Military history


Twenty Rolls of Toilet Paper, One Quart Mercurochrome

Knowledge is power.


BRIGADIER GENERAL Haydon L. Boatner, who had graduated from the care and handling of a few thousand Texas A&M cadets to the full responsibility for more than eighty thousand Chinese and North Koreans on Koje-do, was well aware that the United States was not wholly without blame for the riots and bloodshed that had already swept the island.

The American Army had been ineffective at Koje-do, and the reasons lay in the background of the POW question. The United States had never faced handling massed POW's since the War Between the States, and both sides had botched it then; in World War I the Allies shouldered the burden; and in the last war it was not until 1943 Americans had any prisoners, and these were from a foe of the same basic culture, who sensed they were already beaten.

There had never been enough Japanese POW's to matter.

But in Korea the United States not only had taken thousands of POW's of alien culture; it faced an alien psychology also. The "specially trained" guard units sent out from the States understood neither Orientals nor Communists.

And fighting a limited war, which was expected to end at any time, no long-range provisions had been made for POW's. There had been set up no real POW guard troops or equipment; every dollar spent on these had been begrudged.

When General Walton Walker had been in retreat, and plans drawn up for a possible evacuation of Korea in December 1950, the POW's had been sent to Koje Island so that they could not hamper an evacuation from Pusan. Once on Koje, every higher commander preferred to keep them there, for out of sight was out of mind, and every higher commander had better things to worry about, especially when the peace talks began.

Also on Koje-do were dumped thousands of refugees from Wonsan, and among these were enemy agents, to keep a pipeline open between North Korea and the island. And to the dedicated Communist, such as Nam II, a POW of his own blood was as much a potential weapon as a gun—or word.

With such a situation, with such a lack of understanding of the real problems, or of the men they held, it seemed almost criminal to blame men like Charlie Colson for fumbling the hot potato dumped into their laps.

General Boatner, the old China hand, had the good fortune of every other commandant's experience. And he was wise enough to seek help.

He knew that in Japan was General Sung Shih, a Nationalist officer graduate of V.M.I., who had been an aide to Stilwell in Burma.

Once, when Boatner, some two miles behind the lines, had been sprayed with American psychological warfare leaflets from an aircraft, he had called Eighth Army Psych War Branch, saying caustically, "The 2nd Division has no intention of surrendering to the Eighth Army!"

"What the hell are you talking about?" The Psych War officer asked.

Boatner informed him of where the Chinese lines were, and furthermore, told him the leaflets were no damned good. They had been written in high literary Chinese, and wouldn't motivate a common soldier with a full gizzard to take a crap.

Rather abashed, the officer, who had studied only high literary Chinese, came up to visit Boatner, and asked for help. Boatner had given him the name of Sung Shih, in Japan.

Now Boatner remembered this officer, whom he knew well, and requested him to come to Koje-do.

General Sung—who had no official business with the American Army, and whose presence made the Chiang-hating U.N. allies scream with rage—arrived on Koje, but unfortunately the correspondents got to him before Boatner. They printed the fact that he had come, and forthwith Sung had to go—but not before Boatner asked his advice on how to handle his CCF POW's.

You must not, Sung said, say no to a Chinese bluntly. It was always best to give a minor point or two, to permit him to save face. But at the same time, you must always show a Chinese very plainly who is master. He would, General Sung Shih indicated, understand nothing less.

It was advice that was to stand Boatner in good stead.

On his second morning on Koje-do, he got word by telephone that all hell had broken loose in the Chinese compound of 6,500 POW's.

Boatner had seen Frank Dodd, sick and strained on his way to Tokyo, and he knew what had happened to that officer when he visited a compound, and he thought, I'm not going to get involved.

This mood lasted two seconds. But Boatner realized he was in command, and he could not command from a desk, whatever Frank Pace thought about it.

He went to the Chinese compound by a circuitous route, without fanfare, with only his aide. Though he did not sneak about, neither did he seek to attract attention. Up ahead, he could hear a terrific commotion.

At the CCF compound, he saw an incredible sight.

Inside the compound, lined up in ranks, with perfect discipline, stood 6,500 Chinese, each with a blue and yellow banner in his hand, all chanting and singing and waving the flags in a concerted drill, all within an area of some three hundred square yards.

Outside the wire were literally thousands of U.S. soldiers—all the men off duty and some who weren't—who had flocked to the uproar as if it were a fire or sideshow. These men were waving fists at the Chinese, and shouting insults at them, like "Blow it out, ya dirty bums!" and Worse.

