The Trials and Release of the P.O.Ws – Imjin River

In his 1976 book “The Imjin Roll”, Colonel E.D. Harding computed the Gloucestershire Regiment’s losses in prisoners after the battle of the Imjin to have been 522. Fewer than fifty men from the forward Companies had broken through the Chinese forces which had encircled the battalion. When Major Grist reported the state of the battalion on 27th April, only 217 men were present, the majority of whom had been with the rear echelons during the battle. With replacements from the U.K. the Glosters were slowly brought up to strength and by July 1951 were fully operational again. 29th Brigade Group had found itself back on the Imjin by 23rd May. In July, 29th Independent Brigade Group became 29th Brigade, Commonwealth Division, but the Glosters’ time with the new Division was to be short as the Battalion returned home in November.

After the Battle of the Imjin, the forces of the United Nations had been able to stabilise the front north of Seoul on the “No-Name Line”, before taking up some of their former positions on the Imjin later in the year. As a result of the battle, Chinese 63rd Army, which had started out with three divisions totalling approximately 27,000 men between them, had lost over a third of its strength and was pulled out of the front line. British 29th Brigade Group (including the attached Belgian Battalion) had borne the brunt of 63rd Army’s attacks, and had gone into battle about 4-5,000 men strong. The Brigade Group lost 1,091 in killed, wounded and missing, of whom 620 were from the Glosters. The battle had been a Pyrrhic victory for the Chinese, and a short-lived one at that.

The British prisoners of war, however, were still in Korea.

Private David Green, who was to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Chinese, described in “Captured at the Imjin River” the moment of his capture while he was attempting to break out from the encirclement of the Glosters’ position at Solma-Ri:-

“. . . I dropped down into the stream and, as the clear, running water rippled past, I lay face down in its shallow depths. I could hear sporadic shooting and mused, ‘Maybe I’ll lie here and pretend I’m dead.’ Then the thought of a bayonet in my back passed through my mind. Revived by that life-saving drink, I was seized by a wave of anger and, grabbing a rock in one hand, I determined that I would not die like a coward. I stood up and an amazing sight met my eyes. A horde of armed, lightly leather-belted men in sand-coloured uniforms were hugging and shaking hands with our blokes, who, like me, were in a state of shock. Who the hell were these men? South Korean or North Korean guerillas? On their feet were tattered gym shoes. The Chinese we had seen to this date had all been wearing padded uniforms. The burst of hope that had sprung up in my mind changed to resignation when I realized that they were Chinese soldiers in their summer uniform.

“We were prisoners of war!”

Most of the Glosters were captured on the morning of 25th April 1951, exhausted and with little or no ammunition. Some managed to evade capture for a little longer and, during the march into captivity, some attempted to escape but were recaptured. The prisoners were marched north towards camps along the Yalu River, where they arrived in June. Most of the prisoners ended up at Camp Number One at Chiang-song or Chongsong, and officers and senior NCOs were separated from the rest. The unluckier ones came under the guard of the North Koreans, who tended to be much more brutal than the Chinese, but in December 1951, all prisoners came under Chinese control.

Lieutenant Terry Waters of the West Yorkshire Regiment was attached to the Glosters during the Imjin battle and found himself in North Korean custody near Camp Number Twelve at Pyongyang. Conditions were terrible with men dying daily in the filthy tunnel in which they were caged. A visit from a North Korean Political Officer promised the prisoners a transfer and far better treatment if they would volunteer as “Peace Fighters”, i.e., become part of the Communist propaganda machine. In order to save the lives of the men under his command Waters ordered them to pretend to co-operate, even though he refused to do so himself. His action saved many lives, though he himself was to die in captivity, and he was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

The regime in the various Communist prison camps was monotonous in its routine of indoctrination coupled with a dreary diet. The British prisoners made their own entertainment to enliven the proceedings, sometimes at the expense of their Chinese guards, although this ran the risk of punishment with a period of isolation. One Gloster P.O.W. writing under the pseudonym of TARA recalled:-

“Study periods were grossly misnamed. They consisted of sitting on a hard floor from four to five hours listening to tirades against one’s country from a silly Chinaman. Certainly a trifle boring so one can hardly blame the listeners for finding other ways of passing the time. Some lucky ones slept (to be woken by Chinese guards – a full time job on their part), some played “battleships”, others cultivated a blank expression whilst lost in other thoughts, and one even deloused himself! – to the Chinese disgust and our amusement.

“We were summoned to studies by the sounding of a bell. One day the bell had disappeared, to our delight and the Chinese chagrin. The Chinese sent for an American officer whose civil occupation was house detective in a large store. They said to him, the bell was missing, he was a detective, he would therefore find the bell or else. He found it (I won’t say where), whereupon the Chinese stated that he must have stolen it otherwise he would not have found it, and promptly confined him in gaol! – a typical example of Chinese, or rather Communist, logic.”

The prisoners’ diet, meagre and dull as it was, differed but little from that of their guards. Occasionally the prisoners were able to make it more palatable with the addition of herbs, vegetables, and sometimes even meat. Major P.W. “Sam” Weller described the cooking of “Creme Golian de Yalu”:-

“. . . Inside the door through which you are looking is a small smoke and steam filled room, a few feet below ground level. Along the end wall of this room is a mud and stone constructed platform containing two large identical iron pots some 3 to 4ft. in diameter, approximately 18in. deep and with their curved under-bellies exposed to two wood fires. This was the prisoners’ “kitchen”. Other items adorn the walls – a home-made fly swatter, two tin drinking mugs, a gourd for ladling water, two paddle-type wooden spoons to stir the contents of the iron pots. In one pot a mass of purple-tinted Golian is bubbling and forming a thick starch-like scum on the surface. In the other a brown and brackish liquid conceals Dikon Chunks.

