Heroes of the Korean War: Lieutenant General Subayya Kadenera Thimayya

Basic Information

  • Name: Subayya Kadenera Thimayya
  • Born: March 30, 1906
  • Died: December 17, 1965
  • Korean War Service: Commanded the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC)

Introduction

The Korean War began when communist North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. The war on the Korean peninsula would eventually draw in multiple United Nations countries to defend the South as well as the Chinese in defense of the North. The war would ultimately last for just over 3 bloody years when the armistice agreement was signed at Panmunjom between the combatants on July 27, 1953. However, something that few people realize is that the war could have likely ended in early 1952 if it wasn’t for one issue that had the negotiating parties deeply divided; the repatriation of prisoners.

The peace talks at Panmunjom began on October 25, 1951 after the Chinese had launched their 2nd Spring Offensive in April of that year and were soundly defeated by the United Nations forces. That summer the Chinese had not been able to make any gains as the UN forces had hardened their defensive lines along the vicinity of the 38th parallel after the Chinese offensive. This caused the war to turn into a fight to hold strategic hill tops that would cost a huge amount of casualties for offensive forces to capture. So by that fall it was in each sides interest to enter into peace talks to end the war since both sides were not willing to accept the huge casualties it would take to try and win the war through military means.

Geoje-do Island POW Camp.

Determining the demarcation line between the two countries and the rules and regulations of the armistice was the easy part of the negotiations. However, what was not easy was how to handle the issue of prisoners of war that did not want to return to their home countries. At the time of the peace talks the United Nations forces held up to 170,000 communist prisoners at the Geoje Island POW camp. Of these prisoners tens of thousands of them were either former Chinese Nationalist soldiers or South Koreans that were forced to join the Communist ranks during the war. These prisoners as well as others that were convinced of the validity of the democratic side of the conflict did not want to be returned to China or North Korea. The United Nations side did not want to be in the position of having to forcibly repatriate these prisoners to the Communist side because morally this was not the right thing to do, but also it would have been political suicide for the leaders that approved it.  You can read more about the Geoje POW camp at the below links:

So the UN continued to negotiate with the Communists in order to get them to agree that prisoners should not be forcibly repatriated. Unfortunately this caused the Korean War to be extended for two more years largely over this issue. In 1952 as the Communist negotiators continued to demand that all the prisoners be sent back to North Korea and China , the Geoje Island POW camp uprising happened. The Communist POW’s were able to forcibly detain the camp’s commandant US Brigadier General Francis Dodd. The general was only released after the prisoners were able to get General Dodd to sign a statement saying that the US would stop torturing and abusing the prisoners. The US was not torturing the prisoners but the Communists were able to score a major propaganda victory with the statement.

At the armistice talks whenever the UN side claimed that some of the prisoners did not want to be repatriated, the communist negotiators would counter that the prisoners only say that because they are being inhumanely tortured on the island. Fortunately by June 1952 under the leadership of Brigadier General Haydon Boatner the uprising was put down, but the propaganda damage done to the UN was enough to damage the peace talks for the rest of the year. In fact it wasn’t until March 1953 that a breakthrough was made in the armistice talks when the Communists agreed to a Red Cross sponsored idea to exchange injured and sick prisoners. The Communist side also went as far to say that the successful conclusion of the prisoner exchange would open the door to a wider agreement on the POW repatriation issue. The transfer of wounded and sick prisoners became known as Operation Little Switch and was executed between April 20 to May 3, 1953.  Throughout the operation the Communists claimed that their prisoners were tortured and brainwashed, but ultimately it was completed successfully despite the usual Communist propaganda games. The Communists turned over 684 soldiers which included 149 Americans, 471 South Koreans, 32 British, 15 Turks, 6 Colombians, 5 Australians, 2 Canadians, and 1 prisoner each from the Philippines, South Africa, Greece, and the Netherlands. The UNC transferred over 1,030 Chinese and 5,194 North Koreans prisoners plus 446 civilians for a total of 6,670 people .

