Wrapping up the war in Panmunjom | RecordCourier.com

Wrapping up the war in Panmunjom

by Donna Hellwinkel
Special to The R-C
Freed American POWs are loaded into an ambulance after a prisoner exchange during the Korean War.
Don Hellwinkel

This is the final installment of a series on Minden resident Don Hellwinkel’s involvement in the final days of the Korean War.

Despite the good intentions of this exchange, much hostility was present. The Chinese initiated a battle at Pork Chop Hill that Spring just to show that they were still capable of warfare. It was a furious artillery barrage. Over 100,000 rounds of artillery were fired in two days by the Americans, greater then any battle in World War I or II. Some returning Communist prisoners refused food and clothing from their UN captors in an effort to embarrass them and to provide fodder for anti-West propaganda. There were also reports in the Western press that numerous sick and wounded UN POW’s remained in Communist captivity. Nevertheless, the returning UN prisoners were given a jubilant welcome when escorted through the Freedom Gate set up at Freedom Village, Munsan Korea. Lt. Hellwinkel was there for it all, from tense negotiations with the Communists to the wounded and sick UN prisoners being carried off convey trains in stretchers. Many of these historic moments were recorded on his little movie camera.

Operation Little Switch: In the weeks before the actual exchange, UN soldiers rehearsed, moving “patients” from trains to ambulances to the point of exchange in Panmunjom. This same group of “patients” then played the part of returning UN POW’s. They were taken by the ambulances to the “Freedom Village”, a tented village complete with field hospital, delousing tents and “familiar chow” set up in Munson. It looked a lot like the set of M*A*S*H*. While this was going on, the chief UN Command officer in charge, Rear Admiral Daniel, was negotiating the final details of the exchange. The Reno Evening Gazette’s front page for April 13, 1953, shows a photo of the smiling admiral, waving the agreement signed by him and North Korean Maj. Gen. Lee Sang Cho.

Adm. Daniel’s photograph also made Life magazine. He is shown outside of the truce hut in Panmunjom, without a hat on, pacing. The article, titled “The Long Road Home Shortens a Little” was featured in the April 20, 1953 edition of Life magazine. It discusses how the exchange of sick and wounded prisoners revived hope for peace in Korea.

The actual exchange occurred over 13 days, with each side releasing groups of prisoners per day. The UN prisoners were evacuated from Panmunjom by helicopter or ambulance to Freedom Village. Exchanged American prisoners were further evacuated to Japan or the United States.

The Hellwinkel home movies, although poorly edited and without any audio, give the viewer a good idea of what went on in Panmunjom. Filmed over a period of days, we see the inside of of the conference hut, with the actual table where the negotiations were held. My dad points out the UN and North Korean flags there. We see North Koreans and Chinese leaders arriving in Soviet style jeeps. Some of them look like they are wearing Mao jackets. Admiral Daniel is in a lot of frames, talking to other dignitaries and to reporters. We see my dad looking through binoculars at distant mountains where artillery fire is taking place. Could this be a battle in No Man’s Land? But the stars of the show are the UN POW’s coming off of ambulances. some are limping, but still walking with the aid of an MP escort. Others are on stretchers and appear wounded or sick. Some are white men, some are black. All are dressed in dark blue coats and Russian style caps. Some are crying, some are smiling. Some GI’s must have asked for a cigarette because suddenly they are smoking. I recognize Carl Kerchenhausen. He is identified as the first American POW to be released on the front page of the Reno Evening Gazette, April 20, 1953. Later the released POW’s are shown being escorted through the Freedom Gate into Freedom village in Munson. It’s a great scene, and it is repeated over and over many minutes of home movies.

There are also images of the North’s side of things. A big gate is decorated with lots of red bunting and Chinese and North Korean flags. According to my father’s notes it is “the Commie receiving area. Fancy red flags and sign that reads: The Fatherland Welcomes you to its Warm Bosom (sp).” Nurses in white uniforms and hats greet the returning POW’s. Most of these prisoners seem happy, too. They are smiling and waving as they depart on ambulances.

April 20, 1953 was a big day, not just for my father. Operation Little Switch started the POW exchange, leading to Operation Big Switch, the exchange of all prisoners (approximately 76,000 UN prisoners and 13,000 communist POW’s), and an armistice in July 1953. Admiral Daniel was involved with all of the subsequent negotiations. In fact, he is credited with assembling the final agreement on POW’s which led to the armistice.

On July 27, 1953 three of the four parties to war signed the armistice agreement. The Republic of (South) Korea did not. It refused to sign any agreement that did not unify Korea under democratic rule. The issue of repatriation of the remaining POWs was resolved by the Communists agreeing to place those prisoners who refused repatriation under the neutral control of the Neutral Nations’ Supervisory Commission, chaired by India. After a 90-day period if a prisoner still refused repatriation, he would be freed. The armistice created a 2.5 mile wide DMZ across the center of Korea. In fact, Panmunjom village sits in the middle of this Joint Security Area. The tents and conference shed exist as they did in 1953, a museum to this Forgotten War. Today North and South Korean troops, from their heavy fortified respective side of the line, stare at each other all day. This has held the peace, albeit Cold War style.

Lt. Hellwinkel returned home prior to the armistice. He was released from duty soon after the completion of Operation Little Switch in May 1953. Like many other veterans, he quietly resumed his old life. He came home to Minden took up his job in the family business, and married my mother, Marlena Neddenriep, in 1954. His naval experiences were over, but he continued to take movies of all the important events in his life.

There is one final connection of the Korean War to my Nevada childhood. And, that is Miss Cora Lee Shawe, my fifth-grade teacher at Gardnerville Elementary. Miss Shawe’s brother, Hamilton Bruce Shawe Jr. was also a graduate of Douglas County High School. He was a year younger than my dad and attended West Point, class of 1946. Capt. Shawe was a North Korean POW. He was shot down over North Korea on Oct. 1, 1950, while flying alone in an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft. He had been making photographic runs over the port of Wonsan. Capt. Shawe spent three years in a North Korea prison camp, Camp No. 2, Pyotong. In three years of captivity, his family in Gardnerville received only 7 letters from him. They did receive good news from a Navy lieutenant POW who was exchanged in Operation Little Switch. He told them that there were 32 prisoners in his camp when he left and three were in good physical health, one of those being Captain Shawe. Captain Shawe also managed to send roses, a dozen American Beauties, to his mother for Mothers Day 1952. He wrote a letter to the Reno Chamber of Commerce asking them to order the flowers from a Reno florist and bill them to him. “I will settle up the account personally upon my return to the United States.” Amazingly, this letter got through and the Chamber of Commerce fulfilled his request.

Capt. Shawe was released in one of the last groups of prisoners exchanged in Operation Big Switch. Considering that 40 percent of US Army POW’s died while confined, Capt. Shawe was lucky indeed. He was later awarded the Silver Star for his actions during the Korean War. He made the military his career and retired as a U.S. Air Force colonel.

While my father’s experience in Korea was a positive and productive one, it wasn’t so for the Korean people. They were and still remain the biggest losers in the Korean war. It is estimated that three million Koreans died, at least half of them civilians, from one cause or another during the three years of fighting. (In comparison, Japan lost 2.3 million in World War II.) Much of the war’s death and destruction came from widespread firebombing of the North by Allied forces. There is also the toll of misery and death resulting from the repressive forces of subsequent North Korean dictators to account for.

And yet, the ancient country of Korea, existing within distinguishable borders since the time of Mohammed, remains divided. It has been split in two longer than Germany was divided by the Iron Curtain.

Panmunjom is still as ominously elusive to me as it was when I was a child.