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Prisoners of War

An American POW is repatriated at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan, Sept. 10, 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An American POW is repatriated at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan, Sept. 10, 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

POW release to UN authorities was the first step in repatriation. Here, communists turn over UN troops at the POW receiving center at Panmunjon, on the border of North and South Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

POW release to UN authorities was the first step in repatriation. Here, communists turn over UN troops at the POW receiving center at Panmunjon, on the border of North and South Korea. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Giant C-124 Globemaster transports ferried released POWs from Korea to Japan, and home to the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Giant C-124 Globemaster transports ferried released POWs from Korea to Japan, and home to the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo)

One of the first Air Force POWs to return to Japan in Operation Big Switch was Staff Sgt. Robert M. Wilkins (center). He is shown arriving in Japan after the 4-and-a-half hour flight from Korea, Aug. 18, 1953.  (U.S. Air Force photo)

One of the first Air Force POWs to return to Japan in Operation Big Switch was Staff Sgt. Robert M. Wilkins (center). He is shown arriving in Japan after the 4-and-a-half hour flight from Korea, Aug. 18, 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Many POWs required immediate medical care upon release. These exchanged prisoners are arriving at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan, in August 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Many POWs required immediate medical care upon release. These exchanged prisoners are arriving at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan, in August 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An Airman is reunited with his soldier brother. USAF Tech. Sgt. Ralph Cox (left) greets PFC Tully Cox, repatriated in April 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An Airman is reunited with his soldier brother. USAF Tech. Sgt. Ralph Cox (left) greets PFC Tully Cox, repatriated in April 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Gen. Otto P. Weyland, Far East Air Forces commander (left) and Surgeon Col. Jesse R. Grace (right) greet Lt. Col. Thomas Harrison, recently released during Operation Big Switch, September 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Gen. Otto P. Weyland, Far East Air Forces commander (left) and Surgeon Col. Jesse R. Grace (right) greet Lt. Col. Thomas Harrison, recently released during Operation Big Switch, September 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A returned American POW from Ohio makes a call to his family immediately after arriving at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., April 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A returned American POW from Ohio makes a call to his family immediately after arriving at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., April 1953. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Not all POWs were released immediately. Shot down in 1953, this 11-man B-29 crew was held in China, tortured and not repatriated until late 1955. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Not all POWs were released immediately. Shot down in 1953, this 11-man B-29 crew was held in China, tortured and not repatriated until late 1955. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A former North Korean soldier shouts for joy upon reaching Seoul, South Korea, and freedom. Many North Korean and Chinese POWs renounced communism and chose to be released to new lives in South Korea and Taiwan. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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A former North Korean soldier shouts for joy upon reaching Seoul, South Korea, and freedom. Many North Korean and Chinese POWs renounced communism and chose to be released to new lives in South Korea and Taiwan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A convoy takes Chinese and North Korean POWs to Inchon, Korea, on their journey to freedom during Operation Comeback. A military band welcomes them. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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A convoy takes Chinese and North Korean POWs to Inchon, Korea, on their journey to freedom during Operation Comeback. A military band welcomes them. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Recently released Chinese POWs carrying Taiwanese flags board a USAF transport in January 1954 for the flight to Taiwan and freedom after renouncing communism. Those communist POWs who returned to China and North Korea faced uncertain futures -- they were regarded as traitors for being captured. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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Recently released Chinese POWs carrying Taiwanese flags board a USAF transport in January 1954 for the flight to Taiwan and freedom after renouncing communism. Those communist POWs who returned to China and North Korea faced uncertain futures -- they were regarded as traitors for being captured. (U.S. Air Force photo)

This hat, shirt, and pants were worn by A2C Eugene Evers while he was a prisoner of war for more than a year during the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo).
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This hat, shirt, and pants were worn by A2C Eugene Evers while he was a prisoner of war for more than a year during the Korean War. (U.S. Air Force photo).

"Each hour seemed like a month and every second was filled with pain."
- Lt. Wallace Brown, B-29 co-pilot shot down over North Korea, on his experience as a prisoner of the Chinese

Air Force prisoners of war held by communist forces endured horrible conditions during their imprisonment. In the face of constant brutality, American Airmen held prisoner during the Korean War acted with great courage.

The majority of the 235 airmen captured during the Korean War were held in solitary confinement for a large part of their captivity. Prisoners suffered from bitter cold and inadequate food, clothing, and medical care. Airmen, especially pilots, were considered potential sources of intelligence and were subjected to frequent psychological and physical torture.

Debate over how to return prisoners of war on both sides began with the start of armistice talks in late 1951. The UN demanded that no prisoner be returned to communist control against his will. The communists immediately refused. When the UN revealed that more than half of the UN-held POWs did not want to return, tensions increased.

The communists tried to sway world opinion against the UN by forcing "confessions" of atrocities against North Korea from American POWs. They also provoked riots inside UN-run POW camps to cause worldwide outcry against UN treatment of "helpless" communist prisoners.

The communist stance concerning POWs changed abruptly with the death of Josef Stalin in March 1953. Weary of fighting, both sides soon agreed to exchange sick and wounded prisoners. Between April 20 and May 3, 1953, Operation Little Switch exchanged a total of 6,670 Chinese and North Korean prisoners and 669 UN personnel. The main prisoner exchange took place after the armistice was signed three months later. Operation Big Switch returned 75,823 POWs to the communists and 12,773 prisoners to the UN, including 3,598 Americans. By Feb. 1, 1954, all former prisoners choosing not to return to communist rule were released as free civilians.

A Prisoner's Odyssey
The hat, shirt, and pants were worn by A2C Eugene Evers while he was a prisoner of war for more than a year. Evers was a reconnaissance camera repairman stationed in Japan. To check out a camera that had been malfunctioning in flight, he went on a mission with an RB-29 flight crew of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron in July 1952.

The plane was shot down northwest of Pyongyang, North Korea, and Evers was taken prisoner. His captors did not believe that Evers--an extra man in a crew of twelve--was a repairman, and beat him severely. He was kept in solitary confinement in a hole outside a house, and eventually taken into China for interrogation and tried as a "war criminal." Evers was not released until September 1953. He was given a single uniform that he wore for over a year, then given the new clothing on display and a shower right before his release. This uniform was only worn briefly, for one or two days.

Click here to return to the Korean War Gallery.

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