Since myself and Nick Shimmin (5 February, comments) are accused by Bruce Watson et al of not directly addressing the evidence with respect to such matters as my father’s contact with POWs, I will respond merely by saying the evidence has already been addressed in exhaustive detail by Professor Gavan McCormack, among others, many years ago.

In view of the very long extract published from Peter Hruby’s book in Crikey last week, I am hoping that the editors will consider it appropriate to reproduce the following piece, offered with the permission of Professor McCormack, as an authoritative overview of this matter, and hope this will clarify the question for the more objective readers of Crikey:

Burchett had been pursuing enquiries on behalf of a major Melbourne newspaper, the Herald, whose editor, Mr Jack Waters, had asked him to make enquiries as to whether an Australian prisoner named Gwyther, reported missing, was alive or not. Burchett discovered that Gwyther was indeed alive and in Camp Five, corresponded with him, and only visited the camp after Gwyther had agreed to see him.

This important fact, along with the whole of Burchett’s recollection of the meeting, was confirmed on 6 February 1969 by Mr Keith Gwyther himself in an interview with Sir Ronald East and Miss Myra Roper, taped and witnessed by an official of the local Returned Soldiers’ organization sub-branch, and early in 1985 ASIO released a substantial proportion of its Burchett files, including both the text of the letter from the Herald editor, Jack Waters, to Burchett (dated 9 January 1952) and Burchett’s subsequent letter to Gwyther (dated 29 January 1952).

An account of the 1952 encounter which had been specially prepared by Burchett was presented to Gwyther in written form and also read to him in 1969, whereupon Gwyther confirmed that it was substantially a correct account of what had happened. The account … deserves to be quoted in full:

At some point in the Korean war, I received a letter from John Waters, then editor or assistant editor of the Melbourne Sun. It referred to an Australian soldier (Keith Gwyther) who had been reported killed, but his name later appeared on a POW list from Peking. Waters asked me to check and find out if the chap was still alive, and, if so, what had happened. I wrote to the POW camp and, after some time, received a reply from him, giving details of how he had been left for dead, but had in fact been captured. He expressed gratitude that I had taken the trouble to find out about him and said he would be very glad to see me if ever I came to the POW camp.

Eventually I did get to the camp where this chap was held and asked to see him. The Korean Chinese [sic] in charge of the camp said there were a number of other Australians there and it would be better if I saw them all together. This I did, together with half a dozen French POWs. The Australians were dominated by one very big chap with a black beard who seemed to be their spokesman and dominated them. He was very aggressive.

I started by asking how were things? He snarled, “It’s no fault of the Koreans and Chinese that we’re alive today.”

Then he asked, “Are you a communist?”

I replied that in this war I supported the Korean-Chinese side.

He snarled back: “We came here to kill communists and we’d kill you too, if we could…”

I asked what was their main grievance, to which “Black-beard” replied that the food was only fit for animals to eat. I made my one break at that and said, “Next time you set out to kill communists, you’d better do it in a country where steak and bread is the staple diet.”

Then I asked if I could do anything about their mail, take letters … He snarled, “No.”

I asked if that went for the others too; they nodded their heads. I asked if the man from Leongatha (Gwyther) was there and he raised his hand. I said that I had got his letter. Did he have anything to say? He shook his head. And that was that.

The whole thing took about ten minutes. I said it was no good continuing the conversation, and let them go.

Gwyther refused to testify against Burchett in the 1974 trial, and in 1980 Hollis (“Black-beard”) advised a researcher not to interview Gwyther because “he thinks Burchett helped him while he was a prisoner”. When the original reports made for Australian security by Buck, Hollis and Parker (17 December 1953) and Gwyther (11 November 1953 were released early in 1985 they also confirmed Burchett’s account.

A contact described by one of the participants very shortly after it occurred as lasting “a minute and a half” and by Burchett much later as “about ten minutes”, which took place at the suggestion of a prisoner after an Australian newspaper had asked Burchett to find out whether that prisoner was still alive, and in which all the prisoners agreed they had felt free to speak their minds, and had indeed insulted Burchett in very clear terms, is rather thin evidence upon which to hang allegations of “brainwashing” Australian prisoners. Certainly they had a discussion, which soon stalled in bitter disagreement over the character of the war…

Though the incident was trivial enough, it was upon this meeting alone that the Australian government (and others) pinned the accusation of improper contact between Burchett and Australian POWs. Two other contacts between Burchett and Australian POWs seem to have taken place. Flight Lieutenant Gordon Harvey told Australian security in October 1953 that he had met Burchett briefly during April 1952, and that Burchett had given him information about the progress of the peace talks and about current affairs generally, and he had given Burchett his mother’s address to pass on to her the news that he was alive and well.

