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Rediscovering History: American POWs in Korea

As the Abu Ghraib scandal laid bare the American soldiers' outrageous abuse on Iraqi prisoners, the treatment of prisoners of war (POW) has re-aroused the world's attention. Half a century ago, the United States armed forces and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army became opponents in the war on the Korean Peninsula. How did the Chinese forces treat American prisoners captured in that war? The Global Times recently brought this question to Zhou Yuanmin. Now a senior editor with the People's Daily, she was an interpreter in a POW camp during those years.

Not long after entering the war, the Chinese army captured thousands of the US army and allied forces. To house them, it set up a large POW camp in Pyoktong, on the southern bank of the Yalu River, which runs along the China-North Korea border. A number of graduates from top Chinese universities, including Fudan University, were recruited by the Chinese People's Volunteer Army to help watch over the prisoners in Pyoktong. In 1952, 20-year-old Zhou, a sophomore at Jinling Women's University in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, went to Pyoktong to work as an interpreter.

"As an iron discipline, in the Chinese army it's absolutely forbidden to maltreat prisoners," Zhou said. "We were not allowed to search their pockets. They were allowed to keep cigarettes and other personal belongings with them. Valuables such as gold watches were registered for management, and were returned to their owners when prisoners were repatriated."


In the icy cold winter, the Chinese forces provided their American prisoners with cotton-padded clothes, quilts and woolen blankets. Their daily food included cooked rice, steamed bread, potatoes, soybeans and meat. In respect of Westerners' eating habits, the camp provided a monthly sugar ration to the American POWs and requisitioned ovens to bake fresh bread.


All foodstuffs were shipped by train from the newly founded People's Republic of China that had been subjected itself to a series of wars and thus was in an extreme shortage of goods and materials. What Zhou found nearly unbearable was that some Chinese soldiers were killed by US bombers as they brought food to the POWs.


Once a severely injured American pilot was captured, Zhou recalled. To save his life, the field hospital urgently transported plasma from China, and some Chinese doctors even offered to give their own blood to help the wounded pilot.


In order to add variety to the prisoners' recreational activities, a library was established at the POW camp, showcasing collections of English books and magazines brought specially from Hong Kong. The Chinese side also purchased for the prisoners sporting goods and games, including skates, chess sets, basketballs and footballs.


Religious habits and customs were strictly respected at the camp. Prisoners were able to celebrate either the Christian Christmas and Thanksgiving or Id al-Kurban and Id al-Fitr of Islam. To celebrate Christmas and their own Spring Festival, the Chinese soldiers bought gifts, sweets, biscuits, apples, almonds and wine, while the prisoners put on plays they created themselves.


Despite the huge boards marked "POW" that were erected at the camp, US bombers struck the area regularly. During air raids, the Chinese soldiers often risked their own lives to help get prisoners into the shelters. Many Chinese soldiers and American POWS were killed during air raids, said Zhou.


After the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953, the American prisoners were gradually repatriated from the POW camp in Pyoktong. American prisoners, holding fruit and tea given to them by Chinese soldiers, passed by Panmunjom, venue of Korean truce talks.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da, June 6, 2004)

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