Military history


The Prisoners

One day in the summer of 1951 a British lieutenant named Brian Hawkins found a tin can in no-man’s-land, containing a message from the Chinese. “Officers and men of the 1st Division of the United Kingdom,” it proclaimed,

in the April battle 701 officers and men of the British 29th Brigade were captured by one of our units. We had sent them to the safe rear for learning. They received the best treatment from us. They play ball and amuse themselves after studying every day. So, don’t worry about them please. We write the name of the officers here, expecting you to tell their parents and wives that they are safe and will go home in the future. Life is invaluable. You should keep your safety for a good turn. You may hide yourselves while you are ordered to fight. When you see China volunteers or Korean People’s Army men, lay down your weapons and come over to us. We absolutely guarantee no harm, no abuse, and plenty of food for you. Otherwise, “Death” is the only way before you

The Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces1

In a curious sense, the Chinese in the forward areas of Korea were sincere in the pursuit of their “lenient policy” toward prisoners. There were repeated examples, throughout the war, of Chinese—though never North Koreans—not killing UN soldiers when they had the opportunity to do so, even releasing them and sending them back to the UN lines for propaganda purposes. Yet the clumsy efforts to display humanity that sometimes took place at the front masked a terrible reality in the rear. “We do not know about Geneva Convention,” a contemptuous Communist officer told Padre Sam Davies when he was captured on the Imjin, and then pointed to his interrogator: “You must obey his orders.”2 No aspect of the Korean conflict caused greater bitterness—bordering upon hysteria in the United States—than the postwar revelation of the treatment of United Nations prisoners by their Communist captors. The bald figures speak more eloquently than any narrative. Of 7,140 American prisoners to fall into enemy hands, 2,701 died in captivity. Some fifty of the 1,188 Commonwealth officers and other ranks posted as missing or prisoners died in enemy hands. The West was appalled to hear of the discovery in a railway tunnel, during the 1950 advance into North Korea, of the bodies of a hundred American prisoners massacred by the retreating Communists. From the outbreak of war, Kim Il Sung’s army made it plain that it killed American prisoners whenever it suited its convenience to do so.

The North Koreans were a law unto themselves. The only mitigating factor in judging their behavior toward their prisoners is the parallel attitude of many UN soldiers toward Communist captives. Many American officers and men interviewed for this book admitted knowledge of, or participation in, the shooting of Communist prisoners when it was inconvenient to keep them alive. It is fair to suggest that many UN soldiers did not regard North Korean soldiers as fellow combatants, entitled to humane treatment, but as near-animals, to be treated as such. As usual in most wars, when the atmosphere at the front was relaxed, Communist prisoners were perfectly properly used and sent to the camps in the rear. But at periods of special stress or fear, especially in the first six months of the war, many UN soldiers shot down enemy prisoners—or even Korean civilians—with barely a moment’s scruple. “I couldn’t get over how cruel we were to the prisoners we captured,” said Private Mario Scarselleta of the 35th Infantry. “We’d strip them and tie them on the hood of a jeep and drive them around. A group would be taken back for interrogation and shot. My outfit didn’t take too many prisoners.”3 Scarselleta’s outfit was not atypical. Private Warren Avery of the 29th Infantry said flatly, “We took no prisoners. Our interpreter, Lieutenant Moon, was always asking for a prisoner, but we never gave him one. Geneva Convention, my ass. I shot an old woman carrying an A-frame. We killed an awful lot of civilians over there. You just couldn’t trust them. After you’d seen them kill a tank crew, you didn’t take chances again. Anybody you saw wearing mustard-colored sneakers, you shot.”4 It remains important and valid to make some distinction between the random acts of individual UN troops and the systematic brutality of the North Koreans. But in Korea, as later in Vietnam, it seems essential, more than thirty years later, to set the behavior of the West’s forces in context when judging that of the Communists.

Beyond anything that took place on the battlefield, Korea became notorious as the first major modern conflict in which a combatant made a systematic attempt to convert prisoners to his own ideology. The Chinese success in this may be partly measured by the statistics: twenty-one Americans and one Briton refused repatriation at the end of hostilities. By 1959 the Americans claimed to have identified seventy-five former prisoners in Korea as Communist agents. The most serious case was that of George Blake, former British vice-consul in Seoul, who was seized and interned in June 1950, and remained in Communist hands until 1953. A decade later Blake was unmasked as a key Soviet agent inside the British Foreign Office. The deep fear that similar traitors still lurked undiscovered within the bureaucracies and bodies politic of the West persisted for a generation and spawned such books and films as Time Limit, The Rack, and The Manchurian Candidate. As the experiences of UN prisoners were revealed after the Panmunjom armistice, Americans were even more dismayed by the number of their own men who were found to have collaborated with the enemy, in greater or lesser measure, while behind the wire. Had the Communists indeed, by their “brainwashing” techniques in the cluster of camps along the Yalu, discovered a psychological formula for changing the loyalties of soldiers fighting for freedom? If this was indeed so, the implications for the future struggle against communism were disturbing indeed.

• • •

When Marine Andrew Condron was captured in Hellfire Valley on November 30, 1950, along with some fifty Americans, during the Chosin Reservoir campaign, a Chinese officer harangued the group in English, considerably to their bewilderment, about their bond with their captors, as fellow members of the proletariat. “Proletarians like us?” demanded a bewildered GI. “I thought they were f***ing Communists.” The Chinese shook hands with them all, and handed over some captured cigarettes and canned food before shutting them up in a nearby hut. Their first conflict with their captors came, wholly unexpectedly, when a guard brought in a steaming gourd of hot water. Somebody had some soap. To the delight of the prisoners, they were able to wash off the filth of days. Then the guard returned and gazed on the scene with sheer horror. He fixed his bayonet, and for a tense moment the prisoners were convinced that he intended to use it. They were herded against the wall while the guard screamed and shouted at them. Then he vanished.

