June 25, 2021 will mark the 71st Anniversary of the war between North Korea and a coalition of United Nations forces. Over seventy years has now passed, yet why hundreds of POWs weren’t returned still remains a mystery for the American people. What follows tells about the difficulty of getting to the bottom why we know so little.
During the Korean War 92,134 GIs were wounded, 4,759 went MIA, 36,516 died on the battlefield, 3,000 died in captivity, 43% dying of starvation, and at least 450 POWs were left behind, alive. From 1996 to 2005, American and North Korean military search teams led 33 recovery operations that yielded 229 sets of remains. The official count of soldiers, airman and marines unaccounted for is 7,800, lost in battle or died in POW camps. Of those, North Korea currently holds about 200 sets of remains, from among over 5,300 Americans, according to Department of Defense estimates. Official records at the National Archive show 450 POWs were left behind in North Korean prisons after hostilities ended in 1953. The record is confusingly messy at best.
It’s assumed that any POWs abandoned by our government in 1953 following the end of hostilities have by now died. However, some of us believed that during the 1980s, these soldiers may still have been alive. It was back then that I’d represented Robert Dumas, brother of Corporeal Roger Dumas, US Army, in his lawsuit against the President of the US and Secretary of the Army, to get the government to admit that Roger was not MIA, but among the 450 POWs left behind in Camp 5, North Korea along the Yalu River bordering Manchuria.
By June 25, 1950, the monsoon season in Korea had already begun, but aside from heavy wind, rain and flooding in parts of the country, nothing unusual was anticipated on the horizon. In Seoul, the South Korean capital, it was a Sunday and people were going about their business. But for those an hour from the capitol, they felt an odd rumbling. Soon the world would learn, the rumbling came from big guns opening the way for an invasion of ninety thousand North Korean troops flush with Russian T-34 tanks, fuel and supply trucks, lumbering across the 38th Parallel. In the tumult that followed, American civilians were immediately evacuated. The capital fell three days later leaving a decimated ROK army, the vestiges of which were fast retreating south, the NK on their tail having swept through Seoul leaving countless dead and wounded in their wake.
Six days later 406 men from the 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment, 24th Infantry Division departed Itazuke Air Base, Japan and landed on Korea’s most southern tip. Orders were to march north to the Osan/Suwon area and hold the line of advancing NK. They came up against hundreds of the enemy marching south—and though they fought bravely were eventually overrun and forced to retreat. Within two weeks, the division’s 19th Regiment arrived and quickly assembled a line along the Kum River waiting for the loose ends of the retreating ROK army to join. As US soldiers encountered the NK invaders they found themselves outnumbered and fighting against more experienced and conditioned troops. Days later a US Army commanding general was captured, following which GIs were found murdered, hands tied behind their backs.
In August, the US was joined by armies from more than nineteen UN member nations. The combined armies were placed under General Douglas MacArthur’s command. In September he ordered US Marines to take the island of Wohli and secure it as a launch pad into the Port of Inchon, for the eventual recapture of Seoul, 25 miles east.
Following victories at Inchon and Seoul, the NKs were essentially pushed back to the 38th Parallel. The matter of the invasion rested at square one, but MacArthur persuaded Washington to take the offensive and seek to push on to the far end of the Korean peninsula and into Manchuria. The country has mountain ranges that run along its length making it impossible to move forces in parallel lines, the approach that Americans preferred. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson once remarked, “If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war, the unanimous choice would have been Korea.” The general’s tactic moved in two separate lines up the valleys. The Eighth Army would go generally northwesterly, and X Corp would move north-central and easterly. Two separate forces required two commands, separated by the spiny ridged mountains. Much of the maneuvering would be done in frigid, foul weather that began in early fall.
During the third week of October, the 24th Division crossed the Ch’ongch’on River taking it within 50 miles of the Yalu River, which separated Korea from Manchuria. At this point they began to encounter tough and often losing skirmishes with the enemy. In mid-October, troops reported encountering Chinese Communist Forces, but the UN high command refused to believe that the Chinese, in any sizable number, would enter the war.
