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Overcrowding, Disease, Violence Took Toll on Korean War POWs
In May 1952, North Korean prisoners revolted at Koje Island camp
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2009-05-09 09:30 (KST)   
Robert Neff is a Seoul-based historian.  <Editor's Note>
"Honor Guards stand at one of the main gates to the UN prisoner of war camp... These prisoners, now learning the ways of democracy, are proud of the elaborate decorations of their compound." March 9, 1952
©2009 Robert Neff Collection
The incident that occurred at the Koje Island POW (prisoner of war) camp in May 1952 is arguably one of the most embarrassing events for the United States during the Korean War. Koje Island was the site of a huge POW camp for about 170,000 prisoners. The prisoners were mainly North Korean POWs: nearly 111,000 men and women between the ages of six and 63. In addition, there were nearly 38,000 Korean civilians who had been forced to join the communist armies, and 21,000 Chinese soldiers.(1) The camps were notoriously over-crowded.

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According to Dr. Bernard T. Garfinkle:

"The prisoner-of-war camp at Koje was composed of a number of enclosures within which was a series of compounds. Each compound was an autonomous unit unto itself, and was divided as a military unit into battalions and companies. The compounds varied in size; there were 1,000 to 10,000 men per unit. The men were housed in tents or adobe mud huts, and because of limited space crowding was a major problem. As many as 90 men were housed in a single squad tent and often 350 men lived in one adobe hut. They slept on straw mats. Each man was issued three or four woolen blankets which he alone used. These blankets were aired every day."(2)

Despite the large number of prisoners, and the crowded conditions, the prisoners, at least according to Western sources, were treated in a humane manner. Upon arriving at the camp, each prisoner was given about $50 worth of American uniforms. They were provided with various courses in language, history, manual crafts, modern farming, and ideology.(3) They were, according to American sources, well fed.
"Food for the entire compound was prepared by a group of food handlers in a large central kitchen. The primary items of diet were boiled rice, a soup made of vegetables, meats and spices, and a fish sauce which was added to the rice. After being prepared in the central kitchen the food was taken in large 10-gallon cans to the various feeding lines. There it was ladled into each man's bowl or dish, which had previously been dipped into boiling water. Individual battalions had their own feeding lines. Therefore, there were as many as five or six different areas of food dispersal in each compound."

"The foodstuffs were supplied by the US Army Quartermaster Department, except for some vegetables which were purchased from the local market. Water, brought to the compound in large cans and tanks, was obtained directly from the reservoirs, and was well chlorinated and filtered. The same reservoirs supplied the military staff of the camp and little or no dysentery was seen in this group, although mild diarrhea was common."(4)
"A small boy who gave the back of his neck to the camera is a 'stag at bay' behind the barbed wire of the women's prisoner of war compound on Koje Island." May 27, 1952 - Dave Cicero
©2009 Robert Neff Collection
But apparently many of the prisoners did not find the food as appetizing as the Americans claimed. Lieut. Colonel Wilbur Raven, commander of the 94th MP Battalion, was seized at Compound 76 by the prisoners who demanded better food. They held the officer for nearly three hours during which time they bitterly complained of their rations and tried to force him to eat some.(5) He was eventually released.

With such a large population living in such crowded conditions, sanitation was a serious concern.

"Toilet facilities were crude. The usual method of disposing of excreta involved the use of large portable buckets which were emptied several times a day into the sea. Washing facilities also were inadequate, although the men attempted to improvise methods for bathing and hand washing. Some of these devices were both ingenious and workable. The majority of the prisoners in the compound, however, did not have the advantages of such improvements and hand washing following defecation was rare."(6)

In conditions like these it was only natural that disease would plague the camps. At first it was believed that flies, attracted to the open toilets, were responsible for the spread of disease throughout the camps, but it was later discovered that the incidence of disease during the summer was actually much lower than during the winter - when there were no flies. It was speculated that the close contact between the prisoners was to blame as the "infected mucus from the hands, clothing or skin of infected persons could be easily passed to the hands of neighbors in the crowded bathing areas, tents and huts."(7)

Within the densely packed camp, disease took a heavy toll upon the prisoners, but disease alone was not responsible for the great number of deaths within the wires. Many prisoners were killed by one another or in riots against the guards. A lot of the violence was instigated by Communist agents who had infiltrated the camp and encouraged dissent and unrest amongst the prisoners. Communication between the compounds was prohibited but Communist agents and instigators often employed crude, but effective, means to communicate. Messages were tied to stones and cast from one compound to the next, and, in some cases, even dragonflies were used to ferry messages back and forth. The UN forces, hoping to win over the prisoners through education, allowed them to establish metalworking shops to manufacture stoves, gardening tools, and sanitation equipment, but instead the Communist manufactured weapons that they later used to help seize control of the various compounds.(8)

