WASHINGTON _ Hundreds of American servicemen were shuttled through a clandestine network of prison camps in China during the Korean War, say formerly secret U.S. Army intelligence reports, which speculate that many died in captivity from malnutrition or lack of medical care.
Rumors have persisted for years that China, which intervened on North Korea's side in the 1950-53 war, took large numbers of U.S. captives for interrogation and indoctrination in camps inside China and never accounted for them.
Declassified reports in the files of the Army's assistant chief of staff for intelligence now make clear that the United States knew of the prisoners, closely tracked their movements and feared for their lives.
On a visit to Beijing in January, Defense Secretary William Cohen asked top Chinese officials to open People's Liberation Army record archives and other files that might help account for missing U.S. servicemen.
About 8,100 are unaccounted for from the Korean War.
Cohen got no explicit assurances from President Jiang Zemin, but a Cohen aide present in the meetings said lower-level Chinese officials indicated Jiang's nonresponse should be interpreted as tacit acceptance.
China has consistently maintained that all POW questions were settled at the end of the war. Chinese troops entered the fray in the fall of 1950 in a surprise offensive that killed and captured thousands of U.S. and other United Nations troops.
It has been well documented that China, with Russian help, ran most of the POW camps in North Korea. Less well understood has been the extent of POW camps in China and what became of American and other prisoners held there.
"One of the most significant features in U.N. POW treatment and policy is the movement of U.N. POWs into Manchuria and into South China," an Army intelligence summary dated Dec. 15, 1951, said. Its unidentified author added that he believed "Manchurian camps house a great many U.S. POWs, and Manchuria is a staging area or collecting point for U.S. POWs."
The report is one in a series of eight written at regular intervals during the war by Army intelligence officers attempting to track POW movements. Each is titled "UN Prisoners of War Camps and Conditions in Korea, Manchuria and China," and labeled "secret." They were declassified in 1996 at the request of Mark Sauter, a New York-based reporter for the syndicated TV program Inside Edition, but were not publicized until now.
The Dec. 15, 1951, report said a "careful assessment" of available intelligence on prison camps led to the conclusion that about 2,500 American POWs were being held in Manchuria, about 1,500 in other parts of China.
"Specially selected groups are sent to China in relatively small numbers to undergo political indoctrination," the report said. "Of those POWs processed in Manchuria, the ones not going to China are apparently being sent to mines and labor camps in Manchuria itself."
"Because of obvious diplomatic complications ... , it follows that the communists would neither wish to return these men to U.S. control nor admit to their existence at this time," the report said. It cited "almost conclusive evidence" that some POWs were being supervised by Soviets.
"These factors, together with the usefulness of U.S. POWs in a slave labor capacity, render the ultimate fate of any U.S. personnel in Manchurian camps in grave doubt," the report said.
Intelligence reports often are based on information from sources whose reliability is questionable, and wartime reports often contain errors and misunderstandings. Even so, the Army intelligence documents leave little doubt that the Chinese prison camps existed and that Americans were held in some.
A report dated June 20, 1952, said more than 1,000 American POWs were held in a former military prison outside Nanking, now called Nanjing.
"A Russian colonel named Nokelov is in charge. All POWs 20-25 years old. Brought here from Peking (Beijing) in December 1951 for re-indoctrination in communist thought," the report said, citing a source rated as "fairly reliable."
A Feb. 15, 1952, report said without elaboration that about 500 POWs at a camp 10 miles east of Mukden, China, were being indoctrinated "pending dispatch to USSR."
The Aug. 20, 1952, installment said POWs were grouped according to perceived political leanings. Those judged by the Chinese to be promising for anti-Western propaganda were kept in what the Army described as "peace camps."
The largest of this type as of May 1952 was at Chungchun in the Manchurian region of northeastern China, the August 1952 report said. "2,000 POWs here; they will not be exchanged," it said, meaning they would not be returned at the end of the war. It reported other peace camps in Beijing, Dandong and Shanghai.
American POWs also were reported in Chinese camps in Harbin and Tsingtao, now Qingdao. The last in the series of Army intelligence reports, dated Jan. 20, 1953, said that because of a lack of reports on 12 prison camps in China since April 1952, it was assumed all 12 had been abolished. There was no word on disposition of the prisoners.