On November 2, the 1st Calvary lost an entire battalion fighting an enemy wearing the familiar Mao apparel. The evidence was irrefutable, the Chinese were engaged. MacArthur estimated that the NK recruited as many as 30,000 Chinese. The next day, the 24th Infantry hit resistance that forced them to retreat 14 miles south. Eight more Chinese divisions were spotted within the vicinity of the 1st Calvary and 1st Marine Division.
MacArthur chose November 24th to launch a major offensive to push the enemy up against the Manchurian border. At noon, Sunday, November 26, an estimated 300,000 Chinese Communist Forces started crossing the frozen Yalu River. By overwhelming force they disintegrated the ROK divisions holding down the border. UN forces retreated south. A week later the 1st Marine Division was held down at the Chosin Reservoir. The men of the 24th Division moved south crossing the Ch’ongch’on River for the second time in a month. Mao Tse- tung’s CCF forces severed infantry units from the main forces and then captured UN soldiers from whole squads to stragglers that were lost in a no-man’s land. Escape routes were cut off, troops were killed and maimed by the thousands. It was a strategic disaster resulting in the capture of over 40,000 US troops.
Soldiers from 24th Infantry Division, 19th Regiment were among those captured in the November catastrophe. Roger Dumas, Company C was one such soldier.
The government telegrammed families when their loved one went missing:
“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regret that your son, Private First Class, Roger A. Dumas, has been missing in action in Korea since the 4th day of November, 1950. Casualty code D—Edward F. Witsell, Major General of the United States Army.”
Friends extended sympathy and hope. Notice day passed into the gloom of a second day. The third day set in like rigor mortis. Seven days turned in a week, then slid into a blur of years. Prisoners were exchanged following the cessation of hostilities in April and August 1953, and still no word. A year later a registered letter usually came reading like this one:
“Since your son, corporal Roger A. Dumas, RA 21 004 481, infantry, was reported missing in action on November 4, 1950, the Department of the Army has entertained the hope that he survived and that the information would be received dispelling the uncertainty surrounding his absence. However, as in many cases, no information has been received to clarify his status. Full consideration has been given to all information bearing on the absence, including all, reports and circumstances. Accordingly, an official finding of death has been recorded under the provisions of Public Law 450, 77th Congress, approved March 7, 1942, as amended.”
Sometimes we accept the finality of a decree in the face of eyewitnesses, or documentation, or by fiat from officialdom. This would have been the last word on Roger Dumas, except for a House Resolution that passed in 1957 demanding an accounting of 450 unaccounted for POW—Roger A. Dumas among them. How could he have been MIA if he’d been listed POW in the resolution? His brother Robert found this inconsistency in 1977 at the US National Archives. The following year he discovered an Army intelligence report, dated April 24, 1953, which disclosed a summary of the interrogation at Panmunjom, of Cecil V. Preston, a repatriated POW:
“Private Dumas was alive but in poor physical condition in Camp 5.” Several other statements have been received from repatriated prisoners of war, and Private Dumas was captured and held in Camp 5 at Pyoktang, North Korea. These statements are not in agreement as to the date on which Private Dumas is supposed to have died, but are agreed that he was held in Camp No. 5. Since only one man by the name of Dumas was reported MIA in Korea, there appears little chance of mistake in identification. Enclosures: Bobby L. Caruth. George W. Rogers, Paul Worley.”
Robert requested that the Army provide the last known whereabouts of his brother. The Army refused. Congressman Christopher Dodd intervened and the Army reluctantly gave Dumas contact information for Preston, Caruth and Worley, all whom when I contacted them, would remember his brother. Robert then found Roger’s name in a dozen different documents, mainly US Congressional records and UN investigations into International Red Cross accounts. He located his brother in a photo among a group of soldiers in what appeared as a group of GIs playing volley ball in a POW camp. Although a CIA analysts would claim that the picture was not of Roger Dumas, his brother had no doubt.
