War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

By Allan R. Millett
1/20/2009 • MHQ

National Archives
National Archives

Americans learned a hard lesson when North Korean prisoners took over their compound-and kidnapped a general.

The Korean prisoners of war stood in sullen ranks, disciplined, belligerent, ready for battle even though their only weapons were homemade spears, clubs, and incendiary grenades. Their enemy-also disciplined and far better armed, with bayoneted rifles, tear gas, and tanks-stood ready to assault the POWs and recapture Compound 76 of Camp One, Koje-do, a hilly 150-square-mile island 20 miles off the southeastern coast of Korea. In May 1952, the Korean War continued hundreds of miles to the north, but on Koje-do prisoners were waging war as tenaciously as on Sniper Ridge or Porkchop Hill-and here the Communists were winning. N Modern Western ideas about POWs had developed during the American Civil War. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 transformed these into international law, further refined after World War I in the Geneva "POW Convention" of 1929. That prisoners of war could be a strategic asset was a legacy of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the Geneva Convention of 1949 defined the ultimate responsibility of a detaining power to return POWs to the nation that put them in uniform. Conferees adopted these revisions because the Soviet Union was holding German and Japanese POWs as slave laborers, reparations for the damage inflicted on Russia in World War II. Even though tens of thousands of non-Germans-largely Soviet citizens-had served in the Wehrmacht and resisted repatriation in 1945 and 1946, the 1949 Convention revisions were largely silent on the right of POWs to refuse repatriation and on the detaining power’s right to forcibly repatriate unwilling prisoners.

The Geneva Convention of 1949 assumed that prisoners would want to be liberated or exchanged and did not anticipate that the POWs might actually see themselves as unarmed combatants. Although the convention addressed attempts to escape or to attack other prisoners, it never foresaw prison camp violence on a mass scale directed against camp authorities. It was even more unthinkable that POWs would delay their own repatriation with such attacks, or that POWs refusing repatriation would resort to violent resistance. But even as an armistice loomed in Korea in 1952, prisoners in a U.S. Army-run POW camp were scheming to seize the American who ran the camp, Brig. Gen. Francis T. Dodd, and then extort from him a confession that prisoners were abused on his watch. Indeed, the senior officers of the United Nations Command in Korea were about to get a startling education in a POW war behind the wire.

Brutality characterized the Korean conflict for years before the North Korean invasion of June 25, 1950. During the postwar American occupation of Korea (1945-1948), American troops, the Korean National Police, and the Korean Constabulary (the forerunner of the South Korean Army) crushed a major Communist-directed rebellion in October and November of 1946. In March and April of 1948, the South Korean Labor (Communist) Party began a continuous insurgency to prevent United Nations-sponsored elections that would establish the Republic of Korea.

Although the Communists could not stop South Korea from gaining independence on August 15, 1948, the withdrawal of all but 5,000 U.S. Army troops accelerated the partisan war. Trained and organized as guerrillas, Communist Koreans could field up to around 10,000 fighters in 1948 and 1949, supported by probably five times as many South Korean Communist Party sympathizers. Korean security forces, assisted by American weapons and more than 500 advisers of the U.S. Army Military Advisory Group Korea, finally suppressed the insurgency in April and May of 1950.

All the belligerents committed atrocities. The ardently anti-Communist Korean National Police and guerrilla bands led by dedicated South Korean Communist Party members were the worst offenders.

The South Korean government acknowledges the deaths of 7,235 security forces members, with all other deaths in this period estimated at 15,000 to 30,000. South Korean President Syngman Rhee’s critics put the "innocent" deaths at no less than 30,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000. When the Rhee government declared the insurgency crushed in May 1950, there were five to six thousand insurgents and suspected sympathizers in South Korean jails, but more than a thousand remained in hiding, ready to help the impending North Korean invasion. These South Korean Communist Party partisans would play a central role in the fate of the Communist POWs.

In June 1950, as nine divisions of the Korean People’s Army rolled south across the Han River valley toward Pusan, the North Koreans dragooned many South Korean enlisted men into their army. The Communists shot or imprisoned South Korean leaders and "class enemies." During the capture of Seoul, North Korean soldiers shot the wounded in two hospitals.

Meanwhile, as they withdrew south toward the Taegu-Pusan enclave, South Korea’s national police jailors and South Korean MPs executed their Communist prisoners in Seoul, Wonju, and Kwangju rather than take them south or risk their escape. Only the intervention of an American colonel prevented a mass execution in Pusan. Alan Winnington and Wilfred Burchett, Western journalists sympathetic to the Communists, saw a mass grave near Taejo?n with 1,000 to 1,500 victims. Helpless U.S. Army advisers verified that South Koreans had executed those buried there.

When American infantrymen entered the war near Osan on July 5, they became both POWs and victims. The first North Korean killing-of four captive GIs-took place at Chonui on July 9. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, heading the U.S. Army’s Far East Command and the UN Command, called on all the combatants to observe the Geneva Convention in an announcement broadcast in English and Korean on July 19, 1950. He ordered American commanders to investigate atrocities and to ensure that their troops treated POWs well.

The UN Command, whose forces were retreating in July and August of 1950, did not have many Korean POWs. However, the number of prisoners mounted to 1,899 by the end of August and soared with the Communist defeats of September and October of 1950. By October 31, the UN Command had custody of 176,822 POWs (essentially, any detained Korean), concentrated in three areas: the captured North Korean capital of Pyo?ngyang (80,647) and the southern ports of Inchon (33,478) and Pusan (62,697).

The POW administrators could not provide for their wards-in addition to more than 150,000 refugees-so any South Korean civilian who could convince an interrogator that he had been forced into service as a North Korean soldier or supply bearer was released. South Korean soldiers forced into the North Korean army were turned over to the South Korean army’s military police and intelligence officers for further screening; most remained in custody, along with northern anti-Communist guerrillas who had fled south. All were terrified that their South Korean jailors would execute or torture them, so they were initially docile and cooperative.

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