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The Korean War’s only RCAF prisoner

Lieutenant Andrew MacKenzie was the only member of RCAF to be a PoW during the Korean War.
CAF Archives
Squadron Leader Andrew (Andy) MacKenzie described himself as an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary situation—a recurring theme in his life. From piloting a Spitfire in the Second World War to ejecting out of a burning plane at 12,000 metres (40,000 feet), thrills and chills followed the happy-go-lucky flying ace in the Royal Canadian Air Force for 27 years.

But perhaps no experience was as chilling as being shot down by friendly fire on Dec. 5, 1952, and taken prisoner by Chinese authorities during the Korean War, making MacKenzie the only Canadian air force PoW during the conflict.

Born in 1920, MacKenzie grew up a superb athlete in Montreal. When the Second World War broke out, he wanted to become a pilot and he enlisted in April 1940. He served with 421 and 403 Squadrons, scoring 8½ kills and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for shooting down two Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, despite breaking formation to do so. A Globe and Mail article noted that “he was lucky not to be sent home in disgrace” for betraying such a fundamental rule.

During the 1950s, MacKenzie was promoted to squadron leader. And he was one of 21 RCAF volunteers who flew F-86 fighters with the U.S. air force during the Korean War. In early-December 1952, MacKenzie was set to complete his fifth mission while U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was visiting Seoul. His squadron was responsible for dealing with any enemy aircraft south of the Yalu River between the Chinese and North Korean borders. MacKenzie hoped for a bit of the action, writing to his wife, “keep your fingers crossed.”

Lieutenant Andrew MacKenzie (front left) and pilots of 403 Squadron investigate a Sherman tank. September 1943.
Aces of WW2

“I found myself tumbling through space at about 500 miles [800 kilometres] an hour.”

He got his wish the following afternoon. During that fifth sortie, his squadron encountered some 20 MiG-15s. MacKenzie told his leader, Major Jack Saunders, he was going after a couple; however, Saunders didn’t hear MacKenzie’s radio transmission and flew in the opposite direction.

Breaking off his own pursuit, MacKenzie headed to rejoin Saunders. However, he soon heard bullets flying over his head: his canopy had been blown off by friendly fire. With MacKenzie’s aircraft barrelling out of control, he ejected. “I found myself tumbling through space at about 500 miles [800 kilometres] an hour,” he said later, “my arms and legs thrashing about.”

Suffering from oxygen deprivation at such a high altitude after his mask had been pulled off as the air tore at his body, MacKenzie was in a severely weakened state by the time he hit the ground in enemy territory. Despite eyeing a nearby mountain that he thought he could escape to, MacKenzie was too exhausted for the trek, especially with 30 armed men on his heels. Believing his best chance of survival was to surrender, he let Chinese soldiers take him prisoner.

Blindfolded, he was transported to a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp where he was interrogated. Refusing to speak, he was placed in solitary confinement and later transported to a Manchuria, China, prison camp. The Chinese tried everything—propaganda, degradation, humiliation and even requests to falsify his statements. MacKenzie remained steadfastly quiet.

MacKenzie lost 70 pounds and his physical and mental health deteriorated.

During that time, MacKenzie was subjected to a three-month solitary bed arrest, requiring him to sit with his hands on his knees and stare at a wall for eight hours a day. He lost 70 pounds and his physical and mental health deteriorated, leaving him no choice but to confess about the real reason he was found in China—or at least, pretend to confess. So, he forged a story about how he had guided his parachute to land near the Yalu River.

Two years to the day he had been shot down, MacKenzie was stunned to learn he was being released. Reunited with his wife and four children, he spent 13 more years in the service, including time as a Norad intelligence officer. He died in 2009 at 89.


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