strategic air raid, with mostly B-52 planes, over Hanoi and Hải Phòng. The operation was called: Linebacker II…The enemy wildly waged destruction with the modern B-52. But with a wise way of war, and the skillful leadership of the Party and President Ho Chi Minh, we had long guessed the enemy’s plot and actively prepared in every way, ready to return the lightning strikes…”

Aside from the familiar airy propagandizing tone — which almost always inspires me to stop listening — the narrator did give some good information. “At 19:20 of December 18, hundreds of B-52s flew to the capital’s airspace, aiming at airfields and other strategic targets. Hanoi's sky lit up.”

While the sound of airplanes boomed through the speakers, the sa bàn came to life as well. Lights flashed around the miniatures; green for American planes on the ceiling, red for Vietnamese guns and missiles on the floor, yellow marked the spots where a plane crashed. It was an impressive display, despite the fact that the lights flashed out of sync with the narrator's story.

Somehow the mistiming made me love the show even more, like a charm hidden beneath a flaw. I was captured by the lightworks while the narrator proudly counted how many planes the Vietnamese shot down each day. The Americans took a break for Christmas, and resumed the day after. This time the bombers hit Khâm Thiên Street, one of the most populated areas in the city. Some 300 people died, more were wounded, and 2,000 houses were destroyed.

(Left) A crashed B-52 near Thanh Oai district. (Right) Phạm Tuân (red) flying through American planes (green) to attack a B-52.

The bombing stopped on the 12th day, December 30, 1972. Negotiations resumed in Paris and a peace treaty was signed one month later, at the end of January 1973; the Americans were out of the Vietnam War, and South Vietnam was left on its own. The fighting resumed almost immediately after the peace signing though. And the narrator proudly proclaimed North Vietnam’s victory in the spring of 1975.

Leaving the sa bàn room, I was dazed by sunlight. As I made my way back outside, the yard had surprisingly come alive. Children were running around, riding bicycles, climbing on the B-52 carcass. Their grandparents came, too, just sitting and enjoying the moment. It turned out that the museum had long ago become a public space for those who live around there. I felt a surge of joy to see so much life in a place that was a memorial for war.

(Left) A girl guarding her bicycle while her grandmother (right) walks with her little brother.

I sat down next to the carcass’s engine and reflected on what I had seen. Earlier, the contractors had told me that the renovation would just consist of patching cracks, cleaning mold, maybe adding a roof over the B-52. Whatever they do, I just hope the space remains open for children to ride their bikes, for adults to take a walk. Maybe they could make the sa bàn room more prominent, too. A field trip here would be infinitely more interesting than a history lesson in class.

Then a thought came to me. During the air raid, Bạch Mai Hospital was one of the places that the bombers hit, and if my dad was working there, instead of St. Paul, then maybe I wouldn’t even be here today. I felt deep gratitude to be living in a time of peace, and maybe there will come a day when all the instruments of war that we have today are, just like that airplane, relics of a distant past.

The B-52 Victory Museum is located at 157 Đội Cấn Street, Ngọc Hồ, Ba Đình District.

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