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Koje-do, 1952: When the Inmates Captured the Warden

On May 7, 1952, Brigadier General Francis Dodd arrived on time for a meeting at Compound 76, a subdivision of his command zone on Koje-do Island, South Korea. When he arrived at the meeting point, he was seized by the very men he expected to meet—and for more than three days, Dodd was held hostage, right in the center of his area of responsibility. Over 78 hours, Dodd and other members of the U.S. Army negotiated to secure the general’s release—and when the negotiations were complete, his captors planned to form two lines as an honor guard, decorate him with a garland of flowers, and release him in good faith. Instead, Dodd politely requested a more subdued release, which was granted, and returned to friendly lines.

At the time of his seizure, Dodd was serving as the commandant of the United Nations prisoner of war camp on Koje-do. He was responsible for the daily care of tens of thousands of North Korean prisoners—a group that was proving extremely intractable. Daily protests, resistance to labor details, and the improvisation of weapons used to threaten guard personnel had become the norm at the camp. A number of high-ranking North Korean political officials had disguised themselves as privates in the North Korean Army and deliberately surrendered to UN forces—a move designed to allow them to organize the POW camps for further resistance behind the lines. While in captivity, they fought an ideological battle—their primary goal was to create propaganda opportunities for North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union. One of their favorite tactics was to instigate violent riots, hoping to provoke overreactions from the guard personnel. When they succeeded, as was often the case, they then lodged official complaints of mistreatment with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had accepted responsibility for inspecting the camps and ensuring adherence to the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to Prisoners of War.

The idea that prisoners would continue to resist their captors while in the POW compounds was nothing new—but the level of organization and determination that the North Koreans brought to the task caught the UN guard personnel by surprise. It was astounding how many forms of contraband could be smuggled into the prison compounds, or improvised by the prisoners themselves. Further exacerbating the situation, the UN Command had few troops to spare for POW guard duty, which meant that maintaining even a semblance of control within the compounds was a difficult proposition. There was little effort to screen prisoners for their ideological leanings, as had been done in World War II, which meant that the most die-hard communists quickly established control in each compound, and inflicted brutal punishments upon any POWs who sought to resist their orders for agitation.

The Geneva Convention required that the highest-ranking prisoner in a camp be treated as the liaison for the prisoners held in that camp. In that role, the liaison could present legitimate requests and complaints to camp authorities, for the purpose of maintaining the health and well-being of the prisoners, and avoiding disorder at the same time. The North Korean political officers used the rules of the Convention to put the UN at a disadvantage, particularly in the armistice negotiations underway at Panmunjom. For example, the North Korean POWs often claimed that any prisoner who died in captivity had been tortured to death by the camp guards—even if the death was entirely natural. Likewise, when they killed their fellow prisoners for resisting the propaganda campaign, they blamed the deaths upon camp authorities, and used the Red Cross to communicate with their military commanders to keep them apprised of the situation. Whenever the Red Cross inspected the camps, the prisoners were sure to be on their best behavior—and to lodge every complaint that they could manufacture, alleging mistreatment on a daily basis.

When General Dodd entered Compound 76, he did so to meet with the POW liaison. Unfortunately, he was overconfident about his own security, and refused to take an armed guard into the compound for protection. Seeing his vulnerability, the prisoners managed to grab him, and utilized improvised weapons to threaten his life if any attempt was made to effect his rescue. Brigadier General Charles F. Colson, who was sent to Koje-do to assume command and restore order, decided not to attempt a rescue. By agreeing to negotiations, he handed the communists a propaganda victory. Although his efforts managed to secure Dodd’s release, it came at the cost of publicly admitting the UN forces had killed and wounded POWs in the compound, and were responsible for the violence within them.

Colson managed to save Dodd’s life, but he could do nothing to save his career. General Mark Clark, commanding UN forces in Korea, personally chaired a board to review the incident. He was furious about the entire affair, and unsurprisingly, Dodd was reduced in rank to colonel on May 23, less than two weeks after his release. Dodd was not allowed to testify before the board in his own defense, and was not even informed of its existence until it had completed its work. He requested a copy of the board’s report, but was informed that it was classified and therefore unavailable to him. In 1953, he was forced to retire from Army service in disgrace at his reduced rank, and lived the remainder of his life in relative obscurity until his death in 1973.

Four years after Dodd’s death, the Secretary of the Army ordered Dodd posthumously returned to the rank of brigadier general. In large part, the case was based upon the intervention of retired General James Van Fleet, who strongly urged the Army to reconsider whether Dodd had actually erred in doing what he could to avoid bloodshed in the POW compounds.

1 Comment

Linda Aaron
Linda Aaron
Sep 20, 2020

It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist.

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