Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

The collapsing US military & economic empire is making Washington & NATO even more dangerous. US could not beat the Taliban but thinks it can take on China-Russia-Iran...a sign of psychopathology for sure.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


North Korean POWs brought to U.S. camp on Koje Island during Korean War.

U.S. Army officer likely doing "re-education" of North Korean and Chinese POWs at Koje camp.  The primary goal was to get them to "renounce" Communism so the U.S. could refuse to repatriate them to their respective countries.

Doing labor at Koje POW camp.

Last winter Korean War veteran Tom Sturtevant from Maine passed away.  I was a friend, we met at our Maine Veterans For Peace chapter, and he went to South Korea with us in 2009 for the Global Network annual conference that was held in Seoul.  Tom was deeply affected by his participation in the Korean War as a Navy man working on an aircraft carrier that played a key role in the US saturation bombing of North Korea.  Tom spent much of his adult life becoming a student of the war.

After his death his family asked VFP to go through his papers and books and these documents were then given to various people.  Knowing of my continuing interest in Korea I was given Tom’s Korean War files and books.  One of these books was a treasure beyond imagination.  It is called Koje Unscreened by Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington – both attended the Korean War cease-fire talks at Panmunjom from the time they started until the Americans broke them off on Oct 8, 1952.

I had never heard of a place in Korea called Koje.  As it turns out Koje is another island just off the southern tip of the Korean mainland and in this case the U.S. used it as an enormous prisoner of war camp largely due to its isolation.  In recent days I have read the book and done hours of Internet research about Koje and discovered that in addition to Koje, there was another island prisoner of war camp that the U.S. ran during this same period – it was on Cheuju (Jeju) island.

While doing my Internet searching I found many photos from Koje that help illustrate life at the U.S. camp.  International media was largely kept away from this place so few journalists ever bothered to tell this story to the world.  The book was published in April of 1953, while the Korean War was still in stalemate.  Much of what you find on the Internet is the official U.S. line that reflects the fact that few journalists ever investigated, or were allowed to really know what happened at Koje.

On July 27, 1953, a cease-fire agreement between the U.S. and North Korea marked the end of the Korean War. The war killed more than 37,000 Americans along with approximately three million Asians beginning in June 1950.

The Korean War though is not really over.  Today the U.S. occupies the Korean mainland and regularly engages in war exercises aimed at the north with its puppet South Korean (ROK) government that came to power after WW II.  Following the Japanese defeat they were driven from Korea and the U.S. put the former Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese in charge of the ROK.  This led to civil war as the U.S. and its South Korean puppets considered those Communists who had fought against Japanese imperialism the new enemy.

Koje Unscreened tells the largely unknown story (outside of Korea and China) about the prisoner of war camps on the island. 

POW camps in North Korea contained only a few thousand prisoners while those in the South, mainly Koje, contained some 170,000 People’s Army (North Korean) soldiers and Chinese troops. 

With peace negotiations at Panmunjom largely stalemated (between July 1951-July 1953) over the prisoner of war exchange issue the U.S. tried to avoid taking that final step of breaking off the talks because it would look bad in the eyes of public opinion.  They wanted to provoke the Korean-Chinese side to do it instead.

President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson seized on the prisoner disparity issue as a weapon and took the decision to detain a large proportion of the Korean and Chinese POWs.

China’s Chou En-lai (directed peace talks for their side) said at the time, “The U.S. has in the prisoner of war camps under its control, placed large numbers of U.S., Syngman Rhee [ROK] and Chiang Kai-shek [Nationalist Chinese] special agents posing as Korean and Chinese prisoners of war, to coerce prisoners of war to make declarations ‘refusing repatriation’…Prisoners of war who refused to submit were viciously beaten up by these special agents.”

The U.S. initiated an international public relations campaign to show that the prisoners did not want to return to their respective Communist countries.  The authors wrote that by chance or otherwise, Catholic Cardinal Spellman ‘happened’ to visit the camps…and by the same sort of coincidence the State Department's U.S. Information Service broadcast a long interview with the prelate on January 28, 1952 from Tokyo in which Spellman said that “of 150,000 prisoners, 71 per cent do not want to be returned to Communist rule”. The broadcast went on that Spellman described a group of 300 Chinese who had tattooed themselves with the words ‘I am anti-Communist’ in the Chinese, Korean and English alphabets.  “The anti-Communist tattooed Chinese,” Spellman claimed, “want to be placed in the frontline of the UN forces so they can demonstrate actively their opposition to Communist rule in their own country.”

