Military history

35

Koje-do

Let none presume to tell me that the pen is preferable to the sword.

— From the Spanish of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, DON QUIXOTE.

ON THE MORNING of 7 May 1952, on the Island of Koje, word arrived at the headquarters of Brigadier General Francis T. Dodd through the normal and proper channels that the spokesmen of Korean Officer Compound Number 76 immediately and earnestly desired his presence for a powwow.

To Frank Dodd, completely unaware of Communist complexities or the recent orders given to NKPA Private Pak Sang Hyong, the shortest distance between two points seemed to be a straight line.

He put on his cap, with its single silver star, and went to see what was wrong with Senior Colonel Lee Hak Ku and the boys in 76.

At the gate to the flimsy wire compound, he got down from his jeep and met the clustered Communist delegation at the wire. The gate was opened, while U.N. guards stood by, idly watching, manifestly bored by the island and their duty.

At a sudden signal, the POW's, who had carefully rehearsed the maneuver, formed a press around Frank Dodd; he was seized and dragged within the compound; a flying wedge pushed the startled guards back, and the gates were closed.

Their shouting did no good. Dodd was pulled deep inside Number 76, inside a hut, and the men around him suddenly had sufficient homemade workshop items, made from spare metal and the slivers within GI shoes, effectively to release him from his earthly existence long before a guard detachment could knock down the wire and fight its way through to him.

This, as the officer now in charge of the island, Colonel Bill Craig, realized, was one hell of a mess. He passed the buck, quite properly; though he did not realize that the buck would move idly across Koje Island, bounce about in Pusan, wing its way to Tokyo, then shriek its way across the ocean, only to come sizzling back, within a period of three days.

Americans, snorting their disbelief, forgot that few of them had believed the rumors about Belsen and Dachau, either, until they were proved. Russians, who had in 1941 considered Germany among the most civilized of nations, whatever their Fascist politics, undoubtedly believed, as did devout Communist everywhere. But the real loss of face was before the neutrals, who did not know what to believe.

And some of the United States' staunchest allies rather politely queried, "Just what the hell is going on over at Koje-do?"

The truth was that Ridgway, Clark, Frank Pace, and his boss, Harry Truman, were all wondering the same thing.

These things General Colson did not know, although for three days the wires everywhere were burning. He did know that Frank Dodd, ill and scared inside Number 76, had talked to him with a shaken voice, and he wanted to rescue his brother general as soon as possible.

During this period Charles Colson got very little help from Pusan, or higher up. It was his ball game. Ridgway and Clark were up at Panmunjom, where Major General William K. Harrison, Jr., was replacing Admiral Turner Joy as chief American whipping boy.

Colson talked to 2nd Logistical Command in Pusan, thought he had its concurrence, got the POW's to tone down their demands a little—though he agreed, in essence, that "the U.N. Command would stop beating its wife"—which confession he discounted, since he felt everyone knew such allegations were silly—and signed on the dotted line, to get Dodd out.

It was a tremendous Communist propaganda victory.

On 10 May 1952, Frank Dodd walked out of Compound 76, and was whisked away to Tokyo. Here he would learn that Army Secretary Pace, hot with anger and embarrassment, had decreed that he "should have brought the spokesmen to his office under guard."

There could be little argument with Frank Pace's view on that.

Dodd was reduced to the grade of colonel, and retired. That left Colson.

When a man has done nothing conspicuously or flagrantly wrong, and yet has embarrassed his chiefs, whether he is an Army officer or an executive of Travelers Insurance, the current American phrase is "exhibited lack of judgment." It is a wonderfully enveloping phrase, like the 96th Article of War's "… and all other acts prejudicial to good order," and can be fitted to almost any situation.

Whether in the Department of Agriculture or Department of the Army, anyone who causes acute embarrassment must go, or the lack of judgment is considered to be even higher up.

Charles Colson's neck was being stretched for the block, too, unknown to him.

Meanwhile, a sort of anarchy had come to Koje-do. POW's shouted and chanted and waved banners and placards inside the wire, while the guards stood helplessly by outside. There were riots, and it was questionable who controlled the camp.

In Compound 76, where the North Korean brass plotted, detailed plans were being drawn.

