Thursday, December 22, 2022

Prisoner of War Guard Duty


Here is another installment of my father-in-law’s memoirs of his time in Korea, 1952-53. My notes before and after are in italic. Everything else is in his own words. His previous post can be found here.

     On December 12, 1952, during the Korean War, the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the Second Division was relieved of duty along a particularly active section of the front line and sent to a blocking position in the valley leading to Seoul called Camp Casey. At the time, Camp Casey consisted of only four metal buildings. It is now a major Army base. I was the platoon leader of the 75 MM Recoilless rifle platoon of First Battalion Heavy Weapons Company.


     Dog Company had only two officers, The Company CO and me. That gave me all the “In addition to your regular duties” assignments. I was also the Co. Recon Officer. When off line, I was the officer in charge of the company motor pool, (13 jeeps, two 3/4 ton trucks and a Duce and a half (2 ½ ton truck) , all pulling trailers. Also, the mess hall. I had very experienced sergeants running both so I let them use their judgement, and got them out of trouble when needed. The Company CO was a National Guard Captain from North Dakota who was a streaky by the book officer. I believed in considering circumstances around situations when making decisions. We did not get along well together.


     While in reserve, we received intensive training from Division on guarding prisoners of war, a subject completely missed in our prior education. It was apparent that the 23rd Regiment would be off line for several months. Most American soldiers had at least a working knowledge of 12 gauge pump action shot guns that they would be using as guards but the ROK soldiers assigned to me had never seen one before. All took extensive target practice. We were also lectured on the Geneva Convention as it applies to POW treatment.


     By way of background, after the Incheon landing, the North Korean and Chinese forces attacking Pusan were trapped and 150,000 taken prisoner. They were kept together at a United Nation prison camp on Koje do (“do” meaning island). Hard core Chinese communists ran the camp, and there was a riot . On May 7, 1952 American Brig. General Dodd in charge of the camp was taken hostage. The US Army quickly ended the uprising and the general was released. The Chinese prisoners were then separated from the North Koreans and sent to Geoje-do POW camp. That became out next assignment. Our second and third battalions remained in Pusan where there were over 100,000 refugees from North and South Korea, in addition to the Koje-do POW camp.


     The first Battalion, 23 Inf. Regiment traveled by slow unheated train to Pusan and on January 9, 1953 boarded a WW II LST (Landing ship-tank) for the 52 mile ride to Geoje- do. The sea was rough with a strong cross wind causing the shallow draft LST to roll and pitch. It had to go slowly to keep a load of lumber on the deck from going overboard. We arrived late and missed the high tide so the ship had to stand off for the next high tide which came after dark. (The island had no seaport facilities) . At high tide, the LST beached on the rocky shore, and we were all glad to be back on land.

                                               THE POW CAMP

     Geoje-do is an oval shaped volcanic island in Jeju Province, 45 miles long, and 19 miles wide. It has an extinct volcano in the center, called Mt. Hellasan (“san” is a term of respect added to older people’s names and places in the orient) . Mt. Hella is 6,400 feet, the highest point in South Korea. Small fishing villages line the coast, each with a high wall made of lava rock, and a guarded gate. The houses were all small, also made from lava rock, with thatched roofs. Each town had a place where all inhabitants brought their laundry to wash.


     The islands airport has a single grass runway, no lights, control tower or hangers. Landings and take offs can only be done from the ocean end with good visibility because the mountain blocks the other end of the runway. Mail and supplies were flown in by twin engine cargo plane daily from Japan , weather permitting. Letters from home arrived in batches, sometimes six or seven letters from the same person. Christmas presents finally caught up with us.

     The prison consisted of eight barbed wire enclosures designed to hold 700- 1,200 prisoners each. Thousands more POW’s were moved to Geoje.-do after the Koje-do riot causing great overcrowding. The compounds were about 20 feet apart, leaving room between for walking and jeep mounted guards. The guards walked posts in shifts, day and night. They carried 12 Ga. Pump action shot guns with full choke short barrels like what you might see in a police car. Guard towers armed with machine guns were located along the perimeter of the camp.


     The dedicated Chinese Communist leaders in each compound ran everything inside the wire. They could withhold food and medical , hold Kangaroo courts, even execute fellow prisoners who did not comply. At night each compound would sing in giant choruses to relay information between compounds and to guerillas in the hills. Most prisoners had improvised weapons such as lances, clubs, knives and stones and sharpened tent poles. I felt some sympathy for amputees hobbling around on a home-made peg leg or crutches.


     Those POW’s who wanted to could volunteer for outside work details, doing pick and shovel work on roads and landscaping. Each work detail required several guards. One informer told us about a Chinese general who was hiding in one of the compounds and was planning a mass breakout to take over the Island. The general was quickly captured and isolated.

