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James Junior Volpone
Las Vegas, NV -
"I try not to think about what happened to me as a prisoner of war, but that is real difficult. When I am lying around doing nothing, I just start thinking about all of that stuff and I cannot help it.... I wouldn't wish this on anyone, not even my worst enemy. Korea is engraved in my mind. No one and no medication will ever take it out.
- Jim Volpone
Hoengsong Massacre to Changsong, North Korea (Yalu River)
Written in memory of all our POWs who perished in Korea,
I got captured by the Chinese Red Army at Hoengsong 60 years ago. I am now 83 and it still lives with me. I was not in Korea too long before this battle, but the dead warriors of the Korean War live on in my memory. I got there just in time for the worst day of my life that lasted for 921 days from February 12, 1951 to August 21, 1953.
My de-briefing papers stated that I was captured near the village of Saemal. A newspaper I have said I was captured at Massacre Valley, but I didn't know whether to believe the paper or not as sometimes reporters make things out to be worse than they are. In this case, they were right.
It took 60 years, but I finally found out where the village of Saemal was in Korea. Saemal was cut off from the only road to Hoengsong by the Chinese. I guess from that point we were dead meat. I feel so good inside me knowing there is a place called Saemal where I was captured. I now know what happened and why.
Being a prisoner of war was the most dehumanizing, demeaning, lowest possible way to live. With the loss of your freedom and your body functions, along with the despair - the hunger for food and liquids, lying next to your buddies' dead bodies and not being able to help them, it was just too inhumane. There are really no words to describe the filth and the rats that we had to live with being prisoners of the Chinese and North Koreans. It is all like a nightmare to me that will never end. It got to where we POWs could not swallow the mushy rice anymore. It happened to me later on at the Mining Camp--another makeshift camp, but more on that later.
In my later writings, I will show and tell you how the POWs of the Korean War died and what was done to help us--which was nothing. There was no Red Cross to come with packages from home as in other wars the United States was in. During World War II, two percent of the POWs held in Germany died and there were many more POWs there than there were in Korea. During the Korean War, over forty percent of the 7,450 POWs that we know were captured by the Communists died, and that is a low estimate. All total, 8,100 of our military went missing. Most of them were probably POWs who died and were left behind. The Prisoners of War of the Bataan Death March of World War II remain heroes to this day, which they rightfully deserve. The POWs of Korea came home to skepticism and criticism and were accused of having "give-up-itis".
My name is James Junior Volpone. I was born March 2, 1929, a son of James and Josephine Ferrando Volpone. I was supposed to be a Jr. to my father, but the doctor in those days screwed things up a bit. My name all through grade and high school was James Arthur Volpone Jr. "Arthur" came about because I needed a middle name for confirmation in the Catholic church. Arthur was my godfather's name. The army dictated my life from Day One and said, "No, your name is James Junior Volpone because that's what it says on your birth certificate."
My father came to America at age three from Calla-Covinia, Italy with his mother and father. My grandfather, Donarto Volpone, came to this country with his wife Maria and my father. They did not know anyone here. Grandfather spoke English from the day he landed on American soil. Our family was Italian, but we never lived the Italian way. There was no making wine, Italian cheese, and all that. My wife's family was Italian all the way. They were good people who made their own wine and ate all the Italian foods--meats, cheese, octopus and fish.
My father was a boxer by profession, and he owned a bar. He had the only liquor license in my hometown. I remember always being in a new car when we were young. I don't know what happened, but from what I hear, he had to sell his license as the Great Depression of 1929 hit him and others hard. My dad lost everything--his business, his new cars, going out dancing, etc. This is most likely the reason for him being so bitter. He later worked on construction. Father died years ago at the age of 88.
My mother was born in Ashtabula, Ohio. What a strong woman she was. She was one in a thousand. She was a good woman and a good mother who prayed all the time. She worked at the Swallows Restaurant for 50 years. No matter where we lived, she walked to work. She loved her bread, but she was very tiny. She came to Vegas, played the machines, bought her own keno tickets, and walked better than I did. She fell at age 99 and never was the same after that. She passed away in her sleep about five years ago on Christmas Day at the age of 103 years old.
I have one brother older than me. My sister was the second child in the family and I was the youngest. We spent our childhood in Ashtabula. We started out in an Italian neighborhood, but as the years passed my mother made sure that we eventually moved out and into a part of town where everyone from Finns, Swedes, Hungarians and the so-called "whites" (whoever they were) lived. My parents eventually moved into a really good neighborhood and Mother was happy. I still hung out with my Italian buddies, but Mother encouraged me to also get other friends. I remember my parents going out dancing when I was young. They bought us ice cream and came out and checked on us during the dance. They didn't have to worry about all the evil in those days.
My parents bought a clarinet for my brother and me and my sister got a violin. It was forced on me. I hated it. But when I look back, I now realize that they tried to keep up with other families. I do remember playing Christmas carols in the first grade (that must have sounded good). I played the clarinet on and off, but never got serious with it until I got older. I was too interested in sports. I wish someone had told me that I was on the small side for sports, but I was good at basketball, etc. Then one day at football practice in high school, I broke through the line and tackled the first string back. A couple of guys got chewed by the coach, so on the next play two big 250-pound monsters got me. I was out and that was all the football for me. I have since taken up golf, but in those days the Italians cut the grass while the others played that sport. Good "ole" days.
I was well-behaved and never got in trouble when I was young. I spent all of my energy on sports of all kinds (including baseball after school), and I was an A and B student in school. I was on the student council and president of my home room. I was in the choir. Besides my regular classes I had art activities. I had my own comic strip in the tenth grade. I was well-liked by the kids I went to school with. Although it had no impact on me, I was a Boy Scout. I remember going on scout outings with my buddies, but we didn't learn anything.
World War II
My brother served with the Marines on Okinawa during World War II and in the occupation of China. I also had five uncles who were in the service during the Second World War. All of them saw action in the Pacific or in Europe and a couple of them fought all the way from Africa to Germany. I was close to all of them. Our family was lucky in that they all made it home. My wife's family had a son killed when the ship he was serving on sank. I knew a lot of families that had their sons killed. I remember that a teacher from my school was killed in France. That hit me hard.
