Mass murder of US POWs in the Korean War

file added y11214
changed y11217
lastest change 2008/1230

Copyright © 2001, 2008 by Hugo S. Cunningham

Raymond B. Lech, Broken Soldiers, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago IL, 2000; cloth, 330 pp.

This book addresses a depressing subject -- the fate of US POWs during the Korean War (Jun 1950-July 1953).

Of the 7,190 who were captured (mostly in the first nine months of the war), approximately 3000 died in captivity, a mortality of 43%, largely of starvation over a six month period (Nov 1950- April 1951 ). This compares with WW II rates: 4% of US prisoners in Germany (considered a normal rate, reflecting the Geneva convention), 34% in Japan (rightly condemned as barbarous), 45% of German POWs held by the Soviets, and 60% of Soviet POWs held by the Germans. Of 766 US POWs officially held by North Vietnam (1965-1973), 106 deaths were reported (14%) (Lech, pp. 1-2) (I do not believe this figure for North Vietnam includes about 100 MIAs, commonly presumed to have died unreported in captivity).

(Chinese Communist apologists sometimes claim the starvation was caused by US bombing, preventing the delivery of food. In response, Lech points out that, while North Korean supply routes were heavily bombed, the POW camps were right on the border of China itself, exempted from bombing.)

In the early summer of 1951, the purposeful starvation of US POWs ceased. At this point, POW treatment entered a new phase, in some ways even more disturbing to the US public than the (invisible) murder-by-starvation: mass indoctrination in anti-American propaganda (sometimes known as "brainwashing") and recruitment of POWs to regurgitate said anti-American propaganda in signed statements and public broadcasts.
The term "brainwashing" would eventually fall out of favor, largely because the Communist indoctrination turned out to have no permanent effect on most POWs, once they returned home.

A crucial turning-point came on 27 Dec 1951, when the Communists finally exchanged the names of POWs with the UN forces. At last POWs had some assurance they wouldn't be idly beaten to death or shot, since their captors would have to explain their non-appearance at the end of the war. (Lech, p. 150)

This emboldened a mass strike by about 400 NCOs in March 1952 to demand an end to mandatory indoctrination classes. MSgt Ralph Krieger commented later, "It was the first time since we had been captured that we acted like American soldiers." The Chinese command gave in, and indoctrination became voluntary. (Lech, p. 150)

About 25% of the POWs, the "progressives," continued to attend, while a smaller number, the "reactionaries," made clear their disdain for Communism and collaborators. "Progressives" could look forward to better food, more consideration, and occasional flattery from their captors.

Some specialized points


US POWs captured by Communist forces during the Korean War

(Lech, p. 2)

service branchnumber captured number repatriatedsuspected of collaboration clearedeased out of service
USA (Army)6,656
USAF (Air Force)263 22088 6910
USMC (Marine Corps)231
USN (Navy)40

Returned POWs put on trial by the US Army

(Lech, p. 212)

Rank and namecharge dispositionNotes
Lt. Col. Paul LilesC 24 month "suspension in rank"Camp 12 "Traitors' Row"
Lt. Col. Harry FlemingC dishonorable "dismissal" from serviceCamp 12
Maj. Ronald AlleyC 5 years in prison Camp 5. Personally unpopular, uncommunicative. Refused to take stand at court-martial
Maj. Ambrose NugentC acquitted Camp 12, president "Central Peace Committee"
Lt. Jeff ErwinC acquittedCamp 12
M. Sgt William OlsonC 2 years in prison made pro-Communist speeches, though no worse than many others
Sgt. William BanghartC 1 year in prison
Sgt. John TylerC acquitted low credibility of accuser
Sgt. James GallagherC, M paroled after 11 years
Cpl. Harold DunnC 2 1/2 years in prison"progressive"
Cpl. Thomas BayesC 2 1/2 years in prison
Cpl. Edward DickensonCparoled after 3 1/2 years in prisonHad been among 23 "nonrepatriates" who agreed to stay with Communists, but changed his mind
Cpl. Claude BatchelorCparoled after 4 1/2 years"non-repatriate" leader
PFC. Rothwell FloydM, SO, MT acquitted on murder charge
10 years in prison


Return to index of Hugo S. Cunningham's foreign policy articles.