Much later, as the POWs were leaving North Korea via Panmunjom in 1953, another group of Australians also met Burchett. Nothing untoward happened on this occasion, save that one of the prisoners concerned gave evidence at the trial that he had not received the beer and fruit which Burchett once, in a television programme, claimed he had then distributed. Burchett in court thought this might have been because this particular witness had been ill or asleep at the time.

Affidavits collected by Australian security officials in 1953 and declassified in 1985 make it clear that Burchett’s account was substantially correct, the only discrepancy being that while Burchett thought he had distributed beer and fruit, one of this group of POWs, John Frederick Davis of Maryborough in Queensland, claimed that Burchett had brought two bottles of whisky, while another, John Houston Mackay of Perth, could only recall one large bottle. Both agreed he brought whisky rather than beer and that the whisky was bourbon…

With the release of much of the Australian government Burchett files, especially the substantial security files, in 1984-85, it is now possible to say that the two encounters described were the only occasions on which Burchett met and talked with Australian POWs.

Apart from this, Burchett in 1974 said that he had given talks in POW camps in Korea on a total of three occasions, twice in Camp Five and once in Camp One. These talks, he said, were given by invitation after Burchett had talked to the representative camp committees about the state of the war and the peace negotiations, and they asked him to provide a similar briefing for the benefit of the larger POW community. As noted, the most senior American officer held in North Korea, General Dean, has recorded his gratitude to Burchett for precisely such a briefing…

This leaves the question of Burchett’s contacts with British and American POWs in Korea. The allegation that Burchett took part in the “interrogation” of prisoners was made at the 1974 trial by Kniss and Mahurin but their evidence… did not support such a charge (and of course by no stretch of the imagination could Burchett’s encounters with Australian POWs be seen as “interrogation”.)

One point is not disputed. Burchett’s alleged “interrogation” of these men did not occur till after they had made their confessions, and amounted to asking whether the confessions were true and for a repetition of the stories already given. In the major American studies of the POW confessions matter, by White and Kinkead, this is all that is alleged, save that in one case, the confession of a pilot named Enoch, a first draft of the confession had been given to Burchett who gave it “literary form and style”. The allegation that Burchett was actually involved in the interrogation process rests upon a single piece of evidence. One day during Kniss’s interrogation, a list of questions was inadvertently dropped in his cell. According to Kniss, these questions concerned exclusively military matters and at the bottom, both typed and signed, was the name Wilfred Burchett.

The allegation also appears, very briefly, in the statement made by Kniss for US intelligence immediately after his release in 1953, yet in a very considerable volume of testimony collected by the security services of Australia, the US and Britain, it stands notably uncorroborated.

There is also another problem with the evidence of the airmen. This is that they did, in fact, confess to involvement in BW raids. Once the war was over they had to cope with strong feelings of guilt, either the guilt they expressed in their confessions over participation in BW, or the guilt they felt at having made the confessions untruthfully. They were under strong pressure to justify themselves before their military peers and before US public opinion, pressure which included the explicit threat of court-martial for the capital crime of treason.

Under these pressures Colonel Mahurin, whose allegation against Burchett is referred to above, remarked that, in telling his story to US military authorities, he wanted “to be sure I told it in a way that was satisfactory to my government”. Kniss and the others who confessed were in the same boat. In all, thirty-eight US airmen made confessions of active involvement in BW raids and seventy per cent of all US prisoners collaborated to some degree. After release they were all subjected to intensive “debriefing” by counter-intelligence, refused immediate access to their family or the press, and despatched to the US on a slow boat under close psychiatric supervision.

The San Francisco Chronicle (11 August 1953) carried a very revealing report from Keyes Beech:

This is a fear-ridden atmosphere in which American POWs are being shipped back to the US … All interviews with repatriates are conducted in the presence of a censor and a Counter-Intelligence Corps agent. Unless the repatriate is an exceptional man, this is, to say the least, an inhibiting influence . . . Often during the course of the interviews, ex-prisoners have turned to the counter-intelligence men for consent before answering questions.

Thus the threats and ill-treatment under which these men had confessed in Korea were compounded by the threats and intensive psychological pressures under which they later denied their confessions. It is impossible to say with absolute confidence that such men told the truth always in the latter case and untruth always in the former. Their confusion was evident in the 1974 Sydney trial when Kniss, shown Burchett’s account of their 1952 discussions, began by denouncing it as ‘a bunch of damn lies’ but, under questioning, agreed that it was he himself who had told Burchett ‘a bunch of lies’, which Burchett had faithfully reproduced…

As of 1985, all other “evidence” having been cleared away, Paul Kniss’s claims alone remain to support the allegation that Burchett interrogated any POW in Korea. It is impossible now to reconstruct much about the Burchett-Kniss relationship during the war, and there are no independent witnesses. They did have a correspondence, however, which Kniss told the Sydney court he himself initiated — an odd thing for him to have done if he really believed that Burchett had forced a false confession out of him.