On the strength of the evidence, Robert petitioned the US Army Board for the Correction of Military Records to retract the presumptive finding of death and change his brother’s MIA status to POW. It refused and denied a hearing on the issue. Robert, without a lawyer, then filed a federal lawsuit, naming the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States alleging that the government failed to obtain release of his brother from a Korean prisoner of war camp in 1953, even though other POWs, who were in better physical condition were repatriated. The government moved to dismiss the suit, but in July, 1982, the court, dismissing the claims against the secretary and the president, permitted the suit to go forward as against the ABCMR. At this point, I took the case pro bono, and proceeded to investigate, amass the evidence, depose witnesses, and eventually prepare for and try the case.
The lawyer stakes his case on worn memories and recast perceptions, and sometimes revulsion, arranging these and the horrors they related to in a reality play. And so staged in a courtroom, we would portray what happened in the late fall, 1950, when the CCF captured 40,000 men, and then the aftermath, when POWs died by the thousands through the lack of medical care and starvation.
Napoleon observed that in the art of war, being stronger on a particular point time after time validates itself in victory. With this as my mantra, I looked for the one piece of evidence and one witness that couldn’t be impeached. The evidence was a document, fortunately not lost, as so many Dumas records were, during the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire. The spared document, the subject of which was Roger Dumas, was a declassified data sheet that effectively put an official stamp on what we were trying to prove. It appeared to be a compilation, by Army intelligence, of information from POWs who were being repatriated during operation Little Switch, April 1953. It may have been a distillation of earlier reports from three POWs, Preston, Worley and Caruth. The title read, “Missing in Action” with an asterisk, and then the word “Capture” with asterisks. In a column off to the right it indicated, “Source states subject in Camp No. 5 at time of his release. Date last known alive, April, 1953.” With this before the court, we only needed to present an eyewitness to corroborate what the document revealed. In an impartial, rational world, I could be nearly certain to win a reclassification. I say “nearly certain,” because in a courtroom anything can happen, any time, as unexpectedly as a lightning on a clear day.
July 19, 1983 started out hot and sultry. It didn’t keep the spectators away from the US Federal District Court in Hartford, Connecticut. A crowd had been sitting for at least a half-hour before I arrived, 9:30 a.m. I carried two brief cases full of files, my associate Mary Ryan, and my law clerk Mitch Lieberman carried loads of evidence, law books and briefs. Robert Dumas, the putative plaintiff, sat at the end of our table. The facts and the law in this case would be tried to a judge, so when I looked over at the jury box it was not filled with jurors, but with reporters and media artists, some of whom I recognized from the Connecticut circuit, and others recognized from the national networks: Morton Dean, who later reported the developments on Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News, Stone Philips from NBC, and Rob Armstrong from CBS radio.
“Hear ye, hear ye, in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, the honorable Judge T. Emmet Clarie, presiding, all rise.”
In every story told in a courtroom, the actors must emerge in full form on the stage of justice. Each of them must be visualized as material beings, a body, a mind, and a personality. The lawyer needs to put the actor into a context, in this case, POW Camp 5, Pyoktong, North Korea, where Americans, British, Turks, Aussies, and South Koreans were kept, first by the North Koreans, and then the CCF. The scene must come alive, the smells, the sounds, the angst. In this story we pit the enemy’s cruelty against the GI’s compassion for their fellow soldier and will to survive. I have half a dozen witnesses, but the one that will drive home proof that Dumas was a POW was former Master Sergeant Lloyd Pate.
In a Georgia drawl, cadenced and fulsome in a manner of speaking we usually attribute to storytellers like Will Rogers or Mark Twain, Pate would bring us full circle about what, where, when, and who was there. He began by stepping up to a map to show us where things were located, and importantly, the prison where he’d been taken after being captured in November 1950.
Pointing to the map he says, “Well, the gate to the camp was up where they kept the guards at.” “But this whole area actually would be east of this road, assuming his is northeast of the road would have been the Lower 4, the enlisted men, including the British…”
The map slowly came to life. It showed roads, the fenced perimeter, and tiny shacks. We could now imagine where the soldiers were: separated by race and country, wounded and walking, where the dead were buried, and where the guards were barracked. The past came alive. I imagined voices, cries in the night, the charged cold wind blowing incessantly across the Yalu, the snows that laid a blanket of white from the door of his cramped hovel straight through what he saw every morning, Manchuria.
