Context: Research for Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control
Interviewee: Reverend Sam Davies
Reverend Samuel Davies was the only British military padre taken prisoner during the Korean War. Here he reminisces about the camps he was held in, the alleged ‘brainwashing’ received by British and American troops, and discusses why some men broke down and made false confessions whilst others managed to resist.
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What made people confess to crimes they had not committed in Korea?
Difficult one, that. I think people at times felt that if they didn’t make sort of pretence at giving some sort of – something – they might even be killed or treated very, very severely indeed. People varied tremendously in the way they reacted to that pressure. Some were totally heroic and wouldn’t say a single word – and faced very unpleasant experiences; others gave way a little, hoping that the people at home would understand that they were under pressure. I couldn’t give the exact numbers but I think a number of the American prisoners gave way compared with – I think hardly any of the British prisoners – perhaps one or two. But there it is.
Was this the result of just plain brutality or was it something more?
I think the threat of very unpleasant, cramped imprisonment in cages: we had a young Northumberland fusilier, Kinne, who would never yield to any Chinese pressure, and he spent some time in a sort of cage with hardly room to lie down in. He wrote a book about it.
So it was just brutality?
Yes. I think the conviction in people’s minds was so strong that they were doing the utterly wrong and disgraceful thing to join in the Communist propaganda at this time. It was so strong that they would not, and could not, give way. We were – people varied tremendously about it but I think – also the threat of prolonged punishment and confinement in appalling conditions, often very cramped, was a threat some people couldn’t really live up to. Others could, and did.
In my camp we had to attend these absolutely boring lectures on Marxism-Leninism from the instructors day after day, and we were often told ‘Now, tonight you will get a pencil and paper. You must write down you appreciation of what you’ve learned’. Well, of course, we all had to do that in the officers’ camp. And we wrote a lot of verbal tripe really, which confused the Chinese. They were rather naïve and were trying to take it really seriously. We were not. We wrote a lot of verbal stuff so that nobody could really understand what was going on at all. But we had to write something and that’s how we managed to – you’d be taken down to Chinese HQ with Ding, the very able interpreter, he’d tell you what the Chinese commandant was saying and you had to account for what you had written. It was up to you to play it as coolly and stupidly as you could. And it often succeeded.
Did the Chinese/Korean interrogators deliberately target the officers? Colonel Carne for example?
[Carne] was the senior officer and the Chinese realised as far as he was concerned that he had tremendous influence. Sadly the officers and senior NCOs’ camp was isolated from the other ranks. I begged the Chinese to allow me, as the only surviving padre, to visit the other ranks. I begged them but they wouldn’t hear of it. Because they thought it was all bound up with sort of anti-communist propaganda. I was never allowed to visit them.
On Christmas day [they would present us] with special food ‘and in return we want you to sign this greetings card to our commander at the front.’ Well, of course, we all said ‘no’. Nobody in the camp was prepared to sign the greetings card.
It seems that the Chinese were being pretty sensible, separating the officers from the men?
Absolutely. The Chinese sensed that it was his [Carne’s] example and his steadfast adherence to what was the right thing to do in the face of this. They knew that his example and his leadership were immensely strong. So they wisely, from their point of view, thought to take him away completely. We never saw him again, until 19 months later.
Was there a particular trait that helped some to resist when others confessed and signed false confessions?
I think there were only one or two British prisoners who agreed to do that and they were other ranks. No single officer did – though I don’t think that’s true about the Americans. There was just something in our backgrounds. We were British and I suppose we were very proud of that. We would rather die in prison, or face death, than take part in any seditious propaganda.