OPERATION BIG SWITCH

Formal Prisoner of War Exchange

"Army Quartermaster Museum - Fort Lee, Virginia

QM Support for Big Switch
by 2nd Lt. Richard L. Henson, QMC
Quartermaster Review January-February 1954

EARLY in July of 1951 truce negotiations at Panmunjom, Korea, began. One of the important discussion topics was the exchange of prisoners of war. The final outcome of this topic in the truce negotiations was operation Little Switch in April 1953 and, following the cease-fire, operation Big Switch in August and September.

Logistical planning involving Quartermaster support began long before the truce became a reality. Special preparation was made for operation Little Switch which was the exchange of sick and disabled prisoners. However, Little Switch was less of a challenge to Quartermaster ingenuity that a full-scale prisoner exchange was to present. Primary Quartermaster consideration for the first UN repatriation had been Class-I support, consisting of special dietary items and an airlift of reconstituted whole milk from Japan. The full-scale return of UN prisoners by the Communist forces was to mean a more complex job at Freedom Village involving issue, fitting and tailoring of one suit of HBT (herring bone twill) clothing; providing maintenance and training for the operation of shower units; operating a Quartermaster Laundry Detachment; as well as highly intensified Class-I support.

During the initial planning for operation Big Switch, stocks of HBT clothing for the returning UN repatriates, as well as supplies and equipment required for the administrative headquarters, were earmarked by the 443rd QM Base Depot so they would be available on short notice. Special menus were prepared. in conjunction with the Eighth Army Surgeon, for feeding the repatriates prior to their movement to the replacement depot at Inchon. Non-perishable ingredients were stockpiled at the nearest Class-I Supply Point.

In the initial planning, responsibility for showers and clothing issues was delegated to the evacuation hospital which was to operate Freedom Village, the POW reception center. Freedom Village was to process all UN returnees except for Republic of Korea Army personnel. The Marine and Navy personnel were processed at Freedom Village but had their own people on hand for clothing issues. US Air Force personnel returned by the Communists were handled in the same manner as Army personnel. The British Commonwealth Forces processed their personnel at Freedom Village, but their clothing issue was accomplished at "Brittania," the British repatriated prisoners' camp.

On the surface, Quartermaster support of Big Switch appeared a relatively simple problem, not dissimilar from those that were solved regularly by the QM units in Eighth Army. Two peculiarities made the problem unique. In the first place, the services required were complex, involving a number of separate and distinct areas of activity, and they would be managed by a very small group of people. It wasn't a problem of furnishing a company to handle each phase. Furthermore, the requirements were not presented to the Quartermaster in a neat bundle. They were presented piecemeal, as the plan took shape at a higher level.

Secondly, the reputation of the QMC was at stake. First in the eyes of the American and UN soldiers who'd received no QM services for many months of imprisonment. And secondly, in the eyes of the free world, all of which would be turned on Freedom Village. The impression these men, and the world, would receive would be a lasting one. The operation had to be smooth. The end result had to be a perfectly timed, coordinated machine.

During the early planning stages, the Eighth Army Quartermaster staff discussed the problems with the officers of the 443rd QM Base Depot and the 23rd QM Group who were ultimately to implement the QM operation. It became evident that a single officer should be appointed to coordinate all QM activities at Freedom Village.

Colonel James C. Pennington, Chief of the Supply Division, 443rd QM Base Depot, attached Lt. Col. James C. Covington to Freedom Village to direct Quartermaster operations. Colonel Covington was accompanied by two enlisted men from the 297th QM Clothing and General Supplies Company and four from the 351st Quartermaster Reclamation and Maintenance Company.

When Operation Big Switch became a reality, Freedom Village medical personnel were instructed in the operation of the M-1950, 24-head shower unit. To be doubly sure of continuous operation in the event of breakdown, an additional 24-head unit was kept on a standby basis. A peak of 400 UN repatriated prisoners a day was expected from the communists, although it never materialized.

In order that the large laundry needs of the hospital would be handled adequately, the 351st Quartermaster Laundry Detachment, commanded by 1st Lt. Pierre M. McLaughlan, was moved to the area and put in direct support. The laundry detachment served a dual role of washing the large volume of bed clothing, bathrobes, towels and hospital supplies as well as assisting medical personnel with the operation and maintenance of the showers. This Quartermaster Laundry Detachment probably was the only unit of its kind to have helicopter support. Lt. Col. Karl H. Zornick, commanding officer of the First Transportation Army Aviation Battalion, offered the use of these machines. Spare parts and maintenance experts were airlifted when needed to see that equipment was kept in good running order.

