Philip Corso, an elderly and retired U.S. Army colonel, is anything but retiring on the subject of trust and betrayal. He marched up to Capitol Hill last week to try anew to make Congress and the nation face the fact that American soldiers had been left behind at the end of the Korean War--to die, to be executed, to be used as guinea pigs in "Nazi-style" medical experiments. Such suggestions have often been raised but rarely credited. Corso had tried to give his account to the Senate in 1992, but got nowhere. Last week, backed by newly declassified intelligence reports, memoranda and other documents from the top levels of the Eisenhower Administration, he laid it out for a House National Security subcommittee. More than 1,000 men had been left behind, he said, and this time there were only a few doubters.
After an armistice ended the war in July 1953, almost 100,000 POWs were exchanged. But of the 10,218 Americans captured, only 3,746 were returned. The newly opened documents make public what President Eisenhower learned shortly after hostilities ended: up to 1,000 U.S. servicemen remained in communist hands. "The prisoners were sold down the river," Corso says. "We abandoned them." Documents turned up by Pentagon investigators and released by the subcommittee reveal an Administration in anguish. A memo dated Dec. 22, 1953, reports a conversation between Eisenhower and Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens concerning more than 900 U.S. prisoners who should have been returned but were unaccounted for. Stevens said he had the names of "610 Army people that have just disappeared from the camps. The Air Force has over 300." Eisenhower told Stevens he had not been fully aware of this when peace talks were under way and mused, "Perhaps we should have insisted on their return as a precondition to the conference."
Corso was the intelligence officer for the truce team that negotiated with the North Koreans at Panmunjom. He says he learned from returning Americans that 500 sick and wounded U.S. prisoners within 10 miles of Panmunjom never reached the truce village for exchange. He believes the North Koreans held back the worst cases to hide the fact that they had been tortured and denied medical care. He had reports from agents later that all the ailing prisoners had died. In the course of the war, Corso, who was a senior Army intelligence officer, had received U.S. reports stating that two and possibly three trainloads of U.S. prisoners of war, about 900 to 1,200 men, crossed into the Soviet Union.
Later that year, after he joined the staff of the National Security Council in Washington, Corso discussed these figures with Eisenhower. He recalls that the President was "torn" but did not know how to get the prisoners back short of war. Some in Washington still find this picture of Eisenhower hard to believe. "I have to have very credible evidence," says Senator John McCain, who was a POW in North Vietnam. "I'd have to have a hearing."
Additional confirmation came last week from the witness who followed Corso to the table: Jan Sejna, a former major general in the Czech army, says he defected to the U.S. rather than help the Soviets invade his country in 1968. He was chief of staff of the Czech Ministry of Defense and had access to the most secret information.