Murphy's Law: October 6, 2003


The recent investigations of an espionage ring at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base are not the first time the United States has had difficulty dealing with prisoners of war. Shortly after the Inchon invasion in Korea in 1951, the United Nations Command was flooded with tens of thousands of North Korean prisoners. While more than half of these were anti-Communists or South Koreans impressed into the North Korean Army, many were strident Communists not ready to give up the struggle for a worker's paradise. 

Over 150,000 POWs were kept on the island of Koje-do, off the Korean coast, where they could be easily guarded with a smaller number of troops, at least in theory. The island was short of all the resources needed to support the large prison and refugee populations. The number of guards was always insufficient and for a time, the facility went through one commanding officer per month, with instability rippling throughout the prison. 

In the interest of showing the prisoners the "superiority of democracy," the prisoners were provided with education programs and material resources and granted great freedoms to control their own affairs. Under this freedom, the communists rapidly took control of the internal politics, with prison commissars controlling virtually everything that happened inside the compounds. Art materials were used to create party banners and propaganda for rallies. Metal shops were used to turn dinner knives into daggers and tent poles into pikes. 

When cease-fire negotiations began in Panmunjom, the US and South Koreans began a process of screening the prisoners to separate Northern communists willing to go back to the north from abducted southern anti-communists. The communists controlling the individual compounds revolted and refused to allow US or South Korean guards into the compounds. After a series of riots beginning in September, 1951, had killed dozens of prisoners, the US backed down and reduced forcible prisoner screening. Seeing that their tactics were effective, the communists took more control and pushed for more concessions. 

On 7 May 1952, the prisoners convinced the camp commandant to meet with them to discuss complaints, something General Dodd had done many times before. This time the prisoners took him hostage and staged a phony trial against for his alleged abuses. Three days of negotiations followed as the 38th Infantry Regiment, supported by twenty M48 tanks, took positions around the prison compounds. Ultimately a peaceful solution was found with the US giving in to various prisoner demands, barely saving face and securing Dodd's release. The relationship between the communist prisoners and US prison keepers, however, was changed. 

The idea of screening prisoners to remove those who didn't want to return to the north was ditched. Controlling the camps became the first priority. The prisoners would be relocated, dispersed to smaller, stronger, and more isolated camps. Compounds that resisted were forced to do without food and water; they were informed it was available only at the new camp. When that didn't work, the 187th Airborne Regiment moved in with tear gas, concussion grenades, and bayonets, with tanks in support. Only one compound, Compound 76 on Koje-do, required the full treatment. Thirty prisoners were killed, nearly 140 injured. Thousands of knives and other weapons were collected in the aftermath. The neighboring compounds, witness to assault, agreed to move without violence. 

The enemy combatants at Gitmo are similar to the North Korean and Chinese communists of Koje-do in their zealous dedication to their cause. When we see seemingly draconian processes in how they are treated (blindfolds and chains when they are moved, isolation from other prisoners), it is apparent that the prison commanders have learned from this history. The fact that three alleged spies have been taken into custody from the translator force shows that the threat continues to be real, but also shows that perhaps the US recognizes it well enough to have been watching for it to happen. -Andrew Wagner


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