The Prisoner of War Message Service 1951-1952
By Frank Glen
As the post Second World War era lengthened into 1950 barely sufficient time had passed to lighten the dull shadow of the repercussions on New Zealand during the six years of war that had ended September 1945. The New Zealand community wanted nothing better than to turn back the clock and let everything be as it was before the war. Tens of thousands of returned soldiers made incredible demands on the nations building capacity as new suburbs and thousands of new homes sprang up on the outskirts of cities long dormant since the depression years. Schools, hospitals, churches, community halls, road reconstruction and farm development dominated the horizon of the nation. The war was a memory kept alive by the record number of men and women who were very much part of the post war community who had returned from active service or who had served in the Defence Forces within New Zealand. This did not take into account the tens of thousands of First World War veterans still in the workforce and who had postponed their retirement years because of the outbreak of WW2. New Zealand was a community where military service was not held to be optional, it was an individual responsibility.
Youth, growing into manhood post the Second World War knew the hero’s of the times; they were the VC winners, and the soldiers, sailors and airmen of both world wars. The All Blacks were very much a secondary set of heroes, indeed they were not heroes in any sense of the word, they were just good sportsmen who had the privilege of representing New Zealand.
The end of WW2 resulted in the division of the world into two strong competing ideologies, Communist and non-Communist. The staggering task of feeding Berlin through the airlift during 1948-49 left little doubt in the West that the new enemy was the colossi of Russia and her Communist block allies.
The fall of China to the hammer and sickle in 1949 cast a shadow over all of Asia and the South Pacific reviving memories in Australia and New Zealand of the yellow peril years of the late nineteenth century and the real threat of a Japanese invasion of New Zealand of 1942. It seemed the world march of Communism knew no boundaries. In 1949 the Compulsory Military Training Act was passed requiring all 18-year-old males within New Zealand to receive three months basic infantry training and then posted for three years to an active Territorial Regiment . Thousands of WW2 officers and NCOs enlisted as volunteers to ensure that the new army of youngsters was an army capable and able to meet the perceived threat of communist world domination.
Despite the shortages of motor vehicles, building supplies, and raw materials required for the recovery of the nation following WW2, immigration to New Zealand from the UK, Holland and throughout Europe went on apace . The character of the nation was beginning to change and there was a stirring of the over the one million and three quarter individuals who were the New Zealanders of 1951. Patriotism, and loyalty to Great Britain coupled with a dedication to keeping alive the Empire links expressed itself in the tens of thousands of food parcels sent from NZ to the UK right up until the early 1950s. The death of King George VI deeply affected the nation while the support for the new Queen was overwhelming.
The active presence in the work place and commercial world of thousands of veterans from both world wars was reflected in the culture of New Zealanders. Big boys did not cry, and women were respected, nor were they equal, they had a unique and worthy status of their own. Men opened doors for women and walked with them on the outside of the footpath. Opportunity was open to all and even the economically poorest individuals could obtain a free University education. A youngster could join the Railways or the Post Office as a humble baggage worker or telegram delivery boy and rise to become General manger of the railways or the Post Master General. It was a time of opportunity and a time of great expansion despite the threatening drums of nuclear war. For those of us who became interested in the hobby of DXing, the short-wave band was a source of fascinating interest. Radio Moscow with its powerful propaganda broadcasts aided by her Communist block nations kept up a constant barrage of propaganda and invective against Western politics. The fascination was that although you could not visit those countries you could at least hear and experience the flavour of cultural communism via the airwaves.