“Mr. Pate, when you arrived in Camp 5, in March, did you see any wounded?”
“Was many wounded. Many was just sick.”
“Was it the practice of the other POW’s to tend to them?”
“As well as we could. Dysentery was what killed most of the men – that and starvation. Lots were dying from wounds received before or at the time of capture. We had no medical facilities. We had no surgical tools, or no medicines. We had a doctor, name of Dr. Shaddus, but he had nothing to treat with.”
“Did you treat any of the guys, while you were there?”
“I dug shrapnel out of men. I dug bullets and anything else I could do to help them.”
“Let me turn your attention to March 1951, were you tending to any wounded at that time?
“Did you ever have occasion to tend anybody with stomach wounds?”
“Stomach wound, no. Side wound, yes.”
“On what occasion did you tend a person with a side wound?”
“Sometime after we got to Camp 5, I would say probably two weeks after. I have to explain something here. We were losing a lot of men every day, dying. Death was just something we took for granted. Every morning we went around and we gathered up the dead. Usually they would freeze during the night. And we stacked them. We would stack them— in a room. The death room. At the end was a lean-to, shed. Those that we couldn’t get in the room, we stacked, under the shed. Then during the day, after it warmed up a little bit, we would get as many of these men as we could, take them across that inlet, to a finger of land, scrap the snow aside and put the bodies there. And, cover them up, with snow—, say a little prayer, and leave them.”
One’s religious principles are mostly absent in what I know about the justice system, but at that moment I couldn’t ignore that phrase in Romans 5:3-4, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Without me asking another question, Pate kept going.
“One day we were stacking bodies up in there— and there was a man layin’ in the room right next to the death room. Most of these Korean shanties, they had two, what you call sleeping quarters and a small kitchen. And then a lot of them had the little sheds on the other end. Anyway, this man was layin’ in there. And one of the guys, who was helping with these bodies said, ‘I guess he’ll be one of the ones tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ He said, ‘He’s been wounded,’ I said, ‘Well, can’t they do anything for him?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I walked in and looked at the man. And he had a large wound on his left side, here. The wound’d already turned black and started to rot. Stinking. The man was hot, fever. As far as I could figure, he was out he was in a coma. And I said, ‘Is there anything else wrong with: him?’ They said, ‘No, just that wound there.’ Well, I’m not a doctor. I have never had any professional, medical training, but I do read a lot. And I remember some of the old home remedies that we used down in South Carolina and Georgia.”
Pate hesitated. He hung his head for a moment. He looked out at the three score captivated spectators, leaning forward, hanging on to every word reverberating off the 20 foot high domed courtroom.
“And I went to the latrine and scooped out a handful of feces, with maggots, and I wrenched the feces over the maggots, and took it and placed it in the boy’s side. I took a rag and tied it up as best as I could. I felt that I couldn’t hurt him, because he was too near— well almost dead. I figured the day that he probably would have gone ahead and died.”
Pate’s dark medicinal spirit saturated the hot squalid ether suspended above the halls of justice. What he said sounded bazaar because it was outside our frame of reference, outside what we could imagine never having ventured into a space where humanity and inhumanity were brought eye to eye. When it comes to things for which we have no reference, our zone of credulity judges the truth often on consistency, the complete whole, the appropriateness of an action under existing conditions. As he recounted events I knew he’d left no room for the cleverness of a lawyer’s cross-examination, which I’d anticipated would follow. Where the government would do its damnedest to try and discredit a soldier, who was more than some a passive raconteur telling us about an atrocity. Pate continued on without my leave.
