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Turncoats

Turncoats. 23 American POWs from the Korean War who refused repatriation to the U.S. after the Armistice.

Turncoats. 23 American POWs from the Korean War who refused repatriation to the U.S. after the Armistice.


The New Yorker has a fascinating piece on the Turncoats (above) from the Korean War. I would be somewhat hesitant to judge them only because POWs in the Korean War suffered a different kind of Hell on earth, but the fact that so many of their fellow soldiers did not turn coat separates them for scorn and condemnation. The story is here… go read the whole thing.

How Dunn became one of the Turncoats is a mystery; but, then, nothing is known about him beyond a bare outline of facts. He was born in 1928, in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His family moved to Baltimore when he was fourteen, and he attended Baltimore City College, the fourth-oldest high school in the United States, where he was elected president of his senior class. After graduating, he worked as a salesman for a potato-chip company. He was drafted into the Army, trained as a radio operator, and shipped out for Korea in May, 1951. On June 9th, Dunn joined the ranks of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, and three weeks later he was captured.

“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 sixteen per cent of Vietnam P.O.W.s died in captivity,” Wise said. “In Korea, it was forty-three per cent. 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 coöperate with these guys or am I going to resist and hope for the best?”

Dunn was held at Camp No. 3, a camp for “reactionaries” run by the Chinese on the banks of the Yalu River, where the death rate was high. He was known for his efforts to take care of other sick prisoners. One Marine private, McKnight said, testified after the war that “he owed his life to Dunn for sharing his food with him, giving him his blanket, and taking care of him when he was sick.”

But something caused Dunn to become a last-minute recruit to the ranks of those who refused to return home. Under the complicated rules of the armistice agreement, the prisoners who did not wish to be repatriated were moved into camps inside the neutral zone at the border, where they remained for four months—a waiting period in which those who changed their minds would be allowed to return home.

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!”

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