2nd Lt. Will White was PIO officer at Panmunjom during Korean POW exchange
By the time 2nd Lt. Will White reached Korea in the fall of 1953 the war was over, but the repatriation of POWs at Panmunjom, North Korea was just getting started. The 22-year-old Army lieutenant served as a public information officer for the world press that came to the North Korean border crossing to cover the prisoner exchange.
“Called ‘Operation Big Switch,’ it was the exchange of 75,000 North Korean and Chinese POWs for 12,773 United Nations POWs. American and Allied POWs came across the border somewhere else,” the 81-year-old Arcadia resident explained.
Of that number of UN troops: 7,862 were South Korean POWs, 3,597 were Americans and 946 were British soldiers. Some 22,600 Communist soldiers decided to stay in the West and opted to be repatriated to a new life on the island of Formosa off the coast of China. At the same time 23 American POWs remained in North Korea, one British soldier stayed with the Communists as did 333 South Korean soldiers.
Within 90 days after the initial exchange POWs were allowed to switch sides for the last time. As a consequence 137 Chinese soldiers returned to China. Two Americans and eight Korean soldiers came back to the West. That left 325 Koreans, 21 Americans and one British soldier who voluntarily stayed on the Communist side of the border.
White joined the Army after graduating from Colgate University as an English major.
“I went in the Quartermaster Corps in 1952 much to my father’s disgust. Being in the Quartermasters was the bottom of the barrel as far as he was concerned,” he said with a smile. “My father was a 1923 graduate of West Point. I think he pulled some strings with his West Point buddies to get me into Logistics Command in Korea.
White ended up as a public information officer running a news room at Tagu, South Korea. His staff wrote stories about what individual solders were doing in Korea and sent these stories to hometown newspapers around the United States for publication.
Much of White’s eight months in Korea was spent as a liaison officer working with newspaper reporters from throughout the U.S. who were covering the war in Korea.
“I escorted reporters around Panmunjom who were covering the prisoner exchange,” he said. “One of the interesting things about the exchange was that the Communists had enough communications with the Chinese POWs that they knew exactly who was being exchanged even before they got the roster of Chinese POWs.”
A major holdup in the exchange that delayed the process for months was the process by which a Chinese POW could decided not to return to North Korea and be repatriated to Formosa to the south. Communist authorities objected to this part of the final armistice agreement until the last minute when they grudgingly consented to let their POWs go south.
“‘Operation Olsen’ is what the repatriation by Communist troops to Formosa was called,” White said. “These POWs were sent by troop ship from the Port of Inchon to Formosa.”
He was involved in both operations.
North Korean and Chinese POWs were taken by troop train to a rail head near the border. From there they were transported by Army truck to Panmunjom where they were turned over to the Communist at an elaborate gate separating North and South Korea.
Repatriation of 75,000 Communist troops at Panmunjom took several weeks. White was in the middle of the exchange process overseeing what reporters from around the world were covering. It was a much quicker process shipping the Communists POWs out of Inchon for Formosa. That procedure lasted about a week, he said.
After completing the POW swap, White returned to his PIO headquarters at Tagu and continued overseeing the news operation, stories about individual soldiers and sending the copy to their hometown papers.
Among his writers was Gary Jennings who made a name for himself as a novelist after he was discharged from the Army. He wrote international best sellers.
His breakout novel was Aztec, a 500,000 word historical thriller about the Aztec civilization he became infatuated with during the dozen years he spent living in Mexico. Jennings also wrote: The Journey, Spangle, Raptor and Aztec Autumn.
What White remembers most about Jennings was that he could turn a phrase and knew how to find a good story. For his efforts, while serving as a corporal in White’s newsroom, he received a Bronze Star for his writing and a personal citation from South Korean President Syngman Rhee for his efforts on behalf of war orphans.
After returning to the States, White got out of the Army and went to work for Union Carbide as a public relations man. It wasn’t long before he realized the money was in advertising not PR. He switched to advertising and joined another firm in the New York City area.
Before wrapping up his career in advertising and public relations he owned his own firm, Harland & Cline & White based in Hartford, Conn. which he headed until he sold it and moved to Florida.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to come to the Sarasota area and wound up in a home near Nocatee, a wide spot in the road on the way to Arcadia, east of Port Charlotte. His front yard is a cow pasture where monster Black Angus cattle graze. They’re owned by a neighbor who leases the land from him.
On his office wall is a plaque made from the dagger-board of a Sunfish sailboat. The fin has two small plaques on it that read: “National Champion 1966 and 1968.” For two years he was the best Sunfish sailor in the country.
White has five sons: Will, Scott, Allen, Duncan and Christopher. Elizabeth has two children from a previous marriage: Susan and Michael.
Name: Will Walter White, III
D.O.B: 3 July 1930
Hometown: Glen Ridge, NJ
Currently: Nocatee, Fla.
Entered Service: 21 July 1952
Discharged: 20 Feb. 1954
Rank: 2nd Lieutenant
Commendations: Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Nov. 14, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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