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 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.
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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 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.