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A Cold Days in Hell

American POWs in Korea

William Clark Latham

Publication Year: 2013

Prisoners suffer in every conflict, but American servicemen captured during the Korean War faced a unique ordeal. Like prisoners in other wars, these men endured harsh conditions and brutal mistreatment at the hands of their captors.

In Korea, however, they faced something new: a deliberate enemy program of indoctrination and coercion designed to manipulate them for propaganda purposes. Most Americans rejected their captors’ promise of a Marxist paradise, yet after the cease fire in 1953, American prisoners came home to face a second wave of attacks. Exploiting popular American fears of communist infiltration, critics portrayed the returning prisoners as weak-willed pawns who had been “brainwashed” into betraying their country.

The truth was far more complicated. Following the North Korean assault on the Republic of Korea in June of 1950, the invaders captured more than a thousand American soldiers and brutally executed hundreds more. American prisoners who survived their initial moments of captivity faced months of neglect, starvation, and brutal treatment as their captors marched them north toward prison camps in the Yalu River Valley.

Counterattacks by United Nations forces soon drove the North Koreans back across the 38th Parallel, but the unexpected intervention of Communist Chinese forces in November of 1950 led to the capture of several thousand more American prisoners. Neither the North Koreans nor their Chinese allies were prepared to house or feed the thousands of prisoners in their custody, and half of the Americans captured that winter perished for lack of food, shelter, and medicine. Subsequent communist efforts to indoctrinate and coerce propaganda statements from their prisoners sowed suspicion and doubt among those who survived.

Relying on memoirs, trial transcripts, debriefings, declassified government reports, published analysis, and media coverage, plus conversations, interviews, and correspondence with several dozen former prisoners, William Clark Latham Jr. seeks to correct misperceptions that still linger, six decades after the prisoners came home. Through careful research and solid historical narrative, Cold Days in Hell provides a detailed account of their captivity and offers valuable insights into an ongoing issue: the conduct of prisoners in the hands of enemy captors and the rules that should govern their treatment.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

List of Maps

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pp. ix-11

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pp. xi-xiii

In September 2000 I met Ralph Dixon and Bernie Gaeling at the Camp Two Survivors’ POW reunion at West Point, where I was a member of the English Department faculty. I was familiar with the Korean War, but the two men told me harrowing stories of suff ering, endurance, and heroism that I had never heard before. A colleague of mine, Col. Lee Wyatt, was also ...

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pp. 1-3

Private First Class Ray Mellin was playing pool in Kumamoto, Japan, when he learned about the Korean War. A radio announcer interrupted the Sunday- afternoon broadcast of a New York Yankees baseball game to report that North Korean forces had invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK). Mellin, a tall, twenty- two- year- old laboratory technician, had just stepped off ...

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pp. 4-6

An old axiom claims that truth is the first casualty in war. This principle seems particularly applicable to American service members captured during the Korean conflict. Although their fate played a crucial role in the war’s outcome, historians tend to overlook both their ordeal in captivity and their On the other hand, the prisoners of Korea have repeatedly served as ...

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1. The Summer Soldiers

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pp. 7-32

At 0330 hours on the morning of June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) fi red a short, heavy bombardment at key targets south of the 38th Parallel. At precisely 0400, armored columns crossed the border along six major attack routes, the most important of which was the corridor through Uijonbu toward the South Korean capital of Seoul. Accustomed to ...

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2. The Tide Turns

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pp. 33-45

Douglas MacArthur later claimed to have envisioned the Inchon landing while watching the ROK withdrawal from the Han River, ten weeks earlier.1 His plan required Pentagon support, including a marine division. While the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the concept of an amphibious assault, they were gravely concerned about risking a landing at Inchon. The port ...

Photograph gallery

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pp. 64-77

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3. The Death March

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pp. 47-57

On Saturday, October 7, the prisoners at Manpo learned they would be moving again. Mindful of MacArthur’s progress after Inchon, the civilian and military captives hoped for the best.1 After several false starts, the prisoners finally moved through a pouring rain to the village of Kosang Djin, fifteen miles to the southwest along the Yalu. Although food and shelter were ...

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4. The Warning

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pp. 58-79

During the last week of October and the fi rst week of November 1950, Chinese forces attacked and overwhelmed UN forces on both sides of the Korean peninsula, halting their advance and suggesting an important new factor in the war. The 8th Cavalry Regiment’s fate at the battle of Unsan, where it was surrounded and nearly destroyed by Chinese ...

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5. Home by Christmas

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pp. 80-96

Shortly after dusk on November 4, Capt. Clarence Anderson surrendered what was left of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, at Unsan. Well acquainted with enemy atrocities committed in earlier battles, Anderson and his fellow prisoners anticipated brutal treatment. They soon discovered that Chinese treatment varied dramatically from that of their North Korean allies. ...

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6. The Reservoir

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pp. 97-114

While Walker’s Eighth Army narrowly escaped destruction along the Chongchon River in late November, the Chinese Ninth Army Group waited patiently in the snow- covered mountains surrounding the Chosin Reservoir.1 Advancing toward them was Maj. Gen. O. P. Smith’s well- trained and well- equipped 1st Marine Division, with experienced leaders and a full ...

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7. The Deadly Winter

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pp. 115-134

The first week of December 1950 marked a dramatic turning point in the war. This was the week that Chinese forces overwhelmed LTG Walton J. Walker’s Eighth Army along the Chongchon River Valley, nearly destroying the 2nd Infantry Division on the road from Kunu-ri. The subsequent withdrawal came to be known derisively as “the big bugout.” Walker’s forces ...

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8. Spring 1951

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pp. 135-155

American prisoners were not the only ones glad to see spring arrive. The previous year had ended badly for the UN forces. In December, Time magazine had characterized the Eighth Army’s hasty withdrawal below the 38th Parallel as “the worst defeat the United States had ever suffered,” one that could “mean the loss of Asia to communism.” Although the UN forces had with-...

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9. The Pilots’ War

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pp. 156-188

The air war over Korea diff ered radically from the ground campaign, and in many ways, so did the plight of the pilots and other aircrew members captured by the communist forces.1 Throughout the war, UN aircraft controlled the Korean skies and destroyed enemy targets nearly at will.2 This ability, however, proved inconclusive against enemies who were seemingly immune ...

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10. Mutual Suspicion

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pp. 189-201

In June of 1951, prisoner morale at Pyoktong hit rock bottom.1 The days grew warmer, the snow disappeared, and after seven months of captivity, the filthy, malnourished prisoners were finally allowed to bathe in the Yalu. The survivors also began receiving clean clothes and more food. For many, however, these improvements came too late. Several hundred Americans had ...

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11. The Pawns

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pp. 202-225

By the autumn of 1951, conditions for prisoners in the Yalu camps had improved signifi cantly. Chinese mistreatment and manipulation continued, but more food, better hygiene, and limited medical treatment dramatically reduced the death rate among prisoners, and the possibilities of a cease- fire ...

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12. Freedom and Recrimination

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pp. 226-244

As early as February 1953, Pentagon offi cials worried about the potential impact of brainwashed American prisoners returning home. The men who were repatriated at Freedom Village were greeted with genuine fanfare and hospitality and were soon transported to Inchon. From there, those who needed immediate medical attention fl ew to military hospitals in Japan for ...


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pp. 245-277

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 247-279


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pp. 249-280


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pp. 281-289


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pp. 291-301

Back Cover

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p. 338-338

E-ISBN-13: 9781603447515
E-ISBN-10: 1603447512
Print-ISBN-13: 9781603440738

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 26 b&w photos. 6 maps. Fig. Bib. Index.
Publication Year: 2013