American POWs Kept Behind After the Korean War

What Happened to Them?

The Ashley Five:

Confirmed Alive in North Korean Hands after the War, Never Returned 

Gilbert Ashley & Hidemaro Ishida
Gilbert Ashley & Hidemaro Ishida

“To Ashley: Request your captors to turn you into the nearest POW camp for exchange…Communists cannot plausibly deny you are alive and must arrange your exchange or be charged with violation of armistice.”

 

Message from US Military to 1st Lt. Gilbert Ashley and Four Crewmen Held by North Korea

 

The lumbering B-29 bomber and its crew of fourteen were on a mission to bomb a North Korean supply yard when enemy fighters attacked. “May Day” rang out at 00:26 on January 29, 1953. Three minutes later, plenty of time for bail out, the plane smashed into the ground south of Pyongyang, far behind enemy lines. Its flames illuminated four parachutes descending through the frigid North Korean darkness, according to another plane on the mission. American aircraft saw flares and what appeared to be codes sent by flashlights on the ground before the friendlies were driven off by enemy MIGs.

The bomber crew was led by 1st Lt. Gilbert Lamour Ashley, just 30-years-old but with extensive flight experience in Korea and, before that, World War II. Nicknamed “Coogs” after movie star Jackie Coogan, Ashley was the kind of officer who could lead in combat and also write poetry. His personal belongings included seashells, Rayban sunglasses and copies of the “Confessions of St. Augustine” and “Of Human Bondage.” Now, on the ground in North Korea, Coogs’ coming days would prove stranger than fiction.

1st Lt. Gilbert Ashley: Held by the North Koreans

 

Back at base the next day, military officials reported the “number of survivors, if any, was unknown.” Another report stated only a single parachute was observed. In reality, events would prove that far more than a single, or even four, aviators successfully parachuted from the bomber that night.

Three men from the plane came home during prisoner exchanges at the end of the war. But the story of the rest of the crew, which involves everything from a female spy to a daring rescue operation, demonstrates the complex fates of American POWs in North Korea.

After notification of the downing, the Combined Command Reconnaissance Activities Korea (CCRAK) sent an alert to friendly guerillas in the area to look for survivors. A joint military intelligence and CIA unit, CCRAK operated guerilla groups in enemy territory across North Korea and offshore islands, along with other operations and enemy locations classified to this day. CCRAK “partisans” provided escape and evasion (E&E) assistance for aviators on the run, collected intelligence and waged guerilla warfare. Analysis after the war would determine many of these guerillas were compromised and killed by the Communists, especially later in the war, but they had some successes.

 

[The specific unit in charge of "Green Dragon" was the US 8240th Army Unit. A veteran of that unit, Merrill Newman, was imprisoned by the North Koreans after a visit in Oct. 2013. His detention was reportedly linked to his service with anti-communist Korean partisans.]

The “Partisans”

One of the guerilla bands had the codename “Green Dragon.”  Dropped into North Korea in January 1953, according to declassified records and published accounts, the group of almost one hundred partisans failed to make radio contact for months. When it did, major casualties were reported. American intelligence suspected the unit might have been compromised by the enemy.

Things began to look up on April 22nd, when the guerillas contacted base to say they had ambushed a Communist truck and recovered five American prisoners: 1st Lt. Ashley; Airman Hidemaro Ishida; 1st Lt. Arthur Olsen, 2nd Lt. John Shaddick, and 1st Lt. Harold Turner. Using a URC-4 radio in their possession, “all five were personally contacted” by US forces, resulting in “positive identification,” according to military records. To this day, these men are called the “Ashley Five.”

 

 

Snatch Pick Up
Depiction of Snatch Pick-Up from Different Operation (Note Dangling Rope)
Example of Snatch Pick Up
Example of Snatch Pick Up

Hidemaro Ishida: Alive at the End of the War

The guerillas who had “rescued” the Ashley Five began requesting assistance. In late April, the US dropped in a radio operator, followed by 25 men. Another 26 were inserted in May.

Plans were set to recover the Americans via a “snatch pick-up” operation (see CIA drawing and Air Force picture below on the technique). The men (probably one at a time) would be attached to a line hoisted above a flat area. A C-47 cargo plane, used for special operations in Korea, would fly low dangling a rope with a hook at the end. The hook would catch the line, yanking the attached man off the ground and into the air, where he would be pulled inside the plane. A harrowing method, it was useful when a helicopter or ground extraction was not possible. 