I don't think our school had any activities to help the war effort, but we used to bundle up newspapers and save all the metal to turn in for scrap. We bought war bonds. They gave us a booklet to put dimes in and when we filled it we went back to the bank and bought a war bond. Everyone helped in those days. Patriotism was at its highest.
It is impossible to explain the jubilation of the people after the war. People were dancing in the street on the main streets of town. It had to be the biggest party I was ever involved in.
I played hooky from school one afternoon for the very first time since I had been in school and, would you believe, they crucified me. After that one incident, my home room teacher, Mrs. Rutherford, really got me good in front of all the kids. I was no longer president of my room. (I got impeached!) I was no longer on the student council. But I still had my business doing drawings for the other students for 50 cents a drawing. I passed my whole class. But day by day things changed for the worse. They nit-picked me now. I was on their shit list and all the teachers knew it. I started to rebel. My parents were not fighters who went to school on my behalf. They respected the law and the principal too much and thought it was my fault.
It was a dumb thing that I did, but I am glad this happened to me. I now know why kids get in trouble. Instead of a teacher showing some interest in them, they go after them because of one mistake. That's what happened to me. I had a clean record. I just happened to meet two brothers who were a grade up from me and they talked me into skipping school that day. But it was my decision. (It was a racist event.) I finally couldn't take what a couple of teachers were doing to me, so I quit school in the eleventh grade. I did not graduate from high school, but I got further than some of the people that did. This is something I have had to live with all my life, including when I was in the Army.
I had a summer job landscaping and cutting with my godfather every summer. I think that had a lot to do with my racial profiling, as I took a lot of B.S. from those wealthy people and their freakin' golf course. That's all in the past, but I think it has a lot to do with how I think now.
I joined the Army in February 1948 for two years with no Reserve time. I was sent to Cleveland, Ohio, for processing and then went to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina for basic training. I think my parents were happy to see me go. (I said that as a joke.) Joining the Army was just fine with them. Don't all parents wait until the kids leave? We raise them the best we can and then we have to let go. After all the years that you deprive yourself of things for them, now you're tired and you want a break. You hate to see them go, but they have to go out in the world and do their thing.
If I remember correctly, I went to the bus station alone, met my buddy Jim DiBiese, and away we went. We sort of made an impulse decision to join, although we had a lot of time to change our minds. We were two lost souls just hanging out. We were never good friends, but we knew each other. I knew his father and used to go over to his house and play some music with him as he played guitar. Jim ended up in Korea, too. They separated us in basic training. He was in another company up a ways, but after I joined the band I didn't see him anymore until we got discharged. It was then we were good buddies. Later we both got drafted in the Army. I think I went first and then they got him. After we came home from Korea, I was driving up Center Street in my hometown and Jim was coming the other way. We both had to slow down, so we both stopped and jumped out of the cars as we were so glad to see each other after all the years and not knowing what had happened to each other. Needless to say, we blocked all the traffic coming both ways. After that we used to see each other. Little by little we didn't see each other anymore as we both got married and went two different ways. Jim was a good friend.
While in basic training I joined the boxing team. I had never boxed before joining the Army. I fought to just give it a try. My whole company-plus was cheering for me as I fought the Golden Glove Champ from Florida. He was a good pro boxer and I was just a street fighter, but I gave him a good fight. I threw leather for three rounds without stopping. His experience meant nothing to me. I got him below the belt twice, but he won the match. Just another day in the life of James Volpone. Ha-ha. My dad was a professional boxer in the 1920s. He was Bantamweight Champ of Ohio four straight years, as well as the International Champ of Canada and United States (amateur). As a pro he came close to the world title. He beat the champ before Wright won the title in the same year, but he never got a title fight. He spent his whole life being bitter. He fought under the name of Jimmy Russell from Buffalo, New York. His name was changed as well as his hometown because he was Italian-American and there was prejudice against them. Things haven't changed. There were racists then and there are racists now.
I came back from boxing practice one day and a master sergeant came into the barracks and yelled my name. It scared the heck out of me. He said, "Get your butt down to the Army band." I found where its headquarters was and went there. What happened was, when I filled out the forms to join the Army, I put down that I played the clarinet and saxophone. The Army band needed a clarinet, and that's why I got called to band headquarters. They were real polite and asked me if I would like to audition for the band. Of course, I said okay. I put the clarinet together and just like that the director said, "You passed. We want you here in the morning." The next day I got my gear and walked down with my duffel bag to where the band members were billeted. They assigned me a bunk and that was it. I got issued a clarinet and all the band gear--all that white junk that they wore.
Camp Chaffee Band
I was with the band one year. When the Army needed some bandsmen to form a new band at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, I volunteered. I did that because I thought it would give me a chance to see some of the country. That's why I had joined the Army in the first place. So I left for Arkansas to play the sax and clarinet. Going there I saw nothing but hills and farmers. I thought to myself, "Did I make a mistake?" No, I didn't. It was really good duty. No more chow lines. I went right in to the chow hall and sat down. The food was brought to us. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. It was great and we got a bunch of good guys for the band.
The band's Warrant Officer Ledbetter did have his favorites. Once he called me into the office and accused me of cashing someone's check. He made me write my name down 150 times. There was nothing I could do but do it. Wrong guy. Another time he called me. Apparently somebody thought they recognized me as having done something I shouldn't and the bastard accused me again. Now this time we all had to stand at attention while this guy looked us up and down. Of course, he didn't pick me out. That damned Ledbetter said, "You're lucky he didn't pick you." I said, "Why would he pick me? I didn't do it." I think he was homosexual as another day, two of the guys were wrestling and the guys said they were doing much more. I really didn't care. Still today I don't care what kind of a life a person lives. But someone said I had seen them. As I went into the office he said, "I'm telling you. You didn't see anything." I said, "Who said I did?"
I may as well tell you another story that happened after my military service. I brought my new convertible to have some work done on it one day. As I went to pick it up, this character started yelling at me, "You dirty F_ _ _ _ _ _. Get the hell out of here." I said to him, "What's your problem? I just came in to pick up my car." Then he stopped and said, "I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else." I've got a million of them. This is why there are people in jail all their lives because someone picked them out of a line-up. Eventually I will tell you about the Veterans Affairs and how they did me.
When I had two more months to go with my two-year enlistment, Camp Chaffee closed. I was sent to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, to do nothing but kill time and wait to be discharged. In the meantime, I went to the band there and asked them some questions about re-enlisting. They said they would take me in the band there, but I would have to sign up for another four years in the Army. I thought about it and said, "I'm going home." Big mistake!
