Otho Bell of Olympia and 20 other U.S. soldiers from the Korean War defect to China on February 24, 1954.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/23/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11263

On February 24, 1954, a special Peoples Republic of China train crosses the Yalu River from North Korea into China, carrying Private Otho G. Bell (1931-2003) of Olympia and 20 other U.S. soldiers who are defecting to China. Captured during Korean War fighting, they have been prisoners of war in North Korea and have refused repatriation to the United States, choosing to defect instead. In July 1955, Bell becomes one of the first defectors to return to the United States, to be met with outrage by some Olympia residents and more understanding by others. He and other returning defectors cannot be court-martialed because they were dishonorably discharged when they declined repatriation. But court-martial trials of officers accused of collaboration or aiding the enemy while prisoners in North Korea are held at Fort Lewis in Pierce County and other army posts. The defections and trials fuel fear, outrage, and political anxiety over Americans being brainwashed. Ultimately military officials will recognize that due to the extremely harsh conditions they endured, many American POWs "collaborated" to some degree, and will not pursue prosecution in most cases. At Fort Lewis one officer will be convicted and reprimanded and another will be acquitted.

A Young Soldier Defects

Private Bell had been a prisoner of war for more than three years when he joined the American soldiers defecting to Communist China in 1954. He left behind a young wife and baby girl in Olympia. In 1949, 18-year-old Otho Bell from Mississippi was stationed at Fort Lewis, the major army base located in southern Pierce County between Tacoma and Olympia. He met 15-year-old Jewell Olson (b. 1934) of Olympia and they married on April 10, 1950. The Bells lived in East Olympia. Their daughter Paula (b. 1950) was born just about the time Otho Bell was captured in combat.

Bell shipped out to Korea in August 1950 with the Fort Lewis home division, the Second Infantry Division, which was the first stateside division to enter the Korean War following the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. The Second Infantry fought tough battles at the Pusan perimeter in the south and then advanced into North Korea. The division was mauled by massive Chinese attacks and in November 1950 Bell was taken prisoner by the Chinese. During his three-year imprisonment he was promoted to corporal. When American prisoners were released in Operation Big Switch, following the 1953 truce that ended Korean War fighting, Corporal Otho Bell was one of 23 Americans who refused repatriation to the United States. During a 90-day grace period two of the 23 changed their minds and were repatriated. On February 24, 1954, the 21 who chose China crossed the border into that country.

They went to a processing center and Otho Bell was assigned to a collective farm with two other defectors. He said that they were deemed not intelligent enough to attend a university and learn Chinese. At the farm the three were treated like people from outer space, ignored, and seen as strange. After 18 months the trio escaped and made a 10-day trek to Beijing. They were detained by Chinese police for a short period and then allowed to leave. The three men sought refuge in the British Embassy and arranged their return to the United States, becoming the first of the defectors to leave China.

Return to Olympia

On July 29, 1955, Bell and the other two arrived in San Francisco and were immediately arrested by the army. They were held in the stockade at Fort Baker in San Francisco while courts-martial were planned. Attorneys for the trio challenged the plans, arguing that the army gave up jurisdiction in January 1954 when the defectors were were dishonorably discharged. A federal court agreed that the army could not try them and the three were released.

Otho Bell returned to Olympia and faced some difficult times. That a city resident would defect caused outrage among some in the community, while others were more understanding. The Olympia Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution asserting that "Otho G. Bell, a turncoat and a dishonorably discharged soldier," was not an Olympia resident ("Anti-Bell Act ..."). However, the chamber's assertion -- which Jewell Bell denied, noting her husband had been too young to register to vote in Olympia when he lived with her there before shipping out -- met with considerable opposition both locally and around the world, with most responses to the resolution calling it unsympathetic.

Nevertheless, Bell had trouble finding work and ended up doing odd jobs and door-to-door sales before finally finding stable work at a Christmas-tree farm. Over the years he had a number of run-ins with the law resulting in some jail time. But many in the community forgave and extended a helping hand. When the Olympia home that Bell had recently built burned to the ground in April 1964, people stepped forward to assist. However, newspapers continued to call him a turncoat. Bell never publicly gave a detailed explanation of why he defected, but at one time said that he feared returning home in 1953 and being tried as a traitor.

Korean War Collaboration Trials at Fort Lewis

That fear was not without basis. At the time of Bell's return from China in the summer of 1955, Washington residents were exposed to regular coverage of the issue of alleged collaboration with the enemy by American prisoners of war in North Korea. Courts-martial were held at Fort Lewis and other army posts for a number of officers charged with aiding the enemy and collaboration. As it turned out, however, while many Americans may have engaged in some activity considered "collaboration," only a handful ended up being prosecuted for their actions.

