In retrospect, that agreement seems based largely on good fortune, most notably the March 1953 death of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, whose enthusiasm for the war ignored the horrific casualties endured by his Chinese and North Korean allies. Had the war continued, the possibility of a nuclear exchange and an ensuing third world war loomed large. In that sense, the end of the fighting deserves some celebration, if only to mark the anniversary of a global disaster averted.
The date should prove especially poignant for those Americans who survived internment in communist prisoner of war compounds along the Yalu River. When Chinese officials announced the end of the war, some broke into tears, while others sank to their knees and gave prayers of thanks. Many simply shouted for joy. At Camp One, recalled marine private Nick Flores, “Plenty of men were jumping around telling the world that the war was over and they would be going home.”
Other camps reacted differently. When the Chinese assembled their United Nations prisoners on the soccer field at Camp Four, the noncommissioned officers knew something was up. When a camp official announced the armistice, all 600 prisoners stared back in silence. “We all got up and marched back to our compound,” recalled Jim DeLong. “It really hurt them that we didn’t holler and hoop and hurray that the war was over. When we got back to our compound we celebrated, but we didn’t let them know that we were happy.”
Prisoners at Camp Two responded in similar fashion. Knowing a cease-fire was imminent, the senior prisoners put out the word: “No celebrations whatsoever.” Chinese photographers were at the compound to film the festivities, but they went home disappointed. Like the sergeants at Camp Four, the Camp Two prisoners received the news in silence, saving their celebrations for the privacy of their quarters.
At Camp Three, Private First Class Raymond Mellin responded with quiet gratitude. The young medic from Hartford, Connecticut had been captured during the first American battle of the war and had survived three years of horrific treatment, including a hundred-mile death march. Upon hearing the news, he opened his Chinese-issue notebook and wrote the following:
On the 27th of July, the Korean War was officially over, to the amazement of many who were pessimistic, and happily accepted by those who were optimistic. As if coming out of a dark room into the sunlight, radiant smiles crept across the many faces upon hearing the wonderful news, and now to wait patiently for repatriation and our loved ones once again, which will be the greatest moment of our lives. R. V. Mellin, July 27, 1953.
A higher percentage of American prisoners died in captivity during the Korean War than in any other war in our history. Of the 7,140 Americans captured, only 4,418 came home after the fighting. For many of those survivors, repatriation remains one of the greatest moments of their lives, and survivors still recall the exact moment they crossed Freedom Bridge back into United Nations control. At least 2,700 more Americans, however, did not return from captivity. Instead, they died of starvation, exposure, disease and neglect amidst the desolate mountains of North Korea. Another 7,900 Americans are still listed as missing in action, although the Pentagon continues to recover and identify remains.
On July 27th, we will remember the Korean War as a critical moment in the Cold War, and we will reflect on the diverging paths taken by North and South Korea in the six decades since its end. Amidst these reflections on geopolitical strategy, however, we should take a moment to recall the liberation of American prisoners and the sacrifice of those who didn’t come back.
--William C. Latham, Jr., author of Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea