On 12 December 1971, Ben Purcell, leading a group of nine POWs from the Skid Row camp, was assigned to a small “Mountain Camp” located in a mountainous area known as K-49, approximately 50 miles north of Hanoi near Thai Nguyen. As they left Skid Row, the POWs were blindfolded and transported in cages mounted on the back of a jeep. Purcell later speculated that the North Vietnamese authorities separated the Americans from the Skid Row, believing they were all military intelligence officers. The prisoners initially perceived K-49 as a state prison under civilian control rather than a military facility.

At Mountain Camp, prisoners were confined to individual cells and permitted to venture outside only within the small enclosed area connected to each cell. One building housed five cells, while another contained four. Despite being kept in isolation, each 10’ x 10’ cell was equipped with a table, a stool, a straw mattress on a bed, and a latrine. The latrine featured a cement sit-down toilet and a small tub for water, used both for flushing the toilet and for personal showers.

The attached area for each cell was constructed of concrete and enclosed with barbed wire across the top. Although prisoners had most of the day to spend in their respective “veranda,” the guards allowed only one prisoner out at a time. Three meals were served daily. In a notable incident, Ben Purcell—having escaped Skid Row in December 1969 and only to be recaptured—managed to escape from Mountain Camp and eluded capture for 30 hours in March 1972.

The entire compound was enclosed by a 9-foot-high fence made of bamboo and covered with various plants. The vines covered the barbed wire over the exercise area for each cell, and the roof and walls of the two buildings were coated with tar and kerosene. Trees were strategically planted around the cell blocks, indicating deliberate efforts to camouflage the camp. Additionally, there was a separate building designated for the guards’ quarters, along with two guard towers.

Indications suggesting the war was winding down were making their way through the camp by October 1972. The guards appeared more amicable, the quality of food, now including meat, improved, and American prisoners were permitted to eat together as a group. A camp officer even rode a bicycle to a village five miles away to procure lemons and limes for the prisoners. The two German volunteer nurses were asked to sign a document detailing the food provided for each meal.

Notably, ailing civilian POW Charles Willis—having been captured in South Vietnam during the 1968 Tet offensive—received special attention. The 28 vitamin B-1 shots and other care enabled him to recover. Prisoners were even allowed to work in a small garden within the camp walls. On 28 January 1973, the camp closed, and all POWs were transferred to the Hanoi Hilton’s New Guy Village. Over the next two weeks, they received substantial rations of meat, fish, chowder and bread, along with physical examinations. On February 9, the now healthier POWs joined others in the Vegas compound.

Chales Willis
Monika Schwinn

Two German civilian hospital workers for a Catholic aid society captured in 1969 by the Vietcong in South Vietnam and moved to Mountain Camp, Bernard Diehl and Monika Schwinn, were sent to the Hanoi Hilton separately after the American POWs. During their initial 10 days at the Hanoi Hilton, they were kept isolated before rejoining the rest of the former Mountain Camp prisoners. 

Bernard Diehl

Mountain Camp prisoners included:  civilian Bernhard Diehl, Ted Gostas, civilian Philip Manhard, Ben Purcell, Donald Rader, civilian Monika Schwinn, civilian Eugene Weaver and civilian Charles Willis.

A ninth American civilian captive was included in the group.  On September 9, 1970 , Bobby Joe Keesee, a criminal fleeing authority in Thailand, stole a small aircraft and flew east into North Vietnam. He ran out of fuel and landed on a beach.  He was quickly captured.  Keesee could not explain his actions to the Vietnamese.  Keesee was assumed to be a CIA intelligence officer and was treated as such until his release March 14th, 1973 during Operation Homecoming.  Keesee was flown to Clark Air Force Base and quietly kept separate from the American POWs.  He currently is serving a lengthy prison term for murder and other crimes. 

Recommended Reading

Love & Duty
We came to help
Bean Camp to Briar Patch-Life in the POW Camps of Korea and Vietnam

 Thanks to Scott Dillingham for his research and composition of the above introduction to the “Mountain POW Camp.”