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02-14-04, 07:51 AM
Operations Big and Little Switch

POW repatriation in Korea

For as long as there has been war, there have been prisoners of war. Throughout history, prisoners have been enslaved, executed and ransomed. To develop humanitarian laws to protect wounded combatants and civilians during times of war, a series of international meetings were held. The resulting agreements became known as the Geneva Convention. The third meeting in 1929 specifically addressed treatment of prisoners of war (POWs). The fourth convention, ratified in 1949, replaced the agreements of the first three conventions and called for the protection of civilians during wartime.

When hostilities broke out in 1950, it was incumbent upon both sides to treat POWs humanely to house them, feed them and administer adequate medical care, for example. Unfortunately United Nations Command (UNC) service members often were subject to inhumane treatment and many died while in captivity.

Early Problems

The disposition of prisoners of war represented a major source of contention during the prolonged Korean War truce talks. The North Koreans had not expected to fight the Americans and had no plan for dealing with American POWs. The primary sticking point was the issue of voluntary repatriation. The debate concerned whether POWs should have the option of refusing repatriation or be forcibly returned. Among North Korean People's Army (NKPA) POWs were Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers who had been captured and forced into the NKPA ranks. Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) POWs held by the United Nations Command included Chinese Nationalist soldiers who had been forced into CCF ranks. In January 1952 the UNC took a firm stand for voluntary repatriation, but this matter was not basically resolved until June 1953 when the creation of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), an organization that took custody of POWs who refused repatriation.

U.S. personnel captured or interned during the Korean War totaled 7,245. Of this number, 2,806 died in captivity, 4,418 were returned to military control, and 21 refused repatriation. In the summer of 1950 the absence of a POW policy by the NKPA became especially evident with the capture of Taejon in the Republic of Korea. The NKPA killed several thousand South Korean civilians and summarily executed 42 captured American soldiers. Additional executions of American soldiers occurred during this period, but there was no firm evidence that the North Korean High Command sanctioned this practice. The absence of an NKPA POW program coupled with the rash conduct of uncontrolled North Korean small units contributed to the atrocities.

Communist POW Camps

Confinement of U.S. military personnel in the POW camps located in North Korea operated in three phases: July 1950 until the entry of the CCF into the war in November; the winter of 1950-1951 when several temporary camps were created that included the three "Valleys"; and the permanent camps. As mentioned, the NKPA had no POW system, just collection points. During the summer and fall of 1950, the NKPA moved POWs to the rear on foot, often by a death march. For example, during a 120-mile forced march during November 1950, approximately 130 of 700 POWs died. The First Offensive of the Chinese Communist Forces in late 1950 resulted in the capture of several thousand U.S. soldiers and Marines. Like the NKPA, the CCF at that time had no established POW system.

As an expedient, the CCF set up a temporary camp called the "Valley" located 10 miles south of Pyoktong, North Korea, near the Yalu River. Primitive living conditions there resulted in the death of 500 to 700 of the 1,000 internees. American soldiers, most of them members of the 2d Infantry Division captured at Kunu-ri in November 1950, were kept at a place called "Death Valley," 30 miles southeast of Pukchin. Forty percent of the camp's 2,000 inmates died within three months. The other internment point known as "Peaceful Valley," located near Kanggye, that held about 300 U.S. POWs, had better living conditions than the other two "Valleys" and only a 10 percent death rate.

Overall, U.N. POWs died in large numbers during the first year of the war. Lack of food, shelter and medicine took its toll. During the first winter, some American POWs reported marching for days, sometimes in circles it seemed. Prisoners, weakened from battle, the cold and lack of food, who could not keep pace with their fellow prisoners were often left to die or executed by their captors. Prisoners carried and dragged one another through these marches. Some American POWs were young teenagers. One soldier captured during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign was 16 years old.

Through most of 1951, despite established camps, casualties continued to mount. Prisoners were fed what North Korean peasants lived on and medical supplies were unavailable to the doctors. Finally the death rate, sometimes approaching 40 percent, alarmed the Chinese. Soon food and medical supplies were provided and conditions improved for the rest of the war.

The U.N. forces were no better prepared to hold POWs than the communists. Initially enemy soldiers were kept at Pusan, but as their numbers swelled, Chinese and North Korean POWs were moved to compounds on Koje-do Island. Eventually, food, clothing and housing were adequate as reported by the International Red Cross, but the large numbers of POWs at one time over 80,000 made close supervision difficult. Fights broke out within the camps and prisoners died in bloody clashes with one another. Disturbances usually were usually along pro- and anticommunist lines.