After my discharge from Ft. Sill, I went home and started playing my music in some local nightclubs. I also read the paper a lot, as there was news just about every day about the problems with China, Russia and Korea. Maybe I had a premonition that I was going to be in Korea.
About six months later, would you believe--I got drafted! I could have hit the ceiling. I knew I had done the wrong thing by not joining the band at Ft. Sill, but I took it in stride and didn't get mad. I figured that everything would turn out just fine. I'm the type of guy who, when someone tells me to climb a hill, I go. I took this as another day in the life of Jim Volpone.
It all goes back to our draft board in my hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. That "bitch" at the draft board did the same thing to my buddy Jim DiBiese. There was racism against the Italians in those days. In World War II, just about every Italian-American home had a Gold Star in its front window. Racism is thriving in this country even today, except it's getting bigger. The Flair Foundation wants only light-skinned people in this country, and it has billions of dollars.
I had a Regular Army serial number when I went to Cleveland to re-enter the service. The guy there told me, "You're not supposed to be here." When I got to Ft. Breckenridge, I was told the same thing. When I got to Seattle to go overseas, I was told the same thing. What amazed me more than anything, however, was how fast I was sent to Korea. How in the hell was it possible to be eating at home in Ohio one month and be in Korea a month later? By November 1, 1950, the date I was drafted, I was back in the service and did not even get a promotion. From then on, my life was in the fast track for Korea. My serial number changed from RA to US.
I was put in charge of the 50 draftees that left my hometown that day on a train headed for Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. I was given strict orders that I was not to allow them to drink alcohol or gamble. I had a room on the train and they were all together. There was no way in the world I was going to play saint to these kids. I let them have fun. They drank and gambled and when we arrived at Breckinridge, I delivered a bunch of hung-over recruits to the army. I was separated from the recruits and sat around waiting for orders in a casual company. We did nothing but hang around playing cards, etc. We had no training at all. In the meantime, we were not eating too good. One night we got meat and the next night we had gravy and potatoes. For breakfast it was coffee and a roll. The next morning it might be eggs and some bacon. This went on for two weeks. After about a month I got my orders to go to Harry Truman's promised land of death. I got overseas orders for Korea.
This is a true story. My grandfather (my mother's father) used to wait until I got out of school when I was around the third grade. He used to work in his garden a little ways from the school and he always had some vegetables for me to take home. Around 1949, my mother told me that my grandfather had a terrible dream that some people with slant eyes like the Chinese kidnapped me and he woke up all upset. Two years later, the Chinese captured me.
One night I got to go to the USO and there was a band there. Would you believe, a good friend of mine, Vince Sava, was playing sax with the band. He was one of the draftees I had been in charge of on the way down to Breckenridge. Of course, we were glad to see each other. I found out that he got in the band soon after he got to Breckenridge, whereas I had it on my resume that I had been playing for two years and they put me in the infantry. It didn't make sense.
Vince introduced me to the Warrant Officer who was the leader of the band. We talked and I told them I was going overseas. He got my name and was going to pull my orders so I could be assigned to the band, but the very next day we got orders to ship out. Things were not looking too good for me. Well, "it was what it was."
I was allowed to go home for two weeks, then I had to report to Seattle, Washington. About a week later I was put on a plane and it was, "Goodbye USA. I'm off to Korea." All I did was party while I was home, and I had many of them. One started with just six of us, grew to fifteen, and then went citywide. My buddy Nick got three bands to play for free for an hour or so and he sold tickets. We had at least 200 people at that party and we had a blast.
I was not concerned about going to war because I figured it was my time to die in a war. All my uncles and my brother came home from World War II. My brother was on Okinawa and my uncles fought from Africa to Germany. Yes, I knew what war was. As I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of Gold Stars in my neighborhood. My family was concerned, but it seemed to me that my mother was more concerned than anyone. I think my sister and brother thought I was going to a Boy Scout outing. My brother was a Marine who had served in the South Pacific during World War II. I didn't get any last minute instructions about how to survive Korea. Remember, I wasn't going to "war." I was going to a little place called Korea. How big a war could that be?
Bound for War
They flew me to Korea via Alaska and Japan. I went "20th class." I had never been on a plane before--if you want to call that piece of crap I was on an "airplane". That plane should have been retired after World War I. I mean, we were on a piece of junk. It was comparable to my 1936 Ford.
There were about 30 guys headed for Korea on that plane. None of them were officers. The Army was not going to train an officer to get killed before he went to battle. The rest of us were a bunch of expendables. We were going to Korea to be casualties. The Allies just needed more men to fill the vacancies caused by those who had already been killed, and that was it.
I don't remember how many hours it took us to get there, but it was like a lifetime. We had to sit on empty boxes. There was a lot of turbulence, and no seat belts. The worst part was during the flight when I saw the engine catch on fire and we needed a place to land. There was an airfield in the Aleutian Islands so we landed there so repairs could be made. We stayed there one night, sleeping here and there. There were no accommodations for us. I remember that we got to eat at the Islands. Everyone got a big steak.
After that we made a stop in Japan and then it was on to Korea where they sent me right straight up to the line at Hoengsong. As I said, it was a little mind-boggling to think I was eating supper at home one month and the next month I was in Korea. I was captured in February, one year from the date I was initially discharged from the Army. God had something in his plans for me, because here I am over 60 years later. I know one thing. They never expected me to come out of it alive. Neither did Veterans Affairs.
First Days in Korea
I can't remember how I got from Japan to Korea--whether it was by plane or boat. Anyway, they got me. I was in Korea for one week and then I went up to the lines via train. As I was boarding the train, I saw trains pulling in with wounded soldiers. When we got to our destination on the railroad line, I still didn't know yet where I was, other than I knew I was in Korea. I actually got to eat a meal "buffet style" that day, but at least it was food.
The next morning I was on a truck headed to the lines. When I was dropped off, a sergeant told another G.I. to take me to a company whose name I don't remember. The name would not have made a difference to me anyway. They put me in a group of guys that were supposed to be my "buddies." No one talked to me. They were a bunch of dick-heads, so I never got to know their names. What a bunch of unhappy soldiers. So much for all those stories I read on how close the soldiers were with each other.