With the successful conclusion of Operation Little Switch the negotiations at Panmujom continued until a final armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. The armistice stipulated that a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission would be formed to handle the transfer of prisoners between the combatants. The nations selected to form the NNRC was Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and India. It was agreed by the negotiators that the NNRC lead country would be India since they were tasked to provide a brigade of soldiers to provide security for the prisoner exchange. Not only would the Indians provide security, but they would also be responsible for carrying out the entire prisoner exchange which become known as Operation Big Switch. The operation would not be something as easy as ensuring prisoners were handed back to their home countries. Due to the repatriation issue it was agreed upon that all the prisoners would have the option of choosing which side they wanted to be repatriated to. However, the soldiers that did not want to be repatriated to their home country would have to wait 90 days in a holding camp located in the newly created Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) before being released in order to give them time to change their minds.  The prisoner exchange was going to be a difficult mission for the Indians that had the attention of the entire world watching how it was carried out. The Indian government wanted to make sure that they had the best person possible in charge of such a sensitive mission and the person they turned to was Lieutenant General Subayya Kadenera Thimayya.

LTG Thimayya Before the Korean War

Subayya Kadenera Thimayya who was called “Timmy” by his British colleagues, was born March 30, 1906 in the city of Madikeri in the district of Kodagu in India.  He was the son of a wealthy farmer who’s family had a long line of military service.  Thimayya would eventually continue this tradition of military service, but not before beginning at the age of 8 to attend private foreign run schools.  After his schooling was completed, in 1922 at the age of 16 he enrolled into the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College.  After graduation Thimayya was one of six Indian cadets chosen to attend the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.  Thimayya graduated from Sandhurst in 1926 and received a commission into the British Indian Army.  His older and younger brothers would also go on to join the Indian Army as well.

One of his assignments during his early military career was with the Scottish 2nd Highland Infantry Regiment stationed in Baghdad, Iraq.  He achieved some acclaim when he led an operation into King Feisel’s palace to rescue a group of women that were supposedly being victimized within the palace.  He would then go on in 1930 to spend a few years in the Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan battling the Pashtun tribes that continue to plague the area to this day.

General Thimayya would then go on to distinguish himself during World War II. During the war India was still part of the British empire and General Thimayya was part of the British colonial military in India battling the Japanese. During the war General Thimayya had the distinction of being the only Indian to ever command a British combat brigade as part of the British offensive into Japanese occupied Burma that became known as the Battle of the Arafan. He received the British Distinguished Service Order for his service for the British military during World War II.  At the end of the war General Thimayya would then go on to be an Indian signatory to the Japanese surrender at Singapore

After World War II, India was divided when the British carved out Pakistan as its own country and granted India its independence. However, this division led to new fighting that General Thimayya took part in as he led Indian military forces in defeating its Pakistani rivals and holding Kashmir as part of India during the first Kargil War of 1948.

The Indian Military During the Korean War

After the Korean War started in June 1950 the Indians were not eager to get involved in another shooting war when they were already facing hostilities at home from Pakistan as well as border disputes with China. The Indians however wanted to show support for the new United Nations and decided on deploying medical support personnel only to support the international effort in Korea. The Indians deployed the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit that consisted of 627 medical personnel under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Rangaraj.

Indian Army medical troops during the Korean War. Picture via the Chosun Ilbo.

The unit arrived in Pyongyang on December 4, 1950, just in time to take part in 8th Army’s withdrawal out of North Korea. On December 14, 1950, it formally became the medical evacuation unit for the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade (later redesignated the 28th British Commonwealth Brigade.) It supported this unit throughout the war and became well known for the quality medical care they provided to the British Commonwealth Brigade.

Indian Army medical unit encampment during the Korean War. Picture via the Chosun Ilbo.

However, with the signing of the armistice agreement the Indians were actually going to deploy a far larger 5,000 man combat brigade to the peninsula than what they had in country during the actual war. This brigade sized element was called the Custodian Force of India (CFI) and by assigning Lieutenant General Thimayya to lead this force India was clearly signaling to both the UN and the Communists that they were sending their best to execute this mission. General Thimayya was under strict orders from the Indian government to be impartial during all his dealings as the head of the NNRC which caused accusations from both sides that he was bias. This perception of bias immediately caused problems for General Thimayya with the ROK government. The South Korean President Syngman Rhee who was opposed to the armistice, forbid the Indian troops from landing in South Korea. Thus the United Nations Command (UNC) had to coordinate to fly the Indian soldiers assigned to the DMZ by helicopter which at the time was the largest helicopter airlift operation in history. The Indians named the camp they stayed at in the DMZ, Camp Nagar which meant “Indian City”. The other camp that housed the soldiers from the other four NNRC countries was called Shanti Nagar which meant City of Peace”.

