What Happened to American POWs Kept Behind After the Korean War

Among some 8,000 American POW/MIAs who did not return from Korea, intelligence reports indicated, were men secretly held in China and the Soviet Union. The reported motive: Exploitation for espionage, propaganda, intelligence and even technical and unskilled labor. The Soviets, whose fighter pilots downed many Americans during the Korean War, viewed all-out war with the U.S. as a real possibility, so captured pilots and other experts on U.S. weapons and technology had great value. Other Americans might be assigned to “high-level propaganda purposes” such as establishment of an “American Government in Exile,” reported one military intelligence report. (When the Korean War started, the Soviets already had a sophisticated, nation-wide program to use foreign POWs for propaganda, technology development and spying – it was then focused on German and Japanese prisoners from WWII.)

The Korean War created a windfall of both U.S. and allied prisoners to feed the voracious appetite of the Soviets and their Chinese partners for information and agents from Western adversaries. Some prisoners, according to a report from an elite U.S. unit, were quickly dispatched to “be specifically trained at Moscow for intelligence work. PWs transferred to Moscow are grouped as follows: British 5, Americans 10, Canadians 3, and 50 more from various countries.” This report, if true, seems to involve different Englishmen than the notorious British intelligence officer George Blake, whose case does not fit these details. Blake, serving in Korea when captured, responded to indoctrination by becoming an enthusiastic communist. Released at the end of the war, Blake began to spy for the Soviets, becoming one of Britain’s most infamous double agents.

The case of Gerald W. Glasser, a soldier from Pennsylvania, represents the level of intrigue and tragedy in the communist prison system. At the end of the war Glasser was healthy and living in POW Camp Number 1, at Chang-Song, North Korea. One day Chinese officers in a jeep showed up and took him away. “(T)here was nothing to indicate his removal from camp was in the nature of an arrest as he and his camp companions were given candy and cigarettes before leaving,” according to Army intelligence. Glasser was not repatriated at the end of the war.


But was the man removed from Camp Number 1 actually Gerald Glasser? Another record we obtained includes information from one of Glasser’s fellow prisoners. A US intelligence official, said the former prisoner, told him: “He (Glasser) as we knew him was not really Gerald Glasser.” The official claimed Glasser was killed when captured and a Russian agent took his identify to spy on American prisoners.

The infiltration of prison populations and use of false identifies were common enough for Russian intelligence. But Glasser’s family reported getting friendly letters home from him during the war. Were the letters fake? Or was Glasser alive in a separate camp from his doppelganger, perhaps never knowing his identify was in use? Or was the whole impersonation story false? Only the Chinese and Russians know for sure, and they still refuse to tell. All we know for sure is that Gerald Glasser has never come home.

“The (U.S.) POW’s will be screened by the Soviets and trained to be illegal residents (spies) in U.S. or other countries where they can live as Americans,” reported a White House document based on information from a controversial KGB defector (see this original document and others at: www.koreanconfidential.com). Biographies of dead Americans would be used to create “legends” (cover stories) for Soviet spies, said the memo, and “selected POW’s” will be used for propaganda work.

“It follows that the Communists would neither wish to return these men to U.S. control nor admit to their existence at this time,” concluded the military intelligence report about high-level propaganda mentioned above. Such fears appeared to be realized at the end of the war, when the State Department alerted U.S. embassies across the world that some American prisoners would likely be kept by the enemy. A year later, according to a newly revealed 1954 document, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Nathan Twining requested covert C.I.A. assistance to recover “an unknown but apparently substantial number of U. S. military personnel captured in the course of the Korean War (who) are still being held prisoners by the Communist Forces.” Soon after, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow delivered a note to the Soviet government asking it “to arrange their (U.S. POWs taken from Korea to the Soviet Union) repatriation at the earliest possible time.” The Soviets responded by denying they had the prisoners. By 1955, the Pentagon had apparently given up hope of recovering the men, according to a then-classified memo: “The problem becomes almost a philosophical one. If we are ‘at war,’ cold, hot or otherwise, casualties and losses must be expected and perhaps we must learn to live with this sort of thing. If we are in for fifty years of peripheral ‘fire fights’ we may be forced to adopt a rather cynical attitude on this (the POWs) for the political reasons.”

In the decades since, most U.S. efforts to trace these lost Americans have been blocked by the Russian, Chinese and North Korean regimes, along -- say many POW/MIA family members -- with U.S. government bureaucratic indifference and secrecy. Some important exceptions, such as a now-stopped US investigation in the former Soviet-bloc, have uncovered more evidence the Americans were kept, and prove Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang are still hiding the truth about these lost American heroes.