A North Korean guard handed Sgt. Berry F. Rhoden, a POW, a card which read: "You are about to die the most horrible kind of death." The guard then shot Rhoden in the back. These are the kinds of stories collected by Michigan Senator Charles E. Potter after the Korean War ended. Potter documented more than 1,800 atrocities committed by the Communists against civilian populations and UN military personnel during the Korean War.
The 1954 Potter Report is more than 200 pages of testimony from Korean War veterans and massacre survivors before Congress. Sgt. Rhoden was one of just a few of those survivors.
When the Korean War started, victory was far but assured. The North Korean attack on June 25, 1950 took the U.S. and South Korea by complete surprise, and the Communists were able to make large gains in a very short amount of time.
The battle lines swung as wildly as the momentum of the war itself before grinding into months of stalemate as the two sides haggled at the negotiating table. Every time the pendulum shifted, more American and UN forces were captured by the North Korean and Chinese forces. The first reports of enemy atrocities filtered into the UN headquarters as early as two days after the invasion started.
The report found the Communist forces in Korea "flagrantly violated virtually every provision of the Geneva Convention" as well as Article 6 of the Nuremberg Tribunal Charter. It also lists the abuses American and UN POWs suffered at the hands of the North Koreans:
"American prisoners of war who were not deliberately murdered at the time of capture or shortly after capture, were beaten, wounded, starved, and tortured; molested, displayed, and humiliated before the civilian populace and/or forced to march long distances without benefit of adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, or medical care to Communist prison camps, and there to experience further acts of human indignities."
On top of the numerous forced marches and torture, seven Korean War Massacres stand out as egregious examples of the systematic, inhumane treatment of POWs at the hands of Communist forces. According to the Potter Report, as of June 1953, the estimated number of American POWs who died from enemy war crimes was 6,113. The total number of UN forces who were victims ranged between 11,662 - 20,785.
1. The Hill 303 Massacre
On August 14, 1950, 26 U.S. troops were caught by surprise and captured by North Koreans. Their hands were bound and their boots were stolen by their captors. The next day, more American POWs joined the group, bringing their number to 45.
The prisoners were led to a ravine where they were all shot with their hands still tied. Only 4 survived. Cpl. Roy Manring, Jr. gave his testimony before the commission:
"They come by and they started kicking and you could hear the fellows hollering, grunting, groaning, and praying, and when they kicked me they kicked my leg and I made a grunting sound and that's when I caught it in the gut, got shot in the gut at the time."
2. The Sunchon Tunnel Massacre
In October 1950, UN troops were approaching Pyongyang when 180 U.S. prisoners were loaded onto rail cars and moved north. The men had already survived the Seoul-Pyongyang Death March and were starving, dehydrated, and wounded. The ride north exposed them to the elements for five days when they were unloaded near the Sunchon Tunnel. The North Koreans led the men to a ravine and shot them to pieces. 138 died from the shooting, starvation, and disease after being left there.
Pvt. 1st Class John Martin, one of the survivors, gave his account of the incident:
"We went around the corner, into this ditch. They said, "Get down; the planes. Get down; the planes. So when we all ducked down some more of them came up on us over a little rice paddy and they just opened up."
3. The Taejon Massacre
On September 27, 1950, 60 U.S. prisoners of war held in the Taejon prison were bound by their hands and taken to the prison yard. As the sat in shallow ditches, the North Korean guards shot them at point blank range with an American M-1 rifle. Only one survivor lived to tell the story.
Civilians killed by the North Korean People's Army forces Identify bodies. October 1950 (U.S. Army photo)
Sgt. Carey Weinel told Congress about the slaughter of the Americans but also told them about the 5,000 - 7,000 Korean civilians and South Korean soldiers who also died at Taejon. Weinel allowed himself to be buried alive to escape the massacre.
"As I say, I was shot around 5 o'clock in the morning, and I stayed in the ditch until that eveninq, until what time it was dark. I woula say approximately 8 hours, 8 or 7 hours. "
4. The Bamboo Spear Case
Five airmen in a truck convoy were ambushed by North Korean troops in December 1950. Their bodies were found by a South Korean patrol, punctured with 20 different stab wounds from heated bamboo sticks. None of the wounds were fatal by themselves.
Lt. Col. James Rogers of the Army Medical Corps testified before Congress that the five airmen were tortured and then murdered.
"After torturing them with the superficial wounds they then bayoneted them with the same instruments and these fellows mere allowed to bleed to death. "
5. The Naedae Murders
Near a Communist propaganda bulletin board that accused the UN of committing atrocities against Koreans, 12 American soldiers were imprisoned in a hut and then shot by North Korean troops. Five were able to survive by faking their own deaths.
Cpl. Frederick Herrmann survived the October 1950 murders and told the Potter commission about the surprise shooting:
"I heard the first shot go off and this fellow sitting right across directly from me was hit and he fell forward. When he fell forward. I just spun around and stuck my head under the desk. While I was laying there playing dead, I heard all kinds of shots. Pretty soon I felt somebody kick me. I got shot in the leg. I still played dead..."
6. The Chaplain-Medic Massacre
In July 1950, just after the North Korean invasion that started the Korean War, the Communists surprised 20 gravely wounded U.S. soldiers and their attendants. Attending the wounded was a regimental surgeon wearing the red cross armband and a non-combatant Christian chaplain. The chaplain was slaughtered with the injured troops, but the surgeon, Capt. Linton J. Buttrey, was the sole survivor.
Senator Potter: He was administering the last rites to the patient, to a patient on a litter?
Captain Buttrey: Yes.
Senator Potter: And how did they kill him?
Captain Buttrey: He was shot in the back, sir.
7. The Kaesong Massacre
Just north of what we today call the Demilitarized Zone, 13 American soldiers were captured by North Koreans near the city of Kaesong in November 1950. They were stripped of all their possessions and imprisoned in a small hut. After 3 hours, they were marched out of the hut for two miles, thinking they were headed to a POW camp. The men were then shot from behind without warning.
There was one survivor, Cpl. William Milano, who told his story to Congress.
"I heard the bolt go back and as I heard the bolt, I turned around to see what it was, and he fired. He hit me through the right hand and it threw me up against the hill. As it did, blood either squirted on me, or blood squirted on my face. He took another shot and it skidded off my left leg and took a piece of flesh away. The third hit me high and I felt the dirt. They were still firing on the other men. About 5 minutes later all the firing stopped."
In all, the war crimes perpetrated by the Communist forces left "several thousand" unrepatriated Americans wounded, killed in action, or otherwise left confined behind the Iron Curtain.