In this map of the repatriation camps notice that the southern camp the Indians maintained was much larger than the northern camp because of the difference in POW’s held between the two sides. Map via the Korean War Educator.

With the soldiers and logistics in place, General Thimayya set forth to accomplish his mission of repatriating the prisoners. Operation Big Switch began on August 5, 1953 and this would be the easiest part of the operation. The UNC held 132,000 prisoners while the Communists held 12,773 prisoners. All of these prisoners had the choice of whether or not they wanted to be repatriated. The vast majority of prisoners wanted to return home and each side had 60 days to hand the prisoners over. The UNC handed over 75,823 (70,183 North Koreans and 5,640 Chinese) while the Communists handed over 12,773 prisoners. (7,862 South Koreans, 3,597 Americans, 945 British, 229 Turks, 40 Filipinos, 30 Canadians, 22 Colombians, 21 Australians, 12 Frenchmen, 8 South Africans, 2 Greeks, 2 Dutch, and 1 prisoner each from Belgium, New Zealand, and Japan).

All the remaining UNC prisoners were then handed over to the NNRC and housed in two camps within the DMZ in October 1953. At the camps the prisoners would be held for 90 days where each side would be able to send representatives to persuade the prisoners to return home. The UNC held 22,604 prisoners in the camp being guarded by the Indians. Most of these prisoners were former Chinese Nationalist soldiers who wanted to be repatriated to Taiwan. The Chinese had until December 23, 1953 to try and convince these prisoners to return home. The first day of trying to convince Chinese prisoners to return to China was held on October 15, 1953. The Chinese efforts were not successful since they were only able to get 10 prisoners to change their minds. The next day the Chinese requested a thousand Koreans to talk to, but the Indians could not get any Koreans to agree to meet with the Chinese representatives.

Picture of what appears to be Chinese POW’s.  You can see more pictures from the photographer Jerry Rosenstein at this link.

The next day the Chinese wanted another 1,000 Chinese, but the Indians could only get 430 to attend. The Chinese could see they were having little success in their efforts to change the minds of the prisoners and began a new tactic of demanding that the Indians force the prisoners to attend the meetings. The next day the Chinese also demanded that the Koreans be forced to attend the meetings as well. The demands were likely a tactic by the Chinese to get the Indians to use force to move the prisoners which could have turned into a riot that may have led to the death of Korean prisoners. If this happened the South Korean government may have turned on the Indians.


Indian Army soldier responsible for guarding North Korean POW’s. Picture via the Korean War Educator.

The controversy lasted for two weeks until General Thimayya refused their demands to force the prisoners to attend the meetings. However, General Thimayya was also clever enough to get the Korean and Chinese prisoners to voluntarily agree to attend the meetings in order to keep the perception of Indian impartiality and to allow the Chinese to save face. However, that is not what happened as the Chinese over the next few days were only able to get a few more of the prisoners to change their minds. The Chinese had hoped to provoke discord between the UN countries with their demands as well as make the UN look like obstructionists by not having the prisoners attend the meetings and instead they ended up losing face by only being able to persuade a few of the thousands of POW’s to return to their home countries.

What appears to be an American prisoner is talked to by a South Korean delegate to return to the United States while watched by Indian troops.  Picture via the Chosun Ilbo.

Interestingly enough during this timeframe the Indians took possession of the only American POW to change his mind; on October 21, 1953 Corporal Edward S. Dickenson was handed over to the Indians who proceeded to hand him over to the US military.  Interestingly enough 22 American POWs refused to be repatriated despite General Thimayya’s best efforts.


December 15, 1953 Stars & Stripes newspaper article.

The only other UNC prisoners who changed their minds were seven ROK POW’s. Four of these prisoners were a husband and wife with two small children who agreed to be repatriated on November 16, 1953. When the UNC began their attempts to convince Communist held prisoners to return to their home countries they held brief to the point speeches in order to avoid allowing the prisoners to give propaganda speeches back at the presenters. The UNC believed that the Communists only brought hardcore communists to the northern camp that could not be convinced to go back to their home countries. The remaining POW’s were held in North Korea and the ROK Ministry of Defense has estimated that up 20,000 South Korean prisoners were not given the option of repatriation by the Communists. The missing POW’s continues to be an issue even today where the ROK government has made demands that the North Koreans return former POW’s forcibly held in North Korea. Because of the shortness of the speeches and not giving the prisoners the opportunity to make propaganda speeches the Chinese had the prisoners refuse to attend any more meetings.


General Thimayya meets with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Picture from Frontline.

When the December 23, deadline passed, of the 22,604 prisoners the UNC held, only 137 had their minds changed. Over 22,000 Communist forces soldiers wanted to voluntarily leave their home countries while the Chinese were only able to get 359 UNC prisoners to agree to stay in either China or North Korea (335 Koreans, 23 Americans, and 1 Briton). The large discrepancy of soldiers who did not want to return to their homelands was a huge propaganda blow to the Communist forces. The Chinese had hoped to embarrass the UNC by getting more prisoners to return home and they even stacked the deck by only bringing hard core communists to the repatriation camp. Despite this only 1.14% or the UNC’s prisoners decided to change their minds and return to their home countries while 2.23% of the 359 Communist held prisoners changed their minds.

Chart from “The Korean War, Volume 3″ by the Korea Institute of Military History.

Once the exchange was complete General Thimayya then had to hold the remaining prisoners for another 30 days by agreement. On January 18, 1954 General Thimayya notified the UNC and the Communists that the remaining prisoners were ready to be turned over to the countries they wanted to be repatriated to. On January 23, 1954 the remaining prisoners officially became civilians and a reception was held in South Korea to honor the freed anti-communist prisoners that was attended by officials from the ROK, Taiwan, and the UNC. After the ceremony the Chinese prisoners were loaded up into boats and transported to Taiwan under the guard of the 4th Regiment of the 3rd US Marine Division. Upon arrival in Taiwan the anti-communists prisoners were treated as national heroes.

Chinese Nationalists soldiers waving Republic of China flags and holding a picture of Chang Kai-shek begin the long journey to Taiwan.  You can see more pictures from the photographer Jerry Rosenstein at this link.

General Thimayya however would see no party when he left South Korea because of his tense relationship with the ROK that became even tenser when he said voluntary repatriation was “abhorrent to me as a military man”.


February 24, 1954 Stars & Stripes newspaper article.

Despite General Thimayya’s friction with the ROK government him and his troops were thought highly of by their American counterparts who held farewell ceremony in February 1954 to thank the Indians for their service in South Korea.

Post-Korean War Service

After the Korean War General Thimayya would later go on to be the Chief of Staff of the Indian military from 1957-1961. He went into retirement, but volunteered for UN service in 1964 when the organization needed an impartial leader to command UN troops operating on Cyprus. Due to his reputation of impartiality from his Korean War service General Thimayya was a logical choice. He once again showed himself to be an impartial and competent leader during his time in Cyprus. However, the work must have took its tool on the General as he would die of a massive heart attack on December 17, 1965 at the age of 59. Today General Thimayya is widely thought of as an Indian military hero, but his competent handling of the UNRC mission clearly makes him a Hero of the Korean War as well.


February 24, 1954 Stars & Stripes newspaper article.

More Information:  

The Korean War Educator has an excellent site up that goes into great detail explaining the repatriation issue to include having pictures and text of flyers that were handed to the prisoners before being transported to the DMZ camps.  The site  also has the text of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) used by the troops handling the prisoners which is all interesting reading.  

Note: You can read more of the ROK Drop featured series Heroes of the Korean War at the below link:

Picture of the Day: Chinese POW at Geoje Prison Camp

Horrible scenes from Korean War

This file photo, taken during the 1950-53 Korean War and obtained on June 23, 2015, from the Beijing-based International Committee of the Red Cross Regional Delegation for East Asia, shows a South Korean soldier giving a cigarette to a Chinese prisoner of war at a prison camp on the southeastern island of Geoje. This and other rare photos, which Red Cross officials and U.S. soldiers took during the three-year conflict, give a glimpse at how the inter-Korean war drove people into terrible situations, on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the start of the war, which falls on June 25. (Yonhap)

You can see pictures of the Geoje POW Camp today at the below link:

You can read my prior posting about the POW camp during the Korean War at the below link:

Places in Korea: The Geoje POW Camp

For those who have read my series of postings about General Haydon Boatner (Part 1 begins here) you may be interested in visiting the modern day site of the Geoje POW camp.  Today a small section of the former Goeje Island POW camp has been reconstructed into a museum to remember this little known chapter of the Korean War. The museum is located adjacent to the modern day city Gohyeun which is more well known for its massive ship yards than for its significant Korean War history.  At the entrance to the museum visitors are greeted by the flags of all the nations that participated in the defense of the Republic of Korea during the Korean War:

Just passed the flags is this quite impressive fountain and statue of a rifle with a fixed bayonet:

One thing about war memorials in Korea that I have always liked is that they have a lot of really impressive sculptures and this one is no different. Before heading into the main camp visitors will go through the prison’s museum. Inside the museum they have artifacts and recreations of what happened here during the Korean War using mannequins:

These recreations do a good job of visually displaying how large the camp once was as well as the tough living conditions the prisoners found themselves contending with:

Of course the recreations include the final uprising in the prison:

Unfortunately I could not find a recreation of North Korean Colonel Lee Hak-ku hiding in a ditch after the uprising. The recreation pictured above actually reminded me of some of the protesters I’ve seen outside of Camp Red Cloud before. Just take PW off their shirts and I would think they were Hanchongnyun members.

Once you finished checking out the museum you can walk towards the actual prison camp recreation by crossing a bridge over the tree line and then walking through the gate you see below:

Inside the enclosure there is a number of tents and buildings that were used to house the prisoners.  Here is an example of your typical quonset hut building of the day:

Many of these buildings were also used as classrooms to teach democracy and capitalism to the prisoners while other ones served as job training centers. There are also the ruins of a few of the actual buildings from the 1950’s that are still visible:

This ruin used to be the camp’s post exchange (PX). The floor to the PX was paved with concrete because the building also served as the officer club and dances were often held here. It makes me wonder if this was the building where General Boatner was invited to a cocktail party when he first arrived at the out of control prison camp?

Here is a view from slightly above the camp that shows the modern day city of Gohyeun that is adjacent to this museum:

Now compare this picture with what this place looked like during the Korean War:

As you can see the camp’s tents and buildings used to fill the entire valley that is now occupied with the high rise apartments and buildings Gohyeun.

Overall, a visit to the museum may be worthwhile if you are visiting the island anyway or if you are a Korean War scholar that likes to visit historic sites like this from the war. However, what I didn’t like about the museum is that it felt more like a Korean War theme park than an actual museum. The perfect example of this picture below:

Visitors can have their pictures taken as prisoners in the camp. This seemed pretty outrageous to me since this place should have a more solemn tone to it considering the serious and tragic nature of what happened here. Most of the Korean War memorials in the country do have a solemn tone to them so the fact that this one has turned into a carnival atmosphere is actually an exception to the rule. Never the less an interesting place to visit, but probably not worth your time to see if your sole purpose for coming to Goeje Island is to visit this museum.

Places in Korea: Oedo Paradise Island

An unusual but worth seeing tourist destination if you happen to be traveling to Geoje Island is the Oedo Paradise Island.

The island is quite beautiful but small island this is part of the Hallyeo Haesang National Park in Southeastern South Korea:

This small island is easily spotted from Geoje Island due to the many small ferry boats transferring passengers to and from this scenic island:

This island may be small but it does have an interesting history.  In 1969, Lee Chang-Ho began to come to Oedo while fishing to avoid the wind and waves on stormy days. He and his wife began to cultivate the land on the island for 30 years to make it into the garden paradise it is today. The island covers 264 square kilometer and just about every meter of it has been touched by the gardening work of Lee Chang-ho and his wife.

The island has many camellias, palm trees, and other exotic plants. The Venus Garden on the island is designed after the French Versailles and displays twelve sculptures.

The island also has the Paradise Lounge, where you can order something small to eat and drink but beware it is pricey. It also has a small gift shop to buy souvenirs from the many famous dramas filmed here.

The most famous is the Winter Sonata drama.

The sites in the drama are well marked on the island an are swamped with female Japanese tourists. The Sculpture Amusement Park on the island just left me wondering what the heck is up with all the weird children sculptures that are supposed to be Korean children’s games.

I began to think this guy was a pedophile. I don’t know when sticking your head up someones rear end became a children’s game?

Overall the island is worth checking out especially if you traveled all the way to Geoje Island to begin with because it is so far out of the way in Southeastern Korea.

Oedo island is easily reached from Geoje by traveling to the Haegumgang Park entrance at the far southeastern side of the island. At the park you can buy a ticket to see Haegumgang and Oedo Island for 8,000 won at the dock. The boat is quite comfortable but times are subject to change depending on wave and weather conditions. The round trip time of the tour is 4 hours but worth it.