Boatner, watching, saw a great mass of people in front of the main gate. He sent his aide, Warrant Officer Robert B. Mills, a man of very great judgment and coolness, over there with this instruction:

"Go over, get the U.S. officer in charge, and bring him back to me, with the head Chinese and an interpreter. Don't let anyone else come—and don't let the mob see you."

Boatner's first piece of good luck was that the senior U.S. officer was Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Garrett, C.O. of 3/9 Infantry, whom he was both fond of and respected highly. Woody Garrett—so-called because it had taken him five years to get through the Point—reported to Boatner. A balding, moustached infantryman, he also knew and understood the Bull.

The second piece of luck was that the senior Chinese representative, a CCF lieutenant colonel, about thirty-five, was a Northern Chinese whose dialect Boatner understood and spoke perfectly. As it turned out, the Chinese officer was the son of a Yenan landowner near the town of Fenjo-fu where Boatner had hunted during his service with the 15th Infantry.

An educated man, he had been forced into the Communist Army to save his father's life. He was not a dedicated Communist, but he was a dedicated Chinese.

First, in English, Boatner asked Garrett, "Goddamit, who's in command here?"

"I am," Woody Garrett said.

"Then act like it, goddamit!" Boatner snarled. "Run every goddam American soldier who hasn't any duty around this compound out of here!"

Garrett did so. He and Boatner understood each other, as was evidenced by Garrett's having made, a few days later, a reversible sign for Boatner's parking space, one side of which was painted General Boatner, and on the other Colonel Boatner, in case the Bull went the way of Dodd and Colson.

Boatner had a similar sign made for Garrett, which said Major on one side. Without doubt, all the junior officers got the point.

While the shouting, sight-seeing crowd of Americans was run off, Boatner let the CCF officer speak through the interpreter, though he could understand him clearly. And the Chinese went into a long spiel, about Panmunjom, prisoner repatriation, Geneva Conventions—nothing whatever to do with the riot at hand of why the Chinese were demonstrating.

This was the kind of thing they had been getting away with for months. It was sheer propaganda; as Boatner said, a line of bull.

When the Chinese colonel had completely run down, satisfied that he had done a good job of selling the new American commander a bill of goods, Boatner said, in Chinese, "Nah shunar du wa na?"

Literally, this meant "That is what kind of talk?" To a Chinese, it had the connotation, "What kind of bull are you handing me?"

Haydon Boatner spoke excellent Mandarin, and the Chinese have always had a high respect for any foreigner who can do so; they think that only an educated Chinese can handle the flowery tongue of the Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese officer's jaw dropped.

Boatner went on: "You're a soldier; I'm a soldier. You hear my language—I have lived long in China. My son was born in Tientsin; my son is Chinese." He did not mention that his wife was Occidental. "I fought with Stilwell"—who was well thought of in China—"and I am a friend of China." He mentioned the names of several prominent Chinese officers he knew well. "You do not know what has caused this riot, nor do I know what has happened. Now, you know very well the only thing I can do is to hold an investigation. This I will do, and when I know, I shall tell you."

Then Boatner looked at the young officer with complete assurance, "But don't think your soldiers, by their singing and chanting, are impressing me. I will do nothing while they sing, this also I promise you. Go back, tell them that the new commander is an old China hand and that I will report back to you the results of my investigation. But I will do nothing while you try to bluff e—have your men break ranks and return to their huts."

Crestfallen, the Chinese officer was led back into the compound.

Then, in front of thousands of eyes, Boatner said: "Woody, my guess is that it'll take an hour to get this group disbanded and back in their huts. Now, don't show any concern whatever—ignore 'em—act as though you know implicitly my orders are going to be obeyed—"

Looking neither left nor right, Boatner finished, "I'm leaving now, and goddamit, they're watching us for weakness. Now, you salute me, and I'll salute you, and you telephone me when they have dispersed."

Calmly, in front of the silent eyes, the American satrap walked for his jeep, and he and Warrant Officer Mills drove off.

Twenty-two minutes later, Woody Garrett phoned. It was all over.

But the investigation showed that the riot had been caused by the death of a Chinese; a POW had been killed, and the United States, in this particular case, was not without blame.

