Ours for Theirs – Prisoners of War During the Korean Conflict

Note:  This is the version accepted as an article with sidebar by Command Magazine, but never published as near as I can tell.  If you know different, I would love to be told differently.  The bibliography is attached.

 

 

   Ours for Theirs

Prisoners of War During the Korean Conflict

         North Korea attacked an undermanned and ill-armed South Korea on June 25, 1950.  The United States Occupation Forces stationed in Japan were at one third their normal strength, but were rushed in to assist the South Koreans anyway.  Over the next year, the American army was almost pushed off the Korean peninsula, United Nations forces counter-attacked to within rifle shot of the Yalu River, and the Chinese army pushed back to about where the original border was located.  The ensuing peace talks dragged on for the next two years due mostly to the issues of prisoners of war and their repatriation.

Prisoners of war have the strange distinction of being removed from combat, but remaining in wartime service.  They still face the same, if not worse, hardships than on the front lines.  A captured United Nations serviceman in Korea had few guarantees and none of them good.  These guarantees included frequent beatings, starvation, and Communist “re-education”.  There were some men released on the battlefield immediately after capture, but these rare instances were for propaganda value with camera crews close at hand.  More typically, U. N. soldiers would either be shot on the spot, or beaten and marched off in a northerly direction to one of the prisoner of war camps along the Yalu River.  The conditions on those marches were horrible.

Lawrence Bailey was a Private First Class when he was captured on December 2, 1950 at the Chosin Reservoir.  He and the group of men captured along with him were marched north for ten days over the frozen, hilly landscape of Korea.  Many of the men were wounded, and all were hungry and frostbitten.  Despite their injuries, they pressed on out of sheer terror.  When someone did drop out of the column, a guard would stay behind to shoot the straggler.

With frozen feet, Private Bailey forced himself to keep going.  When he occasionally fell down, a guard would stand over Bailey and prod him back into formation with his bayonet.  Knowing the consequences for falling behind, Private Bailey mustered his strength each time and rejoined the column.  And so it went for better than a week.

Most of the captured servicemen had to walk to their ultimate destinations.  The North Korean army did not have enough vehicles for its own troops, much less prisoners.  In fact, the North Korean troops often rode livestock stolen from the local peasants, killing and eating the animals as food was needed.  Equipment was in as short supply as fresh meat.  The North Koreans had virtually no air force after the first few weeks of the war, which caused troops on the ground to live in perpetual fear of American air power.  North Korean troops and their captives would move at night and hide by day to avoid being spotted from the air.

A very few prisoners were transported by rail for portions of their trip.  When Lloyd Kreider saw American planes overhead one day and was loaded onto a train, he thought he was being pulled back by the North Koreans to avoid imminent liberation.  He was right.  They were transported into a nearby tunnel where the train was stopped to let the exhaust fumes from the engine suffocate the prisoners.  As they became more pressed for time, the North Koreans began removing groups of prisoners from the train and shooting them.  Kreider survived the same way the other survivors did.  He played dead in a ditch, waited for nightfall, and made his way back to his own lines.  The Sunchon Tunnel Massacre, as it was later called, became one of the prime examples used to condemn the North Koreans during the Senate’s Subcommittee on Korean War Atrocities.

The U. N. servicemen captured by the North Koreans were the most maltreated.  It was as if the they wanted to prove to their “big brother” China that they were good communists.  The prisoners that were lucky enough to make it to the POW camps alive and handed over to the Chinese running them were treated relatively better.

Inhumane treatment on the way to the prison camps was only half the battle for those who survived the trip north.  What awaited the survivors at their destinations was more starvation, beatings, and death in addition to interrogations and “re-education” attempts.  Savage beatings at the hands of guards were common.  Food rations of the prisoners’ starvation diet were usually spoiled, though often supplemented by rats the prisoners would catch.  Hygiene and medical facilities were virtually non-existent with sick men lying in their own filth.  Fleas were so prevalent that men’s fingers were stained black from crushing so many.  Just the daily regimen was enough to destroy a man’s spirit.  Generally, a day consisted of hard labor in the morning, lectures on the greatness of communism in the afternoon, and then study groups in the evening for the prisoners to discuss what they had learned that afternoon.  For the most part, the prisoners just humored their captors.  Once back in their huts for the discussions, a man was put at the door as a lookout, and anything but communism was talked about.  They did have to pay some attention though, because there were tests based on the lectures.

