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War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

By Allan R. Millett
1/20/2009 • MHQ

The task went to Brig. Gen. Francis T. Dodd, Eighth Army deputy chief of staff, reassigned to command Koje-do Camp One with Col. Maurice J. Fitzgerald as his deputy. Dodd’s staff drafted a plan, Operation Spreadout, which would send an estimated 82,000 POWs and civilian internees to new camps on the mainland and to Cheju-do Island. Dodd thought that screening would be inevitably violent and didn’t think it could be done quickly, but that the screening could be supported by promises to protect the anti-Communist POWs.

On March 13, resisters in Compound 76 stoned a passing work detail. South Korean guards fired, killing 12 and wounding 26. In trying to stop the shooting, a Korean indoctrination program staffer and a U.S. Army officer were wounded. The entire U.S. 38th Infantry regiment then joined the guard force because of intelligence assessments that the Communists wanted to destroy the screening process with a mass jailbreak. Yet Ridgway rejected Van Fleet’s request to postpone screening. Instead, he ordered strict new controls on the indoctrination program and on the activities of Chinese nationalist agents. He also wanted recommendations on reducing the South Korean guard force, Korean service personnel, and refugees at Koje-do.

The screening began April 8 in the 11 compounds deemed most friendly. On April 10, however, Koreans in Compound 95 captured a medical party, and South Korean soldiers armed with clubs had to rescue them. The melee spread when other South Korean soldiers opened fire on the mob. A U.S. Army officer with a jeep-mounted machine gun stopped a rush to the gate. Three POWs died, and 60 fell wounded while one South Korean soldier disappeared and four were wounded. Operation Spreadout started separating repatriates from those preferring not to return. In command of the entire POW system, General Yount began moving the Koreans who refused repatriation from Koje-do to mainland camps at Pusan, Masan, Yongchon, Kwangju, and Nonsan. The captive Chinese, divided into repatriates and nonrepatriates, would be sent to new camps on opposite sides of Cheju-do Island.

Heavily protected, the UN Command screening teams worked their way through 22 of 28 compounds not firmly under Korean Communist control. They deemed six compounds-four North Korean army compounds and two for Communist Party members and guerrillas from all over Korea-to be too well-armed, well-organized, and belligerent to enter until the prospective battlefield had been cleared of all nonrepatriates and refugees. The nonrepatriate Chinese left the island first for Cheju-do, many unhappy they were not headed to Formosa. Some 7,000 Chinese POWs who wanted to go home to their families were left behind, only a few of them Communists.

By April 19, 1952, General Dodd’s teams had screened 106,376 POWs and civilian internees. Of these, 31,244 chose to return to Communist custody, while 75,132 preferred being sent to South Korea, Formosa, or elsewhere. Screening at the 64th Field Hospital in Pusan shows the strength of the resistance movement there: 4,774 POWs wanted repatriation; 1,738 did not.

Forwarding Dodd’s report to Washington, Ridgway warned that the Koje-do guard force still faced 43,000 violent, vicious North Korean resisters in six compounds: 37,628 POWs commanded by colonels Lee and Hong and 5,700 civilian internees directed by the mysterious, unidentified Mr. Pak. Yet many POWs had already been shipped from Koje-do to Pusan, Masan, Yongchon, Kwangju, Nonsan, and Cheju-do. It appeared Operation Spreadout was nearing completion in relative peace.

But this progress on nonrepatriates galvanized the resistance leaders to take desperate action in May 1952. Whether the resistance leaders received specific directions from General Nam is unclear, although reporters Winnington and Burchett later claimed that Pak, Lee, and Hong acted without orders, which brought them disgrace. The Koje-do Three-as Pak, Lee, and Hong came to be known-decided to kidnap General Dodd and force him to confess to mistreating the Communist POWs. At a minimum, they expected to create a media sensation and win a propaganda victory. Perhaps there would be a breakout. The plotters could also assume that they still had informers in their midst, requiring them to move quickly.

On April 29, the North Korean officers of Compound 76 asked to meet with Lt. Col. Wilbur Raven, a military police officer and enclosure commander. The meeting was supposedly to resolve Raven’s suspension of a cigarette ration after North Korean army officers refused to serve on work detail. Raven and a South Korean interpreter entered the “headquarters” hut just inside the wire and began listening to a barrage of demands. Suddenly more than a hundred cadremen flooded the building. They screamed at Raven and one tried to force-feed him bean soup. Then the POWs produced an EE8 field phone and told him to call General Dodd. After Raven passed on the prisoners’ demands-which Dodd rejected-the POWs released Raven. The whole bizarre episode was a rehearsal.

