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War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

By Allan R. Millett
1/20/2009 • MHQ

Dodd’s account of his captivity revealed a more complicated picture of the Communist POW resistance movement. Dodd also said that Colson’s concessions were “of minor importance” and the POWs’ demands inconsequential, a view shared by Van Fleet. An inevitable investigation by a board of Eighth Army officers found Colson’s conduct meritorious but Van Fleet rejected this finding, under pressure from Clark. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strongly suggested that Clark punish Dodd and Colson. Clark convened a board of Far East Command generals that recommended sanctions. Without further investigation or formal charges, Dodd and Colson returned to their permanent rank of colonel and left the army for ignominious retirement. General Yount, who was not represented, received a letter of reprimand for being a propaganda embarrassment, in Ridgway’s words as “humiliating and damaging a defeat as any that might have been imposed in bloody battle.”

The Koje-do Three and the hard-core North Korean Communist leadership had succeeded in pulling off the resistance movement’s most theatrical and deadly propaganda victory. But now the UN Command had to tackle the problem of its central prison being run by armed prisoners.

To relieve the Eighth Army of its long-term POW management responsibilities, Clark appointed a new commander for Koje-do Camp One, Brig. Gen. Haydon L. “Bull” Boatner. Boatner specialized in Chinese language and culture and had spent 10 years in Asian tours, giving him special insight in the psychology of Asian soldiers. With his eyeglasses, thinning hair, and flabby physique, he had an avuncular look that belied his profane, bullying, perfectionist, professional approach to command. He chose tough Col. Harold Taylor as his deputy. Thinking the enlisted men were “the poorest quality of American soldiers with whom I’ve ever served,” Boatner got quality replacements. He also had Clark lend him a judge advocate schooled in the Geneva Convention to review Koje-do operations, and Boatner intended to follow his lawyer’s advice.

Clark contributed the paratroopers of the 187th Regimental Combat Team. Boatner wanted more crack troops, and Van Fleet agreed, ordering the British Commonwealth Division to produce some troops to pacify Koje-do. As he learned about the POW resistance, Boatner came to view the insurgency as a “self-inflicted mess” created by American commanders who knew nothing of Asians or POWs. Boatner was appalled to see undisciplined GIs rush to the wire to scream catcalls and throw rocks at demonstrating POWs. He relieved three of the four senior MP officers and culled NCOs from the MP brigade. To counter Communist atrocity charges, he opened the new camps to inspection by a team from the International Red Cross, and Boatner insisted that 40 to 50 war correspondents come to Koje-do and report his actions.

Before he could attack Compound 76, Boatner had to establish new quarters for five compounds of North Korean soldiers and two for civilian internees, in all almost 70,000 determined repatriates. He planned new, smaller, closely guarded camps that were more isolated, more secure, and that would depend less on Korean service personnel and refugee labor. The small islands of Yoncho-do and Pongam-do would house 12,000 segregated leaders and troublemakers. He ordered another small camp (Chogu-ri) to be built for the same purpose on Koje-do. The equivalent of solitary confinement, it nonetheless complied with the Geneva Convention.

On June 10, 1952, General Boatner assaulted Compound 76 with a tank platoon and two battalions of paratroopers. Although Communist “shock troops” charged the GIs with handmade flails and spears while others threw firebombs from trenches and dugouts, Boatner’s troops defeated 6,500 North Korean officers and NCOs with relatively few casualties.

First they ordered the POWs into their barracks on the threat of machine gun fire. Some POW resisters fought on for three hours, although their comrades-including Sr. Col. Lee Hak-ku-streamed from the compound to surrender. Thirty-one POWs died and 131 were wounded. Army investigators later decided that fellow prisoners had murdered about half the dead for sympathizing with the Republic of Korea. One paratrooper bled to death from a stab wound and 14 others collected Purple Hearts. In the next two weeks, residents of six other POW and civilian internee compounds moved to the three new camps in the Koje-do system, without resisting (but not before murdering 15 more prisoners). Around 48,000 POWs remained in old Camp One.

The completion of what had been dubbed Operations Spreadout and Breakup restored United Nations Command control over the prison population. Van Fleet felt secure enough to allow the South Koreans to free 27,000 South Korean civilians who had proven their identities and loyalties in June and July of 1952. Another 11,000 South Koreans who had been impressed into North Korean army service went home. The camps came much closer to Geneva Convention and Red Cross standards.

Still, POW resistance did not disappear, because its basic external causes (voluntary repatriation and UN Command coalition politics) had not disappeared. The North Korean political officers at Panmunjo?m had ample reason and opportunity to demand more resistance. President Syngman Rhee of South Korea demanded that Van Fleet release all nonrepatriates, provided South Korean investigators cleared them. Indoctrination program teams and South Korean agents fed the growing anxiety of the “detainees” that they were pawns to the Panmunjo?m talks. They spread the rumor that the UN Command negotiators had promised to return no less than 76,000 POWs. Rhee used the detained anti-Communist Koreans to stop or slow the armistice negotiations, which he opposed.

The British, who regarded the American handling of POWs as dangerously inept, began to criticize UN Command policy, starting with the report of Maj. D.R. Bancroft, the commander of a two-company task force deployed on Koje-do from May 23 to July 10, 1952. These British and Canadian troops were assigned to control Compound 66 (militant North Korean army officers led by Col. Hong Chul) and thought American and South Korean treatment of the Chinese and Koreans beyond contempt. They found the POWs in charge of everything behind the wire. When the British searched a barrack, they found money, escape maps, medical supplies, weapons, and civilian clothes, all provided by Korean guards.

The British stopped the flow of gasoline and nail-studded firewood to the compound and shut down the ordnance factory that had been disguised as a blacksmith shop. Responding to the new media access, the island sprouted protest signs. As the British grasp tightened on 4,000 POWs in four new compounds, they found that strict standards and human decency paid dividends when the Red Cross cited the group for its adherence to the Geneva Convention. Major Bancroft left Koje-do more impressed by the dedication and discipline of the North Koreans than by the Americans and the South Koreans.

His report caused a furor in the British, Canadian, and Australian defense and foreign ministries and made POW management an item of interest for several Commonwealth generals.

Segregating the Chinese POWs on Cheju-do brought the Chinese resisters to life. Relieved from the domination of the nonrepatriate majority and supported by Chinese nationalist agents and indoctrination program personnel, the leaders of the Chinese resisters organized a series of protests that began in August 1952. On October 1, the anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China, the Cheju city compounds turned red with makeshift flags, banners, and decorations.

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