In the days ahead I went on two patrols and spent my time guarding a hill near Hoengsong. The guy who had been guarding it before me got his neck slashed with a knife and I was his replacement, so I guess I was expendable. I was on the hill so long on and off that I started to feel close to it. So far, it was the only friend I had. My first week on line in Korea. What a doozy!
The Chinese set up a roadblock from Saemal and Hoengsong, Korea and that is where I was captured by the Chinese communists. The battle was known as the Hoengsong Massacre. It is a shame that this battle has been covered up throughout history. That is my opinion only because most people have never heard of it. I could never get any information on the Hoengsong Massacre after I came back from Korea, although I do have a newspaper clipping on it dated February 12, 1951. We got surrounded by the Chinese when they broke through the Republic of Korea (ROK) troops on our flanks and completely surrounded the 38th Infantry, 2nd Infantry Division. The next day, the Chinese surrounded the Americans at Chipyong-ni, but because the Allies won the battle that day, that battle got all the press that the Hoengsong Massacre didn't for over 50 years.
About eight of us got orders to guard the hill we were on until we were told to retreat. I don't know how many men were below us. The hill was not completely barren--it had some vegetation. I almost shot a couple of bushes up on that hill, as I thought I saw them move. I knew how to use an M-1, but I was not well-trained on it. Remember, I traded a new saxophone for a new M-1 rifle when I was assigned to an infantry unit instead of the band. When everything started to happen around me, I became a veteran pretty fast.
We did not know what was going to happen on that hill, so we stayed at our position almost all night. About 4 a.m. the older guys started to suspect that something was wrong as we still had been told nothing. The battle at Hoengsong happened so fast we were never even told to retreat. When the Chinese attacked there were about one hundred of them to every one of us. They were silent and we did not hear them, but on the hills across from us we could see them coming like ants.
I was up on the hill still pulling guard duty when one of the guys from my squad whistled for me to come down. As I started down, the guys were already leaving. I tried to catch up with them, but they were in a hurry. By then it was about 5 o'clock in the morning. A little time later I saw them further on down, so I kept going toward them as fast as I could. When I almost caught up with them, the Chinese were on them so I scooted to my right and on down. After a little firefighting, I jumped in a hole. At the same time, a sergeant from the tank corps jumped in after me, along with a South Korean soldier. He asked me which way I was going and when I told him he said, "You don't want to go down there. The Chinese have the area surrounded." He told me that they had set up a roadblock between Saemal and Hoengsong. Apparently they also had our hill surrounded, as they got my squad.
Then he said, "Let's try to go over the mountain." I replied, "Let's go. You have rank on me." We took off and went for at least 45 minutes. We were so tired. We saw no Chinese, but we knew we had very little chance of escaping them so he said, "Let's take a rest." I agreed. We lit up a cigarette, thinking that we may as well have our last cigarette as we knew we were going to die. He told me that they didn't take prisoners and at that point I was ready to meet my maker. I took off my helmet, put my rifle down, and we waited. Sure enough, as if someone wrote the script, a minute or so later they were on us at six or seven. A jeep followed with their officer and they all started yelling, "No kill, no kill." I guess they were trying to tell us they were not going to kill us. But at that moment, my life flashed through my mind--from the time I started school and my family, all in a matter of seconds.
Prisoner of War
The Chinese took us up the mountain and stripped us naked. They took everything we had, dog tags and all. They loved that watch I had on. Then we were ordered to put our clothes back on, but my hat was with my rifle and I was out of luck. Well, maybe I had some luck left. I had a pair of socks in my chest pocket as an extra pair. When my feet sweated and got cold, I then changed by rotating the extra socks. Now I had to rotate an extra time with my head to keep my ears and head warm, but I was alive to live another day. That was the start of 921 days of capture by the Chinese Reds. It was a funny feeling. I felt death. I got scared. But when it was happening, I had no fear. I was just ready for it.
While the Chinese were rounding up a couple prisoners here and there, our planes were dropping napalm and machine-gunning the hill. I just hoped that we would live through it. I figured that if the Chinese didn't kill us, our planes had a great chance in getting it done. In fact, this wouldn't be the first time we were strafed by our own planes. We were hit at least five other occasions until we got north. We were in danger of friendly fire every minute for two days when we were first captured. At that point and from then on we were in danger of friendly fire just about every day until we got to the Yalu River, and then we still got machine-gunned there in the camp. I really felt like I had been sent to Korea to be new "raw dog meat" for the Chinese. I thought, "Harry, I hope you're enjoying your cocktail tonight in the White House."
We saw two more of our guys who were captured as we were lying there waiting to see what the Chinese's next move was going to be. The worst part of being a prisoner was that we couldn't understand what the enemy was saying. They rattled on and on. They got five more of our guys. Before dark they had captured 17 of us.
We had not eaten all day or since the night before. The Chinese finally brought us some food--if you want to call it food. It was pig food. They gave us corn cob that was all dried up. It was so hard it was not edible so we had to go without eating. In the morning they brought us down into a valley. I was surprised to see that there were many more of our guys--maybe in the hundreds.
They lined us up and we didn't know if they were lining us up to start a march or if they were lining us up to shoot us. It turned out to be a march north to the Yalu River. That is where I saw Lieutenant Colonel Keith at the head of the line, as well as Frank Knowles, who was a correspondent for the Chicago press. They had both been captured, too. The Chinese made Knowles take pictures of the prisoners of war that day. For propaganda's sake, they moved all the guards away so that when the pictures were seen there would be no guards in the photographs.
The first POW in one of the pictures was Lieutenant Colonel John W. Keith Jr., commanding officer of the 15th Field Artillery Battalion. I see that picture in my mind every day. The reason I got it is because my mother wrote to the Chicago Associated Press and asked them if they had any pictures of missing military. They sent her 50 photos and told her to keep any if she saw my picture and send the rest back. (I was missing for 10 months.) When I got home she showed me the picture and needless to say, I was stunned. I went back 2 1/2 years in time. That day in Korea, I saw that Lieutenant Colonel Keith was wounded in several places. I saw him fall many times on the march. After a day or two I didn't see him anymore. We knew he couldn't keep up in the march because he fell every 20 feet or so. I checked the POW missing list when I got home and his name was on there. He is still missing in action to this day. His remains have never been found.
