NEW YORK, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- The photograph of the U.S. military serviceman is unremarkable, save for one minor detail: the severed head of a suspected Korean communist sympathizer floating in a bucket by his feet.
The man in the photograph, Maj. Donald Nichols, was once described as the "best intelligence operator in the Far East" but for decades remained an unknown force behind military strategy during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Nichols, who was responsible for assembling an intelligence group that included 1,000 agents, 200 South Korean officers and 58 U.S. intelligence officers, as well as locating most of the U.S. military's bombing targets during the war, is the subject of a new book by Blaine Harden, King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America's Spymaster in Korea.
Harden worked for The Washington Post for 28 years, with assignments covering Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
Speaking at The Korea Society in New York on Tuesday, Harden described Nichols as "a phenomenon in the war" and an "extraordinary presence in the life of the Koreans who surrounded him."
Nichols would stay in Korea for 11 years, well after the 1953 Armistice Agreement was signed at the truce village of Panmunjom.
Harden said Nichols should be credited with "inventing the South Korean air force" and pointed out Nichols won a Distinguished Service Cross for finding a wrecked Soviet MiG, and helping to get technical information on the fighter jet to the U.S. Air Force.
But the U.S. master sergeant who correctly predicted "war in Korea is inevitable" was also a dark figure who oversaw the massacre of thousands of Koreans, many of them civilians, for suspected communist sympathies.
Nichols was a brutal spymaster who would throw his agents out of airplanes into rivers, "dropping them without parachutes over North Korea," and "without consequence," according to Nichols' former American and South Korean colleagues who spoke to Harden.
The U.S. operative, who had a legal license to murder but ultimately misused it, was also present at massacres of Koreans in the South who were suspected communist sympathizers.
Harden found a letter from Nichols that stated he was present at one of the mass executions -- but an official report of his involvement was never filed.
"He actually lied about his presence there all his life," Harden said.
During his mission, Nichols also had Jerri cans of severed heads delivered to his office, and photographed the mass killings that were approved by then South Korean President Syngman Rhee.
Rhee, a staunch anti-communist who would later be removed from office in 1960, cultivated a father-and-son like relationship with the U.S. master sergeant as early as 1946.
Nichols, then 23, would share classified information with the septuagenarian Rhee, and the two men would "give each other information and power," which would guarantee Nichols an edge over rivals at the CIA about prospects of a North Korea invasion of the South.
The U.S. spymaster's mixed legacy could provide new revelations to historians and throw a wrench into black-and-white narratives of the Korean War.
Nichols' successful intelligence operation, and identification of, according to the U.S. Air Force, 80 percent of North Korea bombing targets, earned him notoriety in Pyongyang.
"Nichols was known to the North Koreans," Harden told UPI. "His name was broadcast on the radio. The North Koreans sent at least one assassin to kill him. The assassin was caught, shot and buried near Nichols' headquarters outside Seoul."
North Korea founder Kim Il Sung also staged a show trial condemning Nichols, in order to rehabilitate his image after the Chinese had taken control of the North Korean military while Kim, a young leader at the time, hid in a bunker during aerial bombings, Harden said.
"Kim Il Sung made a fantasy version of the war," the author said.
Nichols' complex legacy should also "teach Americans that some of North Korea's anger and belligerence has an origin in the actions of the U.S. military."
"Understanding America's role in helping to create the North Korean crisis is fundamental to finding a solution to it," Harden told UPI.