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North Georgia grad was part of secret war

POSTED: January 2, 2011 1:00 a.m.

Ben Malcom had been out of North Georgia College in Dahlonega barely a year before he found himself in Korea in 1952 on an unconventional warfare assignment kept top secret for four decades after the war there concluded in n armistice.

During the Korean War, he advised one of five "Donkey units" comprised of North Korean partisans who didn't want to live under communist rule. Those units were under the 8240th Army Unit Guerrilla Division.

The partisans had been operating since 1946 on their own, raiding North Korean military positions and disrupting supply lines. They relied on what weapons and supplies they could capture from the enemy.

Malcom, then a first lieutenant, operated out of Leopard Base on the island of Paengnyong-do, 125 miles behind enemy lines. The island is among many off the western coast of Korea and near Yeonpyeong, in the news recently after North Koreans shelled it.

When he first arrived at Leopard Base, "I was venturing into uncharted waters ... a lone American in the midst of hundreds of North Korean partisans whose loyalty at that moment was very much in question," he wrote in a book later.

Indeed, the leader of the partisan unit he would oversee was Pak Choll, whom other Americans didn't trust. However, as the fighting progressed, Malcom changed his opinion and that of his fellow Americans toward Pak.

The partisans used Chinese fishing junks, powered only by small engines, to make their forays into enemy territory. North Koreans fired on them frequently, but the partisans became adept at sneaking behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, recruit new partisans, capture weapons and supplies, sometimes even bringing back oxen for food.

Americans weren't supposed to accompany the partisans on their raids to mainland North Korea, but Malcom went on several. One of the most significant would make a good plot for a movie. The North Koreans had a 76 mm artillery position on a mountain overlooking the islands from which partisan units operated. They randomly would shell the islands, deterring partisans' raids, then move the guns back deep into a cave in the mountains.

Pak and his partisans obsessed over mounting an attack on the guns. After months of planning and training, Pak and Malcom took four Chinese sail junks loaded with partisans across the water at night to launch a daring raid. The assignment carried much potential for failure and high casualties. But with the help of an allied ship and air support, Malcom and his men knocked the gun out, most of his men surviving.

Narrow escapes were routine. On a mission to recruit more partisans, Malcom and others were ambushed and had to fight their way out of enemy territory to waiting sail junks.

While the Donkey units had their successes, they along with Malcom were frustrated with their lack of support. The partisans who had fled the North Korean communists hoped U.S. and United Nations forces would mount a massive invasion to the north to recapture the whole of Korea. That never came, and the eventual cease-fire disappointed them.

Malcom is critical of the Army for not recognizing the value of unconventional warfare at that time. He said senior generals didn't understand special forces, which evolved after the Office of Strategic Services dissolved at the end of World War II and emerged with the Central Intelligence Agency in Korea. Special forces became more important in the Vietnam War, but still had to resist the military bureaucracy. They have been more successful in Iraq and Afghanistan, Malcom said.

Malcom tells his story in "White Tigers, My Secret War in Korea." The partisans called themselves white tigers. Maj. John Singlaub (ret.), who filled a similar role in Korea, wrote the foreward to the book.

While he is critical of the lack of importance senior military officers and politicians attached to unconventional warfare such as the white tigers conducted in Korea, Malcom is satisfied with his 29 years in the service. He has been featured on the History Channel and Voice of America.

A native of Monroe, Malcom retired as a colonel and lives in Fayetteville. He earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman's badge, but the stories behind those medals remained untold until publication of his book.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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