In 1953, Communist POWs in a camp off the coast of South Korea proved that MacArthur was wrong: There is a substitute for victory.
FOR 40 YEARS OF THE COLD WAR, WHENEVER THE AMERICAN MILITARY actually fought a hot war of any importance, it was bedeviled by the dilemma of how to deal with prisoners of war. The truce ending the Korean War was delayed for well over a year by political posturing over the fate of tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean prisoners who refused to return to Communism in their homelands. The Communists adroitly turned this conundrum into a second front by harassing their captors at the Koje island prison camp off the peninsula’s southern coast. American generalship was utterly confounded by a sharp political engagement in the midst of enervating military stalemate. The allied truce negotiators judged the additional 50,000 casualties that their side suffered during the protracted talks to be wildly disproportionate to what they regarded as a dubious principle of free choice, which after all was being accorded to soldiers who only recently had been trying to kill their own troops. The negotiators’ political masters, whatever the righteousness of their original motives, seem to have insisted on continuing to fight for the principle in order to salvage some moral victory from the humiliating battlefield stalemate inflicted on them by what they contemptuously regarded as an uncivilized Asian horde.
The Nixon administration also converted the U.S. prisoners in Vietnam into a domestic political issue, enabling it to display some token of victory through a class of heroes who could be celebrated upon their return. It never seemed odd that their heroism was based on suffering and not conquest, and this may have eased the pain of the only major defeat the United States ever suffered against foreign arms. But it also helped delay for years the solution of our most domestically divisive war by extending and politicizing the insoluble problem of the missing in Vietnam. This only envenomed the tragedy. It still poisons our political debate; even as late as the 1992 political campaign, it became an issue through the history of H. Ross Perot’s personal attempts to redeem missing Americans by a variety of methods including outright ransom.
Although the decline of Communism removes for the time being the threat of ideological empires that cannot bear the sting of mass defection, the problem is not going to go away. The use of human captives as political pawns has merely reemerged in an age-old form, hostage taking. It has been turned into a heartbreaking game of cat and mouse by cruel appeals through the international media. Politicians can no more disable this tactic than could the stalwart World War II generals in Korea, many of whom were endlessly befuddled by what one 1952 intelligence summary described as “a new area of total war.”
But not entirely new. The UN-event in this recurring drama took place at the end of World War II when Stalin demanded and received from the Allies the forceful repatriation of thousands of Soviet soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Germans—some to fight alongside them. The sense of horror turned to personal revulsion and guilt after the worst fears of the officers who handed them over were confirmed and many Russians were exiled, imprisoned, or executed, sometimes all three. For years afterward, Soviet commanders reminded their men that this would be their eventual fate if they surrendered. This memory seemed to dominate American minds from President Harry Truman on down, when prisoners began falling into the hands of American troops fighting in Korea under the United Nations flag. More than 130,000 were in allied prison camps by January 1951, six months before the Communists asked for negotiations. To support allied insistence on voluntary repatriation, teams began screening the captives. To the amazement of the U.N. command and the embarrassment of the Communists, the ratio of those polled who refused repatriation ran at about four to one before the process was suspended under a combination of invective at the Panmunjom truce talks and obstruction by the Communist leadership inside the prison camps.
If the wise policies of World War II had been followed, the prisoners would have been transferred out of Korea to the United States, or at least to Okinawa. That was what General Douglas MacArthur recommended to Washington, but he never got a reply. The principal arguments against it were cost, political sensitivity in Japan about the status of Okinawa, and the unspoken fact that a stateside transfer of prisoners would constitute an admission that the conflict was more than a temporary “police action.” As the numbers became unmanageable and even threatening behind the wavering front lines, the prisoners were shifted south to holding camps near Pusan, where the South Korean civilians who had been impressed into North Korean service units were separated from the Korean and Chinese soldiers.