                                                        POW work details

     Life as a guard was much better than combat duty. Men slept on cots in heated tents, had three hot meals a day and time off between shifts.


     As an officer, I made inspection tours to be sure the guards were awake and alert. I had a small hex tent to myself. The company had a “House boy”. Kim was a North Korean whose family had been executed because of their beliefs. As an orphan, he attached himself to out unit during the fluid period of the Korean War. His only pay came from donations from the officers, but he was fed and clothed by the company. He could not join the ROK army because of his heritage. Kim set up my hex tent, complete with a pit in the floor to keep beer cool. At night when I slept, he shined my boots and cleaned my weapons, did laundry. Kim could speak English, Korean and Chinese so he also served as our company interpreter.

                                          MOOSE PATROL

     In spite of many warnings about VD a few members of the battalion would go AWOL at night to patronize prostitutes in the local fishing villages. These were young girls who lived with their parents who permitted then to earn money that way. They were called “moose -a -may” in pidgin English used by Koreans and American troops.


     Lieutenants in the battalion were assigned by roister to lead patrols into the towns at night and round up the AWOL troops. We called these “Moose Patrols” We had a local policeman for authority to enter homes. Also, a member of the permanent staff of the POW Camp who knew which houses to enter. I brought our company house boy as an interpreter.



    Each village had a high lava rock wall and a gate which had a raggedly dressed sentry to let us in. The houses were all one story, usually two or three rooms. On a good night we rounded up three or four AWOL’s. A few made it out a back window less their clothing. AWOL’s were returned to the stockade and held for trial. AWOL is a serious crime in time of war.


     ROK soldiers attached to US forces did not get leave time. They were paid by the Korean Army,  about $2.00 a month, which they usually mailed home.


     At one house we found a ROK soldier sitting at the dinner table enjoying his native food and conversation with the house occupant, his fellow countrymen. He did not seem to be there for any other reason, so when we got back to camp, I let him go near his tent, with a strong warning.

                                      DEER HUNTING IN KOREA

     Not many Korean War veterans can say that they took time off from the war to go deer hunting. I did, and this is how it happened.


     There was a small fuel oil fire around the stove in one of the permanent buildings. It was quickly put out but we pulled up a few floor boards to make sure. There we found a box double O buck shotgun shells hidden by some former occupants. On February 22, 1953 six of us decided to go deer hunting in the hills behind the towns. The deer on the island were about the size as a large dog. We brought 12 ga prison guard shot guns. We also carried our issue arms in case we ran into guerrillas known to be in the hills.


     We drove jeeps as far into the hills as we could then followed a path up into the hills. From about 1000 feet up we could see the entire lower end of the island and out to the Yellow Sea. Outside each village there were small vegetable gardens, each surrounded by a low lava wall.


     The path led past a cave carved about 25 feet into the larva hillside. At one time it might have been a bomb shelter dug by the Japanese who occupied the island only seven years earlier. Inside we found the bodies of about 20 Asian males in their 20's. All had their hands tied behind their backs. They had been beaten to death judging by broken bones, skull fractures and missing teeth. No bullet holes were found, so unarmed civilians were most likely the assailants. We pulled a few dried up corpses out to take pictures. I was surprised that what was left, skeletons with a little dried up skin, only weighed about 10 pounds.

                                                                        Broken jaw
                                                                Hands tied

     The locals must have known about the cave, and the fact that the bodies had not been removed for burial indicated to us that they were the enemy, either Japanese occupation leaders or North Korean infiltrators acting as guerillas.

     We never saw a deer, but there were plenty of pheasants. Some country boys in our group could hit them even with the riot guns. At least we had a good meal to show for the day.

                                           RETURN TO THE WAR
     By March my company had received two new platoon leaders, one for the 81 MM Mortar Platoon and the other for the 30. Cal Heavy Machine Gun platoon.


     On March 24, 1953, after three months off from front line duty we again boarded the LST. This time we headed out only off shore where we transferred to an Army troop ship. There we found white table cloths, the best food and clean sheets. Officers were bunked nine to a large stateroom with two showers. Our trucks and equipment were moved to the hold by large deck cranes. The trip back, this time to Incheon (AKA Inchon) was made with destroyer escort. We then returned to Camp Casey where we were joined by out second and third battalions.


     On April 16 the regiment was back on line but I was getting close to returning home. My reserve commitment of two years active duty was nearly over and in May I would have the 36 points needed for rotation . That turned out to be a 42 day all expenses paid ocean cruise half way around the worlds, Inchon, Korea to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, aboard the 522 foot Army troop ship General Sturgis. But that is another story from the Korean war.



Lt. Marshall Tharp, Korea Sept 1952-June 1953
Platoon Leader, 75 MM Recoilless Rifle Platoon
D Company. 1st Bat., 23 Infantry Reg, 2nd Division


Please feel free to post comments below. I know he appreciates them.