It must be remembered that United Nations personnel were not the only ones taken prisoner.  North Koreans, impressed South Koreans, Chinese army regulars and Chinese “volunteers” were all captured by U. N. forces, and at a far greater rate than the Chinese and North Koreans.  After the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, the U. N. collected 130,000 prisoners in two months.  Initially, they were all kept at Pusan, but due to security concerns, over the winter they were all moved to a medium sized, extremely hilly island off the southern tip of South Korea called Koje-do.  Several different compounds were constructed in the valleys.  The naturally mountainous landscape of Koje-do made physical control of the prisoners easier, but other problems arose almost immediately.

The main problem was that all the prisoners were placed in the compounds without consideration of basic differences.  There were pro-Communist North Koreans and anti-Communist North Koreans.  There were pro-Communist South Koreans fighting for what they truly believed in and anti-Communist South Koreans who were pressed into service by the North Koreans.  There were also Chinese held in these camps.  Some were ardent communists following Mao Tse-tung, while there were others who were holdovers from the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek, who were just issued different uniforms and told to fight.  In addition, there were also the numerous Chinese “volunteers”, and even some cases of men following the North Korean and Chinese armies around the country for the meager food rations.

This combination created an extremely fractious and dangerous condition in every camp.  Add to the mix the South Korean guards who would not hesitate to harass the prisoners and the language barrier between the Americans running the camps and the Koreans in general, the Americans found themselves sitting on a powder keg.

Technically, the Americans were in charge of the camp, but in reality, the hard-line Communists controlled the inside of the compounds.  With the forces guarding the prisoners outnumbered by almost ten to one, there was little that could be done to control the activities inside the wire.  By early 1952, the inmates were running the asylum.  The hard-liners were holding kangaroo courts and handing down punishments that often included death sentences.

Many attempts were made to separate the various factions with several different forms of screening.  Unfortunately, the American army was totally unprepared for non-English speaking prisoners.  There were no personnel on hand who spoke either Korean or any Chinese dialect.  To alleviate the problem, prisoners who spoke English were used as interpreters.  The problem that then arose more often than not was that prisoners who spoke English were the hard-line communists who were taught English by the Soviets.  In fact, the North Koreans and Chinese sent out specially trained soldiers to be captured in order to lead organized resistance from inside the camps, and deliver messages to the leaders held in the camps.  These interpreters slanted what the anti-Communist prisoners said in order to have them placed in the communist camps.  It also was not uncommon for the interpreters to out right lie to divert more men to their ranks.  For once these non-Communist soldiers were under communist control, they were generally converted to the communist philosophy or eventually executed.  The situation became so bad that some non-Communist prisoners were found to have tattooed anticommunist slogans on their arms in an effort to distinguish themselves from the communist prisoners during screening.  The screening process was a ponderous, ongoing project.

In May 1951, General Matthew Ridgway’s Provost Marshal toured the camps and Koje-do.  General Van Fleet found that there were meetings, discussions, and actual workshops inside the camps led by the communist leaders on subjects all related to disrupting the daily operation of the camps.  These gatherings were complete with North Korean flags and banners bearing communist slogans.  All of this was out in the open in front of the guards.  Upon hearing the report, General Ridgway sent Van Fleet a chastising message on the importance of keeping order in the prisoner of war camps.  General Ridgway later wrote in his memoirs that had he known the prisoners inside the camps were receiving instructions directly from Panmunjom, he would have taken harsher steps to control the situation.

