General Mathew Thomas was born in Chennaguur, Kerala, India, on March 11, 1928. He grew up in an educated family, as his father was a journalist. His family moved to Bangalore, India, where he and his siblings were educated at English schools. He graduated from St. Johns European High School in 1944. He recalls his world history studies were limited to the regions of the British Empire; however, he was able to identify significant countries–such as Korea–on a world map. He studied languages and mathematics at St. Joseph’s College for two years before seeing desperate signs around town recruiting soldiers for the Indian army. He decided to go to the services selection board to take tests to see if he could join the army. He then attended basic training at the Indian Military Academy and went to Korea after the armistice in 1953 as part of a medical unit. This unit was a part of a commission established by the countries of India, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Led by India and consisting of multiple battalions, the commission was established to look after the prisoners of war. The Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission was ordered for peace only, to commit no use of military force or coercion, and only worked in Korean water as well as within Korean neutral zones. He left Korea after nine months, in 1954.
Mission in Korea
Mathew Thomas recalls his job description. He and his battalion were in charge of taking care of prisoners of war (POWs). He remembers the role being dangerous because some POWs were not checked for weapons when they were brought into the camp facility. He shares how there were times when POWs tried to escape.
Prisoners of War
Mathew Thomas speaks about his experiences with prisoners of war (POWs). He recalls how some POWs did not want to return to their home countries and explains that some were left behind or even taken back to India. He shares that other POWs wanted to go to North Korea as they felt they might have a chance of reuniting with their families.
Committee Mission Complexities
Mathew Thomas talks about the committee's mission. He recalls how the Korean officials wanted the small number of remaining POWs released so they could return home; however, the United Nations orders were to not release the POWs. Instead, the orders were to hand them over to the United States command. He recognizes the complexities of the situation that are hard to decipher even today. He remembers leaving Korea in 1954 after nine months of service.
Life in the POW Camp
Mathew Thomas discusses the living situation in the POW camp. He describes how they lived in wooden structures and canvas tents and remembers having heaters because it was very cold. He recalls eating goats, having good morale in the camp, and the bathrooms being outdoors. He shares he was able to mail letters home if he wanted.