Operation 'Big Switch'

Platoon Leader Alec Weaver, 3RAR, '53


Operation 'Big Switch'
(from 5th August to mid-September 1953)

When the armistice came into effect I was surprised, as a mere Lieutenant 3 RAR Platoon Commander to be appointed as the British Commonwealth Division Liaison Officer for the POW exchange operation at Panmunjom.

I was given a first class jeep and one of my Diggers (Don Harris) ( see THE MOUND) as a driver and assistant I was responsible for furnishing ongoing reports on developments directly to Divisional Headquarters and to satisfy any queries emanating from there.

My duties, in some detail, required me to observe and report upon events as thousands of UN exPOWs streamed through a wide checkpoint strictly in reverse order of seniority (Obviously so in case hostilities might recommence)

The menacing presence of big Chinese and North Korean MPs was suitably complemented by equally overbearing USMP-- (Shades of Berlin's Check Point Charlie) Many men were conveyed on stretchers. I was particularly impressed by the lads of the Gloucestershire Regiment whose proud bearing and demeanour was a great example of British pride and stoicism stemming from their long and noble traditions. They marched as a unit-heads held high-belying the harshness of the past 21/2 years of incarceration. Many were 18/19 year old National Serviceman.

Their Commanding Officer Lt Col James Carne [ later V.C.] was the last to emerge---.his inhumane treatment for constant defiance clearly etched on his face.

On the morning after his release, the Colonel was requested to give a detailed account of his unit's actions in the 24/25April1951 Castle Hill battle. Accordingly, he stood on the site addressing selected officers in a most professional manner.

Whilst the other ranks of the Commonwealth were rapidly returned to their home destinations, some selected officers including Colonel Carne, were treated in grand style in huge hastily erected tents with the best food, drink and entertainment. This included a film of our Queen's visit to New Zealand. They were warmly attended to by doctors, nurses, clerics and Red Cross ladies etc.

Among the happy freed men was an old mate of mine, Vance Drummond whose Meteor jet was shot down by MIG15's in November 1951. As they crossed the now defunct 'Freedom Bridge', accessible from the main Panmunjom complex via 'Liberty Lane' the Australians were whisked away to KIMPO Airport for immediate return to Australia.

The last Australian out were Captain Phil Greville-1RAR and Lieutenant Charles Yacopetti -3RAR, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking before their departure. . Oddly enough, I was the last officer who saw Charles prior to him being made a POW when I, myself, was seriously wounded in a clash with a Chinese fighting patrol, thus unable to help him when he, utterly incapacitated from serious wounds and unable to stand or walk .asked me to lead the survivors the best I can back to the top of Hill 355.

Thus I was the very last as well as the first to see him in a rather worrying drama.

Charles was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his conduct in battle as well as for his defiance whilst a POW.

Sadly, conversation with our boys in the Panmunjom area was forbidden, as interrogation by professional British Intelligence Agents having absolute priority. To ascertain important topographical details as well as aspects of treatment by the enemy .Nevertheless, I was overjoyed to see them in the distance.

The harsh realities of the Australian POW incarceration are covered in depth in Chapter 24 of Korea Remembered by Phil Greville Also, this Album's "Aussie POW'S" details the ordeals, humiliation and suffering endured by Tom Hollis and Billy Madden [George Cross}-the latter dying in captivity.

Eric Donnelly's ordeal is also included here.

All British Commonwealth returning POW's were conveyed in Chinese trucks to huge transfer tents where they could shave, shower and were given haircuts.

New uniforms, complete with badges of rank and campaign ribbons, were issued at the request of the Chinese and obtained from the various Commonwealth Divisional units as based on the applicable nominal rolls obtained from the enemy.
I was heavily involved in this mammoth logistical exercise, made possible by their total cooperation and efficiency.

With the exchange completed, I was quartered with the Americans in a vast Hospital complex in Seoul. Here, I witnessed the arrival, by helicopter of hundreds of U.S .exchangees-each receiving tumultuous applause as they were conveyed further for detailed medical/dental / psychological examination.and debriefing by CIA Officers.

Maj-General William Dean the, Commander US 24th Infantry Division was the last to arrive. ( He reportedly had led his men 'from the front') Thankfully, I was apparently forgotten by my C.O,and so was able to enjoy the warm hospitality of the Americans for a further six weeks.

Here the CIA officers uncovered some of the sadder and more unsavoury aspects of some US POW,s who were labelled "Progressives" by their captives. It appears they were granted more favourable treatment for reporting on their Buddies and for achieving higher marks in the Communist indoctrination and brain washing sessions.

This was, of course reported to me, in addition to the cruel and inhumane treatment which the good GIs had to suffer in addition to well targeted psychological torture which had left its mark on the unfortunate victims.

Finally, the spectacle of Chinese and North Korean exchangees contemptuously discarding their Capitalist clothing into the river, chanting in defiance as they crossed "Freedom Bridge" bears mentioning.

Freedom Bridge
Freedom Bridge

Liberty Lane
Liberty Lane

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