A week later, the Koje-do camp commander, Brigadier General Francis Dodd, entered one of the compounds without an escort in a show of good faith, and extremely bad judgment, to lay down the law with the Communist leadership.  He was promptly taken hostage.  The Communists then sent word that General Dodd would be killed if their as yet unstated demands were not met, and that any attempt to rescue General Dodd would result in forfeiture of his life.  General Van Fleet ordered that no action be taken without his direct approval.  Van Fleet was now forced into a waiting game with the North Korean leaders inside the camp.

It seemed perfectly obvious at the time to the United Nations leadership that a mass escape was about to be launched that would result in many lost lives for the soldiers guarding the prisoners and an enormous number of injured and dead prisoners.  The deaths would have been a huge boon to the propaganda mills in North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union.  They would finally have some hard facts to back up their claims, and a quasi-legitimate complaint to present at the ongoing peace talks.

With General Dodd acting as liaison, the Communists and the Americans exchanged messages back and forth.  The demands called for the cessation of everything from the screening process and voluntary repatriation of communist personnel to outlandish claims of being exposed to nerve agents and atomic bomb testing.  After the first few messages, it became clear that these terrorists were demanding the camp administrators admit to all charges being brought by the North Korean representatives at the peace talks in Panmunjom.  Unfortunately for the United Nations delegates at Panmunjom, General Dodd signed his name to a document that admitted to many of the Communists’ accusations of maltreatment of prisoners of war.  Small demands were met, but the Americans gave nothing of any substance up.  After it became clear that the captors could not gain any more concessions from the Americans, General Dodd was released unharmed.

As a direct result of this incident, Brigadier General Haydon Boatner was ordered into Koje-do to bring the situation in the camps under control.  Up to this point, there had been brothels and barrooms outside the compounds that the soldiers frequented while off, and often while on, duty.  General Boatner’s first act was to order all civilians off the island and have these establishments closed.  He had the camp personnel reorganized and the prisoners separated into groups of no more than 500 per camp.  General Boatner also ordered the guards to enter any compound displaying North Korean flags or communist banners and destroy those objects.  To accomplish this ambitious project, General Van Fleet ordered the 187th Airborne Combat Team to Koje-do to supplement the troops already there.

For the most part, the reining in of the camps went smoothly.  The prisoners would take down the offending objects after a symbolic show of defiance by waiting to carry out the order until the guards were preparing to enter the compound and boisterous complaints that their rights under the Geneva Convention were being violated by their captors’ actions.

There were other camps on Koje-do where the Communist leadership refused to divide their men.  These camps were divided by force.  In one camp, the Americans entered the compound with bayonets fixed to divide the prisoners.  They were neither expecting the prisoners to attack nor to have weapons, but the prisoners proved their captors wrong on both counts.  Unknown to the Americans, the prisoners had accumulated an arsenal of homemade cutting weapons and Molotov cocktails made from the cooking fuel they were issued for their stoves.  The Americans counterattacked with tear gas, and the canisters set fire to the barracks.  In all, one American was killed and thirteen wounded.  Of the prisoners, 150 were killed or injured in the fighting.  A search of the compound after the violence had died down revealed 3,000 spears, 1,000 Molotov cocktails, and 4,500 homemade knives scattered throughout the various buildings.  These prisoners had access to more weapons while inside the prisoner of war camps than they had before they were captured since it was not uncommon for the North Koreans and particularly the Chinese to attack with only the front line of the charge having weapons.  The rear ranks had to pick up weapons from the ground as they passed their dead comrades.

There was only one other outbreak of mass prisoner violence, and that was in December 1952 at a separate camp, which resulted in the death of eighty-five prisoners and the wounding of one hundred.  Naturally, the Communists released to the world their own version of the events, and the North Koreans at Panmunjom presented a complaint to the U. N. delegates that summarized the incidents as “systematic violence” committed by the Americans upon the communist prisoners of war.

The Communist leadership inside the POW camps was not the only source of problems for the United Nations.  In total, the Korean War lasted three years.  The war was over by the middle of 1951, but the armistice negotiations took two years to achieve a document that both sides could agree upon.  Most of the details were worked out early on, but the sticking point that managed to drag the war out an extra two years was the repatriation of the prisoners of war.  The United Nations held over ten times as many prisoners as the communist forces, and this was the main point of contention.

