War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

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.

[continued on next page]

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 ?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.