I have always felt that retaliation was the real reason the Communists did not treat our own prisoners better. The captured Asian troops, many of whom had fought with more discipline and determination than their American opponents, were regarded by most ordinary soldiers with whom I served in Korea, and by altogether too many officers, as subhuman “gooks,” which is what they were usually called. They were therefore deemed unworthy of the civilized treatment accorded less than a decade earlier to white European prisoners. They were crowded into improvised prison space at four times the level prescribed in U.S. federal penitentiaries and given little to do except dig drainage ditches and organize parties for the removal of their own excrement. They were beaten by military police, although this occasional brutality nowhere approached the murderous barbarity the North Koreans practiced on allied captives in the north. In fact, that brutality was matched in the allied POW camps only by the North Korean prisoners’ enforcement of their own internal discipline, which was essential to their high command’s strategy of holding out against the principle of voluntary repatriation.
THE NOW-OBSCURE EPISODE THAT CRYSTALLIZED the incompatibility of the Communists’ subtle political tactics with the classical American military strategy of victory by overwhelming firepower took place on the small fishing island of Koje off the southern coast of Korea. Koje-do (the Korean suffix signifies an island) is about half again as large as Martha’s Vineyard. Two rock-strewn valleys on its northern coast were hastily converted into a tented outdoor Alcatraz for 70,000 Chinese and North Korean captives in January 1951.
“The first blunder was the camp design,” wrote Edward Hymoff, an International News Service correspondent, after a visit. “Instead of small compounds, easily policed, it was decided for ease and economy to make them fewer and bigger. The result was a sprawling series of mammoth, 100 acre compounds enclosed by double fences of barbed wire with a single sally-port gate system and guard towers at the corners. With this incredibly bad planning, all pretense of prisoner control was foredoomed.”
The compounds were originally designed to hold from 700 to 1,200 men each, but about 5,000 were soon jammed into each one. Space between them was later filled to confine more prisoners, saving on the number of guards but making their task more dangerous because thousands of prisoners could quickly be mobilized for protests, strikes, and riots by orders shouted across the barbed wire from one enclosure to another. The guards, green recruits led by officer misfits sent down from the front with no knowledge of Chinese or Korean, often left their posts to trade souvenirs, cigarettes, or sex with the camp-follower town of 8,000 that had sprung up around the perimeter. Several were murdered. At night the small guard force feared it could easily be overwhelmed, and so it largely retreated to barracks, in effect leaving the camp under control of the prisoners. Their Communist commanders imposed brutal discipline on recalcitrants. They would be found in the morning stomped to death, with rib fragments causing fatal internal bleeding; choked by cotton forced down their throats; or hanging from the barbed-wire fences. One nonlethal method of discipline was to tie a prisoner to a tent pole by his testicles and then dump his head in water.
In this idleness and overcrowding, rebellion would have festered even without an ideological spur. Each compound developed its own arsenal, which was described by Colonel William R. Robinette, one of the Koje commandants:
In each GI shoe, there is an eight-inch sliver of steel. These had been sharpened into knives. Twenty lengths of barbed wire made a club, wired together and with a cloth handle. One of Koje’s many stones, put into a sock, made a deadly blackjack. They made pikes out of Army tent poles, sharpening the pin at the end. They even made mock weapons out of wood—replicas of machine guns, automatic rifles, and M-l’s painted black with soot from the camp incinerator, their bayonets covered with tinfoil from American chewing gum or cigarette wrappers.
As so often happens, local commanders on the ground were either unwilling or unable to understand the grand political strategy of both sides. Brigadier General Paul Yount, the commander in the port city of Pusan, was grandiosely engaged in constructing a courthouse that was to be its largest building; it was intended to be the site of military trials to punish the camp’s prisoner leadership as war criminals, just as if the Koreans were Nazis and this was to be their Nuremberg.
Various people sent to Koje-do late in 1951 to investigate found what amounted to a scandal. One of them was John E. Murray, then a major and secretary to the general staff of the Pusan Logistical Command, who reported that the administration of the camp was slapstick and slipshod. He tried to alert Eighth Army Headquarters in Seoul of the explosive situation, but there he ran up against General James Van Fleet’s chief of staff, who was partly deaf and never quite seemed to understand what they faced. As the ranking army commander in Korea, Van Fleet himself counseled patience lest any sharp reaction provoke a riot that might sabotage the truce talks, which he believed would soon end the war.