When his officer returned they were rebuked in English. The guard had taken the risk and trouble of lighting a fire to heat water for them. By using it to wash in, rather than to drink, the prisoners had insulted him. “It really was East meets West,” said Condron. “We simply didn’t know.”5 Belatedly, they were searched. Knives, watches, lighters were taken away. So, too, were the wounded. To the best of Condron’s knowledge, none survived. In justice to the Chinese, with their primitive medical facilities, few of their own casualties were likely to fare better. One night all the unwounded prisoners were ordered to start marching. They continued to do so for almost a month.

Hundreds of men, above all the wounded, died on these marches from the battlefield before they ever reached a camp. “The signal for death was the oxcart following the column,” said James Majury, Captain of Ulster Riflemen. “If you had to be placed upon that, you would freeze to death.” Pneumonia and dysentery took an early toll. Throughout the march toward the camps, every prisoner retained a keen sense of imminent death. One morning when a call came—“All British outside! All British outside!”—the two dozen or so Royal Marines in Andrew Condron’s party were convinced that they were about to be executed. The Chinese looked excited and nervous. For two hours a Chinese officer delivered a political harangue. He seemed convinced there was an officer among their group, which there was not: “I no believe you! Which one is officer?” In a long single rank, the British prisoners were marched along a railway line. Condron became maudlin as he thought of breakfast at home in West Lothian—black pudding, sausage and eggs. Why had he not joined the Air Force, like most of his friends? His sense of self-pity was deepened by the sight of a cluster of Korean children laughing and giggling at them from a ridge above. Around a corner, they reached a huge hole, a bomb crater. Condron was convinced it was to be their grave. Then the guards motioned them onward, into a house. They sagged with compulsive relief. Another Marine, Dick Richards, muttered to Condron, “Red, were you thinking what I was thinking?” After that moment they began to feel a flicker of confidence that they might live.

In the three or four months that followed, they had no chance to wash or take off their clothes—they could only rub their hands with snow. Yet the Scottish Socialist in Condron was impressed that on the march their captors never asked them to carry their heavy equipment, and that as a matter of course the guards and their officers joined the daily queue for sorghum along with the prisoners. Condron admitted that it was only later that he understood the conscious political purpose behind this.

Among their party were two U.S. Marines who had been prisoners of the Japanese and could communicate with the Chinese. The Marines seemed to respond to the situation with less difficulty than the U.S. Army prisoners. “The American soldiers seemed to see the way out of the experience as individuals,” said Condron. “If one stole a bit of food, he would scuffle into a corner and eat it alone. The British and American Marines took it in groups. We stuck together. When the marching was looking rough, we’d say to each other, ‘Come off it—the f***ing commando school was tougher than this.’ ”

Their group’s morale soared when they heard, through their American Japanese-speakers, that “all prisoners go home.” To their utter astonishment, they were suddenly marched to a train. It began to head south. For four or five nights they traveled, halting throughout the daylight hours in tunnels. Near Pyongyang they were shuttled into marshaling yards, where they remained for a week. Then a handful of men were picked out, for no evident logical reason, and taken away. These men were indeed returned to the UN lines, apparently as a propaganda move to convince the West that rumors that all prisoners were being shot were unfounded. The remainder began to receive more food—a little rice, chicken, soup. Some of the Americans were now euphoric, composing cables and letters to their families, ready for dispatch at the moment of their release. Some men spent hours discussing the menu for their first meal on their release. The British imposed a self-denying ordinance on themselves not to discuss food. Suddenly the Chinese brought news: “You go north—prisoner-of-war camp.” The shock to those who had convinced themselves that they were going home was appalling. A few weeks later Condron helped to bury one American, whom he had watched on the train working out the hour-by-hour program for his first week of freedom.

Now, for the first time, they were interrogated. They were apprehensive at the prospect, and bewildered by the reality. They had spent some time discussing with an American captain how they should respond to military questions. Yet there were none. Instead, an amiable Chinese officer sat on the floor, offered each man a glass of hot water, and asked, “What sort of work does your father do?”

“What sort of work does your mother do?”

“My mother does not work,” answered Andrew Condron.

“Why your mother no work?”

“She is a housewife.”

“What is housewife?”

“She just stays home.”

“How much land your family own?”

“There’s the back garden.”

“What you grow?”

“Potatoes, rhubarb.”

“How many cows have your family got?”

“We get milk from the dairy.”

“What is dairy? How many pigs you have? How many cows?”

At last, with a self-satisfied grin, the Chinese concluded, “Ah, your family very small land. You are poor peasant.” The British laughed for weeks about the Cockney Marine who was asked about his family’s land and vividly described his window box.

Yet if it is easy to find comedy in the naiveté of all this, among the prisoners a powerful undercurrent of fear was never far distant. Condron’s group were relatively well treated by their Chinese guardians. Many men who fell into the hands of the North Koreans suffered dreadfully. Aircrew and those with special technical knowledge were singled out for far more sophisticated and brutal questioning. In the first months of captivity many officers were treated with savage cruelty and subjected to months of solitary confinement. The worst brutalities were suffered by those confined in the hands of the North Koreans in the transit or penal compounds around Pyongyang—“Pak’s Palace,” “The Caves,” Camp 9 at Kangdong.

