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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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9 Responses to War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

  1. Andrew Salmon says:

    An interesting and important article – and one that is, from my (very limited) knowledge of the Koje-Do POW situation, even-handed.

    FWIW, Koje-do is today the site of two of S Korea’s largest shipyards, which raises the question: Who, in 1950-53 could possibly have guessed the incredible strides South Korea would take in first economic and later, political terms? North Korea, on the other hand…

    Viewed with the benefit of 59 years hindsight, the American/UN intervention on behalf of South Korea must, surely, be one of the most successful operations since WWII.

    The 60th annivesary of Kim Il-sung’s blitzkrieg falls next June. Given the dearth of public interest in this savage and dramatic, but largely forgotten war, I am very pleased to see that there is at least one able historian – Dr Allan Millet – keeping the flame alight.

    Andrew Salmon

  2. William Russell says:

    Another interesting insight into the Koje-do incident is Ha Jin’s
    novel, “War Trash,” presented from the side of a Chinese
    translator imprisoned at the facility.

    Also, what is unbelievable about the Koje-do riots and Dodd”s
    capture, is the nature and sophistication of the weapons that
    were made behind the wire.

    William Russell
    Korean War Veteran

  3. Heydon Buchanan says:

    Excellent article.

    I’ve read an assorted collection of articles on Koje-Do over the years, but I’ve never read any that had such incredible detail. What strikes me is the chaos and the horror of life at Koje-Do. I end up believing that the U.S. was basically “innocents abroad” in trying to understand the conflict as they lived it (e.g., prisoners as combatants and being intentionally captured to fight from within).

    I’m particularly interested in Koje-Do because my father was in service there during six months of that Hell. He was commanding officer of the 96th Military Police Battalion.

    He received a letter of commendation from General Dodd dated 1 May 1952 on completion of a portion of the interview operation done. That was the day Dad rotated out of the region. A week later, Gen. Dodd went down to talk with the prisoners, and he was taken captive. As my father recounted the capture, he would become a bit excited as he recalled, “I told him not to go down there! I told him (the Gen.) that I couldn’t protect him there! But, he was the commanding officer.”

    There are a number of other interesting details to share concerning Koje-Do, but it’s very late and I’m too tired at this point. (I probably shouldn’t have stayed up to read the article and it was impossible to stop once I had begun.)

    One point before closing–to give a touch of atmosphere to that horror, I remember another point my father emphasized. It was the extreme hatred between the South Koreans (guards principally) and the North Koreans. It was so severe that the guards were ready to fire at the slightest infraction (or even one imagined).

    Again, excellent article.

    Heydon Buchanan

  4. Ralph Hodge says:

    My unit, the 38th Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, arrived on Koje-do circa 23 April,1952. As young grunts, fresh from five months on the line, we thought being assigned to guard POWs would be a “walk in the park”. Little did we realize then that we would become embroiled an epic situation that would have a serious impact on the outcome of that god-awful ” Forgotten War.”

    During the cloudy mid afternoon of 7 May,1952, Roger Patrie,a dear friend, and I saw, from a distant of approximately 150 yards, a flurry of activity ,including a high degree of yelling at a sally port of POW compound; the “honey bucket” details were returning to the compound. At that time, Roger and I, were returning from visiting a refugee village located on a hillside directly across from the two lane dirt road from what we soon learned was Compound #76. The commotion was that of the POWs capturing, and dragging into the compound, BG Francis Dodd,Commander. As we exited from the village for our mile- long “report immediately” walk to our area, we passed the many POW compounds located along the left side of the road. At the highest point of the roofs of each hootches located nearest the road, stood stern-faced POWS in uniforms waving North Korean flags, while the POW’s in each compound we passed were not only shouting, loudly, vile anti american slogans,but the POWs in the compounds were parading around with crudely written signs in English , some of which read menacingly: “WE WILL KILL DODD IF OUR DEMANDS ARE NOT MET”,etc, and and some POWs were even conducting bayonet drills utilizing hand- made wooden rifles. Succinctly,the images of that day and the incredulous events which followed will for me, last in perpetuity.

    Ralph Hodge

  5. Paul Marrero Sr says:

    Thank you for explaining what happened at those prison camps. I never realized there were that many problems with the POW’s. Now if someone could help me find which POW outbreak the 44th ECB participated in I could tell my story with much more accuracy.

  6. rogers marshall says:

    I was a platoon sgt in charlie co 38ty inf and this is a very outstanding article. If an order would have been given to destroy us it would have been successful . Hundreds would have been killed by us, but evidently the numbers alone would have overwhelmed and destroyed us. In reality we were the prisoners . I stood guard at the tower General Boatner was on giving orders. I was his body guard for about 4 hours. He was a tough but fair General officer. I have presented and given talks about this and you would be surprised no one knew or could remember this. Almost every time it was to Korea veterans and they were the ones surprised about the capture of Dodd.

  7. Fred E. Ervin says:

    I was also on Koje-Do Island at the time Gen. Dodd went into the compond to see if the Prisoners were being treated alright, They kept him in side of the compond for three days, I was on radio duty in my Company ( Co. K, 9th inf Regt., 2nd Inf Div) the night he was released from the compond. I woke up my Comander Officer ( Capt Worrick, From New York) and told him of theGeneral being realesed, I do not know if his name is spelled right. But he was a fine Company comander.

  8. Bill Mahar says:

    The first POW Camps located at a school in Pusan were staffed by the 8070 MP Escort Guard & POW Processing Co. comprised of members of the 8th. Army Stockade & Sugamo Prison personnel from the Tokyo area The unit arrived in Pusan in late August 1950. In December time frame of 1950 some members of the 8070 went to Koje-do to look at the feasibility of setting up POW enclosures because of the large number of POW’s on the mainland(Pusan) I believe the 60th. General Depot was the designated command on the island. On Koje-do I was an interrogator with the unit’s record section, duties were to interrogate all seriously ill or dying prisoners to ascertain there statistics were correct when the records were transmitted to Red Cross and the POW’s country of origin. Had access to all compounds with my interpreters(Chinese & Korean). Worked among thousands of POW’s alone & unarmed no problem. Pusan POW Camp held a Russian woman & her young child, whose husband was an adviser to the North Korean Forces, he fled and left them, Russian Embassy in Tokyo stated they were unaware of any Russian advisers with Communist Forces. Also Pusan Camp had they North Korean Lt. who had ordered the massacre of U.S prisoners, who had been bound with telephone wire before being shot up in the Taejon area early on. He was kept in a small compound beneath the flag pole in front of the school.
    Pretty grim times, but interesting.

    Bill Mahar

  9. Ray Brooks Jr. says:

    My father was a mess Sargent on the island during this time. He is long dead but I remember him talking about the ground shaking as the tanks came onto the island. He also said the pows called SOS Number 1 chop chop. We had civvy sos for dinner last night :)

    Anyone remember a tall, skinny mess Sargent ?

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