Interview With John A. Rich

From the interview with John A. Rich of Camino, CA conducted by John Croghan from the Fort Worden History Center by phone on June 28, 2005.  Mr. Rich served in the U.S. Army 356th Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment during the Korean War Era, he was stationed at Fort Worden in 1951-1952.  Here he describes his experiences in Korea:

“From Yokohama we got on an LST and went over to Inchon all the way around the Korean Peninsula and got off at Inchon. I took one of the most frightening rides of my life then. I was in Inchon for a couple of days before they loaded me on a train, a little Korean putt-putt.  I rode that train all the way from Inchon down the Korean Peninsula to Pusan.  We got stopped about 15-20 times.  There was firing and shooting all the way along.  I thought, ‘Oh, my God, if this train doesn’t get blown up and run off the track someplace, go off a bridge or something, it would be amazing.’  But it made it all the way to Pusan, it took two days.  That was a very hairy ride!  At that time, there were still a lot of Chinese and North Koreans and whatever all over the peninsula.  They see a train going by with Americans on it, they’re going to shoot at it.”

He was then assigned to the 501st Harbor Craft, and assigned an LCM.

“I was there about a week when they called me into the office, gave me a chart and said my boat was down at the dock and to go to Koje-do.  During the Korean War the U.N. (that’s spelled the U.S. military) captured a hell of a lot of prisoners—North Koreans, Chinese, Mongolians, even Russians, men and women.  They sent them all down to this island group that is southwest off the tip of the Korean Peninsula in the South China Sea. It’s a string of about 25 volcanic islands, Koje-do is the biggest.  It is about 14 miles long and 6-7 miles wide.  Most of the prisoners were there.  On Koje-do and six other islands there were about 350,000 prisoners.  They had them segregated by either sex or nationality, there was one island just for troublemakers.  My job was to run a ferry boat between the islands. It was about 25 miles from one island down to the end of the string.  Every day I’d run one way and stay overnight down at that island and then run back, just back and forth and back and forth. Eventually they got about a million prisoners all together and there was too much stuff to haul . The mike boat got too small, so they told me to go back to Pusan and turn in my boat and they gave me a Landing Craft Utility, a much, much bigger boat.  It was 114 feet, 56 feet wide, weighed about 100 tons with three main engines and two diesel generators.  I ran that back and forth until the end of the war. The war ended in June of ’54, in the meantime we had Operation Little Switch and Operation Big Switch.  In Little Switch, we traded 150,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners for 15,000 American GI’s.  I never got to see the GI’s, but I had to go to the various islands and pick up three, four, five, six hundred of these prisoners and bring them back and then take them out to the ships.  I don’t know where they dropped them off, but they took them up north.  About three or four months later, they had Operation Big Switch, where they traded about 400,000 Chinese, North Koreans and what have you for American GI prisoners.  The ratio I think was about 25 to one.”

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