Chinese POWs in the Korean War

POW work detail_DavidChang

A review of To Return Home or “Return to Taiwan”: Conflicts and Survival in the “Voluntary Repatriation” of Chinese POWs in the Korean War, by David Cheng Chang.

The most destructive phase of Korea’s unending civil war began with a North Korean invasion in 1950 and ended with a 1953 armistice. Almost all of the dramatic exchanges of territory, including the four falls of the Korean capital Seoul to invading armies, took place in the course of the first year as American-led UN and Chinese forces flooded onto the peninsula. During the two years of stalemate and bitter negotiations that began in the summer of 1951, one issue towered above all others as the obstacle to the cessation of hostilities: the American refusal to force the repatriation of all POWs.

In his dissertation on the Chinese POWs of the Korean War David Cheng Chang takes us deep into the lives of Chinese soldiers who faced a new kind of civil war within the prison camps of Koje and Cheju islands. By the end of the war, around two thirds of some 21,000 POWs chose to “return” to Taiwan, dealing a propaganda coup to Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. Making use of rich interviews, memoirs, and archive sources from China, Taiwan, and the United States, the dissertation gives us the most detailed and persuasive account to date of camp life, the complexities of the screening process that determined the final fate of each POW, and the events surrounding several of the extremely violent clashes between prisoners and camp authorities in 1952. In evaluating the decisions made by Chinese prisoners in the prisons, Chang argues that the pre-Korean War experiences in China’s own civil war environment had a deep impact, while also showing the powerful role of camp leaders who were able to establish control as a result of the early failures of U.S. POW policies.

An opening chapter introduces some of the previous scholarship that has attempted to explain the unexpectedly large number of prisoners who chose to refuse repatriation to China. Chang argues against suggestions that the POWs, including the two thirds who were formerly Nationalist soldiers, were simply bitter at being used as cannon fodder, were moved by Nationalist agent infiltrators, or the idea that the U.S. desired to send large numbers of prisoners to Taiwan. Instead, the majority of prisoners followed the, “choice of prison compound leaders, for reasons of conviction, interest calculation, coercion, and threat of retribution from leaders” (p. 16).

The second and third chapters look at the backgrounds of a wide variety of former Chinese POWs. Chang looks at differing regional and class origins, ranging from Taiwan to Sichuan and from farmers to well-off grocers. He looks at differing formative experiences–from an infantrymen repeatedly changing sides, and a radicalized Tsinghua student, to the Whampao military academy graduate–but also different experiences with Communist party control, ranging from admiration for its discipline to horror at its liquidations.

Chang zooms out in the fourth chapter to consider the highly complex picture of interactions between Chiang Kai-shek’s regime and the fractured powers that together formed United States policy in East Asia. In particular, we are given a close look at the perspective on the war from the view of Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries, the independent minded Douglas MacArthur, and the frustrations of President Truman and U.S. Ambassador to Korea John Muccio. Overall, the chapter offers a nuanced look at the confused contradictions of U.S. policy that resulted in some of its earliest failures in Korea and its policy towards Chinese POWs.

Chapters 5 and 6 take us from the moment of surrender, defection, and capture of Chinese soldiers in the Korean War, through the early rise to power of the anti-Communist POWs, and explains the failures of Communist Party and pro-repatriation officers to organize as effectively as North Korean prisoners did in nearby compounds. Chapter 6 brings us up to the coercion and violence that preceded the April, 1952 screening of POWs that determined their view on repatriation to China and segregated the bitterly opposed sides. The chapter effectively combines an analysis of the failures to prevent coercion from playing its role within the camp, with a broader consideration of the consequences and contradictions of the humanitarian policy adopted by President Truman that came to be known as “voluntary repatriation.”

Chapters 7 and 8 offer a rich examination of two of the most violent chapters in the POW history of the Korean war: the June takeover of the Korean prison Compound 76 on Koje island, that resulted in 41 deaths (including over a dozen liquidations of “traitors”) from among its 6,800 POWs, and the October attack on the Chinese sub-Compound 7 on Cheju island that killed 56–some 11% of the compound’s prisoners, and also left a full quarter of them wounded. While tracing the American failures that brought about the crisis on Koje island, Chang avoids the simplistic massacre narrative found in some scholarship to offer a fascinating contrast between a problematic but highly disciplined action on Koje, with the disastrous combination of poor American leadership and a desire by Chinese POW leaders to maximize the propaganda victory purchased by their blood.

Chapter 9 and the conclusion focus on the final months leading up to repatriation or “return” to Taiwan. Even in this period of relative calm we learn of the atmosphere of terror within the camps up to the end, as the liquidation of suspected spies and those with wavering loyalties continued on both sides. A moving epilogue then offers us a look at the humiliation, isolation, and in some cases execution faced by many of the Chinese who had already survived torture and abuse at the hands of anti-Communists in the camp in order to reach their homes.

This dissertation brings an important human and personal dimension to a history of these POWs through the integration of rich interview and memoir material from both Taiwan and China, while at the same time offering a new look at the complex history of “voluntary repatriation” and the camp strife of the Korean War. This work on the Chinese POWs of the war is a timely and extremely well-researched contribution. It not only complements a growing body of scholarship focusing on the Korean camps during the war, but the rewards of its close focus on the prisoner experience can serve as an excellent model for future research.

Konrad M. Lawson
Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow
European University Institute, Florence, Italy
konrad.lawson@eui.eu

Primary Sources

Interviews, oral histories, and published memoirs
Chiang Kai-shek diaries (Hoover Institute, Stanford University)
Haydon L. Boatner Papers (Hoover Institute, Stanford University)
Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) Archives, NARA
Ministry of Defense Archives, the Republic of China (Taiwan)
Archives of the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taipei
Archives of the Kuomintang, Taipei
Academia Historica 國史館, Taipei

Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego. 2011. 460 pp. Primary Advisor: Joseph Esherick.

 

Image: POW Work detail, photo by G. Dimitri Boria, untitled and undated (courtesy of the G. Dimitri Boria Collection, MacArthur Memorial Archives, Norfolk, VA).

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  1. Very interesting work. The story of the repatriated POW’s to mainland China is another untold story still active to this day. The returned Chinese were generally treated as suspects and probable traitors and have major issues today in China. There has never been any real integration of Korean War POW’s into mainland Chinese society according to my Beijing contact.

    Hal Barker – Korean War Project

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