On May 7, the diehards of Compound 76 seized General Dodd. Responding to another POW request to discuss prison conditions and screening, Dodd and Raven met a delegation at the compound’s front gate. Discussions through the outer wire lasted more than an hour. Dodd, following Raven’s advice, was unarmed but armed GIs protected him. Then a “honey bucket” crew came by and a guard opened the outer gate. With a yell, POWs grabbed Dodd and almost captured Raven, who grabbed a gatepost and kicked his assailants away until the guards rescued him. As he was being carried away, Dodd ordered his soldiers not to shoot. None did.

The Dodd affair-called a mutiny by Western writers-threw unwelcome light on the UN Command’s POW management and the voluntary repatriation policy. It occurred as General Ridgway was turning over the Far East and UN Commands to Gen. Mark W. Clark. Ridgway ordered the use of “whatever degree of force” necessary to gain Dodd’s release. His demand to turn over Dodd was met with catcalls when read to the POWs. The next day a new Koje-do commander, Brig. Gen. Charles F. Colson, arrived with an American infantry battalion. An able, decorated infantry commander of World War II, Colson warned the POWs not to harm Dodd, his friend. He deployed all his infantry and mounted machine guns to deter a mass jailbreak, predicted by Dodd’s G-2.

Dodd reported his status to Colson, first by notes and later by telephone. His captors were treating Dodd with respect, but he found himself discussing prison reform, repatriation policy, and capitalist injustice-with his release at stake. The POWs also threatened him with a “trial” as a war criminal. The Communists placed festive protest signs around Compound 76 warning that Dodd would die if Colson tried to rescue him.

In May 9, Van Fleet, the Eighth Army commander, came to Koje-do to review the plans to break Compound 76’s resistance and save Dodd, though the latter was a secondary concern. The general had company: Ridgway and Clark. Both urged Van Fleet to give the POWs plenty of opportunity to surrender. They agreed there would be no media coverage of the Koje-do crisis. The critical matter, they thought, was massing firepower to neutralize the 19,000 POWs outside the hard-core Compounds 76, 77, and 78. Only then would American soldiers enter Compound 76, using tear gas and other riot-suppression equipment.

Van Fleet gave Colson another day for negotiations. Company B of the 64th Tank Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, had not arrived from the mainland with its 22 tanks, including five flamethrower tanks. General Van Fleet also knew, however, that generals Ridgway and Clark wanted the Koje-do problem to disappear.

For reasons that are unclear, Ridgway did not tell Clark of Dodd’s capture until May 8. Ridgway knew that whether Dodd lived or died, the Communists would probably fight relocation, and he knew they were prepared to die in large numbers, which could not be kept secret. Ridgway may have preferred to let the inevitable massacre occur on Clark’s watch, because Ridgway wanted to be U.S. Army chief of staff. Clark wanted to retire.

Not briefed about the POW rebellion on his way to Tokyo, Clark was dismayed by the Koje-do surprise, which he called “the biggest flap of the entire war.” After negotiations the next day with the captors and several telephone conversations with Dodd, the two American brigadier generals made a deal. Eventually the Koje-do Three accepted a signed statement by General Colson that United Nations guards had killed and wounded “many prisoners of war.” Colson promised to “do all within my power” to treat the POWs according to international law; he said he had no authority to modify the UN Command position on voluntary repatriation.

He promised he would conduct no more “forcible” screening sessions, nor would he force nonrepatriates to again bear arms, and he would recognize POW representatives chosen by the POWs themselves. At nine thirty in the evening on May 10, Dodd walked out of Compound 76, unharmed. He and Colson were not, however, out of harm’s way.

Always public relations-conscious, Clark wanted Ridgway to explain the crisis to the press, but Ridgway issued no statement until May 12, when Clark coaxed him to approve a memo Clark’s staff had prepared, announcing that Dodd had bought his freedom two days earlier with what amounted to a confession of war crimes that implicated Ridgway and Van Fleet. Colson had signed the statement only to recover Dodd.

General Clark immediately disavowed Colson’s “confession” and produced an account he and Ridgway had agreed on even before Van Fleet and Dodd talked to the press in Seoul. Clark’s statement, however, revealed such a degree of ignorance of conditions on Koje-do that he could have been judged either a fool or a liar by anyone who knew about the events, including newsmen. For example, Clark claimed that the POW violence had been exaggerated and had no bearing on the armistice negotiations, when clearly they were central to those meetings.

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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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