The Communists reported that they held approximately 7,100 South Koreans, 3,200 Americans, and 1,200 from Britain and other U. N. countries for a total of 11,559.  When these figures were released, they caused a great deal of distress in the United States.  The Americans had officially listed 11,224 American servicemen as missing in action.  To the thinking of the American public, that left about 8,000 men that died one way or another after their capture.  With the North Koreans’ penchant for murdering captured soldiers, the idea of 8,000 men being killed while in captivity was not unreasonable.  Nearly 80,000 South Koreans were unaccounted for.  The North Koreans countered by claiming that some 53,000 prisoners they captured had been released at the front.  The North Koreans fully expected the world to believe that they had not participated in any atrocities against prisoners in their custody, and that all those men ran off into the Korean countryside to assimilate with the population.  Once these statements were released, the idea of an all-for-all exchange became a memory.

Another major consideration of the peace talks was that among the prisoners held by the United Nations, there was a large percentage that did not want to return to the communist regimes in their home countries.  For the most part, the anti-Communist Koreans, both North and South wanted to remain in South Korea and the Nationalist Chinese wanted to be sent to Formosa to join up with Chiang Kai-shek.  The North Korean/Chinese delegates insisted that all prisoners held by the United Nations be returned.  The U. N. sided with their prisoners.  The American delegates chose to stand on moral terms.  It was common knowledge that huge numbers of Russians taken prisoner by the Axis powers during World War II had been sent to Siberia or executed on Stalin’s orders after the war.  Their crime had been allowing themselves to be captured. In a gesture of appeasement to Stalin to improve the already shaky American-Soviet relations, the Allies had forced many of these men to return to Russia as the POW camps were liberated.  Fearing a similar move by China and North Korea, the United States resolved not to return any prisoners of war against their will.  The North Korean delegation was beside itself with anger.  At several times, they were ready to call off the peace talks over the repatriation issue.  The Americans seemed ready to start World War III because of it and start bombing every manufacturing plant in North Korea and China.

With the experience of WWII fresh in their minds, it was very important for the United States delegation at Panmunjom to arrange an all-for-all exchange of prisoners with the stipulation that there would be no forced repatriations.  This insistence on the part of the Americans in January 1952 helped delay the end of the war for an additional year and a half, which cost the United States alone another 37,000 casualties.

The Korean War was supposed to be a pushbutton war.  With the dropping of the atomic bombs in the closing days of World War II, everyone just assumed that the next time there was a conflict, it would be fought with atomic weapons.  A more civilized war.  Instead, it became a war of attrition while peace talks moved at glacial speed in Panmunjom.  The type of warfare practiced on the battlefields of Korea was not of the modern age as had been predicted, but of the prehistoric age, often degenerating to the use of rifle butts, entrenching tools, and fists.  The issue of prisoners of war caused the war to be three times as long as necessary.  It was not the fault of the prisoners on either side, but rather the inflexibility on both sides of the negotiation table.  Both sides were looking out for their best interests, but as is often the case in war, the best interests of a nation are not necessarily the best interests of a soldier.  The various delays cost thousands of lives on all sides, both inside the prisoner of war camps as well as at the front lines.

The aftereffects of the experiences men of all nations had at the prisoner of war camps still dog many to this day.  It must be remembered that no matter which side, which country, or which political philosophy a man subscribed to, just because he was away from the front lines did not mean that he was out of danger.  In fact, the battles in all the camps, physical and mental, were often more ferocious than those on any part of the alternately boiling and freezing peninsula of Korea.

 

Sidebar

Men die in war.  It is an expected and only half-heartedly accepted fact of combat.  With cries of “Over the top!” and “Do you sons-of-bitches expect to live forever?” or just a primal scream ripping through the darkness, no one, with very few exceptions, plans to be among the fallen.  Rarer still is the soldier who plans to be captured by the enemy.