Early in 1952 Washington prohibited Koje-do commanders from judicial prosecution to enforce discipline; so much for Yount’s mini-Nuremberg. But Truman and his advisers were divided on much more than that. The Joint Chiefs of Staff at first hungered for the propaganda victory that would come from public mass defections by the Communist prisoners, but they realized this posed a risk that the Communists might end the talks and hold onto the allied prisoners as pawns. Army Secretary James M. Lovett argued for a straight exchange to avoid spinning out the talks and threatening the welfare of U.S. prisoners. Secretary of State Dean Acheson also backed a straight exchange under the Geneva Convention, which would of course get the far smaller number of American GIs back sooner. But it was too late for mere legalism, and Truman himself recognized that. In 1951 he ordered General Matthew Ridgway, who had succeeded MacArthur as Far East commander, to demand “some major concessions” preventing the forced repatriation of prisoners. In a lengthy public statement defending the diplomatic behavior of the United Nations, he declared with Trumanesque forthrightness, “We will not buy an armistice by turning over human beings for slaughter or slavery.”
On the ground, the Communists thought of victory more than honor and had their tactics well coordinated. They viewed the prison camps as a mere extension of the battlefield, which of course included the worldwide battle for public opinion. Charges of germ warfare were a principal weapon, and U.S. prisoners were threatened and tortured—”brainwashed” was then the popular term—to make statements admitting they had conducted it, mainly from the air. The most notorious confession came from a senior marine pilot, Colonel Frank H. Schwable, who had been put in a hole outdoors and left in his own filth for six months before he cracked.
On Koje-do, most compound commanders were North Korean intelligence officers who had been smuggled through the lines, surrendering as enlisted captives. The overall political commissar was Pak Sang Hyong, a Korean raised in the Soviet Union who had served as a staff officer and interpreter to Russian troops occupying North Korea after World War Il. He was a close associate of Nam II, the chief truce negotiator at the Panmunjom talks, and the two worked together, passing reports and instructions back and forth through underground channels, the existence of which American officers found hard to believe. Pak had made his way via the POW process to Koje-do disguised as a private soldier; he was equal in rank to Nam II, but American intelligence never identified him. Another high-ranking North Korean officer was Colonel Lee Hak Koo, who had surrendered in the summer of 1950 in full uniform with red piping and Russian pistol, claiming to have lost his Communist faith. He became the military commander inside the barbed wire on Koje-do. Under the leadership of Pak and Lee, the die-hard compounds of the camp had acquired a terrible potential for embarrassing its hosts.
The prisoners provided ample warning of their commitment. Their ideological activity was shouted out in slogans and posters, including drawings of the Soviet and North Korean dictators, Stalin and Kim II Sung. They demonstrated for better conditions, drilled with homemade rifles, and of course forcibly resisted United Nations screening, to the point of murdering those who wavered. In the compounds they controlled, riots on command slowed down the U.N. process of screening out anti-Communist prisoners from the hard core. When the leader of Compound 62 declared that screening was unnecessary because all 5,600 prisoners demanded to be returned to North Korea, the 3rd Battalion of the American 27th Infantry Regiment was sent to subdue them on February 18, 1952.
As more than a thousand prisoners in Compound 62 ran yelling from their tents brandishing improvised weapons and throwing rocks, the men of the 27th hurled grenades and finally opened fire. Fifty-five inmates were killed outright; 22 more died in hospitals. One GI was killed and 38 wounded. When the infantrymen returned to the front line shortly afterward in a supposedly secret transfer, they were greeted by Communist loudspeakers blaring at them, “Welcome, murderers of Kojedo!” It was, to say the least, unnerving; I know, because I was in the 15th Infantry on the flank.
More to the point was the opening the incident created for Nam II at the truce talks. At Panmunjom he railed at the U.N. negotiators: “The fact now placed before the people of the world is that in spite of your barbarous measures, you violated the will of the captured personnel of our side. Thousands of them would rather die than yield to your forcible retention. “In fact, the allied command had begun to retreat quietly. In a message on April 29, Ridgway cautioned the Joint Chiefs of Staff that resumption of forced screening would demand “brutal” repression and asked them to assume that those who refused to be screened had in effect accepted repatriation. The parlous security at the camp was confirmed early in May by a visit from Colonel Robert T. Chaplin, provost marshal of the Far East command. Chaplin’s report prompted Ridgway to warn Van Fleet of the need to tighten control. Van Fleet’s response was to complain that Chaplin had been sent to inspect over his head without the protocol of first informing Eighth Army Headquarters.