“Later on, after the ice on the river had melted, the Chinese would let us go down to wash our clothes and take a bath. And after the water warmed up some, they’d even let us swim. Around June of ’51 the Chinese took over the camp and they issued us what they called a student uniform, which is a blue, cotton uniform, a white shirt, a Mao Tse-tung hat, a pair of tennis shoes, and a pair of white shorts. They gave us paper and dip-type pens to write propaganda for them. A lot of the men would take the ink and they would write their names, and draw pictures of their states, anything they wanted to, on their shirts.”
Pate poured himself a glass of water. The judge asked if he needed a break. He shakes his head no and continues.
“And one day I was down there swimming and killing lice, and this boy walked up to me and he said, ‘I think I owe you a heck of a lot of things.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I think you’re the man who saved my life.’ I said, ‘Not that I know of.’ He said, ‘You remember putting maggots in a man’s side?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m that man.’ He raised his white shirt up and the scar, you could still put your fist in it, but the membrane had toughened up, and it was almost like leather. He’d written his name on his shirt, DUMAS— ‘D-u-m-a-s.’ Jokingly I asked him if he was a kin to Dumas, the book writer. I never read any of Dumas’s works; I just heard the name. And, he and I talked for a while. He told me that he had been a with the 24th Division, and that he’d been captured at that battle where we had gone in to pull out the First Cav.”
“The latter part of October, the first part of November, yes. If the guards knew that you were from one company, and you were trying to talk, or you were talking to a man from another company, they’d split you up. They tried to keep us segregated like this. I talked to him there for a few more minutes, and several times during the summer, while I was at the river we would sneak a few, you know, slip a few words in together. But, as far as becoming real familiar with him, no. And I believe at one time he did tell me that his name was Roger Dumas. I never did see the word “Roger” on his shirt. All he had was “Dumas” written on his shirt.”
“Now can you describe this person’s physical characteristics?”
“It is hard to do. First of all, the first time I saw him he was on the floor. I would estimate he might have weighed maybe 80 or 85 pounds. He was nothing but skin and bones. The next time I saw him was during the summertime.”
“Summertime,” not a season allied with the word “brutality,” but on that image, I rested my case. I felt a sense of relief, but a sense of fear that I’d lose what we’d exhaustively fought for: that those who are conscripted by the government to defend it and its citizens, should not be abandoned, left unaccounted for whether living or dead. We can’t lose a single soldier, not one, simply because it’s politically or bureaucratically inconvenient.
Slow in coming, Federal Judge T. Emmet Clarie, eventually handed down a ruling in favor of reclassifying Roger Armand Dumas as a United States, Prisoner of War. Afterward the Army stonewalled the change in classification. I returned to court several times to enforce the court’s order to change the classification from MIA to POW. Finally, in a moment of frustration, the judge warned that if the board did not take proper action, “…the court will step in and take care of the matter.” Nearly a year passed. Then out of the blue, 34 years after Dumas’s disappearance, the Army notified us that the records would be changed to show that Dumas was a North Korean POW, from November 4, 1950, until his presumed date of death February 26, 1954. The death presumption is a matter of federal law. Congress had the chutzpah to legislate that the heroes who did not return home were officially dead! We were incensed at the government’s unmitigated gall in having the final word on death.
Roger’s brother Robert believed that the government, for political reasons, had conspired to cover up the 450 missing POWs. At the time of trial, I could not be sure one-way or the other. The CIA intervened on more than one occasion when we subpoenaed records that we thought had bearing on our case. I didn’t know why they were so adamant about not wanting the fact that Roger was a POW to become part of an official finding. In one instance, the US Attorney claimed a state secrets privilege and the judge, after reviewing some documents “in camera” ruled against our seeing them. Just two weeks before the trial began one of the planned witnesses, Sonny Preston was found dead in his boat off Puget Sound. His wife claimed that he had met with two CIA agents at their house only days before.
For all the thousands of documents I read in preparing for the Dumas case, and for all the witnesses I interviewed, nothing was more revealing than a coincidental 1985 meeting I had with Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson from the US State Department. A colleague had invited me to a joint regional National Security Administration/ American Bar Association meeting in Stamford, Connecticut. Much to my surprise the ambassador’s host introduced him by saying that among other experiences, he was a chief negotiator along with Henry Kissinger at the Paris talks that eventually extricated the US from Vietnam. This was also the same Ambassador Johnson that organized the crucial White House meeting to consider our response to the Cuban missile build up in 1962, and parenthetically had been a negotiator at Panmunjom in 1953! As such, he was intimately familiar with what went on during the POW repatriations.
