Geoje POW camp

Geoje-do POW camp (Korean: 거제도 포로수용소, Chinese: 巨济岛戰俘營) was a prisoner of war camp located on Geoje island at the southernmost part of Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea.[1] It is considered the largest of the UNC established camps.[2]

Prisoner of war camp

Geoje POW camp diorama

Geoje Camp was a United Nations Command (UN) POW camp that held North Korean and Chinese prisoners captured by UN forces during the Korean War.

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After the surprise Inchon landings on 15 September 1950 and the follow-up Eighth Army breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, the North Korean Korean People’s Army (KPA) began to retreat north pursued by UN forces in the UN September 1950 counteroffensive. Large numbers of KPA were taken prisoner in the swift maneuver and sent to the rear. The number of prisoners rose from under a thousand in August 1950 to over 130,000 in November. Unfortunately, little provision had been made for so many prisoners and facilities to confine, clothe and feed them were not available. In addition, there were not enough men on hand to guard the prisoners nor were the guards assigned adequately trained for their mission. The quantity and quality of the security forces continued to plague the UN prison-camp commanders in the months that lay ahead. While the prisoners were housed near Pusan, there was a tendency for former Republic of Korea Army (ROK) soldiers who had been impressed into the KPA and later recaptured by the UN to take over the leadership in the compounds. Since these ex-ROK soldiers professed themselves to be anti-Communist and were usually favored by the ROK guards, they were able to win positions of power and control.[3]:233

As the prisoner total reached 137,000 in January 1951, the UN decided to isolate captured personnel on Koje-do, an island off the southern coast of Korea. But before the move was made, the South Korean prisoners were segregated from the North Koreans. This left a power vacuum in many of the compounds that were abruptly deprived of their leaders. On Koje-do security problems were reduced, but there were serious engineering obstacles to be overcome. Since there were little or no natural water resources on the island, Col. Hartley F. Dame, the first camp commander, had to build dams and store rainwater to service the 118,000 locals, 100,000 refugees, and 150,000 prisoners. Construction began in January on the first enclosure of UN Prisoner of War Camp Number 1 and by the end of the month over 50,000 POW’s were moved from the mainland to Koje-do. Swiftly, in two rock-strewn valleys on the north coast, four enclosures, each subdivided into eight compounds, were built. Originally intended to hold 700–1,200 men apiece, the compounds were soon jammed to five times their capacity. Since available land was at a premium on the island, the space between the compounds soon had to be used to confine the prisoners too. This conserved the construction of facilities and the number of guards required to police the enclosures, but complicated the task of managing the crowded camp. Packing thousands of men into a small area with only barbed wire separating each compound from the next permitted a free exchange of thought and an opportunity to plan and execute mass demonstrations and riots. With the number of security personnel limited and usually of inferior caliber, proper control was difficult at the outset and later became impossible. But the elusive hope of an imminent armistice and a rapid solution of the prisoner problem delayed corrective action.[3]:233–4

