President Xi Jinping: What Happened to the U.S. POWs China Has Never Returned?

Families across America have a pressing question for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, now visiting the U.S. It’s not among President Obama’s public priorities for this trip, such as climate change, trade and cybersecurity. Nor is it likely to be asked by the news media or the Secretary General of the United Nations during Xi’s visit there.

The question: What did China do with the Americans it captured during the Korean and Cold Wars but never returned? The fate of these husbands, fathers, sons and brothers continues to haunt their loved ones, who are frustrated at Beijing for its long stonewalling and Washington for its failure to press the issue.

We can now report that a celebrated 2008 U.S.-China agreement to open Chinese military archives has failed to resolve the case of even a single U.S. POW, according to the Pentagon. The Chinese “cite classification issues that prevent them” from releasing information on American POWs, a spokesperson admitted to us late last week. 

Take the case of Richard “Dick” Desautels, a handsome, blue-eyed nineteen-year-old from a Vermont dairy farm who was imprisoned by China and never returned. After decades of claiming he had “escaped” in 1953 from a Chinese-run prison camp in North Korea, Beijing in 2003 finally admitted it had actually abducted Desautels to China that year. According to their new story, Desautels died soon after from a sudden “mental illness” and his body was misplaced. Asked for proof of his fate, Beijing refuses to release the files it admits having on this missing American hero.

Sgt. Richard Desautels

At least China finally responded to the question about Desautels. In hundreds of other cases involving men last known or believed alive in Chinese hands, Beijing has simply referred back to its preposterous original claims.  Harry Moreland “escaped” from a mountain prison in enemy territory, China has insisted, even though both of Moreland’s legs had been amputated. His American POW camp buddies saw Gerald “Jerry” Glasser taken away in a jeep by Chinese officers, but China maintained he too “escaped.” Air Force officers Robert Martin, Kassel Keene, George W. Patton and others were sentenced to prison terms by communist kangaroo courts, their sentences “not to be affected by repatriation” at the end of the war. None came home. And the list goes on.

Hundreds more Americans simply vanished in combat with the Chinese, including soldiers such as Sgt. Lewis W. Sowles. Their families point to compelling evidence the Chinese captured some of them and could also account for many left dead on the battlefield.

US POWs in Communist Hands

China simply refuses to tell us what it did with many American prisoners. America’s top general in Korea admitted as much at the end of the war. “I was in a quandary. The question to me was, 'How do you get these people back without pointing a gun at the communists?' When you have no gun threatening the Reds (China and its North Korean and Soviet allies), there is no way to demand and enforce compliance from them," said General Mark Clark, Commander-in-Chief of U.S./United Nations forces. Clark later stated there was “no question in my mind that the communists still hold some of them.”

The Air Force Chief of Staff even requested a C.I.A. covert operation to rescue the survivors, according to documents declassified in recent years, but the operation which turned down due to insufficient CIA “capabilities.”

More Americans literally fell into Chinese hands during the Cold War. After their Navy plane was shot down by shore batteries near Shantou, China, Lloyd Smith and William McClure floated ashore and were captured, according to U.S. intelligence. China has claimed it knows nothing of their fate.

Navy Lt. (j.g.) James Deane and a fellow crewman were reported alive by intelligence sources after their 1956 shoot-down off China’s coast. Deane was last reported living outside Beijing under the control of Ch'en Lung, assistant chief of the Public Security Department in Beijing and the other American was said to be working at the “Sheng-Lung Corporation" in Shanghai.

James Deane, Reported Alive in China

The Navy kept these intelligence reports secret from the crew’s families for decades, then claimed the men could not have survived the crash (though numerous U.S. POWs have returned over the years after disappearing in “un-survivable” crashes). Deane’s wife, Dr. Beverly Shaver, later pressed China for answers herself, with help from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a friend of Deane’s from flight school. A high-level Chinese official told her Beijing still considered records on Deane "highly classified" decades after the incident, which makes little sense if he really perished in the crash. As with other cases, there seems no question Beijing has information on Deane’s incident but still refuses to provide it to the U.S.

Not that the U.S. government shares all its information on these issues, even with POW/MIA family members. The military and National Archives are still refusing to release POW-related documents dating back to 1953 – claiming to the authors that the files are still properly classified.

