The character of the maverick cop, or even maverick spy, delivering outstanding results through unorthodox means and despite a disregard for hierarchy, is a familiar one in crime and spy fiction. Blaine Harden, who worked with Shin Dong-hyuk to write the compelling book Escape from Camp 14, has written an account of a real life maverick spy, Donald Nichols, hailed as a hero by Korean veterans of the war. The book grew out of Harden’s 2015 hit, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, which tells the story of Kenneth Rowe, the North Korean pilot No Kum Sok who defected to the South with his MiG-15 in September 1953. Rowe / No was debriefed by a US airforce intelligence man with an in-depth knowledge of the North, and whose report of the debrief (which Harden tracked down in the US National Archive) was “accurate, analytically sophisticated, and well written”. The fact that Nichols was so little known in the US records and accounts of the Korean War provided Harden with the idea for this highly readable book.
A maverick cop often needs a backer and a well-placed source of information and contacts. One of Nichols’s trump cards was his close relationship with Syngman Rhee, on whom he seemed to be able to drop in without making an appointment. It is not quite clear how that relationship developed – Nichols’s own autobiography is silent on how they initially met – but it gave Nichols access to the highest levels of the Korean military when the highest rank he himself achieved in the US airforce was that of Major. Nichols had powerful backers throughout his time in Korea, which enabled him to build his intelligence-gathering empire independently of the official US intelligence structure, which does not emerge terribly well from this account, particularly in the run up to North Korea’s invasion of the South in June 1950, when General MacArthur was completely wrong-footed despite the tangible evidence of Kim Il Sung’s military build-up.
The support from key superiors was justified by Nichols’s results, for example his foresight in establishing a capability to break the codes used in North Korean radio communications; his ability to deliver the precise coordinates of suitable bombing targets to strike at the North Koreans when a land-based strike was not possible; and his mission which identified the critical weak-spot in the previously virtually invincible Soviet T-34 tank used by the North.
After such a stellar performance in the war, it is perhaps initially a puzzle that Nichols was not untouchable in his position thereafter. But a maverick often has a dark secret or character flaw, and during wartime Nichols could get away with more than he could during peace. He now had more Americans under his command, less ready to do his unquestioned bidding than his wartime Korean subordinates. His old boss was transferred and could no longer protect him. Plus Syngman Rhee was becoming more a liability than an asset to the US. Nichols’s eccentric behaviour could no longer be tolerated, and a combination of reasons meant that he was recalled, ending up in a military psychiatric hospital before being pensioned off. It was then that his sexual preferences, kept a secret in Korea where the young airmen brought to his quarters for his amusement could be kept silent, started to be more of a problem, in addition to an understandable difficulty in adjusting back to civilian life after such extraordinary experiences in the military.
Highly recommended, not least for the account of Nichols’s witnessing of the Daejeon massacre and his involvement in other activities suppressing suspected communists in the run up to the Korean War.