After a few days' walking and not resting, plus the fact that we had no food or water, it started to take a toll on all of our guys. Guys started dropping dead already. We finally stopped at a village and were allowed to rest. They gave us each a handful of rice and some water and let us recoup by putting us in different Korean houses that were all in a row. They put me in a very crowded room that had no place for me to sit. I sat down anyway, as I moved two guys on each side of me.
I was seated on this mud floor when a master sergeant across from me started yelling that I had brought lice in the room. I hadn't been in there for more than five minutes. He had three guys remove me from the room. They pushed me outside in the snow and cold. There were some guys who just didn't like me. I got along with most of the POWs, but there were some guys who would sell their mother to get out of there and who became irritable because things didn't go that way. It wasn't just the lice that upset him. Probably in that master sergeant's own army life he was the one who gave the orders. Now things had changed and instead of giving orders he was now the one being told what to do by his captors.
At the time, I was puzzled as to why I had been thrown out by a fellow POW. I just walked out in the snow thinking, "Here I am, a prisoner of the Chinese in Korea and the Americans throw me out of my room. I am all alone in the world." I thought at the time that the best thing for me to do was to just go lay down in the snow and freeze to death. I figured all I had to do was fall asleep and that would be it. Remember how the Indians died when it was their time? They just rode out into the sunset and laid down to die. I figured it wouldn't be any worse than what I was going through. I wouldn't even have to suffer. I saw a high spot in the snow, laid down, and made myself comfortable.
In the meantime, a Chinese guard was watching me. He came over about 15 minutes later and yelled at me. He twirled his finger to his temple as if to say, "Are you crazy?" He brought me back to the room I came out of, so I know he had been watching all along. When he put me back in, nobody said anything. I said to myself, "You can get a man's character at a time like this." I would lay any money on the fact that that sergeant died while a prisoner of war. We could tell who was going to die and who was going to live. That stupid ass sergeant was laying in a straw sack that was used to carry rice and vegetables. Everyone knew that lice thrived in those sacks.
Back at Pyongyang, one American officer had another American taken out of a room as he had dysentery and was stinking up the room. He was ordered to go outside and he froze to death. When we got home, the other officers turned the officer who gave that order in. There was a trial and he was put in a stockade for murder. I knew who was in that room when the sergeant had me put out into the cold. I could have got them for a war crime when I got back home but I let it go. They probably died anyway.
I did make a good friend from that room who was in my squad in K Company. His name was Earl Bailey. He happened to be in that room when the Chinese put me in there. What are the odds on that? He came up to me and mentioned that the sergeant was wrong to have thrown me out of the room. We became buddies after that. When we took breaks we took them together. One day after we left the Bean Camp he died. He went down fast and I could not believe that he had died. After I was repatriated, I told the de-briefing officer about Earl's death and he put down that he died in Camp 1 (which was on the Yalu River). It seemed they did not want information about anything that happened before we got to the Yalu. I really think our allies did not want people to know how many died on the march to the Yalu. About ten years later, one of Earl's relatives contacted me and asked me all kinds of questions: "What whiskey did he drink?" "What cigarettes did he smoke?" "What pin-ups did he have on his wall?" They were crazy questions (asked by someone who I think had seen too many World War II movies), and I did not answer them. Pin-ups on the wall?? A woman was the last thing we would have talked about. We were trying to stay alive.
Because it was so cold, I got my pair of stockings out from my chest where I was keeping them dry and warm and I tied them around my ears so I could be a little warmer. After resting for a while we started to walk again. As we walked, my feet started to sweat. We wore shoe pacs that had fur in them, but our feet still got sweaty and cold. I hoped that my extra pair of stockings would be dry so I could put them on. I had to rotate my two pair of socks from my feet to my ears to my chest to dry them.
To start and stop us when they gave us a rest, a Chinese guy (the "big" guy) blew a whistle. They decided to march us all night and let us rest all day as our planes were above us. One day as we were laying in one place, our planes came and started machine-gunning us. They killed three of our guys. I think they spotted a truck that was in the village that was supposed to be covered. We started on the road again.
They did feed us some rice. A lot of guys had cans and tins to put their food in, but I didn't. I found a little drawer like one that would be in a jewelry cabinet. I took it and that became my "chow drawer." Before that I had to put the rice in my pocket. We got to another village before daybreak and the Chinese had us stop there for the day. I had to change my socks again as my feet were cold again. I just hoped my socks were dried out.
On the Road Again
The walks got tough. We were freezing and hungry. Our group seemed like it was getting smaller. Some of the POWs were getting sick already and dropped out of the line. That was a big mistake. Those who dropped were shot. We had to take it. If we gave up, we were dead. We just kept going. If a buddy dropped out we could not pick him up or they would have killed us, too.
It was pitch black as we walked. There was no stopping. If we had to have a bowel movement we just had to go while we were walking. It was so cold that a buddy would have to help us button up our pants as our hands were frozen by then. The Chinese didn't always stop us at a village when we stopped to finally rest. Many times we had to sleep in the snow. It was so cold. We had to sleep body-to-body to keep warm.
The Suan Bean Camp
We finally stopped at a bigger village in Suan. There were about forty mud huts and a wooden building there. Arranged in two rows, these huts held around ten men in a room. Approximately 1200 men (possibly more) were held as prisoners of war there. We were at this camp from March 6, 1951 to April 28, 1951.
Conditions there were deplorable. We slept on the mud floor of the huts because that's all there was for beds in all of Korea. I didn't sleep in a bed for two and a half years. It was still ice cold when we arrived there, but we were able to build a fire if we scrounged up some wood. The Koreans started a fire in a hole and the heat was piped under the mud floors. At nighttime we could hear wood being ripped off of the outside walls of the huts to be used for firewood to keep some of the rooms warm.
We named this POW camp the "Suan Bean Camp" because that is where we starting getting soybeans as food. Sounds good, but they were not cooked beans. They gave them to us half-cooked and when we ate them they caused us to have cramps and they ran right through us. The guys that ate them started getting dysentery, so we had to dig a big hole as an outhouse for all of us to go do our thing. It was all water and puss. A typical scene was twenty POWs at the hole at any given minute. Some died right there. It was a hell of a way to die and it was one of the main reasons so many prisoners did die in the Suan Bean Camp. I asked myself, "Why are we suffering like this? It's inhumane. No one should have to go through this."
