Hidemaro Ishida: Alive at the End of the War
The guerillas who had “rescued” the Ashley Five began requesting assistance. In late April, the US dropped in a radio operator, followed by 25 men. Another 26 were inserted in May.
Plans were set to recover the Americans via a “snatch pick-up” operation (see CIA drawing and Air Force picture below on the technique). The men (probably one at a time) would be attached to a line hoisted above a flat area. A C-47 cargo plane, used for special operations in Korea, would fly low dangling a rope with a hook at the end. The hook would catch the line, yanking the attached man off the ground and into the air, where he would be pulled inside the plane. A harrowing method, it was useful when a helicopter or ground extraction was not possible.
On May 25th, at least four of the Americans arrived at a flat area near their camps for the snatch. They were apparently unaware that a friendly set of eyes was on them, along with those from a decidedly hostile group of men hidden nearby.
“The aircraft, with dangling ropes, approached the Americans flying at a low altitude. When it almost reached the site where the captives were standing, a terrific barrage of machine gun and antiaircraft gun fire was directed at the aircraft. The aircraft swooped up and flew away,” the friendly onlooker later told US intelligence.
Back at headquarters, the ambush provided more evidence for officers who suspected Green Dragon had indeed been compromised by the North Koreans. Several days later, by one report, a pilot who knew some of the crew overflew the area in a B-26 and spoke briefly with each of the five Americans. The military decided to stay in touch with the Ashley Five and not give away their suspicions to the Korean guerillas.
Then a major break in the operation literally walked into the hands of US Air Force intelligence in the form of a young, female North Korean spy who had just surrendered. The terrified woman spoke at first with a “mask-like expression devoid of expression other than fear,” according to an intelligence report. Then she opened up, offering a flashy smile and plenty of information. She seemed smart and went on to pass two polygraph exams concerning her report.
The woman had only recently graduated from a North Korean agent school. Located in a cave with cement floors to withstand American bombing, the school included classrooms, a dormitory and even a standup piano for free time. At the end of her training, a North Korean official had approached her. “He praised her for her intelligence and told her that she was ready to become an agent. He told her that if she refused to become an agent she would be imprisoned. Therefore, she accepted,” noted her American interrogator. North Korean intelligence believed it was easier for a woman to conduct espionage in South Korea, since villagers were less likely to report a single woman than a man. She was given a mission to infiltrate South Korea. As soon as she got there, she surrendered.
The agent with the flashy smile was pumped for all sorts of intelligence, such as North Korean commodity prices, but the real haul was her information on the Ashley Five.
A Complex Charade
She had lived in a Paek-san area village, deep in the mountains, where the Ashley Five were being held and her mother associated closely with the guerillas. Based on her own observations and detailed information from her mother, the woman revealed numerous details of the operation. The Americans had been brought to Paek-san in April 1953, apparently after being held in a Pyongyang-area prison camp. Local villagers soon became aware a complex charade was being played on the Americans.
The village sat at the foot of a mountain covered with pine and chestnut trees. Wooden houses with thatched roofs were scattered around the area, through which a stream ran, but villagers spent much of their time in bomb shelters made of logs and covered with dirt and grass. The woman’s family lived in a cave and tended about 170 pear and apple trees.
The guerillas had commandeered a church for their headquarters. A motley crew wearing US caps, the men were shod in combat boots or black athletic shoes. The Ashley Five “firmly believed” the guerillas were loyal to the United Nations and the guerillas kept up that impression. But they were really under the control of North Korea. A Communist senior colonel was seen at their headquarters.
The Americans lived mostly in a cave, the woman said, but were allowed to move around as a way to convince them they were in friendly hands.
She said supplies had been parachuted to the guerillas starting in late February, even before the Americans arrived. That first drop included a camera, winter clothing, cigarettes and two pigeons (presumably for communication). Men started parachuting in during April. One of them was Son Byong Cbol, a radio operator. The guerillas forced him to send false messages to US headquarters, the woman recounted. He was then compelled to teach his code to the guerillas, who took over radio communication.
The woman had seen only four of the Americans: three Caucasians and a Japanese-American. On the day of the attempted pick up, she watched as the plane approached and was ambushed by some 70 guns set up in advance. The guerillas maintained their ruse even after the ambush, telling the Ashley Five that a double agent had disclosed the rescue attempt. The next day the guerillas began to pull out. The Americans were sent to Sinun-ni, Wongpong-dong; the villagers were warned to get out before the US responded.
Communists Cannot Plausibly Deny You Are Alive
Armed with this information, on July 28, the day after the Armistice Agreement was signed, the US radioed Ashley. He was instructed to inform his captors that America knew he and his men were alive and the Communists should take them to a POW exchange point immediately. “Communists cannot plausibly deny you are alive,” the US message said.
The response came in early August. The captors, still pretending to be friendly guerillas, stated: “Many agents were killed to rescue and guard the aviators. We were awaked from your deadly murderous action. We will not work anymore for you. Furthermore we resolved that in case you don’t give us an answer regarding this message by 1700 hours 4th August 53, we will self-surrender to NK after we (have killed) the five aviators in revenge.”
US officials with “intimate knowledge” of the operation declared the Ashley Five were alive as of August 1953, as other American POWs returned home in operation “Big Switch.” All that remained was the voice recording of one of the aviators.
As the US military was coming to grips with the fact that North Korea had the “Ashley Five” but were not going to release them, Big Switch brought better news. Three members of the bomber crew, captured separately from the Ashley Five, were released.