Craig held the buck until Brigadier General Charles E Colson arrived to take charge. Charlie Colson was a quiet, reserved, mannerly gentleman, who came over to Koje-do quite unaware that half the world was laughing at the fiasco of who was guarding whom, that General Matt Ridgway was deeply annoyed, that General Mark W. Clark, who was taking over from Ridgway in Tokyo—to James Van Fleet's annoyance—was worried about the stink, and that in Washington Army Secretary Frank Pace, Jr., was tearing out his hair.

A field telephone was fed into Compound 76, over which Colson and the Communist leaders engaged in collective bargaining. Colson had troops, guns, and tanks—in small quantity, but present—but Compound 76 had Frank Dodd. The POW's made it quite clear that any attempt to relieve him by force would result in one brigadier with slit throat.

They presented Colson, who had walked into Koje-do cold, knowing nothing of the pow and propaganda situation there or anywhere else, with a long string of demands. Among them was confession of past crimes against POW's, a pledge to recognize Communist organizations and control of the POW's, and agreement "to stop torturing and mistreating prisoners to make them say they are anti-Communist."

It was the old "have you stopped beating your wife?" technique, and Charlie Colson walked into it.

Colson knew the Communist demands and allegations were ridiculous; he was completely aware that no such torment or abuse of POW's had ever taken place. He was not aware that when the demands, repeated by the newsmen now deserting the barren front for Koje-do in droves, were wired across the world, millions of people said, "Where there is smoke there must be fire," and that Nam II in Panmunjom was shrieking, in joyous and righteous rage:

"… These criminal acts committed by your side under the name of voluntary repatriation thoroughly violate the Geneva Convention relating to prisoners of war and repudiate the minimum standard of human behavior!"

And, "Your side must bear the full and absolute responsibility for the safety of our captured personnel!"

The editor of Pravda in Moscow came forth with full and somber wrath:

Koje Island! Again the gloomy shadow of Maidenek (a Nazi extermination camp in, Poland) has come upon the world, again the stench of corpses … the groans of the tortured … we learn that "civilized" Americans can be yet more inhuman, yet more infamous than the bloody Hillerites. Dachau was a death camp, Maidenek was a death factory; Koje is a whole island of death. The American hangmen are torturing, tormenting, and killing unarmed people here. They are experimenting with their poisons on them.…

Communist press and spokesmen were having a propaganda field day, while the plaintive demands coming over the single strand of thin wire from inside Compound 76 seemed to back up everything they claimed. "Please stop torturing us, and we'll give you your general back."

These plans, if carried through, would make Koje an island of death indeed.

When spring came, the 2nd Infantry Division had its turn off line again, while the 40th—one of the two National Guard Divisions sent to FECOM in 1951-and the 7th took over its zone below the Iron Triangle. The division returned to Kap'yong, and from here it spread to many places, fulfilling the typical missions of an American division in reserve. The 9th Infantry, minus 3rd Battalion, took up blocking positions west of the Hwach'on Reservoir, meanwhile carrying on aggressive training. The entire 38th Regiment, plus 3/9, embarked for Koje-do, which was reported to be rocked by riots and insubordination. The 2/23, meanwhile, marched to Sangdong to guard valuable tungsten mines. Several individual companies went to provide security for IX Corps HQ, and for a guerrilla-beset radio station. Divarty went over to support the 9th ROK Division, and the 72nd Tank moved back on Heartbreak Ridge, under X Corps.

On line or off, there was little rest in Korea. The division had received 4,466 replacements for rotated men, and these must trained.

The top command changed; the high brass played musical chairs, too. General Young left and Brigadier General James C. Fry took command on 4 May, with full pomp and ceremony at the division airstrip.

With the easing of combat pressure at the front, pomp and ceremonies were rapidly returning. Units remained stable for long periods now, and everywhere flagpoles went up, rocks were painted, and areas policed and improved. Divisions built show-type war rooms out of plywood, and stationed MP's with burnished stainless steel helmets outside them. Bands, no longer needed to carry wounded and the like, could indulge in concerts, while more and more troops, with less and less to do, could be kept busy on the fiddling details normal to garrison life.

The Army fatigue uniform, in World War II a work and combat uniform, utilitarian and unadorned, became a wonder to behold. Starched, pressed with creases, complete with sewn unit patches and colored name tags, it became more colorful than the OD semidress. Soon, even in the combat zone, the old, sloppy fatigue cap was taboo—now caps had to have stiffeners to make them like that of General Ridgway. For one buck American, GI's and officers could buy a locally made stiff fatigue cap, which was simpler than trying to put a stiffener in the GI-issue kind.