In addition to the soybeans, we got a ration of sorghum and third-rated rice. The Chinese brought a bucket of it to us and we had to fight for it. I wasn't getting any as I was kind of small compared to the other guys. I had a new buddy named Battles. I remember him to this day. He was black and he was big--big enough to play football. Thanks to him, I started getting my share of the food. Even still, we were starving and malnutrition set in. Some of the ankles of the POWs started to swell up. The swelling went up their legs to their scrotum and they died. If the people back home could have seen this they would not have believed it. No one in modern age should have to suffer like that. Even in a war we should have to be humane to our enemies.
High Death Rate
There was no medical care to help us for anything. If someone got sick, he'd better figure it out himself. We didn't even have a medic among us. The Chinese did not help at all and that is why so many prisoners died. The guys that made it to the Yalu River and got into some of the camps up there may have gotten some medical help, but not in the Suan Bean Camp or along the way. Guys were dying everywhere and others were going down fast. We couldn't bury them fast enough. I was really disappointed in our allies not trying to do something to help. They could have done something.
We Americans buried our own. That was a big job every day. The healthy of the bunch picked up our dead every morning and put them in one big hole. Day after day. The weather was cold and we couldn't carry them too far, so we buried them near the camp. I remember that the Chinese also dragged dead prisoners of war out of the rooms when they started to stack up and couldn't be kept in the rooms. I think they buried those guys.
Prisoners died of starvation, lack of water, contaminated water, maggots caused by flies hovering around the mouth and rectum, malnutrition, worm infestation, pneumonia, acute dysentery, passing blood and puss, beriberi, and God only knows what else. I saw so many guys die it is unbelievable. I remember that there were four of us talking to a buddy one day. All of a sudden he started choking. We tried to open his air way because he was turning gray, but he died. When I think about all of this today, I don't sleep well at night.
By the time we left the Suan Bean Camp, we must have left at least 500 dead or more there, as so many died from the soybeans and just plain lack of medication. I was sick myself, but I was not stopping for anything. I just kept telling myself, "Keep going. Don't quit." I was hungry. I was in pain. I had diarrhea. But I made the best of it.
We had lice on the "hot spots" of our bodies from the day the Chinese captured us. They were blood sucking lice, and getting rid of them from our bodies got to be an everyday chore. We took time on a break or whenever we could to kill them one at a time. They were in the lining of our clothes, on the front of our shirt, behind the stitching, around the neck, and around the waist. They were like a roach--kill one and ten others show up. But these lice had trains going to and back. Their little bellies would fill up with blood, which made it easier to squeeze them and kill them. The Chinese had the same problem, but they took off their shirts and bit right down their shirt and kill them.
Lots of Deals
There were a lot of deals going on with scripted money. Army script was used when I was in the service. Whether it is still, I don't know. Script was used in exchange of money. It had the same value as the dollar. Guys hoarded it to cash it in when they got out. About three rooms down from me they had big poker games. Most of the players wanted that script money so they would be rich when they got out. What were they thinking? That this was a weekend out?
Strafed by Friendly Fire
Every morning we did our usual thing. We got water for the guys who were in charge of cooking rice. On April 10, 1951, our allied planes came out of the sky, dropping bombs and machine-gunning the hell out of us. We all ran for a place to be safe. There was only one hole and I dived in not a second too soon, as some metal flew past my feet as I jumped in. This raid felt like it lasted forever, but I think they did their damage in just 15 minutes. The Allies had their eyes on us from the time we got there because the Bean Camp was on the Chinese main supply road.
After the raid was over we had to count the dead. At the time we didn't know exactly how many died, but we thought it was about a hundred. Some say over 200 got blown to pieces in that raid. When I got home, there was an article in the Freedom Village newspaper that said 50 American prisoners were blown to pieces by our own planes. You would think they would have known that it was a POW camp.
After this incident the Chinese got us ready to move out. We left the Bean Camp on April 28, 1951, moving at night and walking by day. This time the weather was no problem because it had warmed up. I still had a touch of diarrhea, but we were stronger. Of course, some of the POWs were weaker, but we had to keep moving.
When we stopped for a rest about three days later, I overheard two of our guys talking about escaping when the whistle blew to start walking again. I asked them if I could go with them and they said I could. When the whistle blew for everyone to start walking, we three rolled over into a ditch by a rice paddy. When they all left, we got up. We had to decide which way to go. One guy was a sergeant so we decided to go his way.
We walked about five miles not knowing where we were going. We were freezing, hungry, and weak, but we didn't stop. We just kept going. Around 4 a.m. we saw the making of a rooftop in the skyline. It was a Korean house, so we started that way. We went in slowly and the only person in there was a Papasan. We never thought of killing him, as what would be the use? He was sleeping with his bottle of Sake and a nice quilt. We ransacked the house and found some fish, rice, and kimchee. We ate it and decided to rest for awhile. We fell asleep but were awakened by a lot of shouting and yelling. There were six Chinese on us, roughing us up.
They took us to a high bunker on a mountain and we were told to get in a corner. They said, "No talk." We laid down and waited to see what they were going to do to us. The bunker was a Korean police station. The Koreans were not too friendly toward us. Heck, why should they be? Our planes had been bombing them day after day or they machine-gunned a village.
As we lay in the police station, the Koreans brought in two pilots. We could tell they were pilots by the way they were dressed. I tried to talk to one by asking where we were. Before he could answer, a Korean hit me with his rifle butt. The Chinese and Koreans loved to use those rifle butts on Americans. God, how many guys on the march took beatings day after day. Well, now it was the Koreans we had to worry about. The Korean people came in all day, paying some money at the front door, and then they left. Once a little old lady came in, got in front of me, and dropped two big pieces of bread for me. The guard thought he saw something, so he came over really quick, but I hid them fast and he backed off. I often wonder who that old lady was. The other day I got to wondering if she was the wife of the old Papasan who was laying on the floor of the hut where we were captured. We didn't harm him at all. The bread the old lady dropped gave us something to eat. I shared my bread with my two new buddies. One was Kenny Heitkemp and the other was Robert Morgan.
