WASHINGTON – After decades of denials, the Chinese have acknowledged burying an American prisoner of war in China, telling the U.S. that a teenage soldier captured in the Korean War died a week after he "became mentally ill," according to documents provided to The Associated Press.
China had long insisted that all POW questions were answered at the conclusion of the war in 1953 and that no Americans were moved to Chinese territory from North Korea. The little-known case of Army Sgt. Richard G. Desautels, of Shoreham, Vt., opens another chapter in this story and raises the possibility that new details concerning the fate of other POWs may eventually surface.
Chinese authorities gave Pentagon officials intriguing new details about Desautels in a March 2003 meeting in Beijing, saying they had found "a complete record of 9-10 pages" in classified archives.
Until now, this information had been kept quiet; a Pentagon spokesman said it was intended only for Desautels' family members. The details were provided to Desautels' brother, Rolland, who passed them to a POW-MIA advocacy group, the National Alliance of Families, which gave them to AP this week.
In a telephone interview Thursday, the brother said he did not follow up on the information he got in 2003 because he did not believe it. He was not aware it marked the first time China had acknowledged taking a U.S. POW from North Korea into Chinese territory or burying an American there.
Two months after the March 2003 meeting, the Pentagon office responsible for POW-MIA issues sent Rolland Desautels a brief written summary of what a Chinese army official had related about the case.
"According to the Chinese, Sgt. Desautels became mentally ill on April 22, 1953, and died on April 29, 1953," the summary said. It added that he had been buried in a Chinese cemetery but the grave was moved during a construction project "and there is no record of where Desautels' remains were reinterred."
The reported circumstance of Desautels' death — sudden mental illness — may sound improbable. But the key revelation — that he was taken from North Korea to a city in northeastern China and then buried — matches long-held U.S. suspicions about China's handling, or mishandling, of American POWs during and after the war.
It raises the possibility that wartime Chinese records could shed light on the fate of other U.S. captives who were known to be held in Chinese-run POW camps but did not return when the fighting ended in 1953.
And it appears to undercut the Pentagon's public stance that China returned all POWs it held inside China. The Pentagon has focused more on the related issue of China's management of POW camps inside North Korea during the war, which Chinese troops entered in the fall of 1950 on North Korea's side.
Desautels' reported burial site — the city of Shenyang, formerly known as Mukden — is interesting because it is far from the North Korean border and was often cited in declassified U.S. intelligence reports as the site of one or more prisons holding hundreds of American POWs from Korea. Some U.S. reports referred to Mukden as a possible transshipment point for POWs headed to Russia.
Desautels was an 18-year old corporal, a member of A Company, 2nd Engineer Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, when his unit encountered a swarming Chinese assault near Kunu-ri, North Korea, on Dec. 1, 1950. According to a Pentagon account, Desautels and his fellow captives were marched north to a POW compound known as Camp 5, near Pyoktong, on the North Korean side of the border with China.
Subsequent events are a bit fuzzy, but Desautels was moved among prison camps and apparently was used by the Chinese army as a truck driver. A number of U.S. POWs told American interrogators after their release from captivity that they had seen Desautels alive and well in Camp 5.
One who said he spent four months with Desautels said that in March 1952 Desautels said that if he should disappear, others should make inquiries with the proper military authorities. Numerous returned POWs said Desautels had spent several months inside China before being returned to Camp 5 in 1952.
Rolland Desautels, 81, recalls his older brother as "a strong character who came off the farm," enlisted in the Army at age 17 and was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., before being shipped to Korea in August 1950, two months after the war began with North Korea's invasion of the South.
The Pentagon has taken an interest in the Desautels case for many years. A June 1998 Pentagon cable to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said the case was one of several on which China should be pushed to provide answers, that "we believe the Chinese should be able to account for these individuals."
Now it turns out that China did provide an accounting, although it is incomplete and was kept under wraps for five years.
Larry Greer, a spokesman for the POW-MIA office at the Pentagon, said Thursday that although U.S. officials asked to see the 9-10 page file on Desautels, China has yet to provide it or additional information.
Mark Sauter, an author and researcher on the subject of POWs from the Korean War, said in an interview that Beijing authorities are to be commended for finally providing useful information.
"The case of Sgt. Desautels has been a focal point of a six-decade cover-up by the Chinese government," Sauter said. "This is the first crack in the dike. From what we can tell, the Pentagon has not aggressively followed up, either on the Desautels case or those of hundreds of other Americans for whom the Chinese should be able to account."
American officials believed from the earliest days of the armistice that concluded the Korean War without a formal peace treaty in July 1953 that the Chinese and North Koreans withheld a number of U.S. POWs, possibly in retaliation for U.S. refusal to repatriate those Chinese and North Korean POWs who chose not to be returned to their home country out of fear of retribution.
Gen. Mark W. Clark, the American commander of U.S.-led forces during the final stages of the Korean War, wrote in a 1954 account that "we had solid evidence" that hundreds of captive Americans were held back by the Chinese and North Koreans, possibly as leverage to gain a China seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Over time, however, U.S. officials muted their concerns, while periodically pressing the Chinese in private. Publicly, the Pentagon's stance today is that China returned all the U.S. POWs it held.
"Some U.S. POWs spent time across the (Yalu) river in Manchuria, but to the best of our knowledge, all have returned," the Pentagon's POW/MIA office says in a summary of wartime POW camps.