“To the uninitiated, Golian resembles a poor-quality millet not unlike pearl barley. Dikon is a type of pale yellow fibrous turnip, slightly bitter to the taste and equally unappetizing. The latter is cooked by cutting the Dikons into small cubes and boiling them furiously in water.

“Standing in front of these iron cauldrons are two sweating figures, one American, one English. These are the “cooks” clad in the familiar Chinese style blue uniforms worn throughout the length and breadth of communist China.

“These two cooks have been producing the same meal twice a day for weeks on end. They will produce the same meal twice a day for many more weeks to come. This is the prisoners’ diet. It will seldom change . . .”

Sam Davies, Regimental Chaplain to the Glosters, had been captured on Gloster Hill, where he had remained with the wounded. He ended up at Camp Number Two at Pi-Chong-Ni. The Chinese “Lenient Policy” was designed to persuade the prisoners of the virtues of Communism, which meant that good behaviour was rewarded, self-criticism was encouraged and political indoctrination was compulsory. While the great majority of prisoners paid lip-service to the Communist propaganda, few took it very seriously. One result of the “Lenient Policy” was that Padre Davies was able to set up a church in the prison compound, as he recalled in “In Spite of Dungeons”:-

“The Church of the Captivity was the worshipping community and fellowship of the baptized within the prison camp. It was my privilege to be their priest: chaplain to the Church of Captivity. Our corporate worship was offered to God in the camp lecture-room. Mostly this room echoed with the discordant sound of political indoctrination or “people’s trials”, but from time to time voices of prayer and praise rose within it.

“It was a drab cold room, about 60 by 20 feet. On one side it was flanked by a corridor, along the stretch of which you looked in through glass panes, on the camp parade ground. Portraits of the world’s Communist leaders hung there until secretly torn down by desperado prisoners in March, 1952. A big “trial” developed out of this. Later that year, the walls were covered by lurid “Germ Warfare” posters, and Chinese guards were placed in the lecture-room day and night. At our times of worship we placed Colonel Carne’s little stone cross on a rough wooden table, draped with a length of blue curtain, and flanked it with rice bowls full of wild-flowers in season, and with candles when we had them. Everyone gathered around, either standing or squatting on the floor-boards, or sitting on blocks of wood.

“Our services were simple, consisting of three well-known hymns, corporate confession, absolution, two scripture readings, a psalm recited by me, prayers and sermon. We had one Book of Common Prayer (with English Hymnal), and several New Testaments. Every month the Chinese issued us with quite big sheets of cigarette paper. Men donated this precious paper for religious use and gradually we made over forty little hymn books, using cigarette paper and odd squares of cardboard, held together at the spine by pieces of cast-off material sewn with infinite patience. People would volunteer for copying the words.

“Every service closed with the hymn:

‘Faith of our fathers, living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword.’

“It seemed symbolic of a prisoner’s defiant faith in face of Marxist captors.”

For a few of the Glosters, the experience of being a prisoner of war was not a new one. Some had been taken prisoner at Cassel with 2nd Battalion in 1940, and had remained prisoners until 1945. A handful of the British soldiers had previously been the prisoners of the Japanese. But of all the Glosters who survived the ordeal of captivity in Korea, it was probably Lieutenant-Colonel James Power Carne who had the most difficult time. As the senior British officer in Communist hands, he was selected for special treatment, involving long periods of solitary confinement and isolation. In an early period of isolation Colonel Carne had carved a small Celtic Cross in stone, which was used by Padre Sam Davies in his church services. Later, his knife was taken away, and no more carving was allowed.

From January 1952 until August 1953, Carne was kept in unrelenting solitary confinement in a small, cramped cell, where he was periodically beaten and continually subjected to various brain-washing techniques, including the use of mind-altering drugs. When he was debriefed by British Intelligence in Tokyo after his release, Carne reported that his captors had made his brain “like a sponge, capable of absorbing anything”. The Chinese were not very interested in obtaining information from him, but rather in making him an unwitting tool for their own propaganda. Dignified and self-contained, Lieutenant-Colonel Carne endured this treatment with the stoic reserve which characterized him; if the debriefing session in Tokyo revealed that his thoughts sometimes seemed muddled, this was hardly surprising. Still, he pointed out that the aim of the Communists in their attempts to subvert him was “to show the world that America could not fight, could not look after prisoners and was not fit for world leadership.”

The release of the prisoners was finalized after a nervous period of negotiation after the end of the war. The troopship “Empire Orwell” docked in Southampton on 14th October, 1953, the former prisoners, led by Colonel Carne, coming home to a hero’s welcome. A Thanksgiving Service was held in Gloucester Cathedral on 21st November, and Carne’s Cross was presented to the Cathedral, where it still resides. A Civic Luncheon and a Presentation of the Freedom of the City to Colonel Carne followed. The Colonel concluded his speech after the Presentation:-

“I do, indeed, thank this ancient City for the honour it confers upon me and upon the Regiment. I doubt my own worthiness for such great honours, but of that part of it which is shared by the officers, warrant officers and men who served with me in Korea I have no such doubts.”

Picture: Lt.Col. J.P. Carne being chaired by his men after his release from captivity.