The outbreak of the war between North and South Korea in June 1950, not five years after the cessation of hostilities and within a year of the occupation of China by the Communists caused a deep and alarming concern among New Zealanders. The blue beret soldiers were to become the first military test of the United Nations and it displayed little hesitation to mobilize the free world to oppose naked aggression. It is in this context that the Prisoner of War Message Service has to be examined and understood. The Korean War was viewed as the deliberate effort by world communism to engage with the free world for domination. The internal trade union challenge by the New Zealand waterfront workers strike that commenced on 15th February 1951 and ended 151 days later July 1952 was a clear example of insidious Communist methods designed to bring New Zealand to its economic knees. Many viewed the strike as the work of international and New Zealand communists bent on overthrowing a democratically elected government. The mood of the nation was determined, although the threat may have been less dangerous than it was real. It was in this environment that I, with my friend Arthur Bartlett, joined the Southland Branch of the NZ Radio DX League in late 1949. The League introduced us to the fascination of monitoring 250-watt stations on the California coast broadcasting on medium wave. Short wave, on the other hand kept us informed on the great events that were taking place in the world. You heard it on the radio before it was published in the daily papers.
As a result Arthur Bartlett and I drifted into listening and reporting on the messages transmitted from Radio Peking by United Nations soldiers taken prisoner of war in Korea. It was a Service that ran parallel to that conducted by the late Arthur T Cushen MBE and others who he directed as his helpers within the NZ Radio DX League. Our mentor and guide was the late Mervyn Branks who I had known since I was a youngster in the Boy’s Brigade and who had actively encouraged both of us to join the Radio DX League. Information recently released by the NZ Intelligence Security Service has enabled the writer to place in perspective of the times the task of listening and reporting on POW names that became a passion with a purpose.
On 28th January 1951 the first of many hundreds of messages from United Nations Prisoners of War held by the Communist forces as a result of the war in Korea was heard from Radio Peking. Pte Robert McDermod of Nelville Tennessee broadcast a personal message to his family. On the 28th February a further twenty made similar broadcasts from Peking’s 50,000-watt transmitter operating on frequencies of 10260, 11060 and 13070-kilohertz short wave. From the first message heard until 13th September 1951 over 800 names were monitored from Radio Peking, the only source available to the military authorities that provided information of those missing in action.
These broadcasts were publicly reported in the Southland Times on 23rd February in tandem with the commencement of the nation wide wharf strike that was to cripple the country. It was an event that polarized the political character of New Zealand, its resident communists and their fellow travellers were ruthlessly exposed to the public gaze through the press and public arena . The crisis changed the whole social culture of New Zealand society for that time. Suspicion, and fear of the power that communists could hold if they won the strike forced many people to think politically and they reacted strongly in favour of the status quo. The activity had the effect that those listening to the short wave and communist controlled radio were personally at risk of being accused of being communist sympathizers or thought of as communist fellow travellers. Short wave listening was the only route open to understanding the propaganda support given by the communist bloc countries to the NZ strikers. This added a new dimension to the already anti communist doctrines that had encouraged the enlistment of 6600 New Zealand volunteers to offer for service in Korea.
On hearing the first name I communicated with the United States Embassy in Wellington, the First Secretary replied indicating interest in receiving further information Arthur Bartlett and I might hear. This encouragement resulted in regular and disciplined listening to Radio Peking and establishment of an administrative system that would enable both of us to check what was heard was accurate. As the weeks went by British, Philippine and Australian names eventually began to be broadcast resulting in the British High Commission in Wellington asking for copies of British servicemen’s names, with a special interest in those of the Royal Marine Commandos.
Parallel with our listening Arthur Cushen re-established the WW2 style organization of monitoring POW Messages within the framework of the NZ Radio DX League staffed by members who had been involved in a similar task with throughout WW2. At no time did Arthur Bartlett and I become involved with the Leagues efforts despite being active members of the League simply because the project rapidly became so daunting and challenging that it took on a life of its own. Not with standing, Arthur Cushen and I not infrequently compared notes and discussed the nature of common difficulties associated with the listening and notification of next of kin.
