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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 16:56, May 29, 2004
US prisoners well treated in Korean War, a looking back on history
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Photo:This historical picture shows American prisoners captured by the China Volunteer Army had a group picture taken as a souvenir in 1951.
This historical picture shows American prisoners captured by the China Volunteer Army had a group picture taken as a souvenir in 1951.
The exposure of Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal is a resounding slap on the face of the United States who constantly labels itself "a guard of human rights". A sharp contrast to the brutalities of US forces is the very humane treatment of US prisoners by Chinese army at the field of the Korean War half a century ago.

A recollection by Ms. Zhou Yuanmin, once an interpreter among China's POW administration staff and now a veteran editor of People's Daily, brings us back to the once gun smoke-filled battlefield, and enlightens us as to which country, after all, is the one respecting human rights and democracy.

Starve yourself to feed prisoners
Shortly after the Chinese People's Volunteer Force (CPVF) entered DPRK, they captured tens of thousands "united army soldiers". So the Chinese army built up a quite large prisoner camp in a place north of the North Phyongan Province (Pyongan-Bukdo) which is beautifully surrounded by water on three sides. For better POW management, the Volunteer Army recruited English interpreters nationwide. A large number of college students, both male and female, responded to the Party's call by crossing the Yalu (Amnok) River to become a worker in the prisoner camp. Zhou was one of them.

During his more than one year work there, Ms. Zhou was deeply impressed by the Volunteer Army's treatment of prisoners. "The Chinese army had always exercised 'revolutionary humanitarianism' towards war captives. Beat and curse were not allowed, nor a kick, because this were iron disciplines of an army. Chinese soldiers were forbidden from searching pockets of Americans, letting them keeping their cigarettes and other private items. As for valuables such as gold match, they were registered and kept by the administration authority, and returned to them upon repatriation", Ms. Zhou recalled.

The winter in Korea was bitterly cold. The Volunteer Army distributed clothes, caps, gloves and quilts, all cotton-padded, to prisoners. Their heatable brick beds were always kept warm. Every day they found rice, flour, potato, soybean and meat on their table, for they enjoyed a diet standard same as a Chinese regiment-level cadre. Since westerners were fond of sugar, the POW authority supplied them by month a certain amount of refined white sugar. These food were all extravagant stuff the Chinese army managed to buy from China, but what we were indignant at was the fact that our soldiers were killed by American bombs when transporting them. Later, the POW administration specially bought bread-baking machine to enable prisoners to make fresh bread by themselves, which they liked.

"You know, at that time there were only soybean, sorghum and potato for our soldiers to eat. Sometimes we were short of food, but our soldiers would rather leave food to prisoners, despite that they themselves would starve. Of course, at a time of deficient material supplies, some soldiers had complaints when they saw prisoners were eating even better than themselves, but soon they understood after our leaders discussed the matter with them".

The health of American prisoners was once a visible problem in the camp. Many of them fell ill after a long-term battlefield life and under psychological pressure caused by homesick. The situation was reported to higher and higher authorities and finally reached Premier Zhou Enlai. Personally, Premier Zhou gave the instruction of "enhancing prisoners' nutrition and adopting emergency measures". As a result, a large batch of highly skilled doctors rushed to the camp from across China and set up there a special general hospital for prisoners. The action resulted in the saving of many lives. Once our army captured an American pilot, who was found seriously injured and in urgent need of blood transfusion. We rushed him to the hospital, we transferred blood plasma from home. Some Chinese doctors gave their own blood and finally we saved this American pilot.

We set up English book library for them, helped them purchase western musical instruments and organized "prisoners' Olympics"

On top of caring their daily life, our authority paid high attention to their spiritual life. There was no wire meshes surrounding the camp, let alone "close-knitted live wire entanglement" as said by some American media. Prisoners were never forced to labor. Instead, to enrich their cultural life the administration specially bought English-language books and magazines from Hong Kong and set up a library for them. Those good at writing were encouraged. English broadcast containing news and entertainment programs was open every day, with Zhou serving as the announcer. Besides, the POW administration authority bought sports articles for these prisoners, including skates, chess, basketball and American football. The last one was then rarely seen in China, so our logistics staff had no idea about it. But after asking many people they finally bought some from Hong Kong. Noticing that some prisoners were fond of musical instruments, our authority sent home a cadre from Shanghai, who, using his family relations, purchased a batch of western instruments including saxophone, guitar, even a piano, which were hardly seen on the market.

