In June 1950, American and United Nations forces were drawn into the Korean War to defend South Korea from a takeover by communist North Korea. By July, U.N. leaders were receiving reports that North Korean soldiers were torturing and executing captives. At the war's conclusion in 1953, repatriated American prisoners described incidences of brutality, forced political indoctrination and medical experimentation on injured prisoners. It is estimated that two-thirds of Americans taken captive by North Korean and communist Chinese forces died during the Korean War. Many were transported to China and the Soviet Union and hundreds are unaccounted for.
Many Korean War prisoners of war were executed immediately after capture or combined with other groups of prisoners and executed en masse. Those not executed had their boots confiscated and were then ordered to march. Former POWs described being led long distances over rough terrain to collecting points and then sent on to camps. Those who could not keep up or paused for any reason were shot. A majority suffered from dysentery, which they developed during their marches as a result of drinking bacteria-laden water from puddles and rice paddies.
The Prison Camps
Prisoners were denied adequate clothing, food and medical care and faced sub-freezing temperatures in the prison camps, most of which were in the mountain regions of North Korea. Prisoners froze to death or died of malnutrition, intestinal diseases, pneumonia or wounds. Air Force pilots, who were believed to be valuable sources of information, became targets of both psychological and physical torture. Physical torture of prisoners included being pierced with hot bamboo spears or lighted cigarettes. Chinese communists aiding the North Koreans forced prisoners to listen to communist propaganda speeches. Those who displayed disinterest or objected were tortured or beaten.
Former POWs reported watching doctors treat sick prisoners by making an incision on the underside of the arm into which they inserted a chicken liver. The incision was then stitched closed. Prisoners were told the procedure was a "cure-all" developed by Russian scientists. In 1996, Jan Sejna, a former Czech communist general who defected to the United States, claimed that Russian and Czech scientists performed medical experiments on American prisoners in North Korean hospitals. Sejna said the prisoners later were killed.
Sejna also claimed that during the Korean War, he assisted in the transport of American prisoners, some of whom had been subjected to medical experimentation, to the Soviet Union. In addition, documents obtained in 1996 by a Senate subcommittee from Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential library suggest that as many as 900 U.S. servicemen were left behind in North Korea. In their book, "American Trophies," authors Mark Sauter and John Zimmerlee describe numerous cases of POWs who were not repatriated after the Korean War and were left in North Korea, Russia and China.
- History.com: Korean War
- Chicago Tribune: News: Defector Details Korea POW Atrocities
- Library of Congress: Senate: Korean War Atrocities
- Defense Technical Information Center: Records Relating To American Prisoners of War and Missing-in-Action Personnel from the Korean War and During the Cold War Era
- National Park Service: POWs in American History: A Synopsis
- The Baltimore Sun: Ex-POWs Recall Korean Hell
- National Museum of the U.S. Air Force: Prisoners of War
- Library of Congress: Committee on The Judiciary: Communist Treatment of Prisoners of War: A Historical Survey
- The Washington Free Beacon: Forgotten War, Forgotten Soldiers
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