On May 25th, at least four of the Americans arrived at a flat area near their camps for the snatch. They were apparently unaware that a friendly set of eyes was on them, along with those from a decidedly hostile group of men hidden nearby.

 “The aircraft, with dangling ropes, approached the Americans flying at a low altitude. When it almost reached the site where the captives were standing, a terrific barrage of machine gun and antiaircraft gun fire was directed at the aircraft. The aircraft swooped up and flew away,” the friendly onlooker later told US intelligence.

Back at headquarters, the ambush provided more evidence for officers who suspected Green Dragon had indeed been compromised by the North Koreans. Several days later, by one report, a pilot who knew some of the crew overflew the area in a B-26 and spoke briefly with each of the five Americans. The military decided to stay in touch with the Ashley Five and not give away their suspicions to the Korean guerillas.

Then a major break in the operation literally walked into the hands of US Air Force intelligence in the form of a young, female North Korean spy who had just surrendered. The terrified woman spoke at first with a “mask-like expression devoid of expression other than fear,” according to an intelligence report. Then she opened up, offering a flashy smile and plenty of information. She seemed smart and went on to pass two polygraph exams concerning her report.

The woman had only recently graduated from a North Korean agent school. Located in a cave with cement floors to withstand American bombing, the school included classrooms, a dormitory and even a standup piano for free time. At the end of her training, a North Korean official had approached her. “He praised her for her intelligence and told her that she was ready to become an agent. He told her that if she refused to become an agent she would be imprisoned. Therefore, she accepted,” noted her American interrogator. North Korean intelligence believed it was easier for a woman to conduct espionage in South Korea, since villagers were less likely to report a single woman than a man. She was given a mission to infiltrate South Korea. As soon as she got there, she surrendered.

The agent with the flashy smile was pumped for all sorts of intelligence, such as North Korean commodity prices, but the real haul was her information on the Ashley Five.

A Complex Charade

She had lived in a Paek-san area village, deep in the mountains, where the Ashley Five were being held and her mother associated closely with the guerillas. Based on her own observations and detailed information from her mother, the woman revealed numerous details of the operation. The Americans had been brought to Paek-san in April 1953, apparently after being held in a Pyongyang-area prison camp. Local villagers soon became aware a complex charade was being played on the Americans.

The village sat at the foot of a mountain covered with pine and chestnut trees. Wooden houses with thatched roofs were scattered around the area, through which a stream ran, but villagers spent much of their time in bomb shelters made of logs and covered with dirt and grass. The woman’s family lived in a cave and tended about 170 pear and apple trees.

The guerillas had commandeered a church for their headquarters. A motley crew wearing US caps, the men were shod in combat boots or black athletic shoes. The Ashley Five “firmly believed” the guerillas were loyal to the United Nations and the guerillas kept up that impression. But they were really under the control of North Korea. A Communist senior colonel was seen at their headquarters.

The Americans lived mostly in a cave, the woman said, but were allowed to move around as a way to convince them they were in friendly hands.

She said supplies had been parachuted to the guerillas starting in late February, even before the Americans arrived. That first drop included a camera, winter clothing, cigarettes and two pigeons (presumably for communication). Men started parachuting in during April. One of them was Son Byong Cbol, a radio operator. The guerillas forced him to send false messages to US headquarters, the woman recounted. He was then compelled to teach his code to the guerillas, who took over radio communication.

The woman had seen only four of the Americans: three Caucasians and a Japanese-American. On the day of the attempted pick up, she watched as the plane approached and was ambushed by some 70 guns set up in advance. The guerillas maintained their ruse even after the ambush, telling the Ashley Five that a double agent had disclosed the rescue attempt. The next day the guerillas began to pull out. The Americans were sent to Sinun-ni, Wongpong-dong; the villagers were warned to get out before the US responded.

Communists Cannot Plausibly Deny You Are Alive

Armed with this information, on July 28, the day after the Armistice Agreement was signed, the US radioed Ashley. He was instructed to inform his captors that America knew he and his men were alive and the Communists should take them to a POW exchange point immediately. “Communists cannot plausibly deny you are alive,” the US message said.

