What Happened to American POWs Kept Behind After the Korean War

Honoring Amazing Veterans on Veterans Day: 
How One American Hero Prevailed As a POW During the Korean War
David MacGhee Returns from North Korean POW Camp
By 1950, Air Force pilot David MacGhee had already provided service "above and beyond the call" to his nation during 25 bomber runs in WWII. But like many veterans during that era, he returned to combat in the Korean War.

Captured in the early months of the conflict, MacGhee would spend almost three years in the prison system run by China and North Korea with assistance from their Soviet patrons.

What MacGhee and his fellow Americans endured is almost unthinkable: The guards "use(d) a pair of needle-nose pliers to curl my fingernails back in the manner similar to the opening of a can of sardines;" hung him from the rafters; squeezed his testicles until he passed out; pistol-whipped him; set his clothing on fire while he was tied down; and jammed him into into various icy holes. 

Perhaps even worse, he witnessed the wide-spread death of his fellow Americans from torture, mistreatment and disease.

But throughout, MacGhee continued to resist to the best of his abilities. Along with the worst of human nature and the communist system, he saw the best in the bravery and sacrifice of his fellow American and Allied POWs (a number of other nations fought with America under the United Nations banner in Korea; for example, a British officer endured horrendous torture to cover for an escape attempt by MacGhee.) 

The following statement by MacGhee to US officials after his return is among thousands of records we've reviewed in our investigation of Americans captured but never returned during the Korean War. On this Veterans Day, we thought we'd take a minute to honor those who did make it back and recognize the sacrifices they made, all through the eyes of David F. MacGhee.

After returning from Korea, MacGhee continued his service in the Air Force, retiring as a Colonel with decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross. [We haven't been able to confirm it by press time, but it also appears he had a son who went on to become an Air Force general.] 

As this 1992 obituary describes, Col. MacGhee threw himself into volunteer work after his retirement. We wonder if the kids at his Little League games, or the networkers at the Kiwanis Club, had any idea that the nice older veteran in their group had prevailed against the circumstances below...

Bleeding from the anti-aircraft fire that downed his B-29 bomber, MacGhee descends under his parachute towards North Korea and the communist troops firing up at him. His 33 months in the captivity of Chinese and North Korean communist forces are about to begin.
Captured, he's put on a leash and beaten and spat on by his captors. Soon they take him to a school, bind his hands, hoist him over the rafters and swing MacGhee back and forth until he passes out.

When he comes to, MacGhee cannot move this arms.
MacGhee and a fellow crewman are moved toward a POW camp in North Korea. MacGhee is lucky, although he didn't know it at the time. Camps in North Korea, according to CIA and US Army intelligence records declassified decades later, were for US prisoners the communists intended to admit having and trade back to America at the end of the war. Other US POWs were secretly shipped to camps in China from which no Americans were to return; some of them were then shipped on to the Soviet Union, according to the declassified records and former Soviet Air Force officers. See more here.
MacGhee's new captor is a Chinese general. He is beaten and threatened with execution for being a "war criminal." He refuses to provide military information and the guards promise that unless MacGhee changes his defiant attitude, he will never see his family again.

The Chinese claim that when MacGhee "learns the truth" he will cooperate with their side in the fight for "lasting world peace."
Soon he's on the move again.
Sixteen Americans are buried at the new camp after dying from abuse, neglect and disease -- including an American officer singled out for a beating because he was a chaplain.
MacGhee's wounds are infected and emit a foul odor, but the communists refuse to give him medicine because he's the "ranking Air Force officer" and classified as a "war criminal." He finds an ax head and hides it for possible use in an escape. Discovered, he is placed in a 3X4X5 foot hole, where he sits in the snow from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day.
A communist interrogator holds a pistol near his head and threatens to kill MacGhee if he won't talk. When he refuses, the guard pulls the trigger, missing MacGhee but deafening him. MacGhee fails to respond to further questions and the infuriated interrogator pistol whips him. Later, after being caught providing fake answers to questions about a US military base, MacGhee is warned he will be killed if he tells one more lie.
Almost 30 Americans a day are dying in the camp, but the frozen ground is too hard to bury them, so their bodies are "stacked like cordwood." The inadequately-clad POWs are forced to march miles through the snow on work details, producing frostbite on their toes and hands.
MacGhee and other prisoners are matched northwards to a camp called "Death Valley."
MacGhee and other prisoners are taken to a propaganda meeting where a North Korean woman claims she had been raped by three US GIs. MacGhee replies to her account, saying rape is against US military law and if the woman gives MacGhee details on her American attackers, after he returns home he will try to ensure they are brought to trial.