The Koreans seemed to forget us so apparently they thought that we were of no threat to them. They just left us alone, except when they walked by us we got a kick now and then. The next day we were in for a big surprise. When the Koreans took us, we wondered what was going to happen. They took us to their mess hall and had us sit down at a table. Korean officers coming into the mess hall to eat were all dressed in their army officer uniforms. They looked our way and laughed. They seemed like any ordinary person. This was our first good meal since we got captured. We ate soup, tofu, fish, and greens. Everything was so good. I can honestly say that they treated us good that day.
We saw five white guys come into the bunker. At first we thought they were Americans, but it turned out they were Russians. That night the guards came over to our bunker and got us one at a time. I was the last. I had no idea what the others had told the Russians. They were in there a long time and then they were brought back. Then they got me. They took me to another bunker by gunpoint. When I got there, a Chinese guard threw me in and then sat me on a chair with a light above my head. I had five Russians and about ten Chinese in there with me. This Russian tried to get information out of me, but I didn't know anything. They wanted me to confess that the United States had schools to teach warfare. Looking back, I think they were talking about our ROTC programs in the schools.
The Russian also wanted to know what we were doing so far up north when the line was down in Seoul. I finally told them I fell out of a march with the Chinese as my feet had gotten so bad I couldn't walk anymore. Really that was the truth. My feet were badly blistered from the snow pacs as it was getting warmer now. They told me to take off my boots and I did. They saw the blisters under my feet a half inch thick. They covered my whole feet. When they saw the blisters they told me to put my boots back on and go.
As I was leaving, they told me that we would be shot in the morning. At that point I didn't care. I went back to the bunker and my buddies didn't say too much. Nobody wanted to talk. I told them that the Russians said we were going to be shot in the morning. Morning came, I had had a good sleep, and I was ready to die again. But two Korean guards came, gave us water and a little food, and said they were taking us back to the POW camp.
When we arrived at the next village, we were in for a big surprise. After we got settled, it happened that two of our allied planes spotted something and they came shooting rockets and machine-gunning the village. They did their dirty work and then left. A whole bunch of Korean civilians were killed, but we three prisoners and our two Korean guards were lucky and did not get hurt in the strafing. When we walked down the main street the people were so angry they started throwing stones and rocks at us. One guy that came up to me was Russian. He spit in my face and called me a son-of-a-bitch. I got to thinking, we couldn't blame them for being angry. Our planes probably killed their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and any other family member. Sometimes in a war we forget that a person has a family. That is the problem with war--too many innocent people get killed.
Our two young Korean guards moved us out and told us we were near to where we were going. They said that by morning we would be there. We didn't know whether to be happy or unhappy. My feet were in terrible shape, so the guards let me rest sometimes. We got to a village and I asked a civilian there, "changy-changy" and pointed to my boots and his flip-flops. I had to get rid of those boots. The civilian agreed. He got my boots and I got his flip-flops. At first they felt good because the air was getting to my feet. But as we walked, every stone or pebble I stepped on caused me to scream because it hurt so bad.
Our guards were pretty good kids. One said his mother was from Japan and Americans were ding-ho. I guess they were telling us they liked us and not to worry. My feet started to heal because the air was like medicine. As we walked we stopped at another village and I saw a Korean with a pair of British boots on. God only knows where he got them. It wasn't uncommon for soldiers to take from other soldiers who died. Many guys did that, but I could not ravage a dead person. I decided to try to barter for the Korean's British boots. I said the same thing to him that I had said to the civilian in the other Korean village: "changy-changy." I pointed to my flip-flops and his shoes. He said no. It was getting warm and I did not need my jacket anymore, but I needed those shoes. So I pointed to my jacket and then he said okay. I think God set that up for me. I can't tell you how much I suffered with those sandals. Every stone or anything I stepped on hurt and we were walking at least 15 miles a day. My feet hurt so bad. I was lucky that we had two guards who allowed me to talk to the Korean. Now I had to see if the boots fit me. They were a little tight, but that was okay. At least I had leather under my feet. When I got to the Yalu River, I met some of the British and we became real friendly. In fact, when one of them died after he got back to England, he had my name in his address book and it was printed in one of our vet magazines. I still have the article.
Walking for Miles
We left that village and continued on. We walked and walked, but our two guards made sure that we ate and rested. One day a truck stopped in front of us and asked the guards if we wanted a ride to the next town. They said yes and had us jump on the truck. What a relief! When we got to town the driver got out as we got off the truck. He started talking to us in broken English. He said that he had a friend in Texas. I figured when our troops were in China the Marines must have treated him good. Maybe they had given him candy when he was young. My brother had been in the Marine Corps at Sing Tao. Anyway, he said, "Americans No. 1." Before he left he got us a bucket of rice and some pork. Again, our guards did not care, so we ate. When it was time to leave, my feet were healing fast and I was feeling strong, as were those of my two buddies.
We walked for miles through fields and villages. I really don't think the guards knew where we were. We saw an anti-artillery with two Russians behind it. When they saw us they got a laugh on their faces and called us over. We talked in sign language. It's funny how everyone spoke a different language but we all could understand what the others were saying. I swear to God--this time one of the Russians gave me a bar of soap and a towel. We then said goodbye to them. As we walked, all three of us were so much stronger as we had had some good food and had just plain been eating. We were not starving as of yet.
As we walked we ran into other Russians in another village. They all came out to see us. I think we Americans would have done the same thing. It was something different in their day. Again the Russians gave us food--more pork and rice. Say what you want, but there are good people all over this world. It is their damn governments that put people against people. Again we had our stomachs full, but we knew this was going to end as soon as they delivered us to where we were going. We kept walking until we reached our destination, then the two guards turned us over to the Chinese. A new chapter in our lives. Our destination was the "Mining Camp." The place looked so peaceful, but hundreds of POWs would die there.
Suan Mining Camp
As we entered the camp, we passed a water well in the village. Later we found out that was where we got our water. The Chinese took us up the hill where there were two buildings side by side. We later found out this was also the schoolhouse. The Chinese let Heitkemp and Morgan off at the first schoolhouse and took me on to the second one.
When we got to the buildings, things didn't look too good. We found out that this camp was far worse than the Suan Bean Camp. Of course, all of the camps were alike in that 15 to 20 of our soldiers died every day. But I will say that the Suan Mining Camp was the worst of them all, as I think more died there--not just from the cold and starvation, but also from the large green flies. It is very emotional for me to recall and describe the conditions of this camp.
