Not one Turkish prisoner of war died

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021

To expect an Asian nation accustomed to famine to feed its prisoners of war better than it own half-starved peasantry, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), was — and remains — wishful thinking:

The evidence does not suggest that the Chinese deliberately tried to starve the POW’s with the end of extermination in mind, in the footsteps of the Nazis. When in late winter the death rate climbed alarmingly, to twenty-eight men each day, the Chinese commandant of Camp 5 showed signs of concern; he ordered the American doctors in the camp to stop the deaths, at once. More medicines were made available — but the commandant angrily resisted the Americans’ demands for more food.

He admitted the POW’s were fed worse than the guards — but they were receiving the same diet that class enemies of the Chinese state received, who not only had to undergo two or more years of reorientation on such ration, but hard labor, too.


And one fact that stands out starkly among the pieces of evidence is that while 50 percent of the American POW’s died, and a percentage of British that caused grave concern later to her Majesty’s Government, few South Koreans experienced much difficulty, and not one Turkish prisoner of war died.


The Turks were a completely homogeneous group, with common background and common culture, and with a chain of command that was never broken.

They remained united against the enemy, and they survived.

The Turks did not come from an admirable society. Only a few decades back in time, Turks were slaving in Egypt, and conducting vast pograms in Armenia. In the last century Turks still blew living men from the mouths of cannon for minor crimes and punished more serious ones by impalement — a peculiarly horrible form of execution, in which a man was seated on a sharpened tapered stake, toes off the ground, and his body weight, and movements, slowly drove him downward.

There had never been anything approaching freedom, or democracy, in Turkey. Election have been held, but the loser normally wind up in jail.

Turkey had journeyed partway into the twentieth century only under the iron fist of Kemal Atatürk and his successors, who were just as determine as the Chinese Communists to destroy an ancient, backward, Oriental way of life.

Atatürk was determined to Westernize his people by force. He broke the power of the Moslem clergy, revised education, changed the traditional head-gear and alphabet.

But in the middle of the century the Turkish soldier who served his country’s colors was still a fanatically devout custom-ridden peasant, close to the soil and survival, accustomed to the fiercest discipline of all his life, from father, state, and army — but with a barbarian’s pride in himself and his people.

He would take baths only with his clothes on in the prison camps, or allow a nonbeliever friend such as Schlichter to view his Koran only through the seven veils, and he went white with outrage if venereal disease were even discussed. But he was completely aware of what he was — he was a Turk, and a Turk was unquestionably the finest of all possible things to be, even as there was no God but Allah. These matters he felt no need to prove or argue; he had imbibed them with his mother’s milk, and his mind had not been cluttered with other notions since.

He knew Russians were Communists, and he knew Russians were enemies, always had been, always would be. He hated Russians; he hated Communists. The matter was not arguable.

He was close to the soil, and knew hardship; he ate what Allah or the dogs of Communist Chinese provided, without complaint. He also knew enough to eat any scrap of greenery he could place his hands on, and in the camps many better-educated Americans watched him eat weeds in amazement. Later, many of them followed suit.

He was barbarian-proud of his manhood and his fighting ability. He knew, dimly, that his ancestors had been the backbone of Near Eastern armies since the Empire of Rome and that their courage with cold steel had rarely been equaled. He knew, dimly, that firepower had vanquished his vaunted empire and that economically he was backward, but this had not lessened his faith in Turks or Turkdom. What schools he had attended used no economic argument in teaching the greatness of Turks.

Even after thirty years of state anticlericalism, his faith in his God was childlike, ignorant, and complete.

He had enlisted for a minimum of six years, and he could not hope to become a sergeant until after that first six year. He had served long with the men about him in these camps, and he expected to serve beside these same men again, if Allah willed him to survive. He could not understand these Americans who often acted like strangers to one another, and as if they would never see on another again.

His senior enlisted man took command in the prison camp, because he was senior. Neither he nor the British N.C.O.’s held an election, as did the Americans — who elected in Camp Five a corporal masquerading as a sergeant who was popular with the Chinese guards.

His senior enlisted man ran a detail roster daily. There was never any question of who would chop the wood, haul the water, or care for the sick — while American N.C.O.’s and doctors and chaplains often begged men to feed the sick, wash the unconscious, or go outside for firewood — and were told, “Go to hell, you’re no better than I am!”

When his senior enlisted man was threatened by the guards for defiance, it did them no good to remove him. The second, the third, even the hundredth senior man took over, and nothing changed.

When on Turk was too friendly with the Chinese, court was hel, and Sergeant Schlichter was invited to observe. The senior N.C.O. sat as judge, and trial was held, with argument and testimony. When one Turk was found guilty of amiability toward the enemy, he was severely beaten. His defense counsel was beaten, too, for daring to extol such a traitor.

When Schlichter asked, “What happens if he does this again?” he was told,

“Then we shall kill him.”

It was a rigid society, far from admirable by Western standards. Disturbingly, it had the best record of any group in Communist captivity.

Americans should remember that while barbarian may be ignorant they are not always stupid.