One of the most important phases of the Freedom Village operation was the issue of clothing to the repatriates as soon as possible after they were returned to UN hands. The men shed their prison garb soon after arriving at Freedom Village; they showered, were issued bath robes and slippers, received medical care, ate a special meal, and processed through the warehouse for clothing. Upon entering the warehouse they stepped onto a special foot-measuring device to be measured for low-quarter shoes. Low-quarter shoes and cotton socks are not items of issue common to Eighth Army. Lt. Col. Thomas H. Scott, Jr., Chief of the Eighth Army Quartermaster Supply Division, and Lt. Col. Herbert L. Duncan, Chief of the Class II and IV Branch of the Army Quartermaster, coordinated with AFFE to airlift the needed items to the 443rd Quartermaster Base Depot. Privates Jack Harrell and Carl W. Hensler of the 297th QM Clothing and General Supplies Company fitted and issued clothing and shoes. A complete set of HBT’s, jacket, trousers and cap; a pair of low-quarter shoes and three pairs of cotton socks; a handkerchief and towel; and one set of underwear were issued. In addition officers were given their insignia.

The repatriates were then ushered into the next room where their HBT ‘s were tailored while they waited. Corporal Raymond C. Lim, chief tailor, measured the clothing on each man. The man sat on a bench and a numbered tag was put on a nail above his head. An identical tag was placed in a pocket of his garments. The improvised tailor shop was equipped with three sewing machines. Personnel of the 505th QM Reclamation and Maintenance Company tailored the sleeves and trouser legs to the right size. Each man was checked for a proper fit at the exit.

Of the 1188 square feet of floor space allotted for the clothing issue, only 643 square feet could be utilized for Quartermaster purposes. The remaining floor space consisted of an aisle and space used by the Marines.

The lack of space presented a storage problem. A storage tent was utilized but because of the processing layout the tent had to be a hundred yards away. However the requisitioning procedure eliminated the necessity of keeping a large stock. When stocks were low Colonel Covington called the Stock Control Branch, 443rd QM Base Depot, and was able to pick them up by truck the next morning before they were needed for issue.

Colonel Covington conducted a time-and-motion study to eliminate waste effort. This smooth-running operation was able to process a man a minute. Every man processed was properly fitted. On the biggest day 275 repatriates were clothed.

Colonel Covington kept an account of the sizes issued. Shoe sizes did not run according to tariff. Wide feet were predominate. This probably was caused by prison footwear, consisting of sneakers and gym shoes. Eighty percent of HBT clothing issued was small size. To make stocking of sizes even more difficult, clothing was issued to repatriates of many nations: Greeks, Turks, Colombians, Ethiopians, and French. Even Japanese house boys who had accompanied the 24th Division in the initial phase of the Korea Campaign were outfitted at Freedom Village.

Stretcher cases were given uniforms to wear upon recovery. Men with feet misshapen from the effects of cold and their prison ordeal added to the problem of properly fitting shoes.

Colonel Covington and his men were commended by Brig. Gen. Ralph M. Osborne, commanding general of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Support Group, for their smooth-running operation. In a letter to Brig. Gen. Osborne Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens commended the staff at Freedom Village for the efficiency and the consideration given the men returning from Communist prison camps.

Whole milk, an item of subsistence not found in Korea, as well as dietary items not normally stocked, were supplied Freedom Village by the subsistence branch. Lt. Col. Raymond R. Guehring, Chief of Eighth Army Class I Supply Branch, in conjunction with the Quartermaster Section, AFFE, arranged for the airlift of reconstituted whole milk from Japan The milk was flown into K-16, an airfield near Seoul, from Ashiya, Japan. Some of the milk was given to the British. A few cases were distributed to the evacuation hospital in Yongdong-po that was assisting in the evacuation of some of the repatriates. The main portion of the milk was picked up at K-16 airfield by I Corps Quartermaster Section, which supplied a daily airlift of ice cream and milk to Freedom Village. On the two days that weather prevented flying, milk was transported by reefer truck and ice cream by jeep. Quartermaster provided the evacuation hospital with additional refrigeration for the milk and ice cream. Because of the daily airlift, the repatriated prisoners were assured absolutely fresh milk. The feasibility of airlifting Quartermaster supplies was proved again. On a large scale supplies were airlifted from Japan in C-119's. On a smaller scale supplies, parts, and men were transported to Freedom Village by light planes and helicopters.

The repatriates were flown from Freedom Village to the replacement depot at Inchon. Here KCOMZ had the big job of furnishing the returnees with the bulk of their clothing and equipment. Each man received freshly pressed khaki uniforms for his homeward journey. Most popular of all were huge quantities of the best Quartermaster rations.

Once again Quartermaster ingenuity has efficiently provided services and supplies to our troops. The issuing and immediate tailoring of clothing was unique to Freedom Village. Quartermaster know-how helped Freedom Village provide the first touch of home to the 3,907 repatriates who had suffered many long months in Communists prison camps."

Reprinted with permission from

US Army Quartermaster Museum, Fort Lee, VA
http://www.qmmuseum.lee.army.mil/

US POWs on Foot