During the investigation the Chinese presented a long list of demands—a formal apology, permission for the whole compound to attend the funeral, and so on. This was what they had been getting away with for a long time—but Boatner, remembering what Sung Shih had said, knew what to do.

He wrote the Chinese a letter, telling them they might hold a military funeral—but that only a few representatives might attend.

He furnished the POW's a truck to take them to the cemetery and back, and sent a captain as his own personal representative. And the supply officer of Koje-do puzzled over a requisition for twenty rolls of toilet paper and one quart of mercurochrome.

Chinese make red and white flowers for funerals, and this Boatner understood. And while he was spending millions of dollars for new wire and watchtowers, Bull Boatner bought the peace of one compound, he thought, at quite a bargain.

Phase I had begun. Each day, each hour, General Boatner continued to show his authority. He was reasonable, he was human—but he was boss.

He had to move step by step, not to goad the POW's into angry reaction until he was ready, which would only be when the new compounds, going up night and day, were finished.

Now, statues and images of the Communist saints, national flags, and portraits of Stalin and Kim I1 Sung were displayed in all compounds. Picking on the least dangerous compounds first, Boatner ordered these to come down, without result.

Boatner planned his next step with Woody Garrett. With the men of Garrett's battalion, they rehearsed a raid into a compound in secret, getting the timing down pat. There was no question that Boatner could march armed men into any compound he chose, and tear down the Communist symbology—but the purpose was to accomplish it without bloodshed.

The eyes of the world were watching for the next American fiasco.

Then, when an ultimatum to the Chinese to pull down their flags at 1200 was ignored, at that hour the sergeant of the guard threw open the compound gate, and two tanks roared in, followed by infantry with arms at high port. In five minutes, the flags and portraits were torn down, and all Americans back outside the wire—without incident, and before the Chinese could react.

One by one, Boatner did this to each compound.

Day by day, he drove his Sherman tanks past the roads near the compounds, and he marched his heavily armed infantry by, showing his force. Day by day he beat the POW's down, without laying a finger on them, without killing one of them.

Phase I took ten days, and time was running out.

General Clark flew into Koje-do, accompanied by General Van Fleet. Boatner briefed Clark, while Van Fleet had little to ask or say. When Boatner finished, Wayne Clark said: "Boatner, you're doing exactly what I told you. You can rest assured you'll never get hurt."

A few days after Boatner took command at Koje, Van Fleet had visited him. At that time the Eighth Army CG said, "You've got to tighten up on security." It was obvious to all that a grapevine ran from Panmunjom and P'yongyang down to Koje-do.

"Then, General," Boatner said, "I've got to move all these thousands of civilians away from the camps. There's the security problem."

But Van Fleet argued. "You can't do that."

So for a few more days the POW camps were surrounded by a raucous throng of hawkers, prostitutes, and probable Communist agents. It was common practice for civilians to throw notes back and forth across the wire with the POW's.

One day, the correspondents asked Boatner why he permitted this. He told them General Van Fleet's orders. Shortly afterward, Van Fleet's orders were changed.

Boatner had no legal authority to move the civilians away from the camp—but all it took was a little action. He gave orders that they must not be brutalized, and put trucks at their disposal; in one day and a half, all were moved far away, and not allowed to return. There was no further trouble from that source.

By this time, the brass studiously refrained from nibbling on Boatner; technically, there were a number of people in the chain of command between him and Mark W. Clark, but each of these, whatever his own notions may have been, was knowledgeable enough to keep his finger out of the pie.

Phase II, the building of the new compounds, took almost thirty days, while Boatner sweated out each day, expecting trouble to break at any moment. It was not until 10 June 1952 that he was ready to begin Phase III, the breaking up and movement of the existing compounds.

With this move, he would accomplish three things: the breakup of the tight Communist control organizations in some compounds, the placement of POW's into secure compounds from which they had little chance of escape, and the reducing of the huge, unwieldy compounds into smaller ones more easily managed.

This had to be done, but he also knew that the Communist leaders would

resist it to the death.

Boatner planned and organized the moves as a military operation. Four weeks before, Phase III would have been impossible—but Boatner had used his month well. Not only had he beaten the will of the POW's down day by day; he now had also a completely disciplined, taut American military structure under his command, immediately and efficiently responsive to his order.

To begin Phase III, Boatner decided to crack the toughest nut first. Compound 76 held the hard-core Communist officers; it had captured Dodd. It was also closest to the U.S. hospital in which were American female nurses. In 76 were the meanest and most vicious POW's, and the best leadership.

