The Grim Fate of Korean War POWs
The fury of the Korean War raged all around Private First Class Jack Arakawa on July 16, 1950. In hastily prepared defensive positions outside the South Korean town of Taejon, his unit watched grimly as North Korean tanks raced towards them. Acrid smoke hung in the nighttime air as the sounds of war abounded. The occasional fighter plane screamed across the sky. Death lurked everywhere.
As the enemy neared American lines at 8 PM, Arakawa’s machine gun squad let out a torrent of fire that pinged ineffectually off the advancing tanks. North Korean troops poured over the beleaguered defenders’ position moments later, forcing the men to flee.
In the chaos, Arakawa – a Japanese-American – found himself staring at the barrel of an enemy rifle. His heart raced as North Korean soldiers brusquely tied his hands with wire. He knew all-too-well that the enemy had executed bound American captives in prior days with a gunshot to the back of the head.
But Arakawa, able to communicate fluently with his captors in Japanese, escaped that fate. While the Korean People’s Army fought its way towards Pusan over the next month and a half, he and other Americans carried their ammunition and food at gunpoint. At night, the bound captives slept next to KPA bunkers, wondering if a midnight napalm strike might send them into an eternal slumber.
When the North Korean drive towards Pusan stalled in early September, KPA authorities transferred Arakawa and his peers to a makeshift prison camp ‘a former school’ in Seoul. There, guards interrogated the prisoners daily, asking the same questions over and over: “do you actually admire Truman and Joe McCarthy?” a common query went.
At the same time, the POWs attended mandatory lectures on the evils of Wall Street capitalism and the righteousness of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). They watched Soviet propaganda films contrasting racial prejudice in the United States with the “ideal’ life” of the Socialist world. (“Free Love” was apparently a common theme.)
Throughout these experiences, Arakawa acted as an interpreter for the other prisoners, imploring the North Koreans for better conditions. The guards, however, responded by demanding that the Japanese-American join the Korean People’s Army since he could pass for one of their own.
If Arakawa would fight for the DPRK, they argued, he would “attain great heights” and “be part of a great machine fighting for the good of all mankind.” In exchange for his service, the guards promised, he would receive a house and servants after the war and “in the immediate future” the “privilege of better food, sake, medical care, parties, better housing facilities, and a woman.” Arakawa- wisely – remained noncommittal.
In the aftermath of the Incheon landing on September 15, 1950, North Korean forces began preparations to evacuate all POWs north of the 38th parallel. On September 26, 1950 as American-led forces seized control of Seoul in brutal street fighting, KPA guards led Arakawa and 375 other men on a forced march to Pyongyang.
Paraded by their captors in villages along the way, the POWs staggered towards the north – many of them with maggot-infested wounds. North Korean guards killed those who could not keep up. From the skies above, American planes frequently strafed the prisoners with gunfire, mistaking them for a retreating enemy column. By the time the Americans reached the North Korean capital, approximately 80 had perished from malnutrition, disease, summary executions, and friendly fire.
After arriving at a schoolyard there on October 10 – with American-led forces advancing rapidly behind them – guards informed the POWs that they would depart soon for a permanent camp on the Manchurian border. Arakawa, and four of his friends, decided then and there on an escape attempt. With the rumble of artillery fire growing louder each day, and the North Koreans becoming noticeably more frantic, the men saved-up their meager rations and fashioned crude knives out of wood.
The opportunity to get away came four days later on the evening of October 14, when guards ordered the prisoners into the street to depart for the refuge of the Yalu River. As the grim POWs lined up outside, Arakawa and his four friends managed to break away and hide in a dark alley. Detection at this point meant certain death.
As the POW column marched away, Arakawa donned a North Korean Army coat and hat – left haphazardly on the ground by a retreating soldier – and proceeded to march his friends through the streets of Pyongyang as his “prisoners.” His ethnic appearance and basic knowledge of Korean helped him get past numerous roadblocks on the way.
On the outskirts of the city, however, the group approached a much larger checkpoint. Arakawa, as he later told an Army investigator, decided that his “limited knowledge of Korean would never get the group past this last barrier.” As a result, he explained: “I proceeded to march the men to the entrance of the main road block at a fast pace. When approximately ten feet from the main gate of the road block, I shouted ‘Air Raid’ in the Korean language, at the same time we charged the gate using the knives we had made, as well as broken bottles.”
After fighting their way through the checkpoint, the men escaped into the night. As the sun came up early the next morning, they hid in an abandoned home. For the next six days, the group survived there on weeds and flowers until dawn on October 20. Following hours of intense mortar fire, South Korean units moved into the area and discovered Arakawa’s group. Within 48 hours, the five men were in Tokyo – warm and safe.
The 180 other Americans that went north without Arakawa and his friends were not so fortunate. Within sixteen days, 70 had died from disease, malnutrition, and exposure while traveling in an open-air railroad car towards Manchuria.
The worst, however, came on October 30 outside the town of Sunchon. There, with U.S. forces just miles away, KPA guards led groups of prisoners from a railroad tunnel to a nearby ravine, where waiting soldiers opened up with gunfire. Sixty-eight men died in the slaughter. Twenty-one others were wounded but survived by playing dead in the piles of bodies.
Three years later, Jack Arakawa – wearing a silver star and the stripes of a Corporal – told his stunning story to an Army Intelligence Officer. Exceedingly aware of how fortunate he was to have survived, Arakawa knew he would never forget the so-called forgotten war in Korea.
The primary source for this article is Jack Arakawa’s Army Counter Intelligence Corps File from the National Archives, Record Group 319.