From the beginning of recorded history, there are references to prisoner of war.  They were considered war booty to be shipped home and made servants.  Much of the Roman Empire was built on the backs and minds of people they conquered.  Ancient Roman culture was essentially assimilated Ancient Greek culture.  And that is where the problem lies.  At what point does the line between captor and captive become so blurred as to become almost invisible?

The first real flare-up of the Cold War came in June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea, and America sent in troops under the authority of the newly formed United Nations.  No one expected themselves to be killed or captured then either, but many were.

Of all the United Nations personnel taken prisoner, only twenty-eight United States servicemen and one British Marine chose not to return to their countries.  The lives of the men who chose to stay were not the utopia promised.  These men were freaks in a circus sideshow.  They were shipped around from city to city and put on display as the great triumphs of the communist cause.  The idea being that if citizens of the great imperialist dog, the United States, could be shown the political light of communism, how could any of China’s peasants not agree with the party philosophy.

One would think that these men would be given some extra freedoms in order to keep them enamored with the whole communist system and parroting the party line, but the collaborators were kept isolated from everyone.  They were not allowed to venture out on their own or mix with the rest of the population of what was their new country.  Eventually, by what appeared to be a mutual decision, all the men were returned to their countries.

The most famous of the collaborators was Andrew Condron of the British Marines.  He was captured in Hellfire Valley during the Chosin Campaign on November 30, 1950.  Why Condron would refuse repatriation is a bit of a mystery without looking at his background.  By his own admission, he had always been in the “awkward squad”.  Condron could always be counted on to question authority in any form, and he often did.  This questioning nature led to his openness to re-education by the North Koreans.

While in Camp Five, along the Yalu River, Condron became fascinated with Marxism.  There was a large element of romanticism and sense of adventure about China.  At the time, he thought he would go to China for a year or so, then come home.  He also wanted to live in Russia afterwards.  The burning question was-Did it work?  Condron had seen the suffering and hardship of the people in the Mediterranean.  He wondered why there were the very rich and the very poor, and harbored the feeling that surely life could be better organized.  He had also considered becoming a missionary had the Marines not accepted him, although by this point in his life, Condron had lost his faith in organized religion.  Condron’s main assertion was that he was never a convinced communist, but rather a convinced Marxist.  He mostly gave the impression of a young man who wanted to explore the world and dabble with novel ideas that struck him as offbeat.

After his return to England, Condron went to great length to separate communism from Marxism in the minds of his countrymen.  To him, this was an easy and obvious distinction.  To most of the non-communist world, his curiosity about any “ism” singled him out as a traitor and a subversive.  He always refused to see himself as a traitor, as so much of the rest of the world did.  Condron would point to his lifelong love for his country, and his volunteering for service in Korea.  He viewed England as his home and always planned to return there after his explorative stints overseas.  Condron said it best himself: “Perhaps I needed something to latch onto.”

Condron returned to a different world than his twenty-eight American counterparts.  They returned to a country caught up in the throes of Senator McCarthy’s Investigation on Un-American Activities.  Either through fear, shame, or a change of heart, the Americans faded into obscurity, but Condron returned to a more politically liberal climate.  Having been a depression baby, Condron grew up surrounded by the poverty that enveloped Europe, American, and the rest of the world.  If you have nothing and the few who seem to own everything live seemingly unaffected, the idea of the government providing equally for all its citizens sounds like the solution for everyone’s problems.  At the time, Communism, or at least a Marxist government, looked to be the answer to many.  They did not have the benefit of fifty years of hindsight during which time virtually every communist government has crumbled under its own weight, and the ones that are still holding on are a complete shambles.

The crucial difference for Condron was that when he went to Korea to fight, England was still rebuilding from the devastation of World War Two.  He had seen his home city of London virtually annihilated whereas Americans had only witnessed the Japanese attack on the distant protectorate of Hawaii.  Having to huddle in a bomb shelter with his family while his home was bombed to rubble may have made Condron resilient, but it also planted the thought in his mind that there must be a better system of government under which to live.  Huddled in that bunker during the Blitz, Andrew Condron was not planning to fight a war in Korea, to be captured, and he certainly never planned to permanently defect to a communist country.

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