By late March 1951 one hundred names had been sent to contacts in the United States and Britain with the message, the soldier’s name, number, date and time of the broadcast. At the same time the Invercargill Area 12 Army Commander, Captain J. R. Spence asked that I report directly to the Army results of the previous nights listening. This was a daunting task for a 17-year-old State Hydro electrical fitter apprentice working at the Invercargill sub station. Eyebrows lifted when my work mates saw a military vehicle arrive at the sub station each day for several weeks and an officer accept a sealed envelope. This entire cloak and dagger element had the foundation of authority for the local Member of Parliament Mr J. R. Hanan had organized and authorized that our monitoring lists go through the Area Military Commander to Defence HQ in Wellington. At the end of March acknowledgement was received from three families in the UK and two in the USA that messages we had sent airmail had been received. These replies were in fact the adrenalin that kept the POW Message Service going, for within a few months Arthur Bartlett went off to do his Compulsory Military Training in the RNZAF and I was left to work alone.
On the 29th March 1951 I received a telegram from the Army HQ Wellington with instructions to continue monitoring and send the results to the local Army Area 12 Headquarters and to this end the Army provided stamped addressed envelopes to defray the costs. During the period of the war the Chinese never issued lists of POW they held as required by the Geneva Conventions, or grant any specific information regarding their handling or conditions of their prisoners. Nor did they subscribe to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of Prisoners of war. All prisoners taken by them were considered within the propaganda slogan as “American imperialist lackeys,” or “pawns of the capitalist western world.” Short-wave radio monitoring had become a window through which the Chinese policy and information could be viewed thus aiding an understanding of the fate of missing military personnel. In April 1951 the BBC monitoring Service established a short-wave surveillance system that resulted in the British High Commissioner in Wellington informing me that further lists of names were not required. However the United States authorities in Wellington and the Royal Marine Commando authorities at Portsmouth Barracks still requested to be kept informed.
As a result of reception reports sent to the Director of Radio Peking the Director offered to accept mail for delivery to UN prisoners. I immediately informed the War Office in London of this offer that resulted in a request from them that I forward mail from families of Royal Marines who were POWs in China. The political and military situation of the time precluded normal peacetime channels whereby mail could be reliably sent to China.
Between August 1951 and February 1952 a total of 56 letters went through New Zealand Prisoner of War Message Service to Peking, 44 British and 12 from the USA. A further 80 letters went through the NZ Radio DX League who had also adopted this channel for personal mail. The British Admiralty and the War Office later confirmed these were worthwhile efforts. Three letters were received by the POW Message Service from POWs who were the recipients of these letters thanking us for the provisional route.
The POW Message Service was a delicate instrument in the hands of an under 18 year old unfamiliar with the fine detail of military intelligence or covert politics and communism. It was arranged that I meet the Minister of Defence and this took place on 17 April 1951 at his temporary office in the Invercargill Post Office. There sat the great man while I wore collar and tie as he questioned me on how the Prisoner of War Message Service operated. The 53-year-old Hon Thomas Macdonald the Minister of Defence was a fellow Southlander who deserved the credit of using the interview not to over power, but to empower a young man who had embarked on a mission more out of a sense of duty and charity than perhaps common sense. The discussions centered around an investigation on the possibility of commencing short-wave programmes to United Nations Prisoners held in China. A month later the New Zealand Broadcasting Service indicated they had undertaken a feasibility study but by the following July reported that they could not proceed with the project because of the lack of overseas interest.
The Southland Times and the Southland News had freely given publicity while returning letters of thanks resulted in some US dollars, French francs and some English pounds. These donations assisted with the cost of postage and stationary while I was fortunate through this publicity to be offered the assistance of three volunteer typists who took my rough scrawls and turned them into formal letters and messages. Without the voluntary typists the Service would have collapsed from the sheer weight of its administration.