The Koje uprising had resulted in the appointment of Brigadier General Francis T. Dodd as camp commander on February 20, but with conflicting orders. Ridgway told Van Fleet to maintain tight control, while Van Fleet told Dodd to “go easy” on the prisoners and keep them quiet because the armistice was near. This muddle had been a major factor in turning the camp into what Dodd’s predecessor, Colonel Maurice J. Fitzgerald, called a “graveyard of commanders”—a new one almost every month even before Fitzgerald had taken over the previous September.
In May 1952 the political and military elements collided dramatically in a way that none of the principal actors could have foreseen—not just Dodd and Van Fleet, but Ridgway himself. At the precise moment of the climax, he was in the process of handing over his Far East command to another celebrated World War II leader, General Mark W. Clark, and trying to avoid the stain on his glittering reputation before he became commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Europe.
Dodd, an imposing West Pointer with a fine combat record, was anxious to decrease tensions in the camp. He circulated freely, talking to the Communist leaders and fatuously trying to win their cooperation. He went unarmed as a show of goodwill—and also to avoid having his weapon seized and used against him. But because the Communists had already gained such mastery over their own compounds that neither guards nor officers had been allowed to enter them for months, Dodd easily fell into their trap. In a prisoners’ dry run, Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur Raven, the commanding officer of the camp’s military police guards, had actually been seized and held briefly; but this did not alert either officer to a plot. Nam II himself had set it up, through bamboo-telegraph orders, to strengthen his negotiating hand at Panmunjom.
On the evening of May 6, members of a work detail from the hard-core Compound 76 complained to Raven that they had been beaten by the guards, and they asked to see Dodd. As an inducement, they agreed to be fingerprinted, thus assisting him in his program of positively identifying all prisoners. Just after 2:00 P.M. on May 7, Dodd arrived and started talking, as was his custom, at the unlocked sally port of the compound. The subject moved from food to politics to the truce negotiations, but however amicable the discussion may have seemed, the two officers refused the prisoners’ invitation to enter the compound. A work detail carrying tents for salvage approached the gate, which was opened for them. The prisoners drew closer to Dodd and Raven to continue the discussion—and then jumped them. As the prisoners pulled at him, Raven held fast to a post. But before any guards could reach Dodd, he was dragged into the compound and placed in a specially prepared tent divided into a two-room suite. The prisoners quickly raised a banner, also prepared in advance: “We capture Dodd. As long as our demand will be solved, his safety is secured. If there happen brutal act such as shooting, his life is in danger.” Within hours, a field-telephone line from camp headquarters was connected to Dodd’s quarters in the prison compound, and tortuous negotiations for his release commenced.
No more vulnerable moment could have been chosen, and it was impossible that the Communist planners did not know that Dodd’s kidnap coincided with the transfer of command from Ridgway to Clark. The new commander arrived in Tokyo almost at the moment Dodd was being seized on Koje-do, thus making for confusion through equivocal responsibility. The memoirs of the two generals make it easy to imagine the almost farcical relationship between them as they juggled this international incident in the hope that the onus for it might land on the other.
At first, Ridgway writes, he “was determined to work out a solution to this prickly matter myself, along with Van Fleet, and not toss it, on such short notice, onto General Clark’s dinner plate.” Nevertheless, Ridgway took himself on a final inspection tour of Korea on May 8, four days before he was to hand over command to Clark, and he asked Clark to fly with him to Korea. Only when they were aloft did he let Clark in on what was happening. According to Clark’s memoirs, Ridgway, addressing him by his middle name as intimates did, confided, “Wayne, we’ve got a little situation over in Korea where it’s reported some prisoners have taken in one of the camp commanders, General Dodd, and are holding him as a hostage. We’ll have to get into that situation when we arrive at Eighth Army Headquarters [in Seoul] and find out what the score is.”
