The Japanese emperor’s famous surrender announcement came at noon on August 15th, 1945. However, for Korea (and Manchuria) the date is of limited use, despite its symbolic importance today. Japanese troops did not formally surrender on the ground in the southern half of Korea until the 9th of September. August 15th also did not bring the immediate release of prisoners of war held in Japanese camps in Korea. There is, however, plenty of mention of them in US military documents from this early transition period. Before the prisoners were liberated, indeed, before US soldiers had landed in Korea, the US military began to drop food and supplies on the camps. The drops were important for morale, but also apparently reached the prisoners of war in large enough quantities that when medical inspectors evaluated the condition of the prisoners, they had difficulties in estimating the wartime nutritional conditions in the camps. Though they suffered from all manner of diseases and conditions were horrible in some camps, most prisoners (it is important to note that the only prisoners mentioned in the documents I have looked at so far are Western prisoners) had gained as much as 20 pounds from a recent deluge of supply drops and Red Cross packages and the special medical unit brought for their benefit was judged as unnecessary.
There is another more problematic side to these supply drops – delivered by air at a time when hostilities had already ended. In the official military History of the United States Armed Forces in Korea covering the period roughly up to the Korean War, we find this telling passage:
“The B-29s came in at a low altitude. Many of the parachutes to which [sic] from 30 to 50 percent of the supplies were unusable, and the fast-falling packages did a certain amount of damage. At Seoul they killed a Korean woman. At Inch’on they crashed through the roof of the prisoners’ hospital, broke the leg of one of the prisoners, killed one Korean, and injured eight Japanese. In spite of these serious mishaps, the prisoners benefited greatly in body and mind from the flights and from the supplies that were salvaged. The morale effect of the planes was tremendous.”1
In addition to killing people with falling supplies and the huge waste involved in these drops, they also created tensions with Russian troops in some areas, as in the case of the drops around one camp:
“The story of the drops made over the camp at Konan is more involved. When the first drops were made, at about the same time as the drops over the Seoul and Inch’on camps, Russian troops were in the area. Some of the packages hit a building occupied by Red Army troops and narrowly missed a colonel, as the Russians later explained. This occurence brought an order from the local Russian commander that any planes that might come over in the future to drop supplies should be intercepted and made to land before delivering their cargo, in order to avoid any more accidents.”2
The story doesn’t end there. Later a B-29 tried to drop more supplies in the area and four Russian fighter planes tried to get the bomber to land on an airfield far too small for its size. The bomber tried to fly back without dropping anything, but the Russians fired on the plane as it went out to sea (the military historian speculates that they thought the plane was Japanese with Allied markings). 6 of the crew bailed up, to be picked up by Korean fishermen, while the other 7 crash landed the plane and were picked up by the Russians, with whom they made amends. Not knowing what to do with the soldiers, they delivered them to the prison camp where they stayed, after delivering the plane’s supplies by hand…
1. 駐韓美軍史 (HUSAFIK History of the United States Armed Forces in Korea) published by 돌베개, p344