Sometimes, when an army cannot go, it turns to show. At any rate, the Korean economy benefited.

It was at this time that Brigadier General Boatner went to Japan on R&R. He had word that his son, Second Lieutenant James G. Boatner, was coming to FECOM—"Destination Evil," as the coded orders read.

In Tokyo, Boatner talked to the personnel people. He wanted to make certain his son did not come to the 2nd Division; that would be unfair. But he didn't want young James to end up in the 40th or 45th, one of the National Guard Divisions either. The personnel people laughed at that, and asked, "Well, where?"

James Boatner had been born in the 15th Infantry, in Tientsin. It was finally decided to send him to the 3rd Division, one of the Army's proudest units, and parent of the 15th Regiment.

On 11 May, Boatner was in the Tokyo Main PX, when he was paged over the store loudspeaker. "Brigadier General Boatner, please come to the office—"

There he was informed that his presence was earnestly desired at the Dai Ichi. He went at once to the Assistant Theater G-l—Personnel Officer—and asked what was up. Dick Key, an old friend, told him, "Haydon, they've decided to send you to Koje-do."

Now, what had been going on at Koje-do had been in all the papers for some days. The Bull was deflated. "My God, how do I get out of it?"

"You don't. General Clark is ready to see you immediately—and a plane is standing by to take you there in one hour," Key said. "Can you make it?"

"If those are my orders," Boatner said morosely, "of course I can make it."

It was the lunch hour, but he was ushered in to see General Mark Wayne Clark, the new FECOM commander, who had just replaced Ridgway, who was off to Europe to command NATO.

Wayne Clark, long-nosed and schoolmasterish in appearance, had had the fifth Army in Italy, and now, coming into Japan, he was absolutely flabbergasted by what had happened at Koje-do. He told Boatner he felt the American Army had been disgraced. He had just visited the island with the departing Ridgway, and he had been horrified at the lack of discipline and control over the rioting POW's

"I'm putting you there, and you take command!" he said. He was very clear.

He made no mention of General Van Fleet, who had expected to take over Tokyo from Eighth Army, à la Ridgway, and who was reputed to be somewhat cool toward Clark. He made it clear that Boatner was to take his direction straight from the top.

Finally, he said, "Any questions?"

Bull Boatner, no politician but also no fool, was well aware that the great trouble with Koje-do was that the hands of all previous commanders had been tied. He said: "Yes, sir, I fear the situation is so bad over there, the POW's out of control to such an extent, that it will require bloodshed to restore control."

Clark said, "I agree absolutely. I expect bloodshed, and I'll support you."

Boatner then asked for a competent law officer who was thoroughly conversant with the Geneva Conventions, and Clark said he would order the G-1 to provide such.

Outside Clark's office, Boatner went immediately to Lieutenant General Doyle Hickey, the Chief of Staff. It was customary that any officer coming from the commander's office briefed the Chief of Staff on the substance of the conversation—and Boatner had his special reasons, too.

He made very certain that Hickey understood that Clark had agreed to bloodshed on Koje-do.

Then he talked with the next two men in line, Major General Whitfield Sheperd and Major General Ryan, to have them on record that strong measures were called for.

That night, he arrived by plane in Pusan, and was hosted by Brigadier General Paul F. Yount, CG of the 2nd Logistical Command, which had jurisdiction over Koje-do. Frank Dodd was in Pusan, in Yount's HQ, on his way to Tokyo and Mark Clark. Dodd, ill with ulcers, was drinking milk sent over from Japan—there was no fresh milk in Korea—and he seemed a shaken man, heading for disgrace and demotion.

Yount briefed Boatner as best he could, though Boatner didn't get too much out of him. The main thing Yount was angry about, in all this uproar, was that friendly aircraft had recently strafed Koje, and Yount was furious over this.

Staying at Pusan overnight, Boatner went on to the island, and was ushered into General Charlie Colson's office the next day. Boatner had never met Colson, but Colson had been a classmate of his older brother, and now Colson was very solemn, very courteous, and very decent.

Colson, it appeared, was in no way feeling under tension or pressure. He had no idea that his actions were under question or that they had stirred up a raging hornets' nest in Washington and Tokyo.