The response came in early August. The captors, still pretending to be friendly guerillas, stated: “Many agents were killed to rescue and guard the aviators. We were awaked from your deadly murderous action. We will not work anymore for you. Furthermore we resolved that in case you don’t give us an answer regarding this message by 1700 hours 4th August 53, we will self-surrender to NK after we (have killed) the five aviators in revenge.”

US officials with “intimate knowledge” of the operation declared the Ashley Five were alive as of August 1953, as other American POWs returned home in operation “Big Switch.” All that remained was the voice recording of one of the aviators.

As the US military was coming to grips with the fact that North Korea had the “Ashley Five” but were not going to release them, Big Switch brought better news. Three members of the bomber crew, captured separately from the Ashley Five, were released.

 

 

 

We Found Dewey Stopa’s ID Card in Pyongyang

 

Returning US POWs also brought word of another crew member. By the time Big Switch was over, 12 former prisoners had reported seeing or hearing about 2nd Lt. Dewey Stopa. After the crash, he had evaded for three days before North Korean troops captured him. They took Stopa’s leather flying jacket and boots, replacing the latter with a “thin pair of summer tennis shoes.” Wearing those, he was marched into the North Korean winter, heading north for two days and one night before being placed in a cell with other Americans.

By now both his feet were frozen. Held at a location nicknamed “Pike’s Peak,” Stopa was kicked and beaten by guards when he proved unable to stand. Another American gave him a pair of a boots, but they were yanked off, exacerbating his injuries. Stopa grew delirious, his only medical care an unidentified shot from a North Korean nurse. Despite efforts of his fellow POWs, he died on March 3, 1953. When Operation Glory came, the North Koreans failed to return his remains, unless they were misidentified as someone else.

Pyongyang also kept a trophy. During a 1996 trip to North Korea, Sauter spotted Stopa’s identification card on display at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, a monument to North Korea’s twisted history of the Korean War.

Despite all this, the Pentagon’s main POW/MIA list does not indicate Stopa was captured, instead listing him as KIA, which is supposed to represent men killed on the battlefield. We asked DPMO (the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office), which is in charge of the list, how this could be. Its top Korean War expert replied: “Why he is carried as KIA, I do not know either.”

Information Shared, and Not

News of one last crewman also emerged during Big Switch. “(The) only member of my crew I ever heard anything about…was Lt HENRY, the navigator. One of the fellows I was repatriated with told me about meeting Lt HENRY and that he was doing fine,” reported a returned member of the Ashley bomber crew.

There was more than one missing man named Henry and we don’t have additional information to confirm this sighting as Dewey Henry from this incident. Given Communist behavior, the report can certainly not be dismissed.

A returned crewmember wrote the mother of James O’Meara that “I saw him jump as you know and he did not appear to be injured in any way but after that I don't know what happened. I neither saw him again or heard of anyone else seeing him, it’s very puzzling to me as well as you." He is still missing.

According to Pentagon files, John Shaddick's father wrote in a 1956 article, "My wife went to China last year to hunt for our son. . . A Communist newspaperman came to her hotel and told her they had our son, that he was alive and in good health, but his return must be negotiated.”

 

That never happened. Neither did the Pentagon share the “Green Dragon” intelligence with families of the missing. As far as we can tell, some of them first learned of it from information we published in 1993. After a subsequent report, a family member wrote her Congressman: “(Y)ou should be aware that the US government contacted my family (when his )plane was downed and told them there were no survivors. Yet, now we’ve learned that the government not only provided misinformation, but blatantly withheld information that there had been a failed rescue attempt and that he was known to be alive.”

From just one plane, five men were captured and last known alive in enemy hands; one man was captured and known to have been abused and died in captivity; one man was reported, but not confirmed, alive in captivity; four men simply went missing and three men returned. All in a crash where initial observers saw hope for at most four survivors.

Not long after declaring “Communists cannot plausibly deny you are alive and must arrange your exchange or be charged with violation of armistice,” and with no evidence beyond what you’ve read, the Pentagon declared the Ashley Five dead. The story of “Green Dragon” was classified and ultimately shipped to the National Archives, where it sat unread and unknown to the families for decades.