  1. Altitude Zero says:

    Fehrenbach is an interesting historian, but he so obviously had an axe to grind, it detracts from his overall credibility as a historian. He wanted a professional army to fight wars like Korea, and he never seemed to miss an opportunity to put down the American draftee army of 1940-1973. But you know, that army actually had a pretty good record when it came to winning battles and indeed wars, when the politicians gave them actually attainable goals. Creating a fully professional army, while it has no doubt raised the quality of the average soldier, has not exactly been the solution to all of our problems, either. I now take everything Fehrenbach writes with a grain of salt, even though he is certainly worth reading.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Frankly, I am uncomfortable with this piecemeal posting of Mr. Fehrenbach’s entire book. It seems like a flagrant breach of copyright, which is unworthy of isegoria.

    Setting that aside, “not one Turkish prisoner-of-war died”? Really?? There must have been Turkish soldiers who became POWs because they were injured or wounded. And not one of them died? That statement simply does not pass the Smell Test.

    As to the issue of a higher proportion of Turkish POWs surviving than Western POWs — that seems quite plausible, but perhaps not for the reasons Mr. Fehrenbach implies.

    Infant mortality! Historically, in poor societies, it was common for about half of babies to die. As recently as the 1960s, a third of babies born in the city of Al Ain in the UAE died. Within living memory, Kazakhs did not give a baby a name until it had survived to its first birthday.

    Perhaps the higher survival rate of Turkish POWs was a reflection that Darwin had already thinned out the weaker members of that population — something which had not happened with low infant mortality Western POWs?

  3. Kirk says:

    I honestly don’t think Fehrenbach would mind; the fact that it’s getting extensively excerpted and discussed here is really no different than if we were taking part in a book club and doing the same thing. Not to mention, he pretty much made out (in my hearing) that he was very happy that people were using it extensively in their Officer Development Program (ODP) sessions. He did not mind that people doing such things were using photocopies of passages, either.

    All told, he wrote a polemic he meant to provoke discussion. We’re doing that, here. Mission accomplished.

    As to the Turkish thing… I would not be surprised if a.) Fehrenbach was wrong about “no Turks dying as POWs”, or that b.) someone told him that, and he just accepted it as fact. There’s a lot of mythology about the various combatants in Korea, some of which is probably true, but with some details either wildly misinterpreted or exaggerated. I’ve had stuff told to me by people who were there that was utterly preposterous and yet which is still documented, somewhere. Who’s wrong? The primary sources all say the same damn thing, yet when you look at the ground, you’re left going “WTF? How could that have happened that way…?”.

    So, with regards to the Turks, what you should do is accept that there ought to be a caveat in there somewhere saying that “Reputedly, the Turks had no POWs die in the camps…”, because that is precisely what some sources say, including official Turkish military histories. Not saying they’re wrong, either, just that it’s… Unlikely, to my mind. I would guess that there are a couple of holes in North Korea filled with dead Turks who the North Koreans or Chinese killed simply because they were huge and colossal pains in the ass as POWs, and the other Turks simply didn’t know about them even being POWs.

    Fehrenbach’s main point here is that the Turkish military culture was far stronger than the American version, which was really half-ass and still is. We don’t do really effective “soldierization” or acculturation to the military very well, and that may or may not be a strength. I think we could and should do better, but the necessary steps we would need to take in order to do that would probably require a new Army and breaking the brains of a bunch of civilian politicians. Mainly because the necessities of military culture (in order to be as effective as the Turkish variety…) would likely be considered antiethical to much of modern-day American culture. We’re not militarized or militarist enough, nor do we have the requisite respect for the profession to allow the things which would have to be done.

    Part of the problem boils down to the strength of cultural identity. Mid-century Turks were pretty damn sure they were Turks, and entirely certain that Turks were the best damn thing going, as human beings. Mid-century Americans were already infected with grave doubts about their own virtues as humans, and we were starting to see the first fruits of cultural relativism. You don’t spend generations telling people that they’re utter shit, and then expect them to confront Communist brainwashing with any real facility. Half of the work was already done for the big-C Communists in Korea by the small-c types here in the US. Self-doubt and open-mindedness are both things that leave you utterly vulnerable to brainwashing, just like a loss of organized religious faith leaves you vulnerable to whatever other spiritual bullshit that happens to fall into your open mind.

    It’s the nature of things; Americans are flexible (or, were…) free-thinkers. In order to be that, they have to have certain characteristics that make it really easy to fall prey to intellectual BS like socialism or communism. Things that the close-minded aren’t necessarily vulnerable to.

  4. Faze says:

    I’m reading along with everybody else, but I’ll be glad when this book is over. It’s depressing the hell out of me.

  5. Sam J. says:

    “…not one Turkish prisoner of war died…”

    You know there’s a very, very, very simple explanation for less or no Turks dying. Forget the this nonsense about them being morally superior or better people. I often find when people negatively contrast Americans or freest world people with peasants or some sort of third world natives they are full of shit. The real reason they could survive was they were small and their bodies over the years used to less food. Americans were used to vast quantities of food and were giants compared to most people. I’ve worked around Mexicans before and I’m not a big guy and a lot of them do not come much over my shoulders. I bet they could subsist on half or less the calories I could.