Talking to Boatner, he was like the old officer of the day passing on the special orders to the new, quite dry and relaxed.

Boatner, newly come from the press and propaganda storm in Tokyo, was amazed.

Colson asked, "By the way, have you seen Clark?"

"Yes, I saw him yesterday, and he's mad as hell."

"Why, what's he mad about?"

"About the agreement you made with the prisoners of war."

"Why, Clark approved it—Clark approved all that agreement—how can he be mad about it?"

Boatner, amazed, asked, "Colson, can you prove he approved it?"

"Why, yes. I've got it right here in my desk." Colson pointed to his upper right-hand drawer.

"What's that?"

"Those are stenographic notes of my conversation with Pusan."

Boatner said slowly: "Well, stenographic notes of a conversation with Pusan don't prove that General Clark approved anything. I'm afraid you'd better take those with you to Tokyo—you're going to have to prove all this."

It was certain that Charlie Colson never realized he was under any criticism or fire whatever, and whatever this said for his judgment, many people, including Bull Boatner, regarded his subsequent demotion to colonel and retirement to verge on the criminal.

In democratic societies as well as totalitarian it never pays to embarrass the powers that be.

But Boatner, coming in at the lowest ebb of the ball game, was under no illusions as to how Washington and Tokyo felt. He also knew that higher HQ, willy-nilly, had to support him, in spite of NITS, IRC, UNCORK, or the Associated Press.

General Yount had moved the International Red Cross from the island on 7 May, and he was making it hard for newsmen to cross over from Pusan. But Boatner knew it was not in publicity that the trouble lay. He rather wanted the Red Cross and newsmen about; he wanted witnesses.

He was not going to seek trouble, but he was going to meet it head on when it came, firmly but fairly.

Now the correspondents asked him, "Are you glad to have us here?"

Boatner said, "Christ, I'm not that stupid—but I know I've got to have you here—so tell General Yount I have no objections."

He sat now at Colson's desk, and within two hours the Military Police executive officer of the command, who had been on Koje throughout the entire tenure of Boatner's fourteen predecessors, came in and asked: "General, what uniform do you want to prescribe for the cocktail party we're having for you?"

Boatner looked at him. "What cocktail party?" The colonel said, "Sir, we give a cocktail party for every newly arriving general officer—"

"I'm not so sure about this," Boatner said.

The colonel smiled, figuring Boatner was thinking of the cost. "General, this won't cost you a thing. We make so much money at the Officers' Club out of liquor that this is one way we have of using up our excess profits." Boatner thought, My God. He had just come from Japan; he'd been reading the papers; and everyone was furious at the propaganda beating the U.S. had been taking—and here on Koje-do they were worrying about cocktail parties!

"Colonel, there'll be no cocktail party."

Meanwhile, Boatner had noticed that everyone on the island was in different uniform. His exec was wearing tropical worsted semidress; some men were in fatigues. The uniform for the guard detachment specified combat fatigues. "Fitzgerald, speaking of uniforms, why are there so many different kinds around?"

"General, you wouldn't want your own headquarters wearing the same uniform as the troops!"

Boatner, who had been on Heartbreak Ridge, was speechless. But only for a moment. "Dammit, that's exactly what I want! Furthermore, some of the troops are wearing side arms, some aren't. Put everybody under arms."

"Oh, please, General, don't do that. You'll be sorry."

"Why?"

"There'll be so many accidental discharges around here, somebody's going to get hurt."

"Goddamit!" the Bull roared. "Goddamit, if a soldier can't handle his weapons, what the hell kind of outfit have we got? Put 'em under arms!"

"General, I wish you'd reconsider—"

The summation of Boatner's further remarks was No.

Boatner looked around his HQ. There were combat troops down the road, the 38th Infantry, one battalion of the 9th. But everywhere else there were MP troops, engineers, quartermasters, most of whom were unaware there was a war on. Nor were many of these service troops typical of their services—many officers relieved on the line as unfit had been sent to Koje-do as POW guards, and the replacement pipeline had funneled some of its worst into the island, considering the need there the less.

Boatner loved the Army, and he loved the American soldier, though he had a firm belief that the American soldier was only as good as his officer made him. A man unconsciously profane, Boatner thought, Jesus Christ, what a mess!