Furthermore, the one fragment of that correspondence which survives today in the Archives is quite out of keeping with Kniss’s later description of the relationship. In this surviving letter, dated 20 November 1952 from Kaesong, Burchett wrote to Kniss:

I hope you are getting on alright and are comfortably installed for the approaching winter, also that you are getting plenty of reading material to fill in the time. Reading is the only way to overcome boredom in such circumstances. At present I am mightily bored myself since the US delegates walked out of the conference room at Panmunjom there has been little to do. And I am short of reading material — my wife is back in Peking — so I am able to imagine myself in your position quite well.

He added that he had taken up the study of Chinese, and recommended that Kniss too take advantage of the opportunity of reading and studying, a “unique opportunity” that constituted the “one bright side” of the current situation. This Burchett does not sound much like the “chronic alcoholic” and possible “drug addict” that Kniss later denounced to US intelligence.

Finally, in his sworn testimony in 1974, Kniss claimed that the “interrogation” piece of paper allegedly signed by Burchett was lost, “when it was taken off me together with my diary, everything I had”. On 4 September 1953, Kniss claimed, “the Chinese … the guards took everything away from me”. We now know that this is false, since Burchett’s letter to Kniss of November 1952 survived, and found its way into Burchett’s ASIO file. If the alleged incriminating piece of paper ever existed, it certainly disappeared rather mysteriously, and not because Kniss lost “everything he had”.

On two further occasions Burchett agrees that he acted as interpreter in meetings between the captive US airmen and other foreigners: on one occasion for two Frenchmen who spoke no English and on another for the International Scientific Commission which visited China and North Korea in 1952 to investigate the BW allegations, when he helped Dr Joseph Needham of Cambridge University and Dr Andreen of Sweden in interpreting to and from French. Burchett himself observes of this:

But again this was not anything in the nature of an intelligence interrogation by the captors. They had already, long ago, extracted everything they wanted. I was acting in my capacity as a journalist to report on the work of these international investigation groups, helping out from time to time as an interpreter. At no time during these sessions was there any intervention by Korean or Chinese personnel.

The asking of questions on this occasion can hardly be deemed interrogation. No such charge has ever been made against Dr Joseph Needham or other members of the commission.

Burchett faltered momentarily during the trial when confronted with a published report, under his name, of an interview apparently conducted with Colonel Mahurin, while Mahurin was on his way out of the country at Panmunjom in 1953. Burchett had denied any memory of such an interview. However, his journalistic output over the previous thirty years was prodigious, and since he thereupon agreed with the court that he probably had written such an article, it is the content rather than the existence of the article which is important, and the substance of the published interview is the same as that discussed above between Burchett and Kniss.

Colonel Mahurin, released from captivity in September 1953, gave accounts of his experiences on at least four subsequent occasions: to an American journalist on the day he was released, in his memoirs published in 1962, in a letter to a US journal in 1972, and to the Sydney court in 1974. In the first account, to Chicago Daily News correspondent Keyes Beech (9 September 1953), Mahurin began by saying that Burchett and English Daily Worker correspondent Alan Winnington were “editing our confessions”.

Having spelt out detailed allegations of Winnington’s participation in interrogation sessions he was asked “What about Burchett?”, and replied that he had “only met him [Burchett] last night and Burchett was very pleasant to me. Very pleasant. No military business at all.” Mahurin is not mentioned in a US army report for Major-General Ennis dated 30 October 1953 in response to an instruction to “obtain all available information and leads on Wilfred Burchett, an Australian national, which might be utilized by the Australian government in developing a case against Burchett”.

In 1962 Mahurin wrote an autobiography in which he described his encounter with Burchett in this way: “I felt that Burchett … was going to try to get something from me. But he didn’t. I think, in retrospect, that he must have been lonely for someone to talk to”.

But by 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, when Mahurin was president of the American Fighter Pilots’ Association and Burchett a most prominent opponent of the war, Mahurin suddenly remembered that Burchett had “harangued and threatened” him in Korea, and by 1974, his memory clarifying with the passage of years, he could recall two encounters, in the first of which (mentioned above) Burchett “stared at me like a snake staring at a mouse”, while on the second, on the eve of his release, Mahurin was literally “shaking like a leaf”, his fate in Burchett’s hands.