Our POW administration respected religious customs of different countries and ethnic groups, and allowed prisoners to celebrate Christmas, Thanks Giving Day and Islamic festivals. Especially during Christmas and the Spring Festival, the camp was filled with a festival atmosphere in which prisoners stage self-made performances. In his family letter, American soldier Green wrote "this Christmas, the whole camp was vibrating with songs from the choir from midnight to 2 am. We talked and laughed. The Chinese army surprised us by gifts, sugar, cake, apple, almond and wine".

Ms. Zhou particularly mentioned the "prisoners' Olympics" staged in November, 1952, which were participated by 500 people. Wearing sports suits from China, prisoners competed in track and filed, boxing and basketball. Some black Americans talented in sports staged a really fantastic show.

Our Volunteer cadres never beat or abused prisoners who made mistakes, but talked with them. If they really made serious mistakes, they would be placed in confinement, at most for one week. Our political commissars personally talked with some officer prisoners who were from the West Point, telling them not to set themselves against China because the Chinese and American peoples were friends.

Prisoner camp bombed by American planes
In the camp, American prisoners were not afraid of Chinese soldiers and cadres, but were afraid of their fellow men-American pilots. The large "POW" characters crossing the camp ground, which were visible from the air, didn't prevent American pilots from dropping their bombs who just wanted to fitful their tasks. Some Volunteer soldiers were thus killed trying to protect prisoners by dragging them into shelter.

Real photos shocked America, won international praise
China's prisoner camp drew attention of some American media and international personalities. A Newsweek reporter once visited the camp and took pictures of real scenes. The pictures, after being published, delighted prisoner families very much and rekindled their hope for family reunion. Some families wrote to praise China's lenient POW treatment policy, saying the policy was just like "a mother's heart" and lauding the Chinese troops "an army of civilization". AP journalist White also wrote in one of his reports that the Chinese Volunteer Army treated American prisoners very well, saying they were even supplied better food than Chinese soldiers and the Army used their limited medicine to treat them.

In May 1952, Ms. Filton from Britain, a renowned lady of peace and winner of Stalin Prize, visited the camp accompanied by Comrade Liao Chengzhi. She made wide contacts with the prisoners and after returning home wrote articles highly praising the humanitarian spirit displayed by the Chinese army in their treatment of POWs. According to the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in Panmunjom, before the two sides of war send back each other's prisoners, a large number of UN Red Cross workers visited and investigated the camp. They stayed for several days and didn't find any slightest breach of the Geneva Convention by our army.

Some prisoners refused to go home, and settled down in China
Since the signing of the Armistice Agreement in 1953, prisoners from the camp were gradually repatriated. When these American prisoners crossed Panmunjom, their face glowing with health and hands loaded with Chinese tea and fruits, they turned around again and again, shouting "Thanks!" "Goodbye!"

Some other prisoners, however, had developed a deep attachment to China. They refused to be sent home and asked to study and work in China. Out of humanitarian considerations and according to the International Law, the Chinese government agreed. Considering their will and skill, they were arranged work in factories, schools and hospitals in areas of better conditions such as Beijing, Shandong and Tianjin. Some were sent to colleges for study.

In February 1954, American prisoner James George Veneris settled in China with another 20 POWs, and worked in a factory. In 1963, he was sent to the People's University by China Red Cross, and graduated four years later. In 1967, he set up his family in China by marrying a Chinese girl called Bai Xirong. In 1977, Veneris accepted an invitation to work as professor in Shandong University; his English course was warmly received by students.

The article was carried on the first page of Global Times, May 24, abridged translation by People's Daily Online

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