Former prisoners of war tend to be quiet. This is true, at least, among the former POWs I have come to know as a Korean War historian. Perhaps their silence was learned while marching a hundred miles across the frozen mountains of North Korea, wondering whether their captors would execute those who fell behind. Or perhaps they learned it after the war, reluctant to describe those experiences for fear of raising uncomfortable questions about torture, brainwashing, and the fate of comrades who didn’t come home.
When they do speak of the war, their stories tend to have an amusing twist.
Army corporal Jack Chapman was captured at a place called Hellfire Valley, near the Chosin Reservoir. Comrades helped the wounded 17-year-old survive a grueling three-week march across the Taebaek Mountains to a Chinese prison camp. Using rudimentary tools, fellow prisoners later removed most of the shrapnel from his body. Thirteen years after the war, an Air Force surgeon removed a spent Chinese bullet from his forehead. Ask Chapman about those times, however, and he might tell you how much fun it was to throw snowballs at the prison guards, or how the remaining shrapnel still sets off airport metal detectors.
More than 2,700 American POWs are known to have died in captivity during the Korean War. Nearly 8,000 more Americans remain listed as missing in action, and Pentagon researchers suspect at least a thousand of these men died as prisoners without witnesses to record their fate.
The majority of American POWs were taken prisoner during the war’s first six months. Hundreds were immediately executed by their captors. Those who survived were marched north to spend the winter in desolate camps near the Yalu River. Only half of that group made it through the first winter alive. Freezing temperatures, filthy living conditions, disease, malnutrition, and Communist neglect combined to kill the other half.
During the spring of 1951, Mao Zedong ordered a series of ill-considered offensives that failed to drive United Nations forces into the sea and left Communist forces vulnerable to brutal U.N. counterattacks. When ceasefire negotiations began in July of 1951, the Chinese suddenly realized the value of their prisoners as bargaining chips. Food, clothing, and medical attention improved dramatically within the Yalu camps, and the death rate among prisoners dropped to nearly zero.
Having survived the elements, American POWs now found themselves engaged in a new struggle, as their jailers mounted a concerted effort to convert their prisoners to Communism. The prisoners were required to attend lectures, keep journals, write detailed autobiographies, and engage in public “reflections” about alleged American war crimes, the evils of capitalism, and the nuances of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Despite the threats of beating and starvation, some American prisoners openly defied their captors and suffered accordingly. Others cooperated openly with the indoctrination program, usually because of either personal weakness or opportunism. Most American prisoners slept through the lectures, talked about cars and girls during group discussions, and mocked their “teachers” whenever possible, confessing regret, for example, at having “been caught insulting Chairman Mao,” and solemnly vowing never again to “get caught.”
The Communist reeducation program failed miserably, and the Chinese soon abandoned it. After the war, however, American POWs returned home to a nation consumed with fear of Communist espionage. Lurid tales from Korea about “brainwashing” and collaboration gained far more attention than the many accounts of heroic resistance. Scholars have long since debunked the rumors of widespread collaboration as exaggerated myths, but these rumors cast an unfair shadow of suspicion over men who had served honorably, both in combat and in captivity.
Today the nation honors that service with ceremonies and speeches as part of National POW/MIA Recognition Day. If you know any of these men, consider yourself lucky, and be sure to thank them for their service and their sacrifice.
— William C. Latham Jr. is a course director at the United States Army Logistics University at Fort Lee, Va. His Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea was recently published by Texas A&M University Press.