The Portholes POW camp (Bao Cao) was situated in the northern jungle region of North Vietnam’s panhandle, near the town of Vinh. Operational from September 1967, it functioned as a semi-permanent detention facility. Despite lacking a perimeter fence or conventional prison infrastructure, Portholes exhibited a higher level of organization compared to POW facilities in South Vietnam.

Early on, a small group of POWs were housed in a primitive bamboo hut, referred to by their captors as the “dispensary” and by the POWs themselves as their “bamboo prison.” This structure measured approximately 15′ by 30′, with two sets of three cells (each about 4′ by 5′) facing each other and separated by a hallway. A guard maintained a constant presence in the hallway, preventing any communication among the POWs.

Following the 1968 NVA Communist Tet offensive in South Vietnam, the camp underwent expansion, incorporating new buildings to accommodate the arrival of over 50 recently captured Americans from the Tet offensive. The newly arrived POWs commonly dubbed the camp “Bao Cao,” a term mandated for addressing guards, signifying “reporting for duty” without bowing. This requirement essentially compelled the prisoners to salute the guards as if they held superior rank. Furthermore, specific cells were assigned nicknames like “Closet” and “Telephone Booth,” while the term “Portholes” was used to describe the round holes cut into the doors of these compact cells to aid ventilation.

The expanded “Portholes camp” introduced specially constructed cellblock buildings, interspersed with thatched huts and sheds. These structures were designed with sturdy timber walls and thatched roofs, each approximately 30 feet long. Some of the cellblocks were situated below ground level, revealing only the thatched roof. These buildings housed a series of small individual cells, measuring around 3’x 6’ and 6’ high, resembling chicken coops. Inside the cells, the environment was austere, featuring wooden leg stocks commonly used on the POWs at night. Meals consisting of modest portions of rice, dried vegetables or diluted soup—were served at 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM.

Upon their arrival, the prisoners were divided into three distinct groups: civilians (which included a few military personnel), junior enlisted individuals, and senior enlisted personnel and officers. Civilian prisoners were accommodated in 15 cells within an area known as “Duc’s Camp,” while enlisted prisoners were assigned cells in a section labeled “Minh’s Camp.” Officers were held in a third separate area. These buildings were isolated from one another, with distances of 200 feet or more within a wooded region.

The prisoners’ activities were orchestrated by the resonating sound of a gong crafted from a large-caliber ammunition shell. Every morning at 6:00 AM, individuals were permitted to leave their cells one by one. They could then proceed to the stream for washing and visit the latrine, an unpleasant-smelling hole located near the cellblocks. After completing their washing routines, the POWs were either returned to their cells or directed to engage in work details or face interrogation. The extent of interrogation and mistreatment varied among the prisoners.

By mid-January, the original five “bamboo prison” POWs would be relocated to the Hanoi Hilton. In July 1968, a group of 14 civilian and 4 military POWs captured in South Vietnam were transferred to the Skid Row POW camp. By late August 1968, the Portholes camp was shuttered and the remaining 40 or so prisoners were moved to the Farnsworth POW camp.

Sketch of Bao Cao
Sketch of Bao Cao
Cell in Bao Cao

NOTE: On 1 January 1968, Captain Lance Sijan, a 25-year-old Air Force Academy graduate, was captured and confined in the Portholes dispensary “bamboo prison” after his F-4 aircraft was downed caused by an explosion from a malfunction in the ordnance in November 1967. Sijan, who had a badly broken leg, a concussion and a severely mangled hand, managed to evade capture for six weeks, enduring 10 days without water and 46 days without food, resulting in a dramatic weight loss of 160 pounds. After being captured during a failed second escape attempt and with a weight of only 60 pounds, Captain Sijan became a prisoner of war, enduring numerous daily beatings and torture sessions.

Despite his weakened state and the intense torture, Captain Sijan adhered to the military Code of Conduct, providing only his name, rank, service number and date of birth. Sadly, Captain Sijan succumbed to his injuries and weakened condition shortly after being transferred to the Hanoi Hilton. 

 

Captain Lance P. Sijan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, becoming the only Air Force Academy graduate to receive this honor. This recognition was a testament to his extraordinary courage, service and sacrifice as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam. His steadfast commitment to the military Code of Conduct reflects his unwavering dedication to serve at all costs.

Portholes prisoners included: John Anderson, Bruce Archer, Cloden Adkins, Candido Baird, Art Balagot, Harvey Brande, Leonard Budd, Richard Burgess, Marc Cayer, Robert Chenoweth, Robert Craner, Gary Daves, George “Bud” Day, James DiBernardo, Carrol Flora, Ted Gostas, Guy Gruters, Dan Hefel, Robert Helle, Alex Henerson, Abel Kavanaugh, Tom Kobashigawa, Michael Lenker, Edward W. Leonard Jr, Phil Manhard, Paul Montague, Lewis Meyer, Thomas Mott, John Murphy, Mike O’Connor, Robert Olsen, Norris Overly, Russell Page, Ben Purcell, Don Rander, King Rayford, Alfonso Riate, Joe Rose, Thomas Rushton, Lance Sijan, John Sparks, Richard Spaulding, Dennis Tellier, William Thomas, Larry Stark, Dennis Thompson, Floyd Thompson, Chuck Willis, John Young, and Roy Ziegler.

Some of the POW’s interned at Portholes POW camp

Recommended Reading

Into The Mouth of The Cat: The Story of Lance Sijan, Hero of Vietnam: The riveting story of Captain Lance Sijan's sacrifice as a prisoner of war and Medal of Honor Recipient from the Vietnam War
Locked Up With God: My Best Thirteen Speeches by Captain Guy D. Gruters, Vietnam POW
Love & Duty
Return With Honor

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