Interview With John A. Rich

From the interview with John Rich of Camino, CA conducted by phone from the Fort Worden History Center on June 28, 2005 by John Croghan. Mr. Rich served in the 356th EBSR at Fort Worden during the Korean War era. Here he discusses his experiences in Korea:

“They sent me down to Pittsburgh, which is in the Bay Area, and got on the General Black, 7,500 of us. It took about a week and a half to get to Yokohama. We had some very, very bad weather on the way over. I was in a compartment about three decks down way up near the bow. That was a terrible place to be. The swells were running about 60 feet and the bow would raise way up in the air and then come crashing back down. After about a day of that, the whole deck in our compartment was about three inches deep in vomit. As the ship would roll, the vomit would roll across the deck like a tidal wave and then crash over to the other side. I still can hardly believe it, I never got sick. For the last year (at Fort Worden) I’d been riding around on mike boats and doing a lot of bouncing around, so I guess my body was conditioned to it.

From Yokohama we got on LSTs and went over to Inchon, all the way around the Korean Peninsula. I then took on of the most frightening rides of my life. After a couple of days in Inchon, they loaded me on a little Korean putt-putt train. I rode this train all the way from Inchon down the Korean Peninsula to Pusan. We got stopped about 15 or 20 times. There was firing and shooting all the way along. I thought, oh 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. That was a very hairy ride, because at the time, early in ’52 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.

I got assigned to an outfit called the 501st Harbor Craft. The first tug I got was a 75 footer with about 12 crew. Then I got promoted so I went up to a 98 footer. About a week later, they called me into the office and gave me a chart and said down at the dock is your boat, you’ll have a couple crew, get on it and go to Koje-do.

During the Korean War, the US military captured a hell of a lot of prisoners: North Korean, Chinese, Mongolian,even Russians, men and women. They sent them all down to this island group on the southwest off the tip of the Korean Peninsula in the South China Sea. It is a string of about 25 volcanic islands. Koje-do was the biggest, about 14 miles long and six or seven miles wide, and they had the most prisoners there.

There were about 350,000 there and on six other islands. They had them segregated either by sex or nationality or whatever and there was one island just for troublemakers. My job was in essence to run a ferry boat.

It was about 25 miles from one island down to the end of the string. Every day I’d run one day 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 finally too much stuff to haul back and forth and the mike boats got too small. So they had me go back to Pusan and turn my mike boat in, park it there, and they gave me an LCU, a landing craft utility. They’re 114 feet, 56 feet wide and weigh about 100 tons. They’ve got three main engines and two Diesel generators. They’re a much, much bigger boat.

The war ended in June of ’54. In the meantime, we had Operation Little Switch and Operation Big Switch. The first one, Little Switch, we traded 150,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners for 15,000 American GIs. I never got to see the GIs but I had to go to the various islands and pick up 300,400,500, 600 of these prisoners and bring them back and then take them out to the ships. They took them up north somewhere, I don’t know where. 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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