Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Long-forgotten WWII POW Camps in Korea

As an (unwilling) part of the Japanese Empire, Korea was involved in World War II. We have all heard of the conscripts, the forced labor, and the comfort women. However, fighting did not actually occur on Korean soil. WWII was effectively over as Soviet forces arrived in Korea from Manchuria in mid to late August 1945, and US troops made landfall in Incheon on September 8, 1945 to receive the Japanese surrender and disarm and demobilize Japan’s military.

One aspect of Korean history during that period, however, that has been forgotten – seemingly by all sides – is the approximately 1,500 Allied Prisoners of War who were held in Korea from September 1942 until their release in 1945, only a couple of months after the last non-Axis foreign civilians had been forcibly deported from Korea by ship. The first Allies to be imprisoned here were British and Australian troops from the fall of Singapore. They were joined towards the end of the war by American soldiers captured in the Philippines, after they were initially held in the notorious “hell ships,” as well as in Japan. In all, three camps were operated, run by Japanese officers and staffed by Korean conscripts and civilians. A few POWs died, but most were rescued and brought home in September 1945.

(click to enlarge)
With the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, 80,000 British soldiers surrender. This was the largest surrender of the British forces in the history. 3,000 of the men were sent to Changi Prison in Singapore. 50,000 were placed in the British Army's Selarang Barracks. Others were sent on hell ships to perform forced labor: Siam-Burma death railroad, and the Sandakan Airfield in North Borneo. On August 16, 1942 1,000 prisoners boarded the Fukkai Maru, staying on board for four solid days with the hatches tightly closed till they sailed on August 20 for Takao Harbor, arriving August 29. Two weeks were spent in loading the ship with bauxite, whereupon on September 15, the ship set sail for Busan, arriving seven days later. On September 24, POWs disembarked, marched and boarded trains bound for Yongsan, where they were marched into the Yongsan Garrison for temporary keeping.

Yongsan Garrison had once been the site of Seoul's public cemetery; that is, until Japan bought it during the Russo-Japanese War. Approximately one-third of the buildings date to Japanese colonial period. This place functioned as the site for the Chosen Army Garrison until September 1945, and Itagaki Seishiro was the Commanding General of the Chosen Army.

Yongsan Garrison (?)
When POWs arrived in Busan on the hell ships, they were fumigated, inspected and then forced to march, fed somewhat, and loaded on trains to Yongsan, where they again were inspected, forced to march to wherever they were to be held, and lectured on POW camp rules upon arrival.

Yongsan Garrison appears to be where POWs were sent after arriving in Korea. Upon their arrival, their POW camp was decided and the POWs were sent out to their respective new prisoner camp locations. The camp with one of the worst reputations was Konan, in present-day North Korea. 230 men were sent to Konan, a relatively small camp but one that required forced hard labor in a carbine factory. It seems that men weren't sent directly to this camp but were first interred in Camps Keijo and Jinsen, before being relocated. This camp is the location of a secret atomic weapon program, but knowing to what extent is difficult to say as the camp fell into Soviet hands on August 15, 1945.

Konan POW camp (in present-day Hungnam, North Korea)
There appears to be a lot of movement of POWs in Korea. Some were sent on to Mukden, beyond North Korea into Manchura, some were sent to Japan. Mukden was another notorious POW camp (but won't be discussed here as the focus is on WWII POW camps with the Korean peninsula).

POW camp in Mukden, Manchuria
Then, on April 9, 1942 Bataan fell, shortly followed on May 6, 1942 by the fall of Corregidor. The infamous Bataan Death March took its toll on many captured soldiers. Hell ships were loaded with prisoners as well as weapons. These ships were sometimes bombed by US planes and sunk. Those POWs who made it to the shores of Japan were forced into labor ... but there were few survivors. One example is the Brazil Maru. It arrived in Japan with 581 living prisoners and 550 dead men. 73 more died within a month. Only 372 of the initial lot survived the war.

