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War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

By Allan R. Millett
1/20/2009 • MHQ

Agents informed Pak Sang-hyon in Compound 62 that General Nam had named him chief resistance leader. With the help of colonels Lee and Hong, Pak was to seize control of as many of Koje-do’s compounds as possible and use violence to antagonize the Koje-do guards and administration. POW losses would be inevitable, and retribution was encouraged to ensure press coverage. The ultimate goal was a combined POW-guerrilla attack to seize the island. The resisters-especially the leaders-would be heroes welcomed back to the ranks of the Communist faithful. If they failed, their families would die-or suffer worse.

The Communist resisters and their anti-Communist counterparts tested their strength over the issue of screening the remaining Korean civilian internees, most of them former South Korean soldiers and guerrilla suspects. Compound 63 produced the vanguard anti-Communist camp government, supported by an ultra-patriotic paramilitary society called the Hwarang Association. When South Korean screening teams approached Communist-dominated Compound 62, 300 members of the Hwarangs arranged a transfer to Compound 62 to assist the screening by doing away with the Communist organizers.
The compound had already been the scene of a reign of terror against the non-Communists, a minority of the 5,000 captives. Deaths and torture had been inflicted by beating, burning, electrocution, castration, mutilation, and drowning.

The coup attempt went awry and produced a riot. After three hours of violence on December 18, 1951, that left 14 dead and 24 wounded, the South Korean guards rescued the Hwarangs and 100 other anti-Communists. Three days later, all civilian internee screening ended in Compound 62, now under complete Communist control. Pak Sang-hyon became the first commissar of the resistance leadership.

The camp commander, Col. Maurice J. Fitzgerald, continued to feed the captives but attempted no other contact with Compound 62. Instead, Fitzgerald surrounded the compound with guard strongpoints designed to prevent a breakout. Pak and his cadre displayed protest signs in Korean and English, drilled with spears, sang and chanted with revolutionary fervor, and threw rocks at passersby. The civilian internee screening and the indoctrination program began to falter in other Korean compounds.

The resumption of armistice negotiations on November 27, 1951, brought a dramatic escalation of POW resistance. The issue was the final disposition of the POWs. The Communists, citing the Geneva Convention of 1949, argued that each side had to return all captives and internees without any consideration of the POWs’ personal preferences. The Communists feared a potential propaganda disaster-multitudes of Korean and Chinese voluntarily and loudly rejecting Communism.

The UN Command saw the issue differently. General Ridgway suspected that he held far more POWs than the Communists, even if as many as 41,000 Koreans were reclassified from POW to civilian internee status and held out of the POW exchange, not being enemy combatants. The UN Command held at least 100,000 POWs, while the Communists had perhaps 6,000 American and allied troops and maybe 28,000 South Korean soldiers.

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff favored a one-for-one exchange, but would accept “all for all,” and as quickly as possible to save lives. Ridgway had ample evidence that Communists were committing atrocities against prisoners in North Korea, and allied POWs certainly lived in miserable conditions. Yet “all for all” also meant returning war criminals, collaborators, intelligence operatives, and many innocents to Communist control.

The POW exchange issue escalated when South Korea’s Syngman Rhee demanded no forced repatriation, the immediate release of cleared civilian internees, and the prosecution of war criminals. The Truman administration divided; only the president himself could resolve the issue.

In December 1951, Truman chose voluntary repatriation. With the president’s approval, the actual plan envisioned a two-phase exchange: “one for one” until all UN Command POWs had been released, and then voluntary repatriation. The Chinese negotiators originally considered the proposal a stalling tactic related to other issues like the location of the future military demarcation line. The North Koreans accused the UN Command of covering up its own war crimes and of POW intimidation. Nevertheless, all sides agreed to prepare a list of POWs in custody.

The exchange of these hurriedly compiled lists surprised, shocked, and outraged each side. The South Korean army estimated it had lost 70,000 soldiers to captivity and could not account for 88,000 others. Yet, the Communists claimed to hold only 7,412 South Korean soldiers. (In fact, the Communists had impressed thousands into their own armed forces, where many died in action. Thousands of others, mainly “class enemies,” died in slave labor camps from which POWs were still escaping four decades later.)

The lists had surprises. The UN Command had more than 10,000 MIAs and thought at least 6,000 were-or had been-in enemy hands. Nevertheless, only 3,198 American names were listed, 1,219 from other allied units, and the list excluded some people known to be POWs.

The Communists were equally shocked (or put on a convincing act) to learn that the UN Command held only 95,531 Communist Koreans, 16,243 uncleared South Koreans, and 20,700 Chinese soldiers. They also heard estimates from Western sources that more than half their POWs would refuse repatriation.

As the Communist POW resistance organized in early 1952, the conditions for exchanging prisoners came to dominate the Panmunjo?m negotiations. The UN Command position, formed in Washington, was that no POW would be repatriated against his will. The Communists insisted that the Geneva Convention of 1949 required that all POWs be returned. The Communist POW resisters, now with plenty of incentive, tested the camp administrators in a violent protest on February 18, 1952. Armed with rocks, clubs, and spears, between 1,000 and 1,500 inmates of Compound 62 attacked a South Korean team trying to rescue non-Communist civilian internees in the compound. A battalion of the U.S. 27th Infantry fought back, killing 75 captives and wounding 139 others. One GI died in the melee and 22 were wounded. Five days later General Nam charged the UN Command with “barbarously massacring” large numbers of harmless civilian internees.

With neither side wavering on POW exchange at Panmunjo?m, Ridgway planned to screen all the Koje-do captives for their preference on repatriation, at Washington’s direction. He ordered “a detailed plan to provide for the selection, segregation and protection of those North Korean and Chinese Communist prisoners of war who would violently oppose repatriation to Communist control.” The South Korean POWs or civilian internees would be allowed to elect repatriation or to stay in South Korea. Ridgway warned Van Fleet to ensure that disorder, riot, and bloodshed were kept to an absolute minimum. He advised taking as little time as possible for the screening, “preferably during daylight hours of a single day.”

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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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