"Riotous POWs in compound 76 on Koje Island are shown with bundles of personal belonging as if they are ready to move. The POWs hold up propaganda pictures and signs for the benefit of photographers."
©2009 Robert Neff Collection
The Communist agents gained control over most of the compounds and held self-appointed people's courts to terrorize and control the anti-Communist prisoners in their compound. Both groups in the camp were fanatical, and stone fights often raged between compounds. According to Life Magazine, nearly 6,000 Koreans and 13,000 Chinese signed anti-Communist petitions, occasionally in their own blood.(9) In September 1951, 15 anti-Communist prisoners were executed by one of these self-appointed people's courts and UN forces had to be sent in to rescue another 200 prisoners who feared for their lives.(10) Unrest in the camp spread as UN/ROK teams tried to segregate the prisoners -- separating the hard-line Communists from the anti-Communist -- one compound at a time.

On Feb. 18, 1952, this unrest erupted into a large riot resulting in a large number of deaths. The DPRK's Central News Agency described it as a massacre instigated by the Americans because the prisoners refused to sign the application for civil detainee. The American-led force of 1,000 soldiers, surrounded Compound 62 and, armed with heavy and light machine guns, proceeded to fire into the camp killing 102 men and wounding 260.(11) But there are two sides to the story. When the screening team arrived at Compound 62, they found it firmly under the control of the Communist who insisted that all of the inmates desired to return to North Korea. A battalion of American soldiers were summoned:

"With bayonets fixed, the four companies passed through the gate and divided the compound into four segments. But the Communists refused to bow to the show of force. Streaming out of the barracks, they converged on the infantry with pick handles, knives, axes, flails, and tent poles. Others hurled rocks as they advanced and screamed their defiance. Between 1,000-1,500 internees pressed the attack and the soldiers were forced to resort to concussion grenades. When the grenades failed to stop the assault, the UNC troops opened fire. Fifty-five prisoners were killed immediately and 22 more died at the hospital, with over 140 other casualties as against one US killed and 38 wounded."(12)

General Francis T. Dodd
On May 7, 1952, Brigadier General Francis T. Dodd, the commander of the camp, was kidnapped by the prisoners of Compound 76 after they lured him and Lieut. Colonel Wilbur Raven close enough to be grabbed and dragged into the compound. Raven was able to make his escape. Within minutes of snatching Dodd, the prisoners strung up a banner which proclaimed: "We captured General Dodd. If our problems are resolved, his security is guaranteed. If there is brutal act or shooting, his life is in danger."(13)

Brigadier General Charles F. Colson was rushed to Koje Island to assume command and to negotiate with prisoners for Dodd's release. Over the next couple of days the prisoners made several demands, many of the smaller and more reasonable demands were met. The prisoners then demanded that the screening and voluntary repatriations be ceased. Colson agreed, once Dodd was safely released, to stop forcible screening, but could do nothing about the voluntary repatriation as that was an issue "being discussed at Panmunjom."(14)

The Alleged Atrocities

North Korea has often claimed that American forces executed and tested germ warfare and poisonous gases on Communist POWs. It has been alleged that on July 19, 1951, nearly 100 POWs were massacred at Camp 62 by machine gun fire in order to train machine-gunners in shooting at moving targets.(19)

On May 27, 1952, at least 800 POWs were killed by flamethrowers at Compound 77 for rejecting "voluntary repatriation" and insisting on their repatriation to the northern half of Korea.(20)

Beginning in March 1951, POWs were used as guinea pigs for germ weapon experiment by Brigadier General James, the chief of health and welfare of the UN Forces General Command, aboard a warship secretly anchored off the coast of Koje Island. At least 3,000 tests involving hundreds of POWs were conducted by 36 germ experts aboard the ship. These experiments went on daily and that 80 percent of the POW population was inflicted with some unknown disease.(21)

North Korea has also claimed that some 1,400 North Korean POWs were secretly taken to the United States where they were subjects of atomic weapon experiments.(22)
/ Robert Neff
The POWs then issued a further ultimatum:

"Immediate ceasing the barbarous behavior, insults, torture, forcible protest with blood writing, threatening, confine, mass murdering, gun and machine-gun shooting, using poison gas, germ weapons, experiment object of Abomb, by your command. You should guarantee P.W. human rights and individual life with the base on the international law."(15)