Some of his old boys from the 38th and 9th had told him what a lousy, snotty, overbearing HQ he had inherited, in their opinion. The feeling between the regular service troops party on Koje and the combat battalions sent in to supplement them was like that between the blue and the gray.

Charlie Colson had taught him a lesson, too, about getting it in writing. He began to write letters and send telegrams: In all my experience I have never seen such a poor group of American soldiers. … He asked permission to screen out four hundred of the worst troops for return to the mainland.

Pusan, angry, had to agree. Boatner's wires, and his strong stand, had them on the spot. It was a shot in the arm to the good troops.

The problem on Koje and at Pusan was that none of the people on the ground there seemed to realize how prominent they had become, that the eyes of the world were focused on them, and that what happened here could affect the whole course of the war.

And Boatner sensed that he was not in command of the island, though he sat at the commandant's desk. Somewhere, in secret, hidden within a hard core of Communist officers behind the wire, sat the real commander of Koje-do, with the initiative in his grasp.

Boatner had seen the flimsy compounds, had seen the thousands upon thousands of rioting, singing prisoners crammed into a few square yards surrounded by one apron of wire and a handful of armed troops, and he had seen what had to be done.

In his mind, he broke his job down into three phases: Phase I, to show the will to command, to let the POW's know who was boss, and to get more armed strength on the island; Phase II, to build new, secure compounds to hold the prisoners; Phase III, the actual movement of the POW's into their new wire prisons.

Boatner was sitting on a volcano, in danger of a mass break at any hour. The resulting slaughter would be a black eye from which the U.N. Command might never recover. The POW's had been encouraged to argue, to assert their rights, and this had played into the hard-core Communists' hands. Boatner knew he had to let these men know the old days were over; he had to beat their arrogance down, but little by little, or risk explosion.

There was almost no time left. How little time there was, even Bull Boatner did not guess. In Compound 76, a date had already been set for wholesale slaughter. Boatner did what any competent commander might have done, had he Boatner's two priceless assets: Boatner had backing from above, and Boatner knew Chinese.

He asked Clark for more power, quickly. From Japan he got the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, and from Eighth Army a Canadian company, a British company, some Greeks, and a company of Turks, and tanks to display on the hills above the compounds. The sending of the Commonwealth troops raised a stink; Van Fleet caught hell for ordering them to Koje, and the Canadian Brigadier, whose nation had never accepted the enmity of Red China, was relieved. Van Fleet figured the POW's were just as much a U.N. problem as the battle line, but few U.N. governments wanted any part of the mess at Koje-do.

With the combat power came more engineer construction troops. The purse strings had been loosened, and Boatner was to spend $3,500,000 in a matter of days to secure the island. The old compounds were filled to bursting; the watchtowers were inside the perimeter of fences, where they could be rushed, and the compounds were enclosed by only a single apron of barbed wire, held fast by already rotten saplings instead of solid timber.

Everything was makeshift, insecure. The towers would have to be moved without the wire, three aprons of wire stretched, more machine guns placed, and stronger fences laid.

The day after the new engineer troops arrived, Boatnef inspected them. The entire battalion was prettifying their area, painting rain barrels, and building a PX to store their goodies. When Boatner ordered the Engineer commander to report to him, that officer was far from defensive.

"General, I've got to take care of my men."

Boatner told him: "You're not here to make a model camp, police the area, paint rain barrels, or anything else—you're here to build compounds. You start doing it on a twenty-four-hour basis, as of now, with maximum use of your equipment. If you have any question about this, ask me now. The next time, I'll relieve you."

The colonel got the point.

Boatner hated to talk to the Engineer in this fashion, but he just didn't understand these people. Not understanding the enormous pressures created in Washington and Tokyo, they were still determined to make life as pleasant as possible and to carry on business as usual.

Now he could begin Phase I in earnest, the beating down of the POW's, even while Phase II was in progress.

During the first days, Boatner was worried all the time by the prospect of a mass break. If this happened, hundreds would be killed, and the uproar would shake the world. He knew that, coldly and confidently, the Communist leaders were planning a break. They had no hope of getting off the island; they wanted a mass atrocity with which to brand the United States.

Haunted, Boatner drove his own troops, both infantry and engineer, with the whip of his own barbed tongue, with the lash of his threatening voice. Slowly he got his own urgency across to them.

But when he took over, on 12 May 1952, not even the Texas A&M Mothers' Club, who had come to know him, would have bet on the Bull.

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