With the US bombing of Japanese islands being stepped up, approximately 150 US POWs were moved to Korea in the spring of 1945. Americans held prisoner in Korea required the US military to investigate. On September 6, 1945 Captain Stengel is in Korea and makes arrangements to meet British Lt. Col. Elrington, the highest officer in Camp Keijo, one of the three POW camps in Korea. Col. Yusuru Noguchi, who is in charge of the POW camps in Korea, is in the party also. A list of camps, prisoners and deaths is given to the Americans. The following day (September 7), Captain Stengel visits both Camps Keijo and Jinsen. Of interest, he finds that the men have made an American flag out of a parachute dropped by a B-29. That evening all men held retreat. On September 8, 24 Corps ships made harbor in Incheon, and three of the ships were made available for POW evacuations.  By September 9, all Jinsen and Keijo POWs had boarded evacuation ships.

However, the single remaining POW camp was Konan, which presented a problem as it was in the north above the 28th parallel and now occupied by the Soviets. To ensure that the POWs there got a more balanced diet than prisoner fare until they could be rescued, and to give them medical and other supplies, three aerial drops were made over the camp. In one of these drops, the plane "Hog Wild" was shot down and forced to land in Soviet territory. [For more on this camp and the interment of POWs there as well as the atomic program discovered, read "The Flight of the Hog Wild: The Day the World Went Cold" by co-authors Bill Streifer (American journalist) and Irek Sabitov (Russian journalist) and reference this site.] The flight crew was held for two weeks after which the Soviets apologized and on September 21, 1945 the POWs and Hog Wild crew were sent to Seoul by train. They arrived in Seoul on September 22 and by that afternoon were loaded on the Mercy hospital ship for medical care in their repatriation journey.

Four days after the release of POWs in Korea, on September 12, Itagaki Seishiro, Commanding General of the Chosen Army, surrendered all his Japanese forces in SE Asia to the British Admiral Mountbatten in Singapore. Many charges were made against Itagaki. One of note is his decision to send 2,000 Allied POWs to Korea so that they could be publicly humiliated for the purpose of improving civilian morale. However, the prosecution does not enter into evidence data regarding treatment of POWs in Korea, but despite that, Itagaki Seishiro was found guilty of war crimes on eight other counts, and he was hanged on December 23, 1948.

This historical presentation of discovery was given by Jacco Zwetsloot, who describes himself as a “Jacco of all trades, master of some.” In the past year he has worked as a business English teacher, translator, interpreter, simulation facilitator, corporate trainer, documentary cameraman and cataloguer, cultural lecturer, souvenir evaluator, radio commentator, magazine writer, voice actor, researcher, copy editor and tour guide. He is currently seeking a publisher interested in releasing translations of several North Korean comic books. He has a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Korean Studies from Monash University, and has lived in South Korea for over 12 years. Matt Van Volkenburg assisted Jacco in rediscovering these forgotten POW camp sites.

Adding some notes:

The Japanese goal was to hold at least 2,000 white prisoners: 1,000 British and 1,000 American. The point was to intern the white people in the camps as a psychological tool to break the (Koreans?)

Keijo, Seoul, was the largest POW camp. The main building was an abandoned silk-winding factory, and it was located very close to where Sookmyung Women's University is today. The prisoners were made to carry bags of grain (predominantly millet), load and unload trucks at Keiji Station, tie and untie rice ropes, and carry and "bale" hay.

Jinsen (the Japanese name) was the second camp located in Chemulpo (Incheon today). It was located on land that had been reclaimed from the sea in 1930s and 1940s.

Konan (the Japanese name for the present-day 흥남) in the far northeast of North Korea opened in September 1943, also on reclaimed land. This was a work camp, and the 350 people were expected to work 15 hours/day, 7 days/wk. There work comprised tending the lime kilns, blacksmithing, stoking the carbide furnaces (which was the hottest and most dangerous job, especially as workers stoked for 20 minutes and recovered for 40).

No comments:

Post a Comment