Burchett’s initial failure to remember meeting Mahurin pales into insignificance beside Mahurin’s progressive ability to remember more and more of the meeting and the fact that his recollection of it changed from “very pleasant” to very threatening. Mahurin’s professed desire to tell it all ‘in a way that was satisfactory to my government’ worked a subtle chemistry in his memory over the years.

Colonel Mahurin also told the court in 1974 that when he first saw Burchett (on the occasion he did not think to mention until 1974) Burchett had been wearing a Chinese military uniform with a star on it to denote officer rank. This point has been repeated by hostile commentators as very significant. However, on turning to the transcript of what actually was said, one finds both Mahurin’s statement in his presentation of evidence that he did not see whether there were any such insignia on Burchett’s clothing and his statement under cross-examination that he did and the star was present. No other POW witness reported seeing Burchett in such a uniform.

One Australian soldier, D.P. Buck, recalled him as being dressed in the sort of clothing worn by Chinese “civilians a little above the rank of coolie”; another Australian, Keith Gwyther, speaking of the identical occasion, described him simply as in “civilian’ clothes”. A number of Western correspondents who were in contact with Burchett during the peace talks at Panmunjom were later asked by security officers about this point. Some were clear that they had “never seen him in uniform”; others thought they had seen him in a “Sun Yat-sen uniform” or a “Lenin-type uniform” or “dressed in communist style”. All agreed that, as UN correspondents, they themselves had always been dressed in military uniform. One hesitates to draw from this anything more than that memory of such details is extremely fallible.

The US government made public its official view on these matters in 1977, when the State Department announced it had “no evidence” that Burchett had ever been involved in torture or brainwashing of American POWs, and no “independent information” on any KGB connection, thus implicitly dismissing both the Krotkov allegations and those of Kniss and Mahurin.

Burchett also denied having met the British soldier, Derek Kinne. There is no independent evidence of such a meeting. In 1955 the British Ministry of Defence published a study entitled Treatment of British Prisoners of War in Korea which discusses the case of Kinne at length but does not mention any such meeting or report any allegation against Burchett. However, another British journalist, Michael Shapiro of the Daily Worker, is quoted as having expostulated with British soldiers in an interview, telling a sergeant of the Royal Ulster Rifles, “I’ll have you shot”.

This is so close to the purported remark of Burchett to Kinne (“I could have you shot”) as to make one wonder whether Kinne may have been mistaken in his courtroom recollections. All that the British government paper says of Burchett is that he “collected prisoners’ mail, chatted to suitable men, and gave lectures”. None of this is at issue. Since the paper is quite detailed on other matters it is curious that Kinne’s allegations against Burchett were not published until twenty years after they supposedly occurred.

There is further, even more powerful reason to doubt the reliability of Kinne’s later memory of his war experiences. Although, under oath in 1974, he spoke of an angry Burchett having told a crowd of hostile POWs that when the war was over they would be going “that-a-way”, (pointing to China), in a book he published in 1955 called The Wooden Boxes (F. Muller, London) he wrote of an American prisoner who was co-operating with the Chinese and who concluded a camp lecture in almost exactly the same way: “‘A lotta you guys think that now the peace talks have broken down, the American aggressors will come up north to release you all. Well, you’re wrong. Even if they did manage to get up here, you’d all go that way” — he jerked his thumb northwards to Manchuria, a few miles across the Yalu River” (p. 92).

For Kinne in 1974 to tell this identical story under oath, substituting Burchett for the “American sergeant” he wrote about in 1955, is sufficient to cast doubt on the accuracy of the rest of his recollection. (Although in truth, beyond the admitted fact that Burchett did on several occasions speak to groups of assembled prisoners, there is nothing very substantial to it, unless Burchett’s very presence in the camps is deemed offensive or treasonous.)

There is one story which Kinne tells both in 1955 and 1974 in more or less identical terms. It concerns an occasion when Burchett arose to address a crowd of POWs and was confronted by men swinging makeshift nooses and shouting “You’ll hang, you bastard!” This story, however, is recounted in the British White Paper as a story about Alan Winnington. It is of course possible that various speakers were greeted by their audiences in this way — which would indicate that the atmosphere in such gatherings was far from intimidatory — but it is also possible, as in Kinne’s stories about Shapiro and the “American sergeant”, that we are dealing with a case of mistaken identity.

The official White Paper version, which makes no criticism of Burchett, has to be preferred. The comment by a journalist who interviewed a broad cross-section of prisoners immediately after their release and compared notes with other correspondents at the time is worth quoting: “Burchett, it seemed, was considered fairly harmless. However, a number of POWs levelled serious charges against another person from a Western country who was operating behind the communist lines”.

Perhaps some confusion has arisen concerning the target of these charges.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW