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Was Major Alley a Scapegoat? : A SOLDIER'S DISGRACE by Don J. Snyder (Yankee Books: $15.95; 256 pp., plus 16 pp. of black-and-white photos)

September 27, 1987|Martin Garbus | Garbus' "Traitors and Heroes: A Lawyer's Memoir" was published earlier this year by Atheneum

On Nov. 22, 1955, U.S. Army Maj. Ronald E. Alley was sentenced to 10 years at hard labor for collaborating with the enemy while a prisoner of war in North Korea. Of the thousands of soldiers held captive by the enemy in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam and of the hundreds known to have collaborated with the enemy and dozens who were court-martialed for this offense, only Alley was convicted and sent to prison.

Alley had risen to the rank of major because of his battlefield conduct in World War II and Korea. Captured during the terrible battle at Chosin in 1950, he took command of the American prisoners at his camp and, he says, tried to get as many men as he could out alive. He spent nearly three years in horrible captivity, returned home a shell of himself, then spent two years in a hospital. Upon his release, he was court-martialed and then spent nearly four years in an Army prison.

Don J. Snyder, first a journalist interested in the story, then an unabashed advocate and total believer in Alley's innocence, spent, along with Alley's wife, eight years trying to get the facts to prove Alley was not a collaborator, but only a soldier selected as the fall guy by the Army in its search for scapegoats for its failure to win the Korean War.

Communists in the State Department were one set of possible scapegoats; collaborationists in the Army were another. President Eisenhower, still feeling the heat of the McCarthy period, asked each of the armed forces to punish collaborators. The Air Force, Navy and Marines refused to turn on men tortured in Korean prisons. But the Army felt otherwise.

The Army brass looked at 425 cases of collaboration. After a long, drawn-out process, 14 were brought to trial. Alley's case became a symbol of the U.S. Army's determination to punish those it called traitors--his conviction was a foregone conclusion.

The issues posed by the Alley case are both troubling and timely. Should our prisoners of war submit to "cooperate" with the enemy and even sign confessions and prepared statements in the hope of sparing themselves mental and physical torture, indefinite imprisonment and perhaps death if they are not giving the enemy any information it does not already have? Yes, said the Air Force and Navy. Or should the nation insist that its young be Spartans to the end, giving their captors nothing more than name, rank and serial number. This, the Army said is the only conscionable policy.

Most men accused of collaborating, including Alley, pointed out that telling their captors that they would strictly comply with the Code of Military Conduct (name, rank, and serial number, nothing more) ensured instant death. They were compelled to find other ways of keeping the men in their command alive. One was by giving their captors information that the North Koreans already had. The Code of Military Conduct did not apply because their captors refused to pay attention to its provisions. Thirty-eight percent of 7,190 U.S. prisoners of war in Korea died of maltreatment. It was the highest death rate among U.S. prisoners in any war.

The most important witness at the 1955 court- martial against Alley was Col. Walter Mayo, who said Alley informed on his fellow prisoners. Contacted years later by Snyder, Mayo now says he was wrong. Alley should not have been convicted. "I think you have to look at it in context of the time it occurred. You have to remember that the Army had its problems then. They had trouble with McCarthy . . . I think you could say that the Army was on a witch hunt looking for Communists."

Finally, after Alley's death and years of agitating by Alley's wife, Snyder and Sen. William Cohen of Maine, an Army board reluctantly agreed to reopen the case. In 1982, a hearing was held, but again, the result was predictable.

The book leaves unanswered the very important question of what you can expect of soldiers who are relentlessly brutalized. The John Wayne school of thought--die before you tell them anything--may fit the tone of the Reagan era. But it is the stuff that movies are made of and cannot be the rule that governs real life. It is too inflexible and does not permit on-the-spot decisions made under horrendous conditions where lives are at stake. Clearly, prisoners cannot decide for themselves what and what not to say--the troubling issue is when and how you draw the lines.

Alley, a tragic figure, instead of a hero's welcome received a badge of dishonor. This book deserves a wide audience. It finally matters little whether Alley was as perfect as Snyder, his wife, son and friends believe. What does matter is that he should not have been convicted or even tried.

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