    They tell you right off they were giving the amount of calories that “CHINESE” prisoners were given. Nothing, nothing at all for a Man twice or more as big in mass.

    I read a book by a Chinese guy about the cultural revolution.

    “A Search of My Homeland, A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp”

    by Er Tai Gao

    He said the big Chinese always died first. Very fast. They would start having problems in days with hard labor and little food. We’re not talking about as big a difference as between an American and others but a much smaller difference in size when talking about Chinese.

    Interesting part of the story. They sent him to a desert as part of Mao’s greening of the desert project. He was slowly starving to death there but he was an artist and they needed one so he was removed and got decent food where he was placed to work. When they sent him back every single one of the people sent there with him were dead.

    It’s a good book. I’ve read maybe two or three of these and I liked this one.

    Another good one like this is

    “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” by Loung Ung. The movie is good too.

  6. Bruce says:

    “tall men with dark faces and pale eyes”

    — Fehrenbach on Turks, as I recall.

  7. Kirk says:

    One thing you have to remember about the Turks in Korea: That unit was relatively tiny, and it was a “national prestige product”. They only sent their best, hand-selected soldiers.

    A Turk I grew up around was exceedingly proud of his uncle, who’d been picked to be a part of that unit, and who died in Korea. It was a huge, huge deal for the family simply that he’d been picked to go, and from what I was able to pick up, it wasn’t exactly easy to get picked. Think “elite corps”, like Ranger or SF in terms of how carefully they were selected.

    The Turkish soldier in Korea wasn’t exactly fully representative of the average Turkish soldier. Which is not an uncommon thing to run into with undeveloped countries providing troops for international missions–Look at, for example, Korean troops in Vietnam. Or, Indian/Pakistani troops doing UN missions, in some select cases. Not all of them, of course, but some–The opportunity to earn UN money and the prestige of it all is a serious inducement for them to send their best.

    Come to think of it, and I hadn’t really connected the facts I knew before this moment, but I think there’s a damn good reason the Turks outperformed the US conscripts in the POW camps–And, that’s down to the careful selection they underwent before even embarking for Korea in the first damn place.

  8. Goober says:

    I can explain in very simple terms why more Americans were dying in the camps, even when compared to the rations that Chinese prisoners were given, using simple TDEE and BMR calculations. I don’t doubt what the Chinese General was saying, he probably was giving them the rations that they kept Chinese men alive on, and assuming he was ignorant of things like TDEE and BMR, he probably couldn’t figure out what was going on.   

    In a word, it was size.  

    Especially back in the 50s, your average American, compared to your average Chinese person, was considerably bigger.  

    Assuming that they were more or less sedentary in the camps (ie, they weren’t put to hard labor), your average American Trooper, say, 5′-9″ tall, 150 pounds, would need 2,100 calories per day to just maintain weight.  Take any deficit of this amount, add it up on a daily rate, and once it hits 3,500 calories, he would lose a pound of fat (one pound of human fat is about 3,500 calories).  Again, your average American trooper, assuming about a 10% body fat (they were soldiers, but well-fed soldiers at the time of capture, so fit, but not emaciated), and 2 to 3% of that being “essential” fat (meaning, you can’t lose it, or you die), he’s got an 8% buffer, or about 12 pounds that he can lose before he starts slowly dying.  

    Now, take your average Chinese person in 1950, say 5′-3″, 120 pounds, 10% body fat.  This guy can subsist on 1,700 calories per day and not lose a pound.  He can live forever on that ration, where the American eating that ration would lose about a pound every ten days (just round numbers), and so in 120 days of that, would be on death’s doorstep, at “essential fat” levels, and experiencing massive autophagy and slow brain death.  Now, add in any hard labor at all, and you protract this timeframe drastically.  The timeframe might drag out a bit, because as his mass reduces, his TDEE would likewise reduce, and thus the deficit from maintenance would reduce, but this is a pretty close approximation.  About 120 to 150 days to death.  

    If you consider that the Chinese probably weren’t feeding their political prisoners really well, and most likely their political prisoners lost weight during their re-education, then the deficit becomes even wider.  

    As for why the Turks weren’t dying, I can’t speak to that, but I would guess that you’d find that the Turks were smaller in stature, and so had a lower TDEE, as that is likely the best explanation.  Same for the South Koreans and other Asian prisoners.  It’s just a game of numbers.  The human body is simply a thermodynamic engine, with very little variation that can be chalked up to variations in metabolism, etc. 

    The fact that this author is framing this around the idea that Asians are “tougher” than Americans sort of reflects his misunderstanding of what “tough” means, what is possible with the human body, and so forth.  The toughest South Korean on Earth is going to die once he exceeds his “essential fat” levels.  The only real explanation here is that they just weren’t reaching their essential fat levels like the Americans were, simply because their smaller stature allowed them to subsist off of the same amount of food that would result in an American’s death.  

  9. VXXC says:

    Ferenbach covers this, it was exactly that the amount of food the Chinese could live on was less than what Americans could live on, there was also the question of different diets. Americans aren’t raised on the same food.

    But Ferenbach does cover diet and us needing more calories exactly.

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