Photo Caption: A group of American POWs are given a royal welcome at Freedom Village, Munsan-ni, Korea, during the U.N. POW exchange.

Operation Little Switch, April 20–May 3, 1953, was the exchange of sick and wounded prisoners of the Korean War. The exchange was agreed to during the truce talks at Panmunjom on April 11, following United Nations (U.N.) Commander in Chief General Mark W. Clark’s indirect approach to North Korean Premier Kim II Sung and Chinese General Peng Dehuai, which itself had developed from initiatives at the United Nations and the International Red Cross in Geneva. The Communist side repatriated 684 U.N. sick and wounded troops, while the U.N. Command (U.N.C.) returned 1,030 Chinese and 5,194 Koreans, together with 446 civilian internees. As with everything else concerning the prisoner of war (POW) issue, the exchange was marked by strong disagreement and controversy. Returning Communist prisoners tried to embarrass their captors by rejecting rations and clothing issued to them, while sensational reports appeared in the Western press alleging that numbers of sick and wounded POWs were still being held by the Communists in spite of the exchange agreements. The contentious issue that had prolonged the war for two years, that no U.N. POW would be forcibly repatriated, remained. The surprising acceptance of this exchange may well have come as a result of uncertainty over Soviet policies after the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

Operation Big Switch, August 5–December 23, 1953, was the final exchange of prisoners of war by both sides, and, like Little Switch, was marked by controversy over voluntary repatriation and, later, by allegations of brainwashing and torture of U.N. POWs by the Communists. The issue of forced repatriation of POWs proved the major stumbling block to successful conclusion of the truce talks. Communist insistence on the return of all captured nationals held by the U.N.C. was strenuously opposed by the U.S. and South Korean governments, although a number of the other governments who had committed forces to the U.N. command in Korea argued that the principle of voluntary repatriation should not be permitted to obstruct an early conclusion of hostilities. Eventually it was agreed that a U.N. Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (N.N.R.C.), chaired by India, would take responsibility for prisoners who had indicated a desire to remain with their captors. During a 90-day period in which the N.N.R.C. held custody of the “non-repatriates,” a series of “explanations” was provided during which the nonreturnees were advised strongly to return to their home nations, generally without success.

Photo Caption: Returned POW Dwight E. Coxe is greeted by his brother, Francis T. Coxe during operation “Big Switch.” The brothers hadn’t seen each other for about five years. Dwight spent two years in captivity.

The U.N.C. returned 75,823 POWs (70,183 Koreans, 5,640 Chinese); the Communists repatriated 12,773 U.N.C. POWs (7,862 Koreans, 3,597 Americans, 946 British). The vast majority of the 22,600 enemy non-repatriates were Chinese, most of them former Chinese Nationalist veterans. Only 137 Chinese agreed to return to their homeland before the expiration of the ninety-day period stipulated in the armistice agreement. Only 357 U.N.C. prisoners indicated a desire to remain with the Communists (333 Koreans, 23 Americans, one Briton), and of these, two Americans and eight Koreans chose to return within the allotted time for the changing of one’s mind. The U.N.C. released all remaining former POWs thereafter, the Communists following suit a few days later.

Photo Caption: POWs repatriated in the U.N. POW exchange debark from trucks at Panmunjom, Korea.

Jeffrey Grey


Bernstein, Barton. “The Struggle over the Korean Armistice: Prisoners of Repatriation?” in Child of Conflict: The Korean-American Relationship 1943-1953,ed. Bruce Cumings (1983).

Hermes, Walter.Truce Tent and Fighting Front, United States Army in the Korean War (1966).

Bradley, Omar N., and Clay Blair.A General's Life: An Autobiography (1983).

MacDonald, Callum. Korea: The War Before Vietnam (1986).

U.S. Army Forces, Far East, 8086th Army Unit, Military History Detachment.Operation Little Switch, 4 vols., n.d.

Reprinted with permission fromThe Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.