Aerospace Power Journal
Last Seen Alive: The Search for Missing POWs from the Korean War by Laurence Jolidon. Inkslinger Press, Austin, Texas, 1995, 346 pages, $15.00.
Last Seen Aliveis the compelling tale of the investigation into the fate of hundreds of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen who were captured by Communist forces during the Korean War (1950-53) and never returned. These men are believed to have been held by the Communist forces of the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, and North Korea following the armistice in July 1953, in violation of the terms of the prisoner exchange. In his book, investigative journalist Laurence Jolidon carefully weaves both the fragments of information made public during the cold war and the torrents of data released after the fall of the Soviet Union, and he makes a compelling case that American servicemen were retained after the war-some in the Soviet Union, some in China, and some in North Korea. He also asserts that the government of the United States has not aggressively and completely investigated this issue but has allowed it to fade quietly from public view in order to advance other foreign-relations objectives.
Over 2.2 million American men and women served in the Korean theater during the war, and thousands were captured by the Communist forces. Most were returned during the prisoner exchanges in 1953, but the American government soon realized that thousands of service members known to be prisoners of war (POW) were not repatriated.
During the 1950s and 1960s, numerous reports stated that not only did Americans remain captive in North Korea but also some Americans had been transferred to China and the Soviet Union-and remained prisoners there.
Jolidon interweaves his own carefully compiled research with the studies conducted by Task Force Russia, a temporary Department of Defense (DOD) organization of specially selected analysts and experts on foreign intelligence, POWs, and the Soviet military that had responsibility for examining the issue of POWs who may have been under Soviet control. His theme becomes evident early: during the Korean War, the Soviet military sent captured Americans back to the Soviet Union and never acknowledged their existence; those prisoners most likely died in Soviet prison camps; the US government was aware of the Soviet activities at the time but took no action; current (post-Soviet Union) research proves this fact; and the US government is now downplaying the issue rather than spoil its relations with the new Russian Federation.
The most notable story Jolidon tells is about the captured American airmen of the Far East Air Forces (FEAF). The Soviet Union established the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps at Antung Air Base in Manchuria, China, in late 1950. One of its tasks was the management of an overt and covert intelligence-collection mission against the US FEAF. The commander of this unit was Gen Georgi A. Lobov, who, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, decided to go public with his information. Other officers of the 64th, such as Col Gavril Korotkov, soon followed with additional data, and the story began to come together.
As American pilots were captured, they were immediately sent to Sinuiju, the North Korean city across the Yalu River from Antung, where they were interrogated by Chinese and Soviet officers. The Soviets admit to processing 262 American fliers though this collection point. Normally, the Soviet officers were not present but wrote out their questions for the Chinese to ask. Later, a Soviet officer of Mongol heritage participated because he looked Chinese. The questions were designed to provide information that might be useful to Soviet pilots flying MiG-15s against the Americans, and all of the prisoners were asked to work for the Soviet government. None accepted the offer, so many were subsequently transferred to prisons in the Soviet Union and were accused of being spies.
American pilots sent to the Soviet Union were first transferred to an interrogation facility in Khabarovsk, just inside the Soviet border, where they were questioned by a team of over 100 intelligence officers. Apparently hundreds of Americans were sent there, and from that point on they were controlled by the MGB, the forerunner of the KGB. No Americans who were sent through Khabarovsk ever returned to the United States.
The 64th Fighter Aviation Corps was primarily interested in the F-86 Sabre, the top American aircraft in-theater during the war. Soviet intelligence officers assigned to the unit went to great efforts to acquire and ship to the Soviet Union F-86s which had been downed but remained relatively intact. At least three F-86s were transferred to the Zhukovski Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute and the Sukhoi Design Bureau in Moscow. Soviet officers also searched extensively for downed F-86 pilots. According to the reports, when such pilots were captured, they were almost always retained rather than repatriated. A key factor in this analysis is the higher missing-in-action (MIA) rate for F-86 pilots-55 percent-than for pilots of any other aircraft. Research conducted by Task Force Russia indicates that some 31 of 56 F-86 pilots lost during the war could have been captured and processed through the interrogation centers, never to return.
In August 1993, Task Force Russia published an interim report titled The Transfer of U.S. Korean War POWs to the Soviet Union, which stated unequivocally that "U.S. Korean War POWs were transferred to the Soviet Union and never repatriated." This 77-page report detailed the role of the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps and provided both documentary and anecdotal information on its activities in interrogating and processing captured American pilots. However, despite solid evidence, senior DOD officials disavowed the report, and the US government failed to press its case with the Soviet Union. A subsequent two-page report, issued in 1995, states only that "the possibility of transfers of American servicemen from the Korean theater of military operations into the former Soviet Union remains a key working hypothesis [but that] this information to date has not been confirmed." Jolidon asserts that the POW issue has become a pawn in the larger context of US-Russian relations and that the US government is cautious of pushing it for fear of how it could affect internal Russian politics.
Jolidon's book is an exciting and terrifying read, but it does have its flaws. Firstly, written in journalistic style, it is short on documentation-even for many direct quotes from key participants in the events. Most of the endnotes-only 192 for a 300-page book-provide supplemental information rather than sources. As such, it is difficult to judge the validity of much of the information Jolidon used to develop his thesis. Secondly, and in the same vein, the index is very limited and of little value in researching particular topics. It is only seven pages long and lacks such critical topics as Antung, the key Soviet facility in Manchuria during the war, and Task Force Russia, the organization that provided much of the material. Thirdly, because Jolidon was trained as a journalist rather than a historian, his writing style translates into short, punchy paragraphs rather than fully developed concepts and ideas. The book reads like a very long article for a Sunday newspaper. Clearly, he wanted to be the first to publish this exciting material. Fourthly, the material could be better organized. The fact that Jolidon approaches his topics in a variety of ways makes his thought process somewhat difficult to follow. A more analytical and historical methodology would go far in clarifying this material. Finally, the book could have been more carefully edited. Numerous typographical errors seriously detract from the main issues presented in the book.
With Last Seen Alive, Laurence Jolidon has written an important book-one that belongs on the bookshelf of any scholar of the Korean War. In time, it will be replaced by more scholarly histories of this facet of the conflict, but until then, Last Seen Alive stands as a testament to the fate of thousands of brave American servicemen who were captured during the Forgotten War and never came home.
Michael J. McCarthy