Colson made a serious error when he responded: ". . . I do admit that there have been instances of bloodshed where many prisoners of war have been killed and wounded by UN forces. I can assure you that in the future the prisoners of war can expect humane treatment in this camp. . ."(16) Colson, under pressure to resolve the issue quickly, issued his own ultimatum. Unless Dodd was released by 10 a.m. on May 10, "all necessary force will be taken to effect his release, regardless of consequences to you." Supporting his threat of attack, 20 tanks were moved to the island in preparation of an assault. The POWs eventually released Dodd, but when they wanted to - nearly 11 and a half hours after the deadline had expired.(17)

The toll of the Koje Incident was immense. The incident greatly embarrassed the United States and caused many nations, including American allies and the International Red Cross, to question the UN Forces' conduct at the camp. During the three-day stand-off, a large number of anti-Communist prisoners in Compound 76 were executed by the Communists prisoners, these unidentified corpses were later cremated in a funeral pyre, 40 ft. long and 6 ft. wide. It was estimated that in the nine months of unrest in the camp, 102 prisoners were killed by the UN forces while 689 prisoners were victims of the "civil war inside the stockades."(18) The incident also costs the careers of Colson and Dodd. Both generals were demoted to colonel. In 1977, four years after Dodd's death, his rank of brigadier general was restored, but the stigma of the Koje Island incident will forever remain with his name.

Some excellent accounts of this incident can be found at:

"This Kind of War" by T. R. Fehrenbach.

"The Truce Tent and Fighting Front" by Walter G. Hermes.

And by Korean blogger ROKDROP.

Tanks tune up for Koje POW showdown. "This powerful tank is ripping through a mud and wooden barracks in an unused compound on Koje Island." Dave Cicero
©2009 Robert Neff Collection

NOTES
(1) "Prisoner's Island: Tension and Tedium Rule Koje's Barbed-Wire World" Life Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 13. pp. 92-98
http://rokdrop.com/2007/05/29/heroes-of-the-korean-war-general-haydon-boatner-part-1/

(2) Bernard T. Garfinkle, Enteric Diseases Among Korean and Chinese Prisoners of War
http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/korea/recad2/ch3-4.htm

(3) "Prisoner's Island: Tension and Tedium Rule Koje's Barbed-Wire World" Life Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 13. pp. 92-98
http://rokdrop.com/2007/05/29/heroes-of-the-korean-war-general-haydon-boatner-part-1/

(4) Bernard T. Garfinkle, Enteric Diseases Among Korean and Chinese Prisoners of War
http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/korea/recad2/ch3-4.htm

(5) "One Star Hostage," Time Magazine, May 19, 1952
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,816430,00.html

(6) Bernard T. Garfinkle, Enteric Diseases Among Korean and Chinese Prisoners of War
http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/korea/recad2/ch3-4.htm

(7) Bernard T. Garfinkle, Enteric Diseases Among Korean and Chinese Prisoners of War
http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/korea/recad2/ch3-4.htm

(8) http://www.kmike.com/TruceTent/ch11.htm

(9) "Prisoner's Island: Tension and Tedium Rule Koje's Barbed-Wire World" Life Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 13. pp. 92-98
http://rokdrop.com/2007/05/29/heroes-of-the-korean-war-general-haydon-boatner-part-1/

(10) http://www.kmike.com/TruceTent/ch11.htm

(11) http://www.korean-war.com/Archives/2000/03/msg00085.html

(12) http://www.kmike.com/TruceTent/ch11.htm

(13) "One Star Hostage," Time Magazine, May 19, 1952
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,816430,00.html

(14) "One Star Hostage," Time Magazine, May 19, 1952
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,816430,00.html

(15) "One Star Hostage," Time Magazine, May 19, 1952
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,816430,00.html

(16) "One Star Hostage," Time Magazine, May 19, 1952
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,816430,00.html

(17) "One Star Hostage," Time Magazine, May 19, 1952
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,816430,00.html

(18) "Trouble at Koje," Time Magazine, June 2, 1952
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,857205-1,00.html


(19) http://www.korean-war.com/Archives/2000/03/msg00085.html

(20) http://www.korean-war.com/Archives/2000/03/msg00085.html

(21) http://www.korean-war.com/Archives/2000/03/msg00085.html

(22) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_War citing Korean Central News Agency, DPRK Foreign Ministry memorandum on GI mass killings, Pyongyang, March 22, 2003
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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