• • •

Jerry Morgan was a twenty-five-year-old technical sergeant in the 24th Infantry, a black regiment, when his company heard the cry “Every man for himself!” on the night of November 27, 1950. Most of them were rapidly rounded up by the Chinese and marched north. They spent a month in the houses of a village at a place they called “Death Valley,” for many Americans died there. Then they were moved some twenty miles to their permanent home on the Yalu: Camp 5, “Pyongdong University.” Here, in the hands of the North Koreans, they suffered through the rest of that first, terrible winter.

When Andrew Condron and his group were taken north again in March 1951 to Camp 5, they were appalled by what they found. They joined some 700 men at the limits of misery and hunger, among whom prisoners were dying every day. The camp was sited in a valley, on a peninsula overlooked by two hills. It was a place of great natural beauty, had the circumstances been such as to make them appreciate it. Here, confined chiefly by the geography and certainty of the impossibility of escape, with a single strand of wire marking the permissible limits of movement, many men stayed for up to three years. Only when the Chinese assumed control of Camp 5 in the spring of 1951 did conditions improve marginally, and the worst excesses perpetrated by the North Koreans cease.

The more thoughtful prisoners perceived from the outset that their wounded died for lack of medical attention and not, on the whole, as a matter of enemy policy. The Communists themselves were entirely bereft of drugs and equipment, even for their own men. But it was also evident that in the first winter of 1950–51, the North Koreans were indifferent as to whether their captives lived or died of starvation. Men who had been receiving a U.S. Army daily combat ration of 3,500 calories now found themselves provided with only 1,200 calories of corn and millet. It was a diet devoid of vegetables, almost barren of proteins, minerals, or vitamins. Leadership among the prisoners collapsed. A dreadful struggle for survival took over, the strongest ruthlessly stripping the weak of food. Up to thirty men a day were dying.

By far the most deadly killer, above all in those first months of 1951, was the dreaded “give-upitis,” which afflicted thousands of prisoners. In an extraordinary fashion, they lost the will to live, above all the will to eat. Many Americans simply declined to eat the mess of sorghum and rice with which they were provided. They chose instead to starve. The British would say laconically, “If you don’t eat, you don’t shit. If you don’t shit, you die.” Some men were fortunate enough to have friends and comrades who cosseted and cajoled them into eating. Private First Class Graham Cockfield of the 34th Infantry noticed that it was the younger prisoners who seemed most vulnerable: “You’d hear them sitting all day, planning the meal they were going to have when they got out. Then somebody came around with the millet, and they wouldn’t touch it. We simply did our best to force food down any individual we knew wasn’t eating. Natural physique had nothing to do with who survived and who didn’t. It was all in the mind.”6 Private Henry O’Kane of the Royal Ulster Rifles was near the margin of survival when he reached Camp 1: his mouth was sore from lack of vitamins; like every other man, he was suffering from dysentery and beriberi. All around him lay cases of malaria, jaundice, bone fever. O’Kane was placed in a hut with some forty Filipinos and Puerto Ricans: “They saved my life. They were peasant characters, rice eaters, who simply understood that kind of life, could make medicine from herbs to keep themselves alive. That is what they did for me.”

But other prisoners refused help, resisted every blandishment. The “no hopers” merely lay down, staring emptily into space, until one morning they were dead. “It was easier to die than it was to live,” in the words of Lieutenant Walt Mayo of the 8th Cavalry. “We tried to do as much amateur psychology as we could, but the problem was sheer despair.”7 It was an extraordinary phenomenon. A few men in the Communist camps in Korea died as a result of deliberate brutality. Many suffered terrible beatings, punishments involving exposure to cold or heat that amounted to torture. Almost all were terribly weakened by hunger and disease. Yet there was never any equivalent of the systematic, wholesale brutality that the Japanese practiced upon their prisoners in World War II.

The atmosphere in the camps, above all in the first months of most bitter starvation, was savage. As men’s boots wore out, they saved the taps from the soles and sharpened them into shivs, as tools for self-defense. There were endless petty power struggles, most about food. Terrible acts were perpetrated by prisoners upon each other. In one of the most notorious cases, U.S. Army Sergeant James Gallagher was later convicted by court-martial of killing two seriously ill prisoners by throwing them out into the snow. “I learned more about the way society operates in that camp than I could have learned in any university,” said Andrew Condron. With a kind of insanity, some prisoners sold scraps of food to others for money or scrip that was utterly worthless to them. In those first months of 1951 every man was entirely preoccupied with the struggle for survival. Racked with dysentery, a man’s intestine would hang down inches below his anus, to be stuffed back with a surge of agony when the next call to defecate came. It was not uncommon to stagger thirty, forty times a day to the latrine, men finding themselves unable even to cross the compound without dropping their trousers. Prisoners drowned by falling in the latrine pits. Lice and bedbugs thrived. They held competitions to kill them—123, 124, 125: their thumbs became black with ingrained blood. Condron became obsessed with this. “If I live,” he thought, “I shall never get rid of that blood.” They itched ceaselessly as they sat and talked; exchanged the plots of old films; signaled extracts from old newspapers to each other in Morse or semaphore—anything to pass the dreadful, savagely cold days, until the time came to huddle desperately together for warmth through the icier nights.

For the weakened men, the greatest hardship was the regular wood detail. Their lives depended upon collecting sufficient fuel to keep their fires and cookers alive. Yet with each trip they were compelled to forage farther and farther afield into the mountains. The supply began to falter. Crossly, the Chinese summoned a meeting and harangued the prisoners upon their negative attitude to labor, pointing out that it was not for the captors’ benefit, but that of the captives. Then, as spring came, there was a surge of volunteers for the wood detail. The Chinese were delighted to discover that “your attitude toward labor has improved.” Yet it was not wood that called the men, but the discovery of marijuana. First identified by some of the Mexican prisoners, it grew wild on the hills. Through the next two years it became, for some men, the only means of making captivity endurable. It caused some excesses that puzzled the Chinese—sudden exuberant singsongs from groups of black prisoners, one morning a helplessly stoned figure racing around the compound screaming, “The Indians are coming! The Indians are coming!” But the Chinese were told that he was shell-shocked. Curiously enough, in two years they never appeared to grasp the truth.