By 1951 the CCF decided that there was propaganda value in a POW system. The Chinese developed eight permanent POW camps that stretched over a 50-mile sector in North Korea along the Yalu River. Survivors of the "Valleys" were brought in, and Camp 5 at Pyoktong became the main camp and headquarters for the Chinese POW command. The CCF segregated the POWs according to rank, race and nationality and created interrogation and indoctrination programs. With their indoctrination program, the CCF tested each prisoner's faith in the democratic process, but the Chinese sought publicity more than converts to communism.

Daily propaganda lectures and broadcasts that attacked capitalist society were conducted, and the CCF persuaded some POWs to sign peace petitions and make pro-communist statements. The term "brainwashing" obtained notoriety at this time and caused concern to American authorities. Brainwashing was defined as an intense and prolonged psychological process designed to erase an individual's past beliefs and to substitute new ones. Even though some American POWs collaborated with their captors, most of them did so for personal convenience. No confirmed cases of brainwashing came out of the Korean War.

Mistreatment of American POWs

The Chinese engaged in physical abuse of American POWs that included kicks and slaps, and there were some cases of physical torture. No cases of physical abuse resulting in the death of American POWs have been proved. However, some of the more than 2,600 men who were officially listed as having died in captivity might have perished from physical abuse. Forty percent of U.S. Army POWs died while confined, but the causes were generally attributed to unchecked disease, untended wounds, malnutrition and extreme cold. Many of these deaths occurred prior to creation of the permanent camps.

Some 670, or about 10 percent, of captured U.S. Army soldiers escaped during the Korean War. All of these escapes took place from front- line holding points or aid stations shortly after capture. There were about 50 documented escape attempts by Army POWs from the temporary and permanent camps, but none succeeded. The rough terrain, the problem of blending in with the local population, and the great distances to the UNC lines made escape very difficult.

The issue of POW repatriation was the major point of contention during peace talks, causing the peace process to drag on two years.

During the early discussions on prisoners of war in late 1951, no mention was made about the principles of voluntary or forced repatriation. Army staff officers in Washington had pointed out in mid-1951 that there were many Chinese prisoners of war who had formerly served in the forces of Chiang Kai-shek. They and others who had demonstrated anticommunist attitudes in the UNC prisoner of war camps would likely be severely punished if they were returned to communist control. The possibility of offering such prisoners a choice would be fair and humane.

U.N. negotiators' first concern was the quick and safe return of all the prisoners held by the communists; they were reluctant to espouse any policy that might endanger their release. Some negotiators were willing to try a gambit that might work. If the communists would consent to a one-for-one exchange, the UNC could withhold all prisoners unwilling to return to communist control until all of the UNC prisoners of war had been exchanged and then could let the remaining detainees exercise an option. The enemy negotiators, however, quickly extinguished any hopes for a one-for-one exchange and insisted firmly on an all-for-all settlement.

The enemy secured fresh ammunition for their attacks on voluntary repatriation in May 1952, when violence erupted in the UNC prisoner of war camps on the island of Koje-do, off the southern coast of South Korea. Communist prisoners seized the UNC camp commander and used him to bargain both for concessions and for damaging admissions that the prisoners had been treated inhumanely and had been subjected to forcible screening. Although these concessions were given under duress, the enemy was able to gain the propaganda initiative during the summer of 1952.


02-14-04, 07:54 AM
Negotiations stalled. Both U.N. Commander General Mark W. Clark, and chief UNC negotiator Major General William K. Harrison recommended that the UNC present the communists with several alternate proposals for the disposition of the nonrepatriates:

1. All prisoners would be brought to the demilitarized zone and checked off by Red Cross or joint military teams. They could then choose whether to be repatriated or to remain in the control of the side that detained them;

2. All prisoners desiring repatriation would be exchanged expeditiously. All non-repatriates would be brought to the demilitarized zone in small groups and would be interviewed by teams from countries not involved in the war and could then elect repatriation or nonrepatriation;

3. All prisoners desiring repatriation would be exchanged as quickly as possible. All nonrepatriates would then be brought to the demilitarized zone and freed. They could then go, without screening or interviews, to the side of their choice.

When the communists turned down these proposals and continued to demand full repatriation, Harrison declared on Oct. 8, that the meetings would be in recess until they accepted one of the UNC proposals or offered a constructive one of their own. The talking stage had come to an end.


Photo Caption: American prisoners held by North Koreans


Photo Caption: The inscription on the white cross reads "8 P.W. bodies removed from this ditch," mute evidence of communist brutality that took place in POW compound #72. POWs were tried by kangaroo courts and sentenced to death for speaking out against communism.