Putting 76 out of operation first, Boatner felt, would go a long way to reducing the others.

The 187th Airborne and the 38th Infantry dug in two battalions along the road into Compound 76, in plain sight. Also in plain sight, the infantrymen and paratroopers set up machine guns and mortars, laid on the prison camp.

Then Boatner had the paratroops stage a mock advance into an empty compound next to 76, with fixed bayonets and flamethrowers, while the Communist prisoners watched. The demonstration went like clockwork; it had been timed and scheduled to the second, and every officer briefed on his part.

The demonstration was both impressive and frightening.

Then Boatner sent for the senior Korean officer of Compound 76. He told him that the POW's were to be moved, into better quarters. He took him to inspect the new compounds, and told him when and where he would be moved, in an attempt to forestall any panic among the prisoners.

But the Communist leadership could not be trusted to tell their people the truth. Loudspeakers were set up outside all compounds, and in English, Korean, and Chinese, the same word was put out for the rank and file. The compounds were bluntly warned that they were going to be moved, by force if necessary, and if there was any resistance the POW's would be responsible for the results. Compounds other than 76 were informed so that they would not panic when trouble began in the first one to be moved.

When the word was out, 9 June 1952, General Boatner's officers reported to him that instead of getting ready to move, the North Koreans in 76 were putting out pickets to see that no one attempted to obey his instructions.

Early the next morning, 10 June, Boatner and Brigadier General Trapnell, the paratroop commander, stood on a low hill outside Compound 76, watching.

The troops had their orders; everything had been planned and rehearsed down to the most minute detail. Phase lines within the compound had been drawn, and the troops were to cross them at given times. A large number of paratroops were to be used. Inside the compound, they would operate from a fixed base, sweeping movable forces through the compound to force the POW's out. The paratroops had bayoneted rifles, but no cartridges in the chambers. They could fire only on the express command of an officer.

With the compound completely ringed by men and steel, the paratroops who were to enter 76 massed. At 0615 they tore down the wire fence, and went in.

The Koreans fell back, to a preplanned defensive line within the compound. Suddenly, many of them brandished long spears and sharp knives, made in the workshops.

The paratroops reached Phase Line A, having covered one-eighth of the compound area, without contact, and without result. They moved on, slowly, deliberately, irresistibly, grinding the mass of POw's before them, pushing them around against the fixed base of men set up in one area. At Phase Line B—one half the compound—they began to throw concussion grenades.

Now the bulk of the POW's began to come apart, to flee before the grim Americans and out into the fields ringed by men and guns. They were pushed on into their new homes.

But behind a line of trenches they had dug in one section of the compound, 150 holdouts refused to surrender. They screamed and shouted defiance, and waved spears and knives.

The paratroops advanced, slowly, grimly, pushing them back. Now there was chaos. The POW's had set their huts afire, and smoke blanketed the area, choking men, obscuring vision. In the Korean press, a number of men panicked, and tried to run.

They were killed by their own people, with spears in the back.

Then the tough paratroopers met the lines of Koreans, and in a wild melee broke the back of their resistance. At a cost of 43 POW's killed, 135 wounded—half by their own officers—the 6,500 hard-core Communists in 76 were broken down into groups of 500 and placed behind new wire.

As the resistance ended, Boatner walked into the still-flaming compound, into which no American had gone for days. Not far within the circle of huts he recognized an odor familiar to all men who have intimately known the battlefield: the smell of death.

Inside a hut, he found a five-day-old corpse, hanging by its heels—a symbol of the Communist determination to dominate, placed there as an example by the leadership.

And in a ditch, cowering, the paratroopers found Senior Colonel Lee Hak Ku, of the North Korean People's Army; they dragged him out, roughly, and pushed him on his way. Colonel Lee, who had expected to be killed, never afterward gave much trouble.

Nor did the other compounds, some of whom had witnessed the reduction of 76, and some of whom heard of it on the grapevine, when their own turn came.

Buried in 76, Boatner's men found two sets of plans. One was the defense plan by which the North Koreans had resisted movement.

The other was the plan for a mass breakout by the dedicated Communists of all compounds, set for 20 June 1952.

The plans called for the POW's to cut the wire, make for the hills, and slaughter everything in their path.

The plans, however, were eight days too late. For on 12 June 1952, with the compounds broken up, Brigadier General Bull Boatner was at last in command of Koje Island.

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