• • •

In the spring of 1951 officers and men were held in the same camp areas. Each morning they were herded together in the hundreds for political lectures, huddled shivering together for four hours at a stretch—two hours in Chinese, two hours of translation—and any man found sitting back on his hands received a kick. “Study hard, Comrades, with open minds, and you will get home soon,” the Chinese commandant told them. “But if you don’t, we’ll dig a ditch for you so deep that even your bourgeois bodies won’t stink.”

In the summer of 1951 there was a dramatic change in Chinese policy toward the prisoners of war. It was determined that if possible, they should be permitted to live. Conditions in all the camps improved markedly. Thereafter, the number of deaths among prisoners declined to a trickle: 99 percent of all American prisoner deaths took place in the first year of the war. As Captain James Majury of the Ulsters put it laconically, “The Chinese realized that they needed some survivors if their propaganda about ‘the lenient treatment’ was to have any meaning.” At last they were given the means to delouse themselves—and lice had been one of the most corrosive destructors of morale. By the winter of 1951, to their astonishment, the prisoners found themselves receiving sufficient food to sustain life. The Chinese killed an occasional pig, and its fat was distributed among the prisoners by self-administered roster. They began to receive a rice ration instead of millet. In August, Captain Majury was at last able to dispatch a letter from the officers’ camp which reached home and received his first from his family in October.

Then, as the Chinese arrangements became more organized, the prisoners were broken down into “companies” for daily political study sessions, at which they were required to write long, allegedly self-analytical political tracts. As part of the deliberate Communist policy of destroying their existing leadership, in October the British and American officers were gathered together and marched some hundred miles into the mountains to the new Camp 2, which remained the officers’ camp for the remainder of the war. Their uniforms were replaced by Chinese quilted suits and caps, a further blow to their identity as soldiers. The Chinese appointed company and platoon leaders from among the prisoners.

From beginning to end, the Chinese purpose was to reindoctrinate their prisoners politically, to convert them from their traditional political values to those of communism. Beyond obvious political instruction, the Communists sought to destroy all existing structures of rank and command. No officer’s rank was recognized. Any internal attempt by the prisoners to organize their own leadership without approval from the Chinese was interpreted as a “hostile attitude.” When Sergeant Jim Taylor of the 8th Hussars, the senior British ranker in Camp 5, refused to salute a Chinese one morning, he was sent to “the hole” for three days, literally to roast in the summer heat in a hole covered with a sheet of corrugated iron. Some men were kept in it for weeks at a time.

The problem of “hostile attitudes” occurred most often among the officers in Camp 2, and resulted in the frequent removal of officers to “the cages,” where they were held in solitary confinement, sometimes for months. Major Denis Harding, a Gloucesters company commander, was held in solitary confinement, mostly in a hillside cowshed, from January 1952 until his release in the summer of 1953. Major Guy Ward, R.A., had already endured four years of captivity in World War II. Throughout that experience he was sustained by a feeling “that we were all together, like a family, that in the end things would be all right. In Korea, we asked ourselves, ‘How many years might this go on? Will it ever end?’ “That first winter in the officers’ camp, Ward, like his fellow prisoners, would find himself suddenly hauled from his bed at 3 A.M., when human resistance was lowest, and taken to an underground bunker for interrogation. Once again, this was overwhelmingly social and wearily repetitive:

“What car does your father have?”

“Are you a large family?”

“How much capital have you?”

Ward said later, “The only Chinese who understood us were the younger ones who had been educated in the United States. We were conscious that the way they treated us was the way they treated their own people. You might see fifteen or twenty Chinese by the roadside being kicked about in just the same way that they kicked us.”

The sheer dreary monotony of the political lectures aroused their contempt: “The Democratic Reformation and Democratic Structure in North Korea and the Peaceful Unification Policy of the North Korean Government”; “The Chinese People’s Right to Formosa”; “Corruption of the UN by the American warmongers.” They were permitted only Communist newspapers—the Daily Worker and Chinese Pictorial. The loudspeakers blared forth each day with news that announced fresh American defeats, never conceded a glimmer of United Nations success. Yet often they would glimpse the white contrails of high-flying aircraft, and occasionally they would see a dogfight, even see a Communist MIG brought down. Thus they were reminded that the war was not yet over, that the Communist armies had not yet triumphed.

There were a few tattered, dog-eared books which passed from hand to hand. Andrew Condron read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and was driven mad by the absence of the very last page, torn out by his captors. Years later Condron discovered that it contained a casually hostile reference to Communists. Generally, they were allowed to keep books the Chinese considered ideologically sound: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, War and Peace, Lenin’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, some Steinbecks, those works of Dickens which were thought to present a sufficiently bleak portrait of the plight of the proletariat.