Clark likened himself to someone who was “walking into something that felt remarkably like a swinging door.” But what really astounded him was that the prisoner uprising was “something for which I had no preparation whatever. Although I had been briefed in Washington on every conceivable subject, this was the first time I had ever heard of Koje or the critical prisoner of war problems that existed behind our lines.”
He was to hear more, much more. At Seoul, Ridgway directed Van Fleet, in writing, to establish order, using tanks if necessary to “shoot and to shoot with maximum effect.” Ridgway was ready to sacrifice Dodd, who, he argued, had accepted mortal risks when he took up the profession of arms. “In wartime,” he wrote later,” a general’s life is no more precious than the life of a common soldier. If, in order to save an officer’s life, we abandoned the cause for which enlisted men had died, we would be guilty of betraying the men whose lives had been placed in our care.” Brave words, after the fact, especially when Ridgway, in later reports to Truman and testimony to Congress, could not bring himself to take any blame as supreme commander. “In my view,” he later stated, “the whole situation had been ineptly handled by the responsible officers in Korea.”
Van Fleet, when he arrived at Koje-do, delayed attacking the compound until heavy armor arrived from the mainland. Meanwhile, negotiations to save his comrade, Dodd, were under way through Brigadier General Charles F. Colson, a staff officer suddenly vaulted into command of the Koje camp. It was, of course, not the mere seizure of Dodd that was at issue, but what the Communists could make of it. Under the direction of Pak, the political commissar, a statement in fractured English was proposed in which the U.N. command would agree to stop using “poison gas, germ weapons, experiment object of A-Bomb”—and, of course, to stop screening prisoners for repatriation. After several days of exchanging drafts with the Communists to determine their price for Dodd’s release, Colson signed a statement assuring that in the future “the prisoners of war can expect humane treatment” and promising that after Dodd’s release “there will be no more forcible screening” of any prisoners. Dodd was released May 11. The next day Ridgway turned over his command to Clark.
Colson had no idea that his words would be used against the allies in negotiations or in press and propaganda the world over to undercut the last remaining principle for which the allied troops were fighting: the right of voluntary repatriation. Clark later overrode a court of inquiry that largely exonerated Dodd and Colson. He appointed his own court, which demoted each to colonel. They were then exiled to rear-echelon jobs in Japan, and their military careers were effectively ended. General Yount, the Pusan base commander, received a reprimand for not keeping closer surveillance over the negotiations, although it is hard to see why he was brought in except to increase the number of scapegoats for the omissions of higher headquarters. Clark wrote later that he would have “let them keep that dumb son of a bitch Dodd, and then go in and level the place.”
In the denouement, that is more or less what happened, although happily for Dodd, he was well out of the way. On May 13, wasting no time, Clark sent in Brigadier General Haydon (“Bull”) Boatner, assistant commander of the 2nd Division and an old China hand who had served in World War II under Vinegar Joe Stillwell. He spoke Chinese fluently, understood the Oriental sense of hierarchy and face, and was not an especially nice man. John E. Murray, whose warnings had gone for nothing, recalled years later in his own retirement as a major general that Boatner’s large round face with its thin lips “always looked like he was ready to spit.” Boatner was not very smart, either. As Major General Thomas Watlington later remarked in a letter to Murray, “I have known three ‘Bulls’ in the Army, and all were nicknamed not for their size but their brains. I cannot truthfully say that Boatner is the most stupid of the three, for comparison of superlatives is not easy.”
But Boatner did not have to be particularly smart; he merely had to know precisely what his orders were and carry them out efficiently. Clark told him he was “to regain control of the rebellious prisoners on Koje and maintain control thereafter.” His policy was sharply enunciated after he received a demanding message from one prisoner compound. “Prisoners of war do not negotiate,” Clark shouted at a surprised subordinate. Boatner quickly set about building stronger, smaller prison enclosures, each holding between 500 and 1,000 men, as International Red Cross representatives had previously recommended in vain. To start the transfer, he baited the Chinese prisoners by expressing amazement that they would take orders from Koreans, who were descendants of their former slaves. Meanwhile, he received reinforcements in the form of paratroopers of the 187th Regimental Combat Team, one of the best battle-tested units in Korea. Clark later wrote, “Staff planning for this operation was done as carefully as for any orthodox military campaign. We knew by this time that the Communist POWs were active combatants and had to be dealt with as soldiers, not as prisoners in the traditional sense.”
