War Behind The Wire: Koje-do Prison Camp

By Allan R. Millett
1/20/2009 • MHQ

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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