Harold Voelkel

Behind Barbed Wire in Korea

In June of 1950, the North Korean army crossed the 38th Parallel and massively invaded South Korea. My family, with most of all the other foreign missionaries in the country, fled to Japan, taking with us only one suitcase each. Two weeks later, my Father, Harold Voelkel, gathered the five of us for family devotions one evening as was his custom and announced a special prayer request. How well I remember his words:

Well, family, here we are in Japan. We have no idea how long the war in Korea will continue. Should we return to the U.S.? Should we stay in Japan? We just don’t know; but the Lord does. Let’s pray that He will clearly show us what to do.

A week later my Dad received an invitation from the U.S. Army to return to Korea to be a civilian chaplain among South Korean troops that had been integrated into under-strength American military divisions. He was given the status of a colonel, which meant we three boys and our mother could stay on in Japan, living in U.S. military housing and having the privilege of attending the school for military dependents. (My sister was in college in the United States.)

By September, Dad was back in Korea. Within months, General Douglas MacArthur cut the North Korean army in half with his swift Inchun Landing, and the United Nations forces captured 150,000 North Korean prisoners-of-war (POWs). They were taken to Koje Island off the southern coast of the peninsula and divided into 10 camps of 15,000 men each.

Though trained in theology at Princeton Seminary, plus a master’s degree in philosophy from Princeton University, my Dad’s passion was evangelism. Before Seminary he had studied at Moody Bible Institute where they taught him to preach the Gospel in the windy streets of Chicago. Over the years he had trained generations of young Presbyterian missionaries how to do open air evangelism. As a teenager I had helped attract crowds in country villages by making a “joyful noise” playing hymns on my trumpet. As people gathered, I watched amazed at how he held their attention with vivid illustrations and funny stories inserted into his powerful Gospel preaching.

When Dad heard that 150,000 Koreans were cooped up in POW camps he recognized an unparalleled evangelistic opportunity. Requesting a transfer, he immersed himself in reaching out to these men, a task for which he was superbly gifted. He recorded his first experiences at visiting “a scared, ragged, and hungry-looking lot” of men. They were amazed to hear an American in a military uniform speaking the idiomatic Korean he had learned through 20 years of preaching in country villages and teaching in Bible schools.

At first they were suspicious of me and my questions, but they soon warmed up [when they realized] that I was a missionary. In a matter of minutes they relaxed and joined heartily in the singing of a hymn and reciting a verse of Scripture. With a brief message and a prayer I concluded the meeting…(Voelkel).

More and more meetings followed, very soon attended by up to 10,000 men, at first without a microphone! The words of hymns and Gospel songs were written with large letters on sheets of newsprint and then held up by men strategically placed in the crowd. One of the favorites was “Only Trust Him.”

Come every soul by sin oppressed / There’s mercy with the Lord.
And He will surely give you rest / By trusting in His Word.
Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust Him now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.

These are precious words at any time, but all the more so to these men who had faced so recently the terror of life-threatening experiences, now surrounded by barbed wire, out of touch with their families and loved ones, and totally uncertain of what future awaited them.

Dad gave frequent invitations to receive Christ, and more and more men responded. To his surprise, he discovered that some of them were already Christians, forced into the North Korean Army, others innocent passersby, swept into the ranks of the POWs. There were even some church officers: 9 Elders, 18 Evangelists, 35 seminary students, and even a seasoned Pastor!

These leaders, along with some local pastors he was able to invite into the prison camps, began to help him with follow-up counseling sessions for the new believers. They prepared new Christians for baptism, requiring a careful written examination to insure full understanding of the important step they were taking. He calculated that some 15,000 men found Christ during less than three years they were prisoners. 

The American Bible Society offered to send shipments of Scripture portions, New Testaments, and a few whole Bibles in Korean to help the Christians grow in their faith. In time 15 Bible Institutes were established within the POW camps, with thousands receiving training in a Biblical Overview, English, Music, the Life of Christ, the Sermon on the Mount, Church History, and the Westminster Catechism. When all the men in a single tent had become Christians, they placed a cross on top and volunteered their dwelling as a class-room.

To stimulate Bible study and memorization of Scripture, Dad announced one day that there would be a competition with prizes to be awarded to the one who had memorized the most Scripture within a given time frame. When the day came, he invited the Camp Commander to give out the prizes. However, he was totally unprepared for what happened. Men began reciting whole chapters of the Bible. Yu Jun Bogi informed him that he had memorized the whole Book of Matthew, and behind him were five who could repeat the whole Book of Revelation!

Daybreak prayer meetings have long been the hallmark of the Korean Church. The Christian prisoners began to follow this custom.

In November 1951, Harold Fey, one of the editors of The Christian Century magazine, attended one of the daybreak prayer meetings on Koje Island when it was still dark, and heard 4,600 prisoners singing…hymns. “I never expected to see anything like this,” he reported (Rhodes and Campbell).

In the midsummer of 1951 peace talks began in Panmunjom between the North Koreans and the United Nations Forces. Hardcore Communist POWs, anticipating that they might soon be released, recognized that the North Korean authorities would have expected them to stir up trouble. They mounted an attack. In Compound 85, sixteen prisoners known to be anti-communists were murdered, including six Christians, two of whom were Deacons. Until the violence was quelled and the troublemakers were isolated into a place of their own, they even managed to capture an Army General and held him captive!

When the Christians heard talk of possible repatriation to North Korea, they began to draw up petitions written in their own blood that they would rather die than return there to live under Communism, a tremendous propaganda blow. Ultimately, the United Nations allowed each prisoner to decide for himself whether he would or would not return to North Korea. Over 60,000 stayed in South Korea. Dad saw many of them off as they left. As they fanned out across South Korea, a country still reeling from the destruction of the war, they participated in the reconstruction, joined existing Christian congregations, and some planted new churches.

When my Father retired, he hung on his wall a precious document. It contained the photos of 131 men in academic cap and gown, graduates of theological seminaries, all former POWs. Several became missionaries, including a few who ended up in Brazil.

Forty years later I was privileged to have dinner in a lovely hotel in Seoul, guest of several Koreans who were former POWs. They shared their extraordinary experiences and expressed their deep gratitude for what my Father had given them during their years as prisoners. One was now a millionaire, who had used some of his resources to build a church, and then a whole junior high school for girls. Another was the president of a theological seminary of 2,500 students. A third was the pastor of a church of 7,000 members. To this day when I think of all that this story entails, I can hardly keep back the tears, marveling at God’s goodness of meeting so many in such a precious way during that terrible war.

As Dad reviewed the experiences of those days, he wrote:

The ministry to the POWs has been the happiest and I believe the most fruitful ministry of my life…a work among 150,000 men that eventuated by His grace in churches, Bible conferences, and Bible institutes…God has guided, protected, and prospered all along the way. [He] has kept His hand so manifestly and wonderfully on this work that at times I break out into laughter at the marvel of it all—God saving, training, and inspiring men to radiant Christian lives behind barbed wire. It is another of His holy surprises (Voelkel).


What impresses you in the story you have just read?

What illustrations of creativity do you observe in Harold Voelkel’s ministry?

In what way does the situation where God has placed you offer an opportunity for the Gospel?

Bibliography

Rhodes, Harry A. and Campbell, Archibald (eds).  History of the Korea Mission.  Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  Volume II (1935-1959).  New York, NY: Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations.  The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1965.

Voelkel, Harold.  Behind Barbed Wire in Korea.  Zondervan, 1953.

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