While as many as 2,000 U.S. soldiers, an estimated one out of three prisoners in North Korea, may have engaged in actions deemed aiding the enemy, only around 500 were investigated, and just 14 were court- martialed. An army psychiatrist who studied prisoner-of-war conditions in the Korean War concluded that most American prisoners had collaborated to some degree. Doing so was necessary to survive in what were the harshest conditions -- including starvation, cold weather, diseases, and lengthy interrogations and indoctrination -- that Americans had experienced in any modern war. The POW death rate in Korea was more than 40 per cent, higher than in Japanese prisoner camps in World War II. Marine Corps and Air Force officials, recognizing that most prisoners had collaborated to some degree, chose not to court-martial anyone.

However, the U.S. Army ultimately proceeded with 14 trials, including two at Fort Lewis that became major news stories in 1955 and 1956. Beginning in 1955, Fort Lewis officials planned courts-martial for three officers charged with aiding the enemy and collaboration. The most dramatic of the three cases was that of Lieutenant Colonel Paul V. Liles (1916-2010). He was the first West Point graduate (class of 1941) to be tried for collaboration. Liles, a combat veteran of World War II, was sent to Korea in September 1950. He was an advisor to the Republic of Korea 6th Division, a South Korean combat division. When the division was overrun in late October 1950 he was captured. Lieutenant Colonel Liles was a prisoner of war until September 1, 1953. Following his release he was assigned to Fort Lewis as a special services officer.

His trial was held in December 1955. The most serious charge was that he made enemy propaganda broadcasts. During his trial he admitted making an enemy-sponsored broadcast on March 4, 1951. He argued that he put into the broadcast information on the camp's location so that American bombers would avoid the area. He also said that his collaboration was designed to get food for the starving men in his camp. Additionally, the broadcast contained information for people back home. While collaborating Liles was also making escape plans, and he made escape attempts. At the court-martial Liles was convicted but with leniency. He was frozen in rank for two years and could not command troops. He was restricted to administrative jobs, but was allowed to remain in the army. U.S. Senator (and later Vice President) Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) of Minnesota questioned why the army had been easy on Liles. The reply was that the individual court-martial boards determined guilt and penalties. Lieutenant Colonel Liles remained in the army and retired in 1962.

Lieutenant Jefferson D. Erwin (1917-1994), commanding the Service Battery, 38th Field Artillery, at Fort Lewis, had only 10 months left before retirement when he was court-martialed. He was charged with making pro-Communist statements during his 33 months as a prisoner in Korea. At his trial he argued that the cold, starvation, and abuse led to his leading discussion groups, serving on a Peace Committee, and making pro-Communist statements. On August 19, 1955, he was acquitted. The Fort Lewis commanding general decided against convening a court-martial for Major Harold L. Kaschko (1918-2007). Major Kaschko was serving as executive officer of the 15th Field Artillery. He remained in the service and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Kaschko lived the remainder of his life in Federal Way and is buried at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent. The results of the Fort Lewis courts-martial were more lenient than in some of the 12 cases held at various other army posts. For example, at Fort Meade in Maryland, Major Ronald Alley (1923-1978) was convicted of collaboration, received a dishonorable discharge, and spent three years and nine months in prison.


Sources:

Raymond B. Lech, Broken Soldiers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); Walter G. Hermes, Truce Tent and Fighting Front (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1992); *Melinda L. Pash, In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War (New York: New York University Press, 2012); "East Olympia," Morning Olympian, April 23, 1950, p. 19; "Red Prisoner List Contains State Names," Ibid., December 19, 1951, p. 14; "Bell's Daughter, 4, Eager to See Him," The Seattle Times, June 19, 1955, p. 11; "Anti-Bell Act Boomerangs on Olympians," Ibid., July 28, 1955, p. 67; "Death Threats Blamed for Pro-Red Acts," Ibid., August 16, 1955, p. 3; "New Code of Military Honor Made Effective," Ibid., August 19, 1955, p. 3; "Erwin Acquitted -- May Affect Other Cases," Ibid., August 20, 1955, p. 2; "Senior Former P.O.W. Faces Court-Martial," Ibid., August 23, 1955, p. 25; "'Collaboration' to Conceal Escape Told," Ibid., December 9, 1955, p. 4; "Liles on Stand Justifies His Broadcasting," Ibid., December 15, 1955, p. 16; "Col. Liles to Plead for Right to Stay in Army," Ibid., November 7, 1955, p. 51; "Things Go Better for Otho G. Bell," Ibid., July 30, 1962, p. 9; "Mrs. Bell Expresses Gratitude for Help," Ibid., April 3, 1964, p. A; "Paisley Major Gets Clean Bill," Oregonian, September 3, 1955, p. 15; "Collaborator Wins Request to Stay in Armed Services," Ibid., May 29, 1957, p. 6; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Korean War Era in Washington" (by Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 22, 2016).


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