The Fate of Our POWs From The Korean War

The infuriating and tragic tale told by 92,000 declassified documents.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is John Zimmerlee, Executive Director of the Korean & Cold War POW/MIA Network.

FP: John Zimmerlee, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Let’s begin with what happened with our missing servicemen from the Korean War and what, for 60 years, the American government has said about them to their families. What is the real fact?

Zimmerlee:  Thanks Jamie.

Immediately after the Korean War, families were told not to talk about their missing loved-ones as it might endanger their life, safety, and possible return.  The truth is that President Eisenhower knew full well that thousands of American servicemen were still alive and in captivity, but pursuing them might start World War III.

FP: Why were our servicemen taken and kindly give a little bit more information about why Eisenhower and our government didn’t do anything about it?

Zimmerlee: Russia was a silent partner in the Korean War, supplying guns, aircraft, and pilots to China. In return, the Chinese agreed to send unrecorded prisoners to Siberia. Russia denied any involvement in the war.

According to Soviet estimates, more than 14 million captured citizens and prisoners of war passed through the Russian prison system, gulags, for free labor in mining and forestry camps throughout Siberia.

During the Korean War, aviators were interrogated by the Chinese for overall knowledge of the war and technical knowledge of the aircraft, then sent to the gulags. Ground forces were sent to the gulag directly.

The war was unpopular, and was lasting too long. No one would surrender. A cease fire agreement, Armistice, took more than a year to prepare and was reluctantly signed. Meanwhile, Congress had approved the use of a nuclear bomb.

Eisenhower had to make a decision.  The only way to locate these men was to invade Siberia and look for them across an area of 5.1 million square miles, with no guarantee of finding them.

FP: What have American presidents done in terms of the closed documents on the cases of our missing servicemen? What have been the results?

Zimmerlee: In 1995, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12958 which stated all documents more than 25 years old should be declassified at a rate of 15% per year. By 2001, all should have been available to the public, but no effort was ever made and most of those more than even 50 years old are still classified to this day.

In 2003, George Bush signed Executive Order 13292 which repeated the language of the previous EO, but stated that in documents that may concern National Defense or ‘weapons of mass destruction' . . . they may be kept classified for up to 50 years. Again, departments have claimed that the order was not funded and therefore they didn’t comply.

In 2009, Obama signed E O 13526 which stated the same thing, but made allowances of 75 years for sensitive documents.

No doubt the next relative EO will allow a hundred years of secrecy.

FP: Tell us about your own research and what you have discovered.

Zimmerlee: When the Defense Prisoner of War – Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) was created in 1995, I met with their attorney and initial staff to determine just what they would be doing.

During my very first meeting, it was evident that research and discovery was not their main focus. If any information was to surface, I knew I would have to find it myself.

Over the last 17 years, I have scanned more than 92,000 declassified documents and discovered compelling evidence on 835 MIA cases and 190 KIA cases that clearly indicate these men were known PRISONERS of WAR, but their families were never told.

But, I have seen only about 10% of the documents related to the Korean War POW/MIA issue. Just imagine what I could discover if the “Classified Documents” (about 90%) were released.

FP: So who is it exactly that is not obeying the orders signed by Clinton, Bush and Obama? Who exactly is succeeding in blocking the release of the documents and of the truth. And why?

Zimmerlee:  Agencies include Navy, Senate, State Department, Army JAG, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense, Air Force, Marine Corp, CIA, International Military Agencies, Provost Marshal General, and many others.

The requests for release must go through either a “Mandatory Declassification Review” or Freedom of Information Act” process. I have hundreds of those in the works, some dated back into the ‘90’s.

If the boxes contain correspondence between two agencies, both must agree to release. If foreign countries are involved, they too, must be contacted for release.

To even request information, you must first know that it exists. That is the hardest part. Then you must know exactly where it is located. The Archives does not make that easy. Then you must request it during certain limited “pull times” and wait. Most often, it can’t be found where the Archives claims it’s located or where it is still classified, even though you have been notified in writing that it is declassified.

FP: Kindly share the case of Sgt. Desautels with us.

Zimmerlee: Richard Desautels was captured on 1 December 1950 and held at camp 5. He was presumed dead on 19 February 1954 after the fighting had ended. We weren’t told anything more, but our government knew full well that he had been taken into China in the summer of 1952. He spoke Chinese and was a “reactionary” – meaning that he was a difficult prisoner. He learned much about his captors and they knew he would share it all (including war crimes) upon his release. That was not going to happen.

In 2003, the Chinese admitted having him and claimed he died of insanity. If true, they drove him to it.

FP: Tell us why the Chinese took Desautels and what they were doing with him. Share the evidence with us about their admission of having him.

Zimmerlee: Desautels was taken prisoner in 1950 along with hundreds of others from our Army’s 2nd Division. When the guards discussed confidential or criminal activities, they spoke only Chinese. For months, they didn’t realize that Desautels also spoke Chinese and now knew all their secrets.

The Chinese saw Desautels as a challenge. Could they convert this rebel? Could they brainwash him into thinking that communism is the solution to all world problems?

According to a 2003 release of a summary of a 10 page still classified Chinese document, Desautels became mentally ill on April 22, 1953 and died April 29, 1953 in a Chinese  town 150 miles from the border with Korea. His body was buried there, but exhumed later and lost.

That’s interesting, since several American POWs reported Richard Desautels alive in August 1953, four months after his supposed death.

But Desautels is just one known POW case.  I have details on hundreds of supposed MIA cases, which clearly indicate they were POWs, some with burial locations. DPMO is claiming one Marine was in a bunker when it collapsed. His body is supposedly still in the bunker located in the current DMZ. Evidence shows he was in a prison camp, then transported to Kaesong, near Freedom Village, in August 53. Since we didn’t know he was prisoner, we didn’t ask for him, so the Chinese loaded him up in a truck with untold others and hauled him North -- never to be heard from again.

FP: Why does the U.S. government behave in the way it does on this issue?

Zimmerlee: We were not as successful in the Korean War as our government would lead us to believe.  When the Chinese captured our men and bragged about it in their newspapers, they printed names. The New York Times translated and reprinted their names for the whole world to see and at that point, our government couldn’t deny their capture.

Yet, at every opportunity, our government hid the fact that our men were captured. If a man was captured but died before his name could be recorded at an interrogation point, he was labeled KIA, killed in action.  If a man was known to be captured, but his name wasn’t on a published list, he was labeled Missing-in-Action.

FP: What can the average citizen do to help uncover the truth and perhaps even help those POWs still being held alive somewhere? What's a good organization to get involved with?

Zimmerlee: Most important, go to, select your congressmen, and leave a message that states “Change Title 10 United States Code to provide immediate declassification of all POW/MIA related documents more than 25 years old.”

Then check out these websites:,,,,

Together, we can and will get answers!

For more information on this issue, see our symposium: Why We Left Our POWs Behind.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.

Tags: China, Russia, korea