After a nice speech on the subject of China and US strategic interests, he sat down. While we were enjoying desert, he announced that he had to travel to Washington for another appointment and made an abrupt exit. Seeing that he had been on the Korea Armistice scene, I also left, cornering him in the lobby of the hotel. While he waited for his car, I told him in a nutshell about the Dumas. He listened intently. He answered, “It was a terrible thing we did, leaving those soldiers behind.”
Johnson went on to say that as the armistice approached, the North Koreans were increasingly agitated over the UN’s unwillingness to force the 40,000 North Korean POWs and defectors to return to North Korea. In fact the South Koreans repeatedly breached the understanding that the UN would deal with the POW repatriation during a six-month period following cessation of hostilities. Unlike the end of many conflicts, the Korean soldiers on both sides had families on both sides of the DMZ. Given a choice, and to the chagrin of the North Koreans, many of their soldiers desired to remain in the South. When Big Switch, the final repatriation came, the North Koreans retaliated and refused to release hundreds of US soldiers. The UN and the US did all they could taking the negotiation route, but short of reopening hostilities, the subject was best left up to post war negotiators. I stood there stunned that he would reveal to me so matter of fact, as if it were a matter of common knowledge, something I could not get anybody to talk about for several years.
What he told me squared with history. Apparently South Korea vehemently opposed the truce negotiated by the likes of the Ambassador and his cohorts. In June 1953, Republic of Korea President Syngman Rhee announced that he ordered anti-Communist prisoners freed in defiance of the UN structured armistice for reasons that “… were too obvious to explain.” Nearly 20,000 POWs stormed the barbed wire fences that were left unsecured. The “enemy” soldiers quickly mingled with the locals who were quite willing to provide clothes and shelter. The UN, concerned that the North would call off the armistice, issued their own spin on what happened. For example, General Mark Clark’s Japan headquarters released a press report calling it “…a breakout and not a release of prisoners by their guards.” But, unsaid throughout all of this was that the North Koreans would save face by retaliating, by refusing to release some number of UN POWs. The American public never came to know this other piece of the story.
The United Nations and the North Koreans finally reached an armistice on June 27, 1953. By this time the casualties were almost 3 million dead, including 1,517,000 Koreans from both North and South, nearly 34,000 Americans, and thousands more Chinese forces.
After my brief encounter with the ambassador, I immediately wrote to Bill Ratchford my congressman requesting an investigation. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to Washington to interview with several staff members. I told the story one more time. A month went by, no feedback. I called and was told the investigation was in progress. Finally in the third month I was politely informed that they talked to the ambassador and he didn’t recall our conversation. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but in the early 1990’s three declassified CIA memoranda reported sighting of Americans by several North Korean defectors. The shame on government results from their defiant, ironic and cunning lies. I suppose we may never know the complete truth.
The Dumas story continued to be told. Congress held hearings in the 90’s. POW/MIA groups pushed for answers to no avail. In October 2005, US Representative Ron Paul (R- Texas), also a presidential candidate for 2008. held a press conference to revive the issue, officially sending to each legislator on Capitol Hill a copy of the video called “Missing, Presumed Dead: The Search for American POW’s, which detailed the Roger Dumas story. His efforts fell on deaf ears.
Justified or not as any war may be, the powerful rationalize its necessity on the grounds of vindicating an ideal often ending in “ation,” democratization, dehumanization, verification—
you get the idea. In Korea, we fought against subjugation, also known as the global struggle between Communism and the free world following World War II. In the end, thousands of men, women, and children died, were cut in half, impaled, eviscerated, frozen, scalded or incinerated. Others may have survived losing only some unessential part of their anatomical hardware: an arm, a leg, a face or manhood. Others, such as Roger, were lost in limbo.