Men’s reaction to imprisonment varied enormously. It was difficult to generalize about the kind of man who held together best. A U.S. Marine pilot, who was little regarded at first by his fellow prisoners because of his taciturn manner, his apparent inability ever to say more than “Uh-huh?” or “Shit,” proved one of the most rugged and respected “reactionaries” in the officers’ camp. A British officer who had been a prisoner of the Germans in World War II was one of the most visible resisters for months. Then, imperceptibly, he began to deteriorate. Like so many others, his will was weakened by illness and hunger. By the end he seemed one of the most broken-spirited. To many British prisoners it seemed a criminal blunder by the War Office to have recalled for service in Korea so many ex-World War II POWs. It was an unspeakable experience for men who had already endured two, three, four years of their youth in captivity now to be exposed to the same misery once more. It was worst of all for those who had been held by the Japanese. They, from the outset, remembered the Korean guards as their most atrocious and brutal tormentors. Colonel Fred Carne of the Gloucesters seemed, to most of his companions, astoundingly untroubled by captivity. The Chinese singled out Carne for special treatment, as their highest-ranking British captive. He spent much of his time in their hands in solitary confinement. Yet Carne behaved throughout with his customary taciturn serenity. His example impressed his fellow prisoners for the rest of their lives. Major Denis Harding’s weight fell from 154 pounds to 98 pounds during his time in captivity.

By common consent, most of the doctors and chaplains—those with a very obvious and visible role to play in the camps—behaved well, some outstandingly so. Despite the pitiful absence of drugs and equipment, the doctors spent hours attempting to persuade men stricken with “give-upitis” to eat. Among the padres, Sam Davies of the Gloucesters was remembered by his fellow prisoners with immense affection and respect. But perhaps the most beloved of all was Father Emil Kapaun, Catholic chaplain of the U.S. 1st Cavalry. Kapaun’s cheerful selflessness, his genius for scrounging and devotion to the suffering, his nightly sick rounds, became a legend. He died in Camp 5 in May 1951, worn out by dysentery and a blood clot in his leg. In Camp 2 the prisoners hoarded rice paper on which to compile a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. When Padre Davies was dispatched to solitary confinement, James Majury took over the conduct of his services. Davies secretly baptized six Americans and prepared nineteen British and American officers for confirmation in the camp. He was bitterly chagrined that, because of his officer status, the Chinese would never allow him to go among the other ranks.

Lieutenant Bill Cooper of the Northumberland Fusiliers found it helpful to demand of himself at the beginning of each day, “What worthwhile thing are you going to do today?” He would often accept the job of washing the ghastly rags of men crippled by dysentery: “It was horrible, but you felt that it was a job worth doing.”8 For most men, the nights were the worst. It was then that they lay silent but awake, brooding in the loneliness about their families and their societies, going indifferently about their business so many thousands of miles away. Desperately as they hungered for letters, life became almost more intolerable on the rare occasions when these came. In two years Bill Cooper received three letters from home, and five of those he wrote reached his family. Jerry Morgan received his first letter from home in April 1952, enclosing a photograph of the son born in the United States whom he had never seen. Many men did not even achieve this level of contact. There was so much a man yearned to know that was not in the simple scraps of paper they received.

“Dear Robert,” Lance Corporal Bob Erricker’s father wrote from his little house in Surrey to his son in Camp 5 on the Yalu, “I have just received the news via the War Office that you are a Prisoner of War in North Korea, it’s wonderful and we are so thankful to know you are safe and well, shall be watching every day for the post. . . . Look after No. 1. I had a nice letter from Lt. Alexander’s father. His death was in The Times. P. C. O’Halloran has been made Sergeant and is going to live at Milford. Daisy has got another Girl two month old. Mrs. Terry has left Alford and Eileen Brunet is living in their bungalow. We celebrated the good news of your safety by going to the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia. Mum was ‘Frisking about’ like a 2-year-old, bought a Hoover Washing Machine for £31, and she aint got 4d.”

It was a kind of agony to hear this simple domestic small change amid the sorghum and dysentery of a hut on the Yalu. Camp 5 was for “progressives,” the men whom the Chinese considered to be adopting the most positive attitude to their own political education. If its inmates were marginally better treated than those in “reactionary” camps, there is little evidence that most of them treated the Chinese any more seriously. Many British and American rankers simply decided that there was no harm in playing the Chinese game if by doing so they could gain better food and marginally improve their own chances of survival. Even when attendance at political lectures was made voluntary, in the later stages of imprisonment, some men continued to attend merely to pass the day.9

• • •

The first serious shock to Western consciousness about the POWs in Korea was the transmission by Radio Peking of broadcasts by American and British captives. Some made recordings at the behest of the Chinese because they could sincerely see no harm in them. Some represented Communist successes in political indoctrination. Some were merely willing to pay any moral price for a greater prospect of survival. But the revelation in the West that some captives were cooperating, if not collaborating, with the Communists was a profound shock. What was happening to men in the hands of the enemy that they could be persuaded to speak to their own people across the airwaves in such terms?

“Hello. This is Marine Andrew Condron speaking. Hello, Mum, Dad, and all at home. By courtesy of the Chinese People’s ‘Volunteers,’ I am broadcasting to you now to tell you how we are getting on here, and about our preparations for Christmas. . . .”

• • •

A further confusing element in the lives and loyalties of the prisoners were the visits of Western Communists to the camps. In World War II the handful of British renegades who chose to put themselves at the disposal of the Germans were unhesitatingly branded as traitors, and several—including the son of a British Cabinet minister—were hanged in 1945. Yet during the Korean War, as during Vietnam, the Communists extracted a major propaganda advantage from invitations to Western left-wingers to visit their martyred country. It is difficult to regard the behavior of the visitors to a nation with which their country was at war with much enthusiasm. It contributed something, at least, to the Communist purpose of confusing the minds of the UN prisoners, as well as the world, about the unity of national purpose behind the UN war effort in Korea.