POWs "building" the Statue of Liberty with Christian cathedral replica in background - a photo op for the world to create the impression that North Korean and Chinese POWs had renounced their country.

The Statue of Liberty amongst the thousands of POWs who just really wanted to go home.

At one point the U.S. tried to turn 38,000 North Korean prisoners over to Rhee who would “press-gang” them into his army.  This did happen in many cases and some of the soldiers made their way back to join the North Korean army.

U.S. Gen. “Bull” Boatner was sent to Koje to “use maximum force” to get the prisoners to renounce Communism.  The authors interviewed a Canadian soldier, Cpl. John Jollymore, who reported that Boatner visited the Canadian run prisoner compound on Koje on June 3, 1952 and said, “I don’t want you to shoot the prisoners, slash them with your bayonets or butt them with your rifles, but if you must shoot, shot to kill, kill, kill.” 

ICRC (Red Cross) did a study of the Koje camp and reported that four days after the prisoner lists were exchanged on Dec 19, 1951, almost 800 of these ‘reclassified civilians’ were beaten up, six were killed and 41 wounded by rifle fire for protesting being classified as ‘South Korean civilians’.  They demanded their right to prisoner of war treatment as loyal members of the North Korean People’s Army.  The ICRC found 9,200 prisoners in a state of semi-starvation but their report was ignored by the western media.

On May 23, 1952 a letter was smuggled from Koje to the media and was signed by 6,223 North Korean prisoners.  In part it said, “Not a day, not a night but the sacrifice of some of our comrades occurs.  The American guards, armed to the teeth, are repeatedly committing acts of violence and barbarity against our comrades.  They drag them out and kill them either in public or in secret with machine-guns and carbines.  They drive our comrades by the thousand into gas chambers and torture rooms.  Many patriots are loaded into iron barred cages of police cars and taken to the seashore where they are shot and their corpses cast into the sea.”

There was another U.S. prison of war camp on nearby Cheju (Jeju) Island.  In September 1951, 97 Chinese POW’s were killed there and in October 56 more were killed and 120 wounded when American troops open fire on prisoners for dancing and singing in celebration of third anniversary of the establishment of Chinese People’s Republic. The “official” U.S. story, fed to UPI, was that “the Communists planned to break out and join the Red guerrillas in the Cheju Mountains.” 

The authors maintain, “The previous large-scale massacres of war prisoners had all been against Korean prisoners.  This time it was doubtless hoped that the provocation might be more effective if directed against the Chinese and to make it doubly effective, the day chosen was China’s National Day.”

The book reports that the U.S. broke 67 of the 243 articles of the Geneva Convention by its actions on Koje. Article 118 of the Geneva Convention reads:  “Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.”

All of this has much relevance to me as we watch Obama’s military pivot into the Asia-Pacific and the U.S. “containment” of China picks up pace.  The words of authors Burchett and Winnington, writing in April 1953, seem prophetic: “America’s policy is for more war, a bigger war, war with China and wars elsewhere in the Far East to commit China’s armies.”

The evidence of U.S. brutality and deception also are important to remember as we see a lineage of these policies run from Korea to Vietnam and then on to Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan and to Libya.  At some point the American people must come to grips with the ugly and cruel evidence that the U.S. military empire is little different from the evil done by WW II fascist enemies in Germany, Italy, and Japan. 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sobering account, for sure. But we must pursue truth wherever it may be, for only by doing so can we achieve justice, and only after that can we truly have peace. Jon

10/30/12, 5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad was an MP guarding Chinese POWs on the island. He told a very different story about the pow camp. The prisoners were so compliant the guard on duty carried no ammunition.


12/21/14, 9:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad got a bronze star for being in Koje in 1952. He too, mentions a totally different account. From what I gather Burchett has a bit of history (no pun) of spouting political dogma in the guise of journalism - see

3/15/17, 12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My great uncle Fr. Roy D. Petipren was a Maryknoll Missionary and assigned to Koje-do as Auxiliary Chaplain for the US Army.

8/13/17, 11:08 AM  

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