Private Eric Donnelly


Private Eric Donnelly (right) at Britcom General Hospital, Kure, Japan, following his release. His visitor is a friend from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR). 148422

Eric Donnelly was one of the 29 Australian soldiers taken prisoner in the Korean War. In January 1953, while fighting Chinese forces near Hill 355 (Kowang San) and trying to rescue a wounded soldier, Donnelly was shot in the leg and was unable to continue back to his lines. As he lay in the snow with no feeling in his legs, he was picked up by a Chinese soldier and dropped in a trench, where he lost consciousness.

Over the next several days, Donnelly was repeatedly interrogated, and was refused medical treatment until he talked. Although he remained completely uncooperative, he was eventually moved to a Korean farmhouse where he received treatment.

Donnelly and other Australian prisoners were held in caves or farmhouses, their conditions and treatment varying in different places. Poor hygiene and inadequate medical attention were constant problems. Lice and dysentery were widespread among the prisoners. Donnelly lost 5 stone in three months.

Donnelly was one of five Australian POWs that were part of an exchange of wounded and sick prisoners, known as Operation Little Switch, on 23 April 1953.

POWs were sometimes targets of abuse and attempted communist indoctrination by their captors. The following account by Donnelly reveals another side of some Chinese and their attitudes towards their captives:

“The next day was the 28th of January, my 23rd birthday, and I was taken away to another building where I was given a spinal injection and a Chinese doctor, who spoke no English, performed an operation on my leg. The operating room had an earthen floor, thatched roof and the illumination was supplied by a pressure lantern which someone pumped every now and again to brighten the light output. As the Chinese doctor made the incision in my thigh, he explained to me in Chinese what he was doing.

“As I was lifted off the 'operating table', the stitching came undone and I thought I was in for another struggle when he again tried to close the wound. However, instead of trying to restitch me, he got an American field pack tin of Sulphanilamide powder and sprinkled it all over the wound before I was carted off to another room.

“My spirit was pretty low at this time as no one spoke English, it was my birthday and I was in pain and alone. In the early hours of the following morning, when the pain was at its worst, a Chinese soldier cradled my head an sang, in perfect English, the Paul Robeson song 'Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home'. This was a very moving experience that I will always remember. The soldier could not speak English to carry on a conversation, but I found out later that he had attended an American missionary school when he was a child.

“The next day, the pain in my legs had subsided and I started to regain my spirit. I felt like an exhibit at a zoo as I had a constant and steady stream of Chinese, both male and female, coming into the ward to have a look at the red-haired and blue-eyed prisoner.”