At the time the armistice agreement was signed, in July, 1953, by an American and a North Korean general on what is now the de facto border between the two Koreas, twenty-three American prisoners of war refused to be repatriated to the United States. They were part of a much larger group of prisoners whom the Chinese had dubbed “progressives”—soldiers who had signed petitions, written letters, and made speeches denouncing American involvement in the war. Some had gone even further: informing on their fellow detainees, participating in propaganda films, and even donning enemy uniforms.
These were acts that more than met the legal definition of treason—an offense punishable by death—but most of the prisoners chose to return home and face whatever charges awaited them. For reasons that have never become clear, some of the men, a group who would come to be known as the Turncoats, decided instead to make new lives for themselves in the People’s Republic of China.
“The P.O.W. experience in Korea was worse than any other since the Civil War,” said Brian McKnight, a historian at the University of Virginia at Wise who has written extensively on the subject. Not only did many American prisoners in Chinese run camps collaborate with their captors—some estimates suggest a third did so—there was a complete breakdown of order and discipline. Soldiers turned on one another, with the strong preying on the weak and sick; there were countless instances of assault, and even murder. “Only about 16% of Vietnam P.O.W.s died in captivity, in Korea, it was 43%. If you were going into one of the P.O.W. camps with a high death rate, and the Chinese were withholding food and medicine, you had a choice to make: Am I going to cooperate with these guys or am I going to resist and hope for the best?”
What ensued in the fall of 1953 became a kind of one-camera media circus. Even though more than twenty thousand Chinese and North Korean prisoners wished to remain in the West, China expertly focussed the eyes of the world on the twenty-three Americans. Dressed in bulky padded Chinese military jackets and caps, they stood before Chinese newsreel crews, giving speeches about the ill treatment they were sure to face back home after taking a stand for peace and against racism, capitalism, and McCarthyism. When someone shouted at them, “Do any of you want to go home?” they replied in unison: “No!”
The commonly accepted reason at the time for the 23 staying behind was that they were brainwashed while held prisoner. This was effectively confirmed by 149 other POWs held by the Chinese/North Koreans who “reported that their captors had waged a systematic effort to break down their beliefs and entice them to collaborate”.
Time and Newsweek published articles looking for defects in the 21, to explain why they were able to be brainwashed. The magazines blamed reasons such as alcoholism, STDs, low IQs, and being “diseased”.
Race played an important role throughout the nationwide debate, especially since three of the 21 nonrepatriates were black. Discussion of the black nonrepatriates in the white press highlights public perceptions of Communism and civil rights in the mid-1950s.
For example, many publications noted the special effort the Chinese had made to woo black American soldiers, how they had stressed that in their Marxist nation all members of society were treated equally.
Once in China, the soldiers were sent to a collective farm to work. Within 1.5 years three of them ran away and sought refuge at the British Embassy in Peking. By 1958, 7 more of the soldiers had left China.
One of the three black soldiers (who returned to the US in 1966) explained that discrimination in the US was the reason he went to China in 1953. In 1991, he said: “Brainwashed? The Chinese unbrainwashed me. The black man had his mind brainwashed long before the Korea War”.
Over the years, almost all of them slipped back home, one by one or in small groups, living out what remained of their lives in embarrassed anonymity. Two of the men did settle permanently in China, but they made occasional visits home.
It was ham-handed stuff, crudely concocted by the Chinese. It didn’t matter that the Americans were parroting lines they had obviously been fed—including the incessant invocation of Joseph McCarthy, who was hardly a household name when most of them had left for Korean three years earlier. All that mattered was that they appeared, to the undecided world, as the good guys who wanted peace rather than war. In the end, two of the twenty-three did change their minds: for a few days, they were trotted in front of American cameras and publicly embraced as wayward sheep returned to the fold. But as soon as the waiting period ended, they were shoved into jail cells, tried for treason, and handed stiff sentences.
The others woke up one morning to discover that the neutral Indian soldiers who had been guarding them were gone, and the gates to the camp left open. Soon, the Chinese Army came in with Korean tailors, who fitted them for new civilian clothes. A day or two later, sharply dressed in new suits, they boarded a train that took them to their new lives in China. Those who were considered intelligent got sent to People’s University, in Beijing, to learn Mandarin. The rest were given jobs in factories and collective farms
Within a few months, one had died from illness; less than two years later, three more said they wanted to go home, and the Chinese did not stop them. Once they returned to the United States, they were jailed by the Army. The soldiers were expected to face military trials, until it was discovered that they had already been dishonorably discharged—which meant that they were not only outside the Army’s jurisdiction but were also owed back pay for their time in confinement. When word of this development reached the other Turncoats still in China, most of them made their way home, too.
Back in America, their lives were mainly sad and furtive affairs. Most had a hard time getting jobs and a harder time keeping them. Some spent time in psychiatric hospitals, others had repeated run-ins with the law. When people found out what they had done, they were called traitors. They quickly learned to keep a low profile and keep their status secret.
My Personal Opinion
I can’t imagine what was going on in their mind at the time. I think that each man had their own personal reason for staying behind. Although, I’d guess fear of repercussions for their actions while the war was ongoing played a huge role in staying behind. War is not easy but being a Prisoner of War is many times more difficult. Instead of fighting the enemy, they had to be face-to-face with them 24/7 never knowing if or when they would die. Although I don’t approve of it, I do think they should’ve been cut some slack.
What do you think?