• • •

So much of the prisoners’ experience teetered uneasily between tragedy and farce. “You see that now?” said Comrade Lim to a Camp 5 group one morning, stabbing his blackboard as he denoted some refinement of proletarian organization. A bee on the blackboard stung him, to the delight of his audience. “You see that now?” demanded Lim furiously. “That is a capitalist bee.” Chinese prurience was persistently affronted by the prisoners’ language: “Why all the time you effing, effing, effing?” The Chinese regarded the constant obscenities as a deliberate insult to themselves. The prisoners, in their turn, laughed at the Chinese habit of walking into the compound holding hands with each other: “We thought they were a load of blooming fairies,” said Bob Erricker. The Chinese discovery of this belief led to yet another lecture, to “correct their attitude.”

A fanatical young Marxist named Comrade Sun was Chief Political Commissar at Camp 2. His classes were conducted with weary, unrelenting zeal. The more senior an officer, the more likely to be singled out for correction:

“ ‘Davies, stand up,’ he commanded the Gloucesters’ padre one morning.

I rose.

‘What is your opinion of the chapter we have just read?’ [It was from William Z. Foster’s Outline History of the Americas.]

Long pause, then:

‘I’m afraid I was not listening.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, I’m a British POW and I have other interests than American history.’


‘You will pay attention. You must correct your attitude.’


‘I confess my crime.’

‘Sit down.’ “10

• • •

The Chinese made determined efforts to destroy prisoners’ faith in religion. “If you believe in God, why doesn’t he help you now?” the commandant taunted NCO prisoners in Camp 4. Lieutenant John Thornton, U.S. Navy, noticed that the black prisoners—whom the Chinese worked steadily to distance from their white compatriots—held on to their religious faith better than many whites. One of the best-loved prisoners was Captain John Stanley, who delighted his comrades with his guitar playing and exasperated the Chinese by his dogged insistence: “I am an American, not a Negro.”

Men became intensely moody, their spirits vacillating dramatically from one day to the next. Personal relations could become obsessive. Close friendships would form and persist for weeks, until broken by some fit of temper. But there was virtually no homosexuality. Most men found, very early in their imprisonment, that they lost all interest in sex. It was only in the last weeks before their release, when the end was obviously near, that prisoners allowed themselves to think again about women. Most men believed that they learned from their time in captivity to count the blessings of daily life in freedom. Padre Sam Davies used to say, “When I get out of here, I shall never again moan about waiting for a bus in the rain.”11

The attitudes of the “reactionaries”—those who continued openly to defy the Chinese throughout their captivity—varied greatly. The most systematic defiance, not surprisingly, came from inhabitants of the officers’ camp. Some British and American officers, for instance, refused to speak to a Chinese at all, if this could be avoided. Others, like Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley, talked and argued with them at every opportunity. It was a matter of personal inclination. The behavior of all prisoners tends inevitably toward the juvenile because they are unwillingly placed in the position of captive children, unable to make their own decisions. Thus, too, some of their acts of defiance were childish. One morning a dozen men would work furiously for hours, digging in a deep hole in the midst of the compound. Then, with great ceremony, they would place a piece of paper in it and fill it in again. Inevitably, the curious Chinese would excavate it, to discover the simple message “Mind Your Own Business.” Some days prisoners would reduce “loll call” to chaos, only to parade with perfect discipline the next time. One morning a group of men would run out into the compound and spend an hour “flying” around, pretending to be helicopters, amid the bewildered gaze of their guards. Another day a crowd of spectators might stand watching two prisoners play Ping-Pong, their heads moving to and fro with the ball—except that there was no ball, no bats, no table—merely a mime show to needle the Chinese. Taking invisible dogs for a walk was always popular. One morning at Camp 3 “all of us decided to go crazy,” according to Private David Fortune. “We rode round on invisible motorbikes, sat playing invisible cards. Some men really were that crazy . . . ,”12

Perhaps the most imaginative pinprick “tease” of their captors was perpetrated from the officers’ camp at the height of the Chinese propaganda campaign alleging that the Americans were employing bacteriological warfare in Korea. Some prisoners attached a dead mouse to a small parachute, and one morning when unobserved they hurled it some yards beyond the wire of the compound. They were rewarded by the spectacle of an earnest cluster of Chinese surrounding a doctor in a face mask who arrived to examine and at last, with infinite caution and ceremony, remove the specimen. It was another contribution to the prisoners’ tiny, sometimes pathetic efforts to demonstrate to themselves, as well as to their captors, that they had not yet surrendered all control of their own affairs.

Although there were many friendships among prisoners that transcended nationality, in general each group hung closely together. The Turks were greatly admired for their indomitable toughness and resistance to the Chinese. Their only collaborator was quietly killed by his compatriots. When one of their men was sick, two of his comrades undertook responsibility for his survival. The British seemed to suffer fewer difficulties than the Americans with “give-upitis.” Resignation and adjustment to the inevitable is a British national characteristic. Most British prisoners took it for granted that it was preferable to eat the unspeakable food they were offered rather than to die. There were subdivisions within the national groups: the American aircrew, for instance, tended to distance themselves from their army counterparts. Each nationality tended to keep its own secrets, above all in Camp 2, the officers’ camp. There was deep suspicion of a handful of American officers, one senior, who were believed to be collaborating with the Chinese, even to the extent of betraying escape plans.