As the Service rapidly developed the number of messages reached proportions that necessitated some form of assistance in the USA and England. Accordingly I sought the assistance of two individuals Mrs D Millspaugh of Lawton USA who handled over 200 messages for internal delivery in the United States, as did Miss H Carter of San Diego. The former was congratulated by the United States Defence Department and she was able to list the names of a further 50 US personal believed missing thereby alerting me to listen for specific names. Mrs K Green of Layton managed the communications in the UK and France where she notified over 30 UK next of kin of the mail route to China and generally fostered the understanding of the Service.
My apprenticeship in the city abruptly came to and end in May 1951 and I was posted to gain “human interaction” experience working among the labouring staff then erecting the 110 KV line from Roxburgh to Invercargill. Transported to Kelso, just out of Gore I found myself in a 6 X 8 hut with a wood fire and a bed. This was to be home for the next three months. Hurriedly I erected 100 meters of aerial and reinstalled the Columbus radio, and that night began monitoring further names.
In summary, at the end of the first year of operations three agents were employed overseas, and strong associations had been established with the military intelligence authorities of UK and USA, while the families of Royal Marines were consistent users of the Radio Peking mail facilities into the Chinese POW Camps. The figures for the first 12 months were impressive.
POW names monitored. 860
Wounded while POW 6
Killed or died while a POW. 19
Enquires from individuals 87
Information regarding killed 2
British Commonwealth Forces
POW names monitored 115
Wounded while POW 1
Died while POW 2
New Zealand 1
British enquires 4
United Nations Forces
Porto Rico 15
South Korea 3
French POWs in Vietnam 5
In all a total of 1140 names representing almost 50% of names released in July 1953 by the Communists at the Peace Talks, but only 10% of the total number of servicemen posted missing in action. Increasing numbers of enquires forced me to hit upon the idea of negotiating with Radio Peking to release through the normal mail channels additional names that had not been broadcast but who were never the less Prisoners of war. This was a bold concept but not out of the ordinary for in reality it was only an extension of the existing mail run. Radio Peking responded with alacrity by sending the China Information Weekly publication airmail to my address. These contained the names, personal messages and regimental numbers of United Nations servicemen taken prisoner since June 1950 and in many instances published their home addresses. A significant number of the published names and corresponding messages had never been broadcast, thus it opened up a further avenue of intelligence.
Unknown to those of us engaged in the monitoring, British Intelligence meantime had became aware of inaccuracies sent by the Service to some UK families and in some instances families in the USA. It was obvious the Chinese were exploiting this means to disseminate their propaganda and disinformation. A phone call on April 3rd 1952 from the Police requested that I see a representative of Police Intelligence at the Invercargill Police Station.
On arrival Senior Sergeant Macdougall opened a sealed envelope and read to me the instructions from Military Intelligence. Some of the material sent by the Message Service using published material from the China Information Weekly had proved to be deceptive. To continue monitoring in the face of Chinese deception and propaganda would be unwise and serve only to further Chinese deception. New Zealand was in the grip of the nation wide communist inspired strike that gave added weight to the dangers of individual suspicion and subterfuge as if one were involved with communist propaganda. The sudden ending of the Message Service was both a relief and a disappointment although when I consulted with Mervyn Branks he advised that the cessation of the service was in all probability the best end result. On the 22nd April 1952 the NZPA carried a nation wide paragraph in the newspapers, NZ Radio Men brought news of Prisoners to next-of-kin. It was recognition of the NZ Radio DX League’s role, and that of the Prisoner of War Message Service in monitoring POW names and acknowledged that Radio Peking had been the single avenue for the forwarding some mail to POWs for almost a year.
It took until the middle of May to tidy up the last remnant of the Message Service and to withdraw from the overseas contacts established during the short 15 months of operations. The Chinese Communists continued to broadcast messages and names of POWs, and continued to send the daily news releases. It proved impossible to have them stopped at the point of entry into New Zealand’s mail system.
