The Koje Commandos  

by
George Ferguson

 PROLOGUE

After defeating Chang Kai Chek, the victorious Communist army incorporated his soldiers into its ranks. When the Chinese Communists came over the Manchurian border many of the invading soldiers had been in the Nationalist Army. As important, some of the Koreans in the prison were civilians; they had been unlucky because they looked military age, and UN forces besieged by an infiltrating army from the north arrested anyone who looked suspicious.  A war within a war broke out on Koje Island where 132,000 prisoners were held, and riots raged in the winter of 1952. In the biggest riot 77 prisoners were killed and 140 wounded. In the end only 80,000 of the 132,000 Chinese and North Korean prisoners were willing to return home. Twenty-three Americans chose Communist China over repatriation home.  

On May 7, 1952 the communists on Koje captured the commander of the prison, Brigadier General Francis Dodd, who negotiated his own release by confessing to instances of bloodshed and promising to run the camp under international law. Immediately after the general was released, he lost his command and his career was over. But immense damage was done at the negotiating table where the communists used Dodd’s confession as an example of prisoner mistreatment.

Over the next few weeks, the U.S. sent tougher combat troops to the island including a company of paratroopers from the 1st Battalion of The Royal Canadian Regiment. 

When they pulled us out of the line in May of ’52 we went on parade wearing red berets, and since we were paratroopers I concluded we were going on some airborne operation. After a 23-hour rail ride to Pusan where the favourite cuisine was a can of wieners and beans, the mystery was revealed. Our company commander Major Cowan formed us up and told us we were going to the enemy prisoner of war camp on Koje Island off the south coast of Korea.  A short time later, we climbed into American landing barges and after what seemed about 15 or 20 minutes we began disembarking on the island.

While U.N. command kept us in the dark, they couldn’t keep our mission secret from the enemy. When we marched into camp smartly dressed in bush uniforms and wearing red berets, the prisoners had signs printed in the compound reading: “Go home, Canada. This is none of your business.” They were shouting at us but I don’t know what they said. The compounds were too big and because of the riots and murders in them the American upper echelons wanted front line soldiers to hold the lid on until the prisoners were moved to smaller more manageable units. The Americans figured Koje, holding 132,000 prisoners, was explosive enough to become a second front. 

We were sent down to our company area on Koje, which consisted of some marquee tents. A week later, we were ordered to pick up our tents and move. Though we had become accustomed to rats on the front line, when the duckboards were lifted we were amazed. Dozens of rats came out of their nests and began defending their territory. We killed rats for an hour or so with picks and shovels and whatever was handy. We didn’t make much dent in the island’s rat population, and three weeks later in the new location they were still foraging in our kit bags and under our beds.

We did 24 hours on duty and 24 hours off duty, alternating with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, which moved in the same day. I was on a Bren gun (light machine gun) for the first while. One order was to watch for any POWs who were trying to break out and provide covering fire for them while they were escaping. In my time on the 20-foot guard tower I never saw an escape. But there were murders going on every day inside the compound. You could hear the victims screaming but you couldn’t do anything about it. You couldn’t go inside.

The communists and non-communists were supposed to have been separated in Pusan but whoever did the job didn’t do it well. There was a war going inside the compound. The bodies of murdered victims were buried in the sleeping tents under the sleeping mats prisoners spread out on the floor. Their graves were so well camouflaged, the MPs didn’t know where to look until the compound was later emptied and dug up. I read later that they found hundreds of bodies.

From the tower I had a bird’s eye view into the compound. I saw almost everything including the “Dung Patrol” on its way to and from the ocean. Every day about 20 prisoners carried and emptied into the ocean 45-gallon drums cut in half and used in the latrines. Guarded by Canadians, they passed on their way to the ocean through a gate made up of two barbed wire fences, which had walking space between them, called a sally port.  The sally port went round the perimeter of the compound and was patrolled by soldiers with shotguns. The Newfoundland corporal in charge, Doug Lemoine, though it was against the regulations, urged the prisoners to sing rousing marching songs in Korean while they carried the dung to the sea. He’d begin with “Hup, hup” and get the prisoners to join him until they created a rhythm and graduated to some military marching song. It broke the monotony and was kind of funny to us, that men on a dung patrol on such a dirty detail should strut so arrogantly.

I found the duty interesting in the beginning. But it became deadly boring. In our first days, the place was a sea of mud, but then everything dried out and the island became hot, dirty and dusty. There wasn’t much to do. Sometimes we were invited to an American canteen for a beer. The American M.P. battalions hated their jobs. Some of them hated being in Korea and some were afraid of going to the front, where there were 1,000 U.S. casualties a week. The M.Ps sometimes didn’t handle the prisoners well, probably because they were overworked and overwhelmed by the numbers.

Women lived in the hills. I believe they followed the men to the prison camps – they were wives or girlfriends and sometimes families. I don’t know how they got there, but they were there.  Sex was for sale in the hills for the cost of one bullet. With their technical ability, the guerrillas could make bombs or grenades from those bullets. Most soldiers shied away from the hill women fearing they’d get the bullet back in the head. I never considered these women prostitutes but part of a guerrilla operation. In the six weeks I was there, nobody raided the hills to ferret them out, but the gasoline dump near our tents was blown up.

My second job was more enjoyable than guard duty. I was put in charge of a Chinese medical doctor and ten other prisoners of war. Our task was to bring the vegetables up from the trucks to the prison compound. I liked the doctor and often thought I’d like to meet him after the war was over. One day I showed him a pair of American airborne wings and told him I’d like to have two neat pinholes bored into the wings. Next day he came back with two holes in the wings hollowed perfectly. When I asked how he managed, he waved his hand and said, “Don’t ask.”

The prisoners were very well organized inside the camp, and through the week held large seminars. Everyone knew they had manufacturing shops, where they made gas masks out of beer cans, knives from the instep of U.S.army boots, and spearheads from beer cans and insteps.

My job besides escort was to go inside the compound and count the pots and pans, and cooking knives periodically, to make sure they hadn’t gone into the communist weapons factory for recycling. The American Military Police warned me about going inside the compound without a weapon alone, but I never had any problem. After the prisoners were moved out, I saw contraband on my way through the compound, but after awhile seeing it became routine and I didn’t notice.

For clearing out compounds, we used what was called the flying wedge. We all covered each other’s backs with bayonets fixed to the front, crouched a little with the butts of rifles against out right thigh. We thought the pose was foolish but we humoured the Americans. We were warned that our government didn’t want us to get into any embarrassing situations, and we didn’t. When the prisoners were herded out of the big compound to the smaller, more manageable ones, we formed a gauntlet between the barbwire and the trucks used for transport. There were no incidents.

The day I returned to my unit the first frontline soldier I met said dismissively “Koje commando,” as though I had just returned from luxurious living in a tropical paradise. I know Koje wasn’t tough like the front but I’m proud of what we did on Koje, and today I carry the nickname “Koje commando” as a badge of honour.

Ironically, Baker Company was over run by the Chinese on October 23 about four months after it returned from the island. The Koje Commandos put up one hell of a good fight, but fourteen were taken prisoner. Eleven of the soldiers I knew on Koje were killed in the same battle. It is a day on which I still weep.

George Ferguson joined the army in 1944 as a boy soldier and was discharged after the war. He enlisted again in October 1946 in The Royal Canadian Regiment and qualified as a paratrooper in 1948. He went to Korea as a replacement to the second battalion, and served as a corporal on Koje Island.  After Korea, he was discharged and reenlisted in the air force as a firefighter. He had 26 years in the service.

 

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