What we have dislodged from the government under the Freedom of Information Act are intelligence records showing China held but never returned a substantial number of American prisoners, intelligence now corroborated by former senior Soviet officers who fought with the Chinese in Korea and testify that U.S. prisoners were held in China and in some cases sent on to the U.S.S.R.  (Information on US POWs sent to the Soviet Union and kept in North Korea can be found here:

The declassified files also include the story of Dick Desautels as told by his fellow POWs who did return. Taken to Chinese Manchuria after his capture, he learned Chinese while being forced to drive trucks for the enemy. He was then brought back to a Chinese-run POW camp in North Korea, where he upset his captors by interpreting for fellow GIs. “He told me that the (Chinese) would not let him come in contact with other POW’s as he knew too much,” one buddy reported.  Before U.S. POWs were to be repatriated in 1953, Desautels feared he was about to be taken away to China. “(A)t that time he mentioned if he should disappear to make inquiries concerning his whereabouts with the proper military authorities,” a friend recalled of their last meeting at the camp.

When China released its prisoners, Richard Desautels and others last known alive were not among them. Beijing told the U.S./United Nations command that Desautels had “escaped,” offering no further information about him.

China stuck with this claim, and its blanket denials about the other missing Americans, until 2003, when for reasons unknown it made an astonishing admission. “The People's Liberation Army representative stated that he had found a complete record of 9-10 pages on this case in the Chinese Archives, which are still classified. The Chinese People's Liberation Volunteer Army captured Sergeant Desautels and he was known to be a POW. According to the Chinese, Sergeant Desautels became mentally ill on April 22, 1953 and died on April 29, 1953. He was buried in a cemetery near Shenyang. The graves were moved when construction activity was conducted in the area and there is no record of where Desautels' remains were reinterred,” reports a Pentagon report on the meeting.

In other words, Beijing admitted its decades of denials about Desautels were a lie. Desautels had not “escaped.” He had been secretly spirited from North Korea to Shenyang, China, and never returned. Now the Chinese were asking America to believe a new story: Desautels had died within days of his abduction from a “mental illness” and China had lost his body. As to the details, China refused to release its file on Desautels, calling it classified.

Aside from the implausible cause of death and convenient loss of Desautels’ body, the Chinese story raised another issue. Shenyang, then called Mukden, was “confirmed” by US intelligence during the war as the location of a secret Chinese prison camp and shipping point for American prisoners being sent to the Soviet Union.

Was Desautels’ body really lost, or was he actually sent to the Soviet Union or kept in China? What about those other Americans reported in Shenyang? Unfortunately, there’s no indication the Pentagon asked the Chinese these questions. Nor, as far as we can tell, did they alert the families of others missing from Chinese camps about the sudden break in China’s stonewall and the existence of Chinese records such as the one on Desautels. The Pentagon did ask China to provide its classified file on Desautels, but never received it, nor as far as we can tell escalated the issue to higher policy levels or asked for similar files on other missing Americans.

In 2008 the Pentagon did announce a new agreement with China to obtain information from its military archives (for $150,000 a year in Pentagon funding), an agreement heralded as a breakthrough by the U.S. However, our review of government records shows that instead of providing information on the men confirmed held in its prisons – such as Desautels and others listed above -- China has released documents on U.S. aircraft crash sites, often in remote areas and including those from World War II.  

We are told the archive records have failed to resolve the case of even a single American POW and apparently are not even expected to. According to a Pentagon spokesperson: “They (the Chinese) have not provided us information on POWs to date (via the Archives project) and they cite classification issues that prevents them.” 

Gerald Glasser: Taken Away by Chinese Officers

“I think that our government needs to pursue my Uncle Jerry (Glasser)’s case even harder now that China has finally admitted to taking Dick Desautels,” Phyllis Glasser told us, in a sentiment echoed by many other family members.

So as Xi Jinping visits the White House and the United Nations (for whom our missing American soldiers officially fought), listen for the question so many American families want asked. And deserve to have answered after so many years of waiting.  Xi Jinping: What did China do with our missing fathers, sons, brothers and husbands?

John Zimmerlee is the Executive Director of the Korean & Cold War POW/MIA Network and Vice President of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. His father, Capt. John Henry Zimmerlee USAF, is missing in the Korean War. Mark Sauter, a former investigative reporter and Army officer, has been investigating the fate of Korean War POW/MIAs for more than 25 years, from North Korea to Moscow. He blogs at: Sauter and Zimmerlee are authors of the book: American Trophies: How US POWs Were Surrendered to North Korea, China and Russia by Washington’s Cynical Attitude

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