Now for some history of what happened here. During the early stages of the Korean War, U.N. forces were not expecting many enemy prisoners and were surprised by the large number of communist North Koreans and Chinese they captured.
The U.N. (mostly the United States and Republic of Korea) needed a secure place to hold the POWs away from the main battle front. They decided that Geoje Island (that was also a secure place for refugees from the north) would be an ideal location. Geojedo was about as far south as you could get and was away from (but close to) the major port of Busan.
The U.N. through the U.S. hastily built compounds to house the vast number of enemy prisoners. The quality and security of these initial compounds was very poor and the number of prisoners kept growing. The situation was exacerbated by the relative inexperience of the United States in holding prisoners from Asian cultures with a strong communist ideology.
To make matters worse, the communists would have political officers surrender on purpose with the goal of organizing the camps and trying to score propaganda victories against the United Nations. As a result, the POW compounds were ripe for communist vs anti-communist violence that resulted in riots, murders, protests, and disorder. Facilities designed to teach POWs trades and skills were instead used to manufacture weapons and propaganda signs. The communists wanted to create and incident or incidents that would make the U.N. and the U.S. look bad in the eyes of the world.
Among the many attempts to score propaganda victories was the infamous kidnapping of a United States Brigadier General who was in charge of the camp. On 7 May 1952, BG Francis T. Dodd unsuspectingly went to Compound 76 to meet with North Korean People’s Army Colonel Lee Hak Ku to hear complaints the POWs had.
BG Dodd never suspected it was a trap. Over the next four days of negotiations, the new U.N. commander, U.S. BG Charles F. Colson, was sent to negotiate BG Dodd’s release. BG Colson was tricked into saying that the U.N. would stop torturing prisoners (prisoners were never tortured here) in the same way you can be asked a no win question such as “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” BG Dodd was released after BG Colson gave the communists a propaganda victory. BG Colson was then relieved after this and replaced by BG James G. Boatner.
BG Boatner had lived in Tianjin, China, spoke Chinese, and knew about Asian culture having lived in China for many years. He had a big mess to clean up on Geojedo. The prisoners were running the camp. He brought in engineer and combat units. He set about constructing new, modern, secure compounds and began systematically moving the prisoners from their old temporary compounds into the new secure ones.
As the prisoners were moved they were searched and their improvised weapons were confiscated. The worst compound was compound 76 where the hard core North Korean communist officers were housed (the same compound were BG Dodd was held hostage). This compound was full of weapons and barricades to resist any U.N. efforts to move them to the new secure facilities.
Knowing the challenges, BG Boatner built a similar mock compound for his assault troops to practice the reduction of Compound 76 on. The mock compound was built within view of Compound 76 to let the prisoners there know what was in store for them.
Then the rehearsals began. Battle hardened American paratroopers supported by tanks and flamethrowers and additional infantry troops systematically reduced the mock unoccupied practice compound with military precision. The prisoners in Compound 76, seeing what was in store for them, lost a lot of their will to resist.
On 12 June 1952, the U.S. troops went to Compound 76, these hard core communists, knowing what would happen to them after seeing the rehearsal, quickly capitulated. They were then disarmed, broken up into smaller groups and moved to the newly constructed secure compound. Their leader Colonel Lee Hak Ku was found by the paratroopers cowering in a ditch.
Also found in the compound were prisoners killed by the communist who didn’t want to participate in their plans. In Compound 76 were found two sets of plans. One outlined the resistance of the North Korean to any U.N. attempt to restore order to the camps. The second was a plan for a mass escape designed to embarrass the U.N. and give the communists another propaganda victory. The escape was scheduled for 20 June 1952. Just eight days away. Still the U.N. had restored order to the camps and broken communist resistance.
The camp securely and humanly held the communist prisoners until the end of the war. It is definitely worth a visit. Geojido also has many other attractions besides the POW Camp Museum. It has good hotels and restaurants and is definitely a great place to visit if you want a change of pace from Seoul.
The south coast of Korea is beautiful. It is jagged and dotted by hundreds of small islands. When moving along the coast, it may take a while due to the jagged nature of the terrain. Because of the dispersed nature of the cities, it may take a while to find a taxi or catch a local bus. Still, Geojedo and other parts of the southern coast are very scenic and worth a visit. After we were done on Geojido, we returned to the main bus terminal and caught an inter-city bus to the next major town up the coast, Tongyeong.
By Crystal Hagen, Historian and Jouranlist/ The MICE
Photo by Goeje-si, all rights reserved