The nationalities often argued about what approach to adopt to specific Chinese demands. In the officers’ camp there was a protracted debate when the Chinese demanded that prisoners’ group commanders should assemble and count them each morning. The Americans were uncertain whether or not this was a reasonable demand. The British flatly refused. They said, “If the Chinese want to count us, okay. But we will not do it for them.” Two British officers were dispatched to solitary confinement in the course of that dispute. It would be foolish to deny that there were considerable tensions between the British and American officers in Camp 2. While the British greatly admired individuals, such as Marine Major John McLoughlin and Tom Harrison of the U.S.A.F., limping on his wooden leg, there was considerable mistrust at group level. The Americans considered some British behavior and acts of passive resistance absurd and counterproductive. The British simply did not confide in some Americans about their plans or intentions because they did not trust them. The British, historically conditioned to despise the open display of emotion, were bemused by the American readiness to weep. Lieutenant Bill Cooper was bewildered to see a U.S. Army Captain cry one afternoon when one of his team dropped a catch during a softball game. Another officer burst into tears when he found his bedding had been switched when he wanted to sleep next door to a friend. It was a difference of cultures. Lieutenant John Thornton, an American helicopter pilot universally known as “Rotorhead,” who behaved with great courage throughout his captivity, said afterward, “We were very poor POWs—we envied the British regimental tradition. The attitude among most of our men was ‘Hooray for me. Screw you.’ The Communists were largely successful in isolating us from each other.”13 Private Dave Fortune said, “Among many Americans, one saw every principle of the code of conduct for POWs break down. The whole idea of having faith in one’s fellow man collapsed.”

In the course of the entire war there was not a single successful escape back to the UN lines by a prisoner in the Yalu camps. But there were many attempts. Some prisoners such as Captain Farrar-Hockley tried again and again, and remained at liberty for some days. Private David Fortune, a 35th Infantryman captured on January 2, 1951, got out of Camp 3 with a comrade and remained at liberty for three days and nights in the winter of 1952. On the third night the two men were peering curiously at a Chinese antiaircraft battery when they were spotted and seized by North Korean militiamen. The Koreans behaved with predictable savagery. The Americans were stripped naked, paraded through the nearby village, and beaten up. Then they were tied up, to be mocked and spat upon by the local children for a few hours before being returned to the Chinese. Back at the camp, they were rewarded with two weeks’ solitary confinement. The Chinese liked to say to the prisoners, “The guards are not here to keep you in, but to save you from the Korean people.” There was a disagreeable strand of truth in this.

One of the most notable Chinese failures was the establishment, in August 1952, of a “penal camp” for “reactionary” noncommissioned prisoners. This was a fenced compound where men were compelled to do hard labor, often as meaningless as digging holes and filling them in again. Yet the very qualities in a prisoner that qualified him for the penal camp were those that bound him to his fellow “reactionaries” with a coherence that was achieved in no other compound. “Everybody in that camp was a good man,” said Dave Fortune. “Morale was much higher.” There were no informers, no collaborators, no burden of mutual mistrust. After a few months the Chinese realized their mistake and redistributed the 130-odd inmates among the other camps once more.

The notion that the Chinese “brainwashed” the bulk of their prisoners in Korea is simply unfounded. They appear to have employed the sophisticated techniques generally associated with this term only in one case—that of the American aircrew from whom they extracted confessions of participation in bacteriological warfare, their most notable propaganda achievement. In the Korean prison camps the Chinese attempted large-scale thought reform, with a very modest degree of success. What was astonishing about their attempts to convert their prisoners to the cause of communism was the crudity, the clumsiness, the stupidity with which they were conducted. There is no difficulty in understanding their approach—the “lenient treatment,” the efforts to build a sense of community between captors and captives. It was precisely that by which the Communists achieved such success during their civil war with the kuomintang, by the end of which millions of Chiang Kai Shek’s soldiers were successfully absorbed into the armies of Mao Tse Tung. It was founded upon the willingness of the defeated, throughout China’s historical experience, to throw in their lot with the victors, to recognize a new leadership, a new source of power and patronage. Yet for the overwhelming bulk of the UN prisoners in Chinese hands, the notion that they had anything to learn from Mao Tse Tung’s society was risible. Themselves the products of a highly technical, relatively educated society, they saw the absolute poverty, the pathetic ignorance of their guards and indoctrinators—and despised them. “One or two of the Chinese were laughably pleasant,” said Major Guy Ward. “But not one of them showed the intelligence really to make us like and respect them.”

“The Chinese were trying to persuade us, ‘Our world is better than your world’ [said Captain James Majury]. In my own mind, I would say, ‘Okay, anything you’ve done with your own society has got to be better for you than Warlordism.’ But there was no way that a Chinese could ever convince me that his world would be better for me. Very few people were truly brainwashed. I said to the Chinese toward the end, ‘Surely you must realize that you will never change us?’ And yes, I think they had given up. If they had really been smart, if they had really wanted to make an impact, they would have pampered us from the beginning.”14

Yet two years of grinding repetition of political dogma, two years of isolation from their own society, two years of Chinese scorn—“You know that your country is not interested in you”—made a decisive impact upon some men. “Do not think that, because you get home, we cannot reach you—we can always get you if we want you,” they were told. In their impotence, some prisoners found this perfectly believable. The most effective means of breaking a man’s will was the appeal to his physical weakness—offering secret access to the commodity whose absence dominated their lives: food. A prisoner who accepted an egg, a fistful of tobacco from a Chinese in return for some tiny act of betrayal was half doomed already. His own self-respect was cracked. It remained only for his captors to make the treason absolute, to extract some hint about an escape plan, secret religious services, “hostile attitudes.”

