The Skid Row (Ban Liet) POW camp, referred to as K–77 by the Americans, was situated six miles southwest of Hanoi, North Vietnam. Prisoners were detained here from July 1968 to January 1972, including a group of POWs who did not cooperate at the Hanoi Hilton.
The camp received this name due to the deteriorated condition of the buildings, likely stemming from its previous use as a civilian penitentiary. The site lacked basic amenities such as electricity, bathing facilities and proper toilets. Enclosed by a 14-foot-high wall topped with barbed wire, the primary building housing the POWs was either an old monastery or an aged French penitentiary. Other structures accommodated the guards, the camp kitchen, camp commander, and at least one building holding eight cells that served as interrogation rooms.
Upon arrival of the initial group of 15 American airmen POWs in July 1968, they reported the presence of 24 U.S. civilian and military prisoners captured outside North Vietnam. Additionally, 56 individuals of various nationalities (e.g., South Vietnamese, Laotian) were also housed at Skid Row.
The primary concrete building designated for prisoners featured two hallways, each consisting of 18 cells measuring approximately 6’x6’ and equipped with wooden plank beds. Each cell door had a small opening covered by bars and an outer shutter. These cells lacked windows or adequate ventilation, although some had kerosene lamps. Communication among POWs was extremely challenging due to the thick cell walls, and the fact that a Vietnamese or Laotian prisoner occupied every other cell holding a U.S. prisoner.
Each prisoner was individually allowed out of their cell for a few minutes each day to wash and empty their latrine bucket. They received two cigarettes a day, a shave three times a month (using the same razor for everyone), and had a monthly haircut. No other “amenities and privileges” were provided.
The food served was better than what POWs captured in South Vietnam had experienced, but the Hanoi POWs still considered it inadequate. They received two meals daily: a small loaf of bread and a lump of sugar for breakfast, while an evening meal might include boiled cabbage, bread, and hot water. The bread, however, often contained bugs and small stones. Each POW was only allowed two pints of water daily. Skid Row witnessed continuous health issues among the POWs, including dysentery and skin fungus.
As the Paris Peace Accord talks advanced in September 1969, many of the original POWs and most South Vietnamese civilians were confined in a building comprising six 4-man cells, kept isolated from other cells. The sessions for interrogation and indoctrination—although involving fewer beatings—continued more frequently compared to other camps.
Around the same period, prisoners began receiving a one-page camp propaganda newsletter containing news sourced from the Communist North Vietnamese Army’s Radio Hanoi. Each page of the newspaper was stamped with the numbers “77,” hence the camp’s secondary name, K-77. Additionally, the camp’s loudspeakers broadcasted taunting messages in English from Hanoi Radio’s “Radio Hanna” on Sundays.
In December 1969, an escape took place from Skid Row when Ben Purcell, a senior camp officer, managed to reach Hanoi to access the French consulate. Despite his efforts, he was captured and sent back to Skid Row. Remarkably, his only punishment was a two-week stint in leg stocks.
In March 1971, Camp Unity shifted 36 POWs to Skid Row to be detained there until November. These individuals were deemed troublemakers by the Camp Unity guards, prompting their temporary removal from the general population. Additionally, in September, 24 POWs were banished from the Hanoi Hilton to Skid Row due to non-cooperation but were ultimately returned to Hanoi two months later. During December of the same year, other small groups of prisoners from Camp Unity were briefly relocated to Skid Row. By the end of 1971, the remaining POWs captured in South Vietnam were transferred to the Mountain POW camp. On January 1, 1972, the Skid Row POW camp was officially closed.
Some of the military POW’s held at Skid Row
Skid Row prisoners from South Vietnam: Cloden Adkins, Candido Badua, Art Balagot, Marc Cayer, civilian Gary Daves, Bernhard Diehl, Ted Gostas, civilian Alex Henderson, Kenneth Hughey, civilian Lewis Meyer, civilian Robert Olsen, civilian Russell Page, Ben Purcell, Don Rander, civilian Tom Rushton, civilian Richard Spaulding, Larry Stark, civilian Monika Schwinn, Dennis Thompson, Floyd “Jim” Thompson, civilian Gene Weaver and civilian Charles Willis. The two West Germans, civilian medical student Bernard Diehl and civilian nurse Monika Schwinn, were kept isolated from the others and from each other during the 18 months they were at Skid Row.
Note: U.S. Special Forces Green Beret Captain Floyd J. “Jim” Thompson endured nearly nine years as a prisoner of war, marking the longest captivity in American history. For more than five years, he experienced solitary confinement until his transfer to Skid Row. Once there he had face-to-face meetings and conversations with other Americans for the first time since his capture.
Thanks to Scott Dillingham for his research and composition of the above introduction to the “Skid Row POW Camp.”