On April 20, 1953, Operation Little Switch marked the first successful efforts toward ending hostilities in Korea and ultimately set in motion the Korean War Armistice. Nine days earlier at Panmunjom, talks between Commander in Chief, General Mark W. Clark, Premier Kim Il Sung, and Chinese General Peng Dehuai had led to an agreement on the commencement of troop exchanges. The “switch” of sick and wounded prisoners of war from both sides of the conflict began April 20th, and continued for 13 days. The 801st Military Air Evacuation Squadron assigned to Tachikawa Air Base, Japan supported the return of American and allied prisoners of war.
Onboard a C-124 flight to Tachikawa, Japan, Captain Lillian Kinkela-Keil a flight nurse, accompanied some of the American prisoners of war from North Korea to Japan. Keil, one of the most decorated women in American military history, logged 175 air evacuation missions in Korea and over 425 combat missions. According to Keil, every patient was unique and memorable. “I had to make each patient feel [as though] he was the only one on the plane I was caring for,” Keil said. “This made them feel very important and they loved that.”
During the course of the operation, North Korea repatriated over 684 United Nations troops from Australia, Britain, Canada, Columbia, Greece, Germany, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the United States. The United Nations returned 1,030 prisoners from China and 5,194 from North Korea. Starting on August 5 and continuing over the course of five months, both sides released their remaining prisoners of war. On July 27, 1953, hostilities in Korea ceased with the signing of the armistice, however, the nations of North Korea and South Korea officially remain “at war.”