On August 5, 1953, Operation Big Switch began at Panmunjom, Korea, aimed at the repatriation of remaining prisoners from both sides of the Korean War.
The war had begun on June 25, 1950 when the North’s Korean People’s Army attacked, crossing over the 38th parallel into South Korea.
As the UN stepped in with a counteroffensive, the South was able to advance to the border of North Korea and China.
At this point, China committed its large army, pushing UN troops back to around the 38th parallel, where, from summer 1951, a stalemate was reached that exists to this day.
Ceasefire talks had been ongoing between Communist and UN forces from that time, with one of the main stumbling blocks being the Communist insistence that all prisoners be returned home, with the UN maintaining that prisoners who wished to remain where they were be allowed to do so.
After talks dragged on for two years, the Chinese and North Koreans relented on this point, and the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953.
Communist prisoners of war detraining from a 765th Transportation Railway Shop Battalion hospital train that had transported them to Musan, North Korea, August-September 1953. Photo by August “Gus” Firgau.
Operation Big Switch lasted until December 1953 and saw 75,823 Communist prisoners (70,183 North Koreans and 5,640 Chinese) and 12,773 UN prisoners (7,862 South Koreans, 3,597 Americans and 946 British) returned.
Over 22,600 Communist soldiers, the majority of whom were former Kuomintang soldiers who fought against the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, declined repatriation.
Much to the surprise of the UN forces, 21 Americans and one Briton, along with 325 Korean UN soldiers, also declined repatriation, voluntarily deciding to stay with the Communists.
A detailed documentary about the American servicemen who stayed behind in China, They Chose China, can be watched on YouTube (VPN required).
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[Cover image by August 'Gus' Firgau]