On the 10th November 1952 during the period of my preparation for Compulsory Military Training I was urgently called to the Invercargill Police Station and confronted by Senior Sergeant Macdougall. He was blunt and to the point and accused me of continuing to distribute Chinese communist propaganda. I was wearing my cadet pilot air force uniform during the interview and the hidden agenda was obvious to us both. I denied the accusations and offered to surrender all of my records as proof of my integrity. The files included letters and documents that were supportive from senior military figures and politicians who had encouraged the continuation of the Message Service as well as copies of letters winding up organization.
On leaving the police station I contacted Mervyn Branks. His comment was brief “Don’t worry”. Returning to the Police Station the following day with a bundle of records I found a different Senior Sergeant. He was warm in his greeting, and approachable in his demeanor. He was the very epitome of co-operation and together we prepared a statement for the Police Intelligence section in Wellington to accompany my records. Many years later it occurred to me that Mervyn Branks had no doubt had a hand in the matter following my discussions with him the previous evening.
Over the years I wondered what became of the records until the Tiwi DX weekend of Easter 2003 when encouraged by long-term members of the NZ Radio DX League I submitted a request to the NZ Security Intelligence Service. Mr Wood, the Director replied in May 2003, virtually 52 years after these events under the Privacy Act with a copy of the statement of interview by Senior Sergeant Macdougall and one signed by myself. The Director explained that the SIS had not been established until 1956 and the Intelligence Section of the NZ Police had conducted the Message Service enquiry. The SIS had inherited the records, but only a fraction of the original documents survived. Returned to me was a copy of a message sent to an American family and copies of the two remaining China Information Weeklies. The director explained that some of the letters in the files had been purged and forwarded to the Repatriation Prisoner of War Unit in Japan for use in the interrogation of those repatriated, presumably with reference to those prisoners who may have collaborated with the communists. At least one Royal Marine remained in China and refused repatriation.
Clearly in the circumstances of the communist threat of those times there was a social stigma attached to individuals who might or were suspected of being associated with communism. Internationally the communists and the United Nations had a direct suspicion of each other and truth was traded for propaganda. It was a time when the hearts and minds of millions were competing ideologically that was complimentary to the military struggles. For my part the effort was well worthwhile for the results spoke for themselves despite the Message Service being used as a tool by the communists for disseminating lies and false hopes. This was not of my doing, or those who aided the Service and after all these years this assessment appears to be supported by the documentation provided by the Director of the SIS.
From the outset of the Prisoner of War Message Service on February 1951 until it ceased in May 1952 it operated parallel with and complimentary to that of the NZ Radio DX League’s monitoring service. Such an independent activity did not endear either my associate or myself with some members of the League who believed our efforts ought to have been directed into those they believed to be the greater good operated by the League. Mervyn Branks on the other hand proved to be the moderator who was able to hold together and encourage both message services. The Minister of Defence had no doubts that duplication was an asset for he indicated early in April 1951 that he beleived both organizations operating independently of each other improved the efficiency and the integrity of the end result. It also gave the authorities a wider resource from which to draw their facts and interpret the reporting.
Mervyn Branks mature and tactful nature coupled with his support for a youthful enthusiast directly affected the way in which the Prisoner of War Message Service was conducted. His close association with all of us who were at that time members of the NZ Radio DX League gave him a broader vision for the effort everyone put into the work. No one was looking for recognition, all were dedicated to the goal of relieving the anxiety of those who had suffered through the loss or missing loved one. Arthur Cushen received recognition by the award of the Queens Coronation Medal in 1953; while there is little doubt my inclusion among the select number of aircrew trainees for the Territorial Air Force as a Compulsory Military Trainee in 1951 was a direct result of the influence of Invercargill MP Hon R. J. Hannan. He once discussed the matter directly with me before my actual selection and no one was more surprised than I to find my self-included among the eight bright boys selected from Invercargill. Especially when I had done poorly in the aircrew mathematics paper. One wonders after all of these years if the League will ever again be called upon to undertake the same type of work? We still live in very uncertain times.