The woman rushes forward to slap one of the other US prisoners, 6 foot 4 inch Sgt. Neal. "(He) simply offered her the other cheek and when it was obvious that she had to jump up to reach it, he offered to pick her up so that she could reach. The woman ran out of the hall in tears."

She later returned and apologize for making up the rape allegations.
MacGhee refuses to make a propaganda broadcast and is taken to a terrible prison where prisoners are held in caves.
Many Americans die from abuse. One officer is hung by his thumbs for 14 hours, his feet dangling in a foot of water.
MacGhee, another US Air Force officer and an Australian escape, but are recaptured. Continuous beatings begin. 

The guards "use a pair of needle-nose pliers to curl my fingernails back in the manner similar to the opening of a can of sardines," squeeze his testicles until he passes out and set his clothing on fire in seven places with a burning cigarette while he's tied down. Then he's put in another hole.

The men only survived because other prisoners gave up some of their rations and smuggled it to MacGhee and his two buddies.
MacGhee participates in a propaganda broadcast, but the communists later learn he secretly inserted coded messages into the radio show. Later, the guards provoke local civilians to pelt MacGhee and other POWs with rocks and dirt. An Army officer takes the blows, refusing to remove his glasses under the barrage "as such would be a sign of weakness on our part."
2,000 POWs killed by disease, malnutrition and mistreatment are buried at his camp, MacGhee later estimates.

One American prisoner is made to stand at attention for 72 straight hours. Another is ordered to spend each day at attention for a month -- after he tried to attack a communist guard who kicked a dog.

Maj. Paul Hume is said to have died after being forced to stand at attention for a lengthy period -- as punishment for a negative comment on Chinese paper.

After one American suffers a mental breakdown, he is sealed in a hole until he dies.
MacGhee's efforts to organize a resistance movement in the camp are discovered. He is placed in a room with two large blocks of ice and made to sleep on a coat of ice for almost two weeks -- with outside temperature far below zero.

After he survives the ice torture, he is taken back to interrogation and knocked out eight times by the Chinese communist general, now wielding a wooden rod. 

Instead of giving up after the final below, MacGhee smiles; the general hits him with a tea kettle, knocking him out again. Before he loses consciousness, MacGhee intentionally falls onto the general's charcoal heating unit.
MacGhee and other prisoners are placed in solitary confinement.
The Chinese camp administrators keep up the pressure to extract false confessions as the end of the war nears.
The abuse continues. A British officer is executed for assaulting a guard during an escape attempt.
A British officer, Capt. "Spud" Gibbon, who helped MacGhee escape, is tortured. The guards beat him, drive wood under his finger nails and twist his testicles, but he refuses to reveal where MacGhee and the other escapees were headed.

A Turkish officer is strung up by his thumbs for 48 hours for refusing to divulge information on his unit.
By early 1952, the war has generally stalemated and peace talks are active. The communists treat their prisoners better with an eye to an eventual POW swap. The Chinese general who beat MacGhee tries to make amends by giving him raw meat to place on his blackened eye -- but the meat is frozen too hard for that use or to eat.

MacGhee and his fellow US and allied prisoners in the "known" POW camps in North Korea are on their way to eventual release in 1953.