War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

The American camp commander ordered his guards, MPs, and a battalion of the 35th Infantry to tear down these symbols. The Chinese fought back with spears and gas bombs. In a melee that swept over three compounds, 56 Chinese were killed and 91 more were hospitalized. Nine GIs were wounded.

Internal political struggles within the POW resistance movement probably prolonged the revolt. By autumn 1952, it looked as if there would be an armistice and a POW exchange. The Koreans and the Chinese knew repatriates would have to prove that their capture had been unavoidable and their resistance heroic, up to the highest Communist standards.

In December 1952, the resisters sparked 48 incidents that left 99 POWs dead and 302 wounded. The worst of these occurred on Pongam-do, where Pak still commanded the civilian party faithful. On December 14, 85 resisters died rushing the wire in a breakout attempt, the last such escape effort. Suicidal resistance continued at the POW hospitals at Pusan where, by refusing treatment, resisters were making political statements. Undercover Communist doctors and nurses killed patients they regarded as traitors. Over the winter, as armistice negotiations stalled again, incidents dwindled but for the occasional murder of Koreans and Chinese of suspect loyalty. In the spring of 1953, everyone in custody became ever more anxious about their fates. The Koreans who wanted repatriation numbered 66,754 POWs and civilian internees, and there were 8,840 Chinese POWs. Virtually all the nonrepatriates were former soldiers: 35,597 Koreans and 14,280 Chinese.

In March, Josef Stalin died-the single most critical event leading to the armistice. The Soviet politburo warned Mao Zedong that he could no longer count on military assistance. Syngman Rhee made demands for buying his acceptance of an intolerable peace: a mutual defense agreement with the United States and the promise of over $1 billion in economic and military assistance. As part of his pressure on the United States, Rhee began to threaten to release all the Korean nonrepatriates. This encouraged noncooperation in all the camps, not just those of the repatriates.

On June 13, Korean nonrepatriates beat eight Communist agents, killing one. On June 17-19, the South Korean Counterintelligence Corps and the Military Police Command organized the breakout of 27,000 of the 35,000 Koreans who had refused repatriation. The only Americans who tried to stop the escapees were marines of the 1st Shore Party Battalion, a temporary guard force at a minor compound at Ascom City near Seoul. The marines thought the Koreans had weapons and wanted to fight. They opened fire, killed 44 escapees, and wounded more than 100. At all the other camps, only 17 other escapees died. In the aftermath of the great escape, an additional American infantry regiment joined the guard force, for fear of a Chinese jailbreak at Cheju-do. In all the camps, anti-Americanism became an epidemic.

Operation Little Switch, an agreed-upon exchange of sick and wounded POWs in April, had established the norms of all the subsequent exchanges. The sick and wounded Chinese and Koreans postured and posed, spit and cursed, sang and chanted and, even on stretchers, tried to tear off their prisoner garb. The exchange, conducted before the armistice, did not require further screening, a critical difference from the post-armistice Big Switch. There were 6,670 Chinese and Koreans going north and 684 UN Command personnel (471 South Koreans) returned to allied care.

The POW resistance movement staged its last protests as part of Big Switch, the POW exchange that followed the ceasefire on July 27, 1953. After much acrimonious debate, the Communists accepted the principle of voluntary repatriation, but only if it included rescreening those North Koreans and Chinese POWs who had rejected repatriation: some 14,704 Chinese and 7,900 Koreans. The Communists held 359 prisoners who opposed repatriation, including 335 Koreans.

Article III of the Korean Armistice Agreement established the exchange. The first phase would transfer prisoners who chose repatriation to the neutral territory around Panmunjo?m. The Committee for Repatriation of Prisoners of War, three representatives each from the two belligerent coalitions, supervised the movement. The second phase focused on those captives who rejected repatriation. Within a 60-day period, Red Cross teams would go to all the POW camps, escort the prisoners to Panmunjo?m, and supervise interrogating the nonrepatriates to ensure their decisions were truly voluntary (if that could be determined). The Communist political officers would try to persuade the POWs to change their minds. In addition to the belligerents’ representatives, officer teams from Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, and Czechoslovakia (the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission) would direct activities. Three thousand Indian troops were to arrange required interviews under neutral protection.

Much to the displeasure of the United Nations and the South Korean government, the Communists immediately turned the Indians into impotent onlookers. The Communist delegation demanded that the Indian Custodial Force break up the militant anti-Communist prisoner leadership organization. They published a list of 400 UN Command collaborators and agents among the 22,604 prisoners. The Indians replied that they would not use force to keep order, an invitation for a renewed war behind the wire. With only 1,300 troops to guard 55 compounds over three and a half square miles, the Indians could not stop attacks on waverers. The Indians did shoot and kill two escapees in October, and wounded three demonstrators. The Indians tried to court-martial seven Chinese for murder but witnesses were scarce. On December 12, four Korean bodies were found in a ditch inside the compound.

The Communists harassed interrogators and took names and addresses, giving a strong impression that they would attack the families of any staying behind. The prisoners reacted with suicides and suicide attempts, and sometimes attacked Chinese and Korean officers. Under impossible conditions, the screening teams talked to only about 5,000 POWs before giving up on December 31, without requesting an extension.

The commander of the Custodial Force, Lt. Gen. K.S. Thimayya, reported to the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission that the Communists had turned the process into a show, and 38 POWs had died. Four hundred forty Chinese and 188 Koreans changed their minds and went north; 86 others went to India and then scattered around the world. Repatriates and nonrepatriates alike used Panmunjo?m as a final stage for mass demonstrations and gang battles for the members of the media to observe.

Banners flying, marching to songs and chants of protest and revolution, the Communist POWs stripped off their hated UN Command uniforms and marched into an unknown future. The Chinese resisters found themselves pariahs, condemned by their army and the Communist Party for being captured. One-third of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force captives, dedicated Communists or not, chose repatriation in the face of death, beatings, mutilation by tattooing, and self-hate. They returned to a Communist China that regarded them as traitors for 40 years.

The North Korean soldiers, guerrillas, and party cadremen who returned home had no better luck. Despite leading the resistance, Pak Sang-hyon and Col. Lee Hak-ku were shot for treason (which was also not an isolated event in the post-armistice Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), although they may have been allowed to see their families first. Col. Hong Chul, who may have been a planted POW commissar, simply disappeared.

For UN Command/Far East Command, the challenge of the Communist POW resistance movement produced ample lessons in handling captives who still considered themselves combatants. The lessons faded in the 1950s, marginalized by the rant in the United States over the alleged misbehavior of captive GIs by "brainwashing," the "war crimes" confessions of American airmen, and the imagined moral corruption of American youths in uniform. The Code of Conduct (1953) applied to American captives, not their Communist counterparts.

The principle of voluntary repatriation influenced the POW exchanges in 1954 in French Indochina, freeing thousands of Viet Minh cadremen, who later subverted Vietnam. Indeed, since the Korean War, the war behind the wire has continued in conflicts throughout the world.



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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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