Although there were frequent instances of unrest and occasional outbreaks of resistance during the first months of the Koje-do POW camp’s existence, much of the early trouble could be traced to the fact that ROK guards were used extensively. Resentment between ROK and KPA soldiers flared into angry words, threats, and blows very easily. Part of the tension stemmed from the circumstance that at first the prisoners drew better rations than the guards, but eventually this discrepancy was adjusted. In the internecine disputes the United States Army (US) security troops operated at a disadvantage since they knew little or no Korean language and were reluctant to interfere. Bad blood between guards and prisoners, however, formed only one segment of the problem. Although the United States had not ratified the Geneva Convention of 1949 on prisoners of war, it had volunteered to observe its provisions. The Geneva Convention, however, was designed primarily to protect the rights of the prisoners. It completely failed to foresee the development of organized prisoner groups such as those that grew up on Koje-do in 1951-52 or to provide protection for the captor nation(s) in dealing with stubborn resistance. The drafters spelled out in detail the privileges of the prisoners and the restrictions upon the captor nation(s), but evidently could not visualize a situation in which the prisoners would organize and present an active threat to the captor nation(s). Under these conditions, every effort at violence by the prisoners that was countered by force reflected badly upon the UN command. Regardless of the provocation given by the prisoners, the UN appeared to be an armed bully abusing the defenseless captives and the Communists capitalized on this situation. The outbreaks of dissension and open resistance were desultory until the negotiations at Kaesong got underway. Then the prisoners realized that their future was at stake. Many had professed strong anti-Communist sentiments and were afraid to return, while others, anticipating repatriation, swung clearly to the side of Communist groups in the compounds. From North Korea, agents were sent to the front lines and permitted themselves to be captured so that they could infiltrate the POW camps. Working through refugees, civilians, and local guerrillas, the agents were able to keep in touch with their headquarters and to plan, organize, and stage incidents at will. Inside the camps, messages were passed visually by signals, hurled by rocks from compound to compound, or communicated by word of mouth. The hospital compound served as a clearinghouse for information and was one of the centers of Communist resistance. Although the agents wielded the actual power in the compounds, they usually concealed themselves behind the nominal commanders and operated carefully to cloak their identities. Behind the agents stood their chiefs, Lt. Gen. Nam Il and Maj. Gen. Lee Sang Cho, the principal KPA delegates to the armistice conference. The close connection between the Armistice negotiations and the POW camps showed the North Korean efforts in using every possible measure to exert pressure upon the course of the armistice talks.[3]:234–7

As the Communists struggled for control of the compounds, a countermovement was launched by the non-Communist elements. Former Chinese Nationalist soldiers and North Korean anti-Communists engaged in bloody clashes with their opponents, using fists and home made weapons.[4]Kangaroo courts tried stubborn prisoners and sentences were quick and often fatal. Since UN personnel did not enter the compounds at night and the prisoners were usually either afraid or unwilling to talk, the beatings and murders went unpunished. Even if the beaten prisoners had been willing to give evidence against their attackers, as sometimes happened, the camp commander was not in a position to prosecute. He was not permitted by his superiors in Washington D.C. to institute judicial procedures against the culprits. Deprived of this weapon of disciplinary control, the prison command was forced to operate under a distinct disadvantage.

The first collective violence against camp guards occurred on 18/19 June 1951, when some North Korean officers protested having to dig latrines and garbage pits. When a ROK guard detail entered Compound 76 of the camp, the prisoners stoned the guards and the soldiers opened fire, killing three prisoners. More incidents followed including demonstrations within the compounds, work refusals, threats against camp personnel, and some 15 murders among groups of pro- and anti-communist Korean prisoners. In July and August 1951, the guards killed eight more prisoners.[5]

In September 1951, 15 prisoners were murdered by a self-appointed people’s court. Three more were killed when rioting broke out on the 19th in Compound 78. Troops had to be rushed in to restore order and remove 200 prisoners who were in fear of their lives. As unrest mounted, the US 2nd Logistical Command, in charge of all POW camps, asked US Eighth Army commander General James Van Fleet for more security personnel. Referring to protracted confinement, uncertainty over the future, and prisoner resistance against the UN “information and education program” and claiming these factors had combined to produce increasing tension among the prisoners, the chief of staff of the 2d Logistical Command also reminded Van Fleet that the caliber of the guard troops left much to be desired. The September disturbances led to a visit by Van Fleet and a reinforcing and reorganization of the prison security forces. From the opening of the camp in January down to mid-September when Col. Maurice J. Fitzgerald assumed command, there had been eight different commanders or about one a month. As Fitzgerald later commented, “Koje-do was a graveyard of commanders.” Van Fleet’s recognition of the difficulties of the problems led to the activation of the 8137th Military Police Group in October. Besides three assigned battalions, four additional escort guard companies were attached to the group. In November one battalion of the US 23rd Infantry Regiment was made available for duty on Koje-do and by December over 9,000 US and ROK personnel were stationed on the island. This was still some 6,000 fewer than the number requested.[3]:237–8

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