Why did such a man as Andrew Condron, the twenty-three-year-old barrack-room Socialist from West Lothian, become, in the eyes of his countrymen, a traitor by refusing repatriation at the end of the war, along with twenty-one Americans? The simple answer, perhaps, is that he was ripe for it. Condron always refused to see himself as a traitor. He declared his lifelong pride in his country, in his service in the Royal Marines. But he had always been a member of “the awkward squad”—“Red” Condron, the man forever asking questions, who instinctively resisted authority in any form. In Camp 5 he became fascinated by Marxism:

“I had seen the suffering and hardship among people in the Mediterranean, and I related to it. Why were there the very rich and very poor? Surely life could be better organized than that. There was a large element of romanticism about China, a sense of adventure. At that time, I thought I’d go to China for a year or so, then come home. Had things not turned out the way they did, I might have become a missionary. I wanted to go and live in Russia afterwards. What I wanted to know was—Did it work? I wasn’t a convinced Communist, but a convinced Marxist. I have remained one all my life. I had lost my Catholic faith even before I went in the Army. Perhaps I needed something to latch onto.”15

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Thirty-five years later it seems much easier to accept the naive simplicity of Condron’s reasoning than it was for his contemporaries. They perceived an enormity about his act, a sense of national disgrace which was shared by Americans toward their own prisoners who chose to remain in China. Condron “the Bolshie,” the instinctively bloody-minded, made a gesture which seems, with hindsight, to owe far less to the wiles of his Communist captors than to his own willfulness. It is striking that most of his British fellow prisoners, even “the reactionaries” who fiercely declined to cooperate with their captors, bear Condron little or no resentment today. At no time during their imprisonment was he suspected of the acts of personal betrayal of his comrades of which many other prisoners were guilty, who returned to their countries free of the stain of treason. It was their crimes that their peers found impossible to forgive. And these owed nothing to ideology, but everything to a pathetic collapse of will and self-discipline in the face of suffering and privation.

Guy Ward was cynically amused, on the eve of his release, to discover that the Chinese provided the same sort of demonstration of their own honesty that he had received from the Germans in 1945. They scrupulously returned all the prisoners’ possessions removed on their capture—lighters, pens, watches. Some of their captors sought to make amends for all that had happened in the previous two years: “We are sorry, very sorry this has happened. We are friends. It is the American imperialists.” But even thirty-five years later Ward would think of the Chinese and say simply, “I loathe them.”

What was remarkable was not how many men were scarred for life by the experience of Communist captivity, but how many shrugged it off with little long-term effect. General William Dean, the commander of the U.S. 24th Division captured at Taejon in July 1950, was held for three years in solitary confinement near Pyongyang, subjected to intense Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Yet Dean, on his release, merely remarked lightly, “I’m an authority now on the history of the Communist Party and much of its doctrine.”

“I took the simple professional soldier’s view,” said Captain James Majury. “I certainly came out saying, ‘I shall never leave food on my plate again.’ But I felt that if one had been stupid enough to be taken prisoner, one must accept the consequences. It was an experience that I would not want to repeat, but it probably did not do me much permanent harm.” The most lasting mark of imprisonment upon Lieutenant Bill Cooper was the destruction of trust in his fellow men: “It made me look at people and say, ‘You are guilty until I have found you innocent.’ It also made me not care about things. If somebody said to me, ‘You mustn’t do that,’ I would say, ‘Why? I’ll make my own decision.’ “Private Bill Shirk of the 15th Field Artillery found the whole experience “a bad, bad, dream. All the time, I kept asking, ‘Why don’t they come and get us out?’ We were fighting these primitive people, for chrissakes. I made up my mind: if I ever get out of this place, I won’t ever put myself out for anybody. What the hell did we want with this country, anyway? I sure felt let down.”

The exact number of British prisoners who died in captivity is uncertain, but it was probably around fifty, against a total of 1,036 who were repatriated by the Communists in 1953. Of the 7,190 American prisoners who fell into Communist hands, 2,730 did not return. At least some hundreds of these were murdered in cold blood by the North Koreans. Many more died on the terrible journey to the camps or in the first winter of the war. American history students judge the casualties to represent the highest prisoner death rate in any conflict in the nation’s history, including the Revolutionary War. Yet why was it that none of the 229 Turkish prisoners died, and only 13 percent of U.S. Marines, against 38 percent of army prisoners? Part of the answer—a significant part—was that most of the non-American prisoners were captured after the winter of 1950, when the Communists had begun to make greater efforts to keep prisoners alive. But also, “the Army felt that its losses were due not so much to the Communists’ disregard of the Geneva Convention—although this was unquestionably contributory,” wrote an American writer who investigated the issue in detail,16 “as to the breakdown of discipline among the prisoners themselves. Many men after capture appeared to have lost all sense of allegiance, not only to their country but to their fellow prisoners.” One in seven of all U.S. prisoners was considered by subsequent army investigations to have been guilty of “serious collaboration.” The U.S. Army’s postwar reports upon the conduct of its own men in captivity inflicted a major trauma. It was felt necessary, in its aftermath, to draw up a Code of Conduct for U.S. servicemen, reminding them of their obligations to their comrades, and to their country, if they fell into the hands of the enemy. It must be a measure of the success achieved by training in prisoner behavior after Korea that U.S. prisoners in Hanoi conducted themselves, as a group, incomparably better than those in the camps along the Yalu.

The revelation of what the Communists had done to the UN prisoners in their hands had a profound influence upon the West’s perception of the Korean War and of the Chinese. For much of the conflict, the men on the line felt little hatred for their Chinese opponents, although the North Koreans enjoyed an unchallenged reputation for barbarism. But the shock of discovery of the plight of the prisoners placed Chinese conduct in a new, infinitely more sinister light. Mao Tse Tung’s China acquired a new, far more frightening and disturbing aspect. From this, arguably, its image in the West never recovered. Long after the Korean War receded into memory, the fear of “the Manchurian candidate” remained.

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