The South Korean island of Jeju is a thriving resort area today. But when Carl Grose, 85, was on that island during the Korean War, it was hardly a resort. Grose helped build a prison camp there to house North Korean and Chinese prisoners.
Grose was in his junior year at Purdue University in September 1951 when he was drafted. He wanted to finish his college degree before joining the U.S. Army, but Uncle Sam wouldn’t wait.
The Army figured a Purdue student should have some engineering savvy, so Grose was trained to build bridges. Then he was shipped to Japan to learn how to work with portable generators. When he got to what was then called Cheju Do – “do,” pronounced “dough,” means island – Grose began to build a prison camp.
For Grose, it wasn’t a bad life. “We got fresh meat twice a week,” he said, which is better than some GIs saw. Food supplies for the prison camp were airlifted to the island.
“Somehow we got eggs all the time,” he recalled. “I don’t know how they got shipped in without breaking any.”
Grose, always a private because a power struggle in Congress froze all military ranks, worked with fellow Americans, of course, but also with prisoners as he helped build facilities at the prison camp.
“If you worked with the prisoners who didn’t want to go back there, they were very helpful. They really needed no supervision,” Grose said.
“They were eager beavers” when taught new skills, Grose said.
The malcontents were at the other end of the camp.
Grose was impressed with how industrious the prisoners were. They planted vegetable gardens wherever they could, around buildings and between fences, for extra food. They went under escort to the seashore to catch fish and other seafood and to dump their wastes. The prisoners didn’t get flush toilets.
Life on the island was rustic before Grose and the other Americans arrived. Farmers didn’t use tractors, the way they did in the United States. And almost all of the roads were muddy with deep ruts. “We had one partially paved road,” he said. Even the existing runway had to be enlarged to accommodate American planes.
At the end of the war, the prisoners were given a choice. Out of about 20,000 prisoners, 15,000 didn’t want to go back. Many of the Chinese chose to go to Taiwan instead of back to mainland China. The last night in the camp, there was a riot, as the two factions fought each other.
The group that returned to mainland China wanted nothing to do with America – not even the clothing provided by their captors. “They went back virtually naked,” Grose said.
Of the prisoners he worked with, Grose was curious where they would end up. Two of them wrote to say they chose to go to Taiwan. He lost touch with them.
Grose is losing touch with the GIs in his unit, too. They had periodic reunions, but that ended when the organizers died last year.