War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

The Communist defeat in the autumn of 1950 also created complex problems in categorizing the detainees. North Korean soldiers appeared easy to identify; they surrendered in uniform on the battlefield. Yet interrogators soon realized that many of them were impressed South Koreans who were not Communists (or who had made rapid reconversions to anti-Communism). Others were North Koreans, also impressed into the North Korean army, who would have fled North Korea if they could have.

South Koreans posed other problems. When the U.S. Eighth Army and five South Korean army divisions advanced across the 38th Parallel in October, they left behind the U.S. 2nd and 25th Infantry Divisions, three reconstituted South Korean divisions, and the Korean National Police in South Korea to deal with North Korean army stragglers (estimated at 10,000) and thousands of South Korean Communist Party partisans. All Communist Party members and sympathizers in South Korea became fair game. American and British soldiers-and Western journalists-witnessed mass summary executions around Seoul. For any Korean who thought he could be suspected of collaborating, surrendering to the Americans looked attractive.

The Chinese military intervention of October and November of 1950 threw the United Nations’ prisoner management into even greater confusion. As the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force liberated Pyo?ngyang from the Eighth Army and forced the U.S. X Corps and South Korean I Corps to evacuate northeastern Korea by sea, the UN Command evacuated its Pyo?ngyang POW population, along with more than 900,000 additional refugees from North Korea. No longer shooting suspected Communists-at American insistence-the Rhee government wanted refugees and POWs treated alike until their loyalty could be established. Not unreasonably, South Korean counterintelligence officers suspected that some of the refugees were Communist infiltrators and long-term moles sent to reestablish the South Korean Labor Party.

Most of the POWs and shipborne refugees went directly to Koje-do Island, with some shipped to Cheju-do Island, the traditional last bastion of Koreans against foreign invaders and the potential evacuation site for Rhee’s government. Temporarily, the rest of the POWs went to the Pusan area. At the end of December 1950, UN Command had 137,175 Koreans and 616 Chinese in custody.

The Koje-do camps, managed by the U.S. Army 3rd Logistical Command, had been evacuated directly from the areas of Inchon and Seoul. The first 53,588 Korean POWs built their own camps, primarily tents and wooden barracks. Even though UN Command’s military fortunes began to improve by February 1951, the UN Command jailors continued transferring POWs to Koje-do because of threats of guerrilla raids and jailbreaks. By March, 28 different Koje-do compounds had become the home of 139,796 captives, mostly North Koreans-and far more than their intended maximum capacity. The Pusan camps held 8,000 hospital patients, 420 political figures, 2,670 high-ranking officers, 3,500 intelligence targets, and 2,500 administrative and medical personnel.

Because the POWs still seemed docile and cooperative, the camps remained undermanned with ill-trained, poorly armed guards: one South Korean guard for every 26 prisoners and one American guard for every 200-plus prisoners. The POWs and civilian refugees mingled daily while constructing the camp, cooking, and disposing of waste. More refugees served as clerical and medical personnel and interrogator-translators. The camp administrators, focused on short-term management challenges, judged the prisoners cooperative. The Red Cross reported the camps minimally acceptable. A joint U.S.-Korean counterintelligence team warned, however, that the North Korean POW population included a large group of Communist militants capable of violent resistance to the UN Command prison policies.

Three Korean POWs later emerged as leaders of the resistance movement. Sr. Col. Yi (or Lee) Hak-ku had led a mutiny against the commander of the North Korean army’s 13th Division, who would not surrender his battered, helpless division, trapped north of the Pusan Perimeter. Division Chief of Staff Lee had shot (but not killed) that commander and fled to Eighth Army lines with his division’s classified documents. He requested a transfer to the South Korean army, which was denied. Off he went to a prison pen, knowing his former employer, North Korea, would put him to death if he returned home.

Sr. Col. Hong Chol, an intelligence officer, had also been cooperative on surrender, and may have surrendered on purpose, to organize the camps. Pak Sang-hyon, the ultimate commander of the Koje-do resistance, a civilian and Soviet citizen, had been born and raised in the Asian Soviet Union, where his family of radical nationalists had found refuge from the Japanese. He became a full-fledged member of the Communist Party USSR in 1940.

In 1945 Pak joined the Red Army (unwillingly) as a Korean language interpreter, with the nominal rank of captain, for the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and northern Korea. He became vice chairman of the North Korean Labor Party’s branch in rich, populous, and unhappy Hwanghae Province, south of Pyo?ngyang. In October 1950, even before the advancing Eighth Army arrived, Pak fled his station. In the crisis, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung decreed summary execution to any Communist Party member who tore up his party card and deserted his post. To avoid being shot, Pak surrendered to an American patrol on October 21, 1950, in the uniform of a North Korean army private.

Three UN Command initiatives in 1950 and 1951 contributed to the ballooning of the resistance movement among the Communist prisoners of war: an effort to reduce epidemic gastrointestinal diseases among the POWs; the political-religious reeducation programs conducted for the POWs; and the investigation into war crimes committed by the North Koreans and Chinese. None of these UN Command programs alone was responsible for the resistance movement, but all provided extra opportunities for the Communists to reduce UN Command access to the POWs, as Communist planners turned the POWs into weapons of warfare.

Jailors’ access to their prisoners was the issue at the heart of the violence that was about to envelop Koje-do. American and South Korean prison authorities needed access to the prisoners to determine if they wanted to be repatriated to North Korea or China after the war ended.
But the Communist leaders, both in China and in North Korea, sought to prevent embarrassing mass defections to South Korea or Formosa. So they decided to try to force the UN Command to abandon any sort of screening process, thereby prolonging the war and undermining U.S.-South Korean relations.

Given the primitive conditions and overcrowding of the Koje-do prison complex in early 1951, the UN Command’s public health doctors were not surprised when dysentery, diarrhea, and a variety of enteric fevers broke out in epidemic proportions. The key figure in treating the fevers was a U.S. Navy physician, Lt. Gerald A. Martin. Jerry Martin’s medical training in the United States was first-rate, and his family had been medical missionaries in Korea for two generations. His father, Dr. Stanley H. Martin, had been a prominent staff physician at Seoul’s Severance Hospital, Korea’s preeminent medical center.

Jerry Martin, who spoke Korean, rallied Korean Christian doctors, nurses, and technicians from Severance Hospital to establish a major clinic at Koje-do in May 1951. After identifying different strains of parasitic diarrhea, Martin and his staff developed different treatment regimes that cured many of the stricken POWs.

Martin’s fame spread from Koje-do to Korea and to Japan through his military sponsors, the United Nations Civil Assistance Command and Far East Command’s Civil Intelligence and Education Service (CI&E), a program ostensibly for educating POWs about life outside China and North Korea, but in essence an indoctrination program that promoted democracy and Christianity. One of the program’s most effective representatives was the Rev. Edwin W. Kilbourne, Martin’s brother-in-law.

The Communists, however, charged that Martin was conducting germ warfare experiments in the same spirit of Japan’s heinous Unit 731 during World War II. Communist propagandists in Pyo?ngyang condemned Martin as a war criminal even before they announced that the UN Command had waged a bacteriological warfare campaign in Korea and China. They especially focused on an inoculation program Martin’s staff of medical "researchers" had begun for the POWs.

By the autumn of 1951, the public health teams found it harder and harder to reach the POWs; some even attacked them in the compounds. Providing effective medical treatment had become a battleground for the hearts and minds of the POWs.

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9 Responses

  1. Andrew Salmon

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

    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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