In an initial feint, Boatner sent infantrymen and tanks to pull down the Communist signs and banners in several compounds, demonstrating that he intended to regain control. On June 10 he massed his forces directly against the enemy command, ordering Colonel Lee to assemble the prisoners of his Compound 76 in groups of 150 for transfer to new quarters. They rallied with homemade barbed-wire clubs and flails, tent-pole pikes, and Molotov cocktails made from hoarded cooking gasoline. Half an hour after the first order, disciplined troops of the 187th advanced, using concussion grenades, tear gas, bayonets, and their fists, but not firing a shot. The first prisoners were dragged from the trenches, and hundreds more were moved out by riot tactics. After Patton tanks trained their guns on the last holdouts, they gave up; Colonel Lee was dragged away by the seat of his pants to solitary confinement for the remainder of the war. The remaining compounds were broken up, and little more was heard from Koje-do thereafter, although the issue of forced repatriation continued to the last.
A year later, when peace was finally imminent, South Korean president Syngman Rhee tried to block an armistice that would not give him the entire country. Once again, the prisoners were the markers in his gamble. Just after midnight on June 18, South Korean guards opened the gates of camps holding about 35,000 North Korean POWs. They vanished into the night with the help of South Korean soldiers, who led them to hiding places and fed them. Only about 9,000 hard-core Communist POWs refused to leave, insisting on repatriation. To Rhee’s chagrin, the Communist side shrugged off his provocation. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, leaving north and south split along the battle line, which became a demilitarized zone.
The armistice provided for a complex process of what was called “explanation” by representatives of both sides to persuade prisoners to remain or go home. But inside the barbed wire, the prisoners had chosen up sides long before, and there was no going back. LSTs brought the North Korean prisoners from Koje to Inchon on August 13, where they boarded trains for the exchange point at the demilitarized zone. The windows had been covered with wire mesh, and the Communists were warned against revealing themselves along the route. They nevertheless pulled off the mesh protection, cut up their underwear, turned it into North Korean flags with dye hidden in their caps, and waved the improvised red-and-blue banners out the train windows—to an angry shower of stones thrown by schoolchildren along the route. North Korean female prisoners trashed their railroad car by smashing the windows, slashing the seat covers, urinating on the upholstery, and then, as they left, defecating in the aisle.
Defiance marked every moment of the North Koreans’ return. At the demilitarized zone, Communist Red Cross officials urged the prisoners to get rid of the uniforms that their captors had provided. They stripped themselves naked except for their Communist caps, GI shoes, and breechclouts made from towels. Snake-dancing, singing, and yelling, they were loaded onto trucks for the exchange point, whereupon they began throwing away their shoes along the dusty road to the north and repatriation.
These antics simply proved the futility of the exercise to the man who had conducted it, Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, the chief allied truce negotiator. One of his main objectives in holding out against forced repatriation had been the hope that Communist regimes would be so gravely embarrassed by mass defections that they would be undermined. “I regret to say this does not seem to have been a valid point,” the admiral later remarked drily. “Whatever temporary loss of prestige in Asia Communism suffered from the results of ‘voluntary repatriation’ has long since been overtaken by Communism’s subsequent victory in the area.”
He spoke too soon. If there is any military lesson in all of this, and indeed in the Korean War itself, it comes from turning on its head General MacArthur’s famous dictum: “There is no substitute for victory. ” The prosperity of South Korea today, the visible crumbling of the regime in the north, and China’s fundamental turn toward a market economy prove that there is a substitute: constancy of purpose, patience, and avoiding the chimera of mistaking propaganda victories for real ones. Commanders win when they recognize that tactics and politics are simply different sides of the same strategic coin and then, as Clark did, take the political measure of their opponents. By applying just the right amount of force, to bluff and stiff his opponents and then wait them out, he proved a far better Cold War general than he ever was in World War II. It is a military lesson that holds good in any war, hot or cold. MHQ
LAWRENCE MALKIN is the chief U.S. correspondent for the International Herald Tribune.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 1993 issue (Vol. 1, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: “Murderers of Koje-do!”
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