Korean War Vignette
by Lt Col (ret) Shigeki Sugiyama
Wonder What Happened To Them?
The recent revelation of the abduction of Japanese nationals by the North Korean Government
in the 1970s reminded me of an incident concerning some Japanese women in Pukchong, North Korea,
in October 1950.
I was airlifted from Pusan, South Korea, to Wonsan, North Korea, on October 20th with the
7th Infantry Division’s G2 as a member of the division’s forward command group[i] Then traveling by
lone jeep (accompanied by the Assistant G4 and an engineer reconnaissance officer) from Wonsan to
the Hamhung-Hungnam area, we then reached Pukchong on or about October 24th where the local
high school was selected to be the division’s command post. We anticipated that the division
headquarters and the rest of the division would begin landing at Iwon beach in the following days to
begin the division’s advance to Hyesanjin and the Yalu River. About the same time, some men of the
division’s aviation section were flown in by light aircraft to set up an air strip on the grounds of the school.
It was approaching dusk when one of the aircraft mechanics, who was serving as a sentry, came
to me in the classroom designated for the G2 Section and said there was a Korean gentleman who wanted
to speak to me. I couldn’t imagine who it might be since I didn’t know anyone in North Korea. But I had
driven to Iwon and around Pukchong the day before to become familiar with the lay of the land and had
undoubtedly been seen by the local people, even though they themselves had pretty well kept out of sight.
So I told the sentry I didn’t know anyone in Pukchong, but to bring him in so that I could find out
what he wanted. When the man was brought to me, he began speaking to me in Japanese and asked,
“When is the rest of the Japanese Army coming?” I responded that there was no Japanese Army, so
there would be no Japanese troops coming to North Korea, and that I was not a Japanese Army officer,
but was a U.S. Army officer. He insisted that the Japanese were coming and that I was Japanese. The
North Korean government had been propagandizing that the Japanese were being re-militarized[ii] and
were supporting the U.S. “invasion” of North Korea. So his belief was not unusual. And of course, all the
time I was telling him I was not Japanese, we were conversing in Japanese. The crossed rifle infantry
insignia and silver lieutenant’s bar on my fatigue uniform would not have been meaningful to him.
I continued trying to convince the gentleman that I was not a Japanese officer, but he could
not be convinced. Finally, he said, “If you say so,” then continued by telling me that his wife was
Japanese and that there were seven Japanese women in the town who all wanted to return to Japan.
And he asked if I could help them get to Japan.
I wished that there was some way I could help the Japanese women, but there was none that
I could think of. We were in the midst of a war and continuing our advance to the Yalu River. So I had
to tell him that I could not help him. However, I optimistically added that the war would soon be over, that
the Republic of Korea government would soon be in charge, and perhaps something could be worked out
at that time.
Although not really satisfied with my response, he thanked me and said his wife was outside and
would like to meet me. When I told him I would like to meet her, he went outside and returned with his wife,
who carried a basket of apples. She seemed embarrassed and it was a rather awkward situation, but she
finally asked if I wanted to buy some apples. I said I’d be glad to and when she gave me her apples, I gave
her some North Korean currency that I had withheld from some captured enemy documents. She and her
husband then took their leave and trudged off into the darkening twilight, and I never saw them again..
As fall turned into winter, and the temperature dropped to a mind numbing 35 degrees below zero,
the 7th Division’s 17th and 32nd Infantry Regiments fought their way north against remnants of the North
Korean Army and reached the Yalu River without encountering any Chinese Communist forces. In the
meanwhile, the 1st Marine Division was engaged by the three divisions of the Chinese Communist 42nd
Army and became bogged down on both sides of the Chosin reservoir. The 7th Division’s 31st Infantry
was then ordered to relieve the 7th Marine Regiment on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir and the
7th Division command post was moved back to Pukchong from Pungsan. But as soon as the division CP
was set up at Pukchong, all hell broke loose in the Chosin reservoir area with the CCF unleashing a newly
committed army group against our forces. The 7th Division’s two infantry battalions and an artillery
battalion east of the Chosin were decimated. And as the Marine division and remnants of the 7th Division
struggled back toward the Hungnam Perimeter, the remainder of the 7th Division conducted a hasty
withdrawal from the Yalu River down through Pungsan and Pukchong into the Hungnam perimeter. A
small divisional detachment was left at Pukchong to clear out as much as possible of the ordnance and
quartermaster depots and to remain there until all the division’s elements had passed through. Again I was
designated to stay back as the G2 representative. When I asked how long we were to stay at Pukchong,
I was told “Until you get a call to ‘haul ass.’” When I asked when that might be, I was told “When it looks
like they’re going to cut the [only] road to Hungnam.” Two days later, after the last of the division’s units
had passed through, we were ordered to pull out and rejoin the division headquarters at Hungnam.
In my last few days at Pukchong in December 1950, the Japanese women in Pukchong were
far from my mind as other tactical matters became of more immediate concern. But with the passage of
time, I often do wonder, “Did they ever get out of North Korea?’, “Were they able to survive?” not without
a bit of a guilty feeling for not having been able to do anything for them.
Shigeki J. Sugiyama
LTC, U.S. Army (Retired)
[i] The original plan was for the 1st Marine Division and the 7th Infantry Division to conduct an
amphibious landing at Wonsan and to attack across the Korean Peninsula to capture Pyongyang
from the east. However, the capture of Pyongyang by ROK Army units and the 1st Cavalry Division
and the advance of the ROK I Corps through and north of Wonsan mooted the X Corps’ amphibious
operation at Wonsan. So instead, the plan was changed to have the Marines land further north at
Hungnam and the 7th Division to land further northeast at Iwon.. I was the G2’s order of battle
officer, a 1st Lieutenant, and the most junior and youngest officer in the G2 Section. I seemed to
get the most hairy assignments, probably because I was the only officer somewhat fluent in
Japanese and who could communicate with Japanese speaking Koreans.
[ii] Soon after the U.S. occupation forces in Japan were sent to Korea, the Japanese National
Police Reserve was formed to provide security for Japan in place of the U.S. military. Subsequently,
the NPR was re-designated the Japanese Self Defense Force.