The Chinese took me into a large room and I could not believe what I saw there. I saw about 50 POWs lying on the ground. They were American prisoners of war who were too sick to move and were dying. Because they were too sick to get up to clean themselves, their bodies were laying in and covered in their own feces. Those green Blow Flies were hovering around them. It was a pitiful sight. I knew if I ever got out of that place I would never forget it--and I haven't. The Chinese almost threw me in there with the dead that morning, but the flies had not had a chance to lay their eggs so they must of just got me in time.
After a while I saw that some of the POWs had quit eating even the little food that they got. It was so pathetic to see this. Most of them had Pellagra, which was caused by a vitamin deficiency (lack of niacin or B3) in their diet. The results of Pellagra are diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. There was dysentery, malnutrition, and beriberi. Flies laid eggs in the mouths and rectums of the sick prisoners and they were covered with maggots. As in the Suan Bean Camp, the ankles and legs of many POWs swelled clear up to their scrotums due to poor diet, and they died. There was no food and there was nothing but filth. We couldn't help anyone.
It just boggles my mind that I cannot get the people back home to understand how the POWs died and what we all went through. It was just so ugly. Back in the States, some people said that these Korean War POWs died from "give-up-itis." What a bunch of bull. I would like to see those same people try to survive the Mining Camp. It took more than just the will to live there. How much pain and torture could a man endure? Not one person or organization backed up their statements with proof or tried to help us. The Americans deserted us in Korea, and when we got home, they deserted us there, too. But I still love this country.
The Luxury of Water
I heard a little trickle like the sound of water as I was sitting on the bottom of the hill one day. It was water and it looked clean, so I made a hole to start a little waterhole. We cherished this for a couple of days, but found that the water was no good because it came from up the hill where the bodies of dead POWs were being buried. People in the States cannot understand the true meaning of thirst. We POWs could. When it rained, we went nuts. We stood in it and started to gather some in any container we could find. We stripped and washed ourselves. It was the first time we had been able to wash our bodies in six months. It all felt good.
Woodie and Speedie
Conditions were so bad that even the POWs who were in pretty good shape when they got there were now sick. Everyone was sick. I felt kind of helpless. All the guys I met were dying and I guessed that it was now my turn. Some new POWs came in and two black prisoners saw me lying out in the open by the hill. They came over to see how I felt. I was so sick. They said, "He needs water and something to eat." I told them that I couldn't swallow that mushy rice anymore. They volunteered to go down the hill where the well was and bring water back up to me. They brought me water and a crust of rice. I felt better from then on because they took care of me. I don't know what their real names were--I called them Woodie and Speedie. I wish I could make contact with them again. If it were not for them, I would have been buried in a mass grave at the Mining Camp. They saved my life.
Since Woodie and Speedie were black (in those days they were called Negroes), they were separated from the white prisoners. The Chinese figured they could brainwash them. They were sent to another camp that had all black POWs. I image they were glad to be back with their own in those days. I was always friendly with the black people because I had gone to school with them. In 1948 we were segregated in the same barracks at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. I was shocked at the way the colored people were treated in those days. It was not right. I saw with my own eyes how cruel people can be. I had too much compassion for people of all races, but that is another story I could write about what I have seen and lived.
I made a few other friends in the camp, but I didn't know their names. I remember talking to two of them one night. Their ankles and mine had started to swell and we knew that we were going to die. By the next morning, my swelling had gone down. I went to find my two new buddies, but they had died. Just like that, they were gone. Their bodies had already been picked up and taken up to the hill to be buried.
Some of my other buddies included Ben Chastine, Ken Conascher, Erickson and Vasquess. We were all friends. The last I heard of Chastine he was in Texas. I think the hardest person I had to get along with was Jim Hill. He was six foot tall and slept on the other side of Ben Chastine. I remember that he used to bully me because he didn't like me. We had a fight one day and the guys broke it up. It must have been funny to see this six-footer fighting a guy who was only five foot seven. He didn't get the best of me and the others all rooted for me--the underdog.
Our poor diet caused us to have worms. It scared the hell out of me when I saw those long worms come out of me. They were white in color and LONG, and got all tangled up in a ball. One night a friend of mine's nose was itching. Sure enough, one of the worms had worked itself up to his nose and he pulled it out. We got rid of them by eating garlic. When we got to a village we scrounged around and found garlic to eat. It did the trick and then they all came out. The Chinese said that they came from the water, but they could also have come from foods we could scrounge to eat. We never had a change of diet. There was no fruit. No nothing. All they grew there was rice. I even ate what was left over on the picked corn stalks.
In addition to the lice, maggots and worms, we had to worry about the rats in Korea. They carried a germ that attacked the lung and you were dead if you contracted it. I believe quite a bunch of Americans died of this. The rats were always bombed out of their nests.
I don't know how long we stayed at the Suan Mining Camp. One day went into another. But eventually the Chinese told us that we were going to move again. It was getting cold and they wanted to get us north before winter came in. We left the Suan Mining Camp with a lot of dead military. It was an eerie feeling, but we concentrated on getting to our final destination. I was sick when we left and I didn't know if I could make it, but my newly-acquired buddies Speedie and Woodie said they would help me. The Chinese were now letting us help each other.
This march was just like the others. Guys got sick and some of them dropped out. Woodie and Speedie took turns helping me walk with my arm around them. I wish I could have kept in contact with them when we were released from captivity, but I couldn't find them. Black POWs were released before the rest of us, and I thought I saw Woodie and Speedie at the end of the war when a truckload of blacks drove through our camp. We waved at them and they waved back. I swore that I saw my two good buddies and a few other buddies that I had known before.
When we arrived at Camp 1, we saw rows of houses throughout the camp. The camp itself was level, but further out it was mountainous. The mountain was about ten miles away. That is where we had to go for wood for our heat and to cook in the winter.
The "houses" were actually rows of about ten mud huts all connected. The Puerto Ricans were on the end and then came the Turks and then the Americans. We had about ten guys per room, which gave us ample space to stretch out and sleep. Our room had a paper-covered window and a paper-covered door. At the end was an alley and then the houses or mud huts started again--maybe another ten of them. Going back it was the same.
In the middle they made a volleyball court and basketball court. All around that were rows of mud huts. In front of our room a ways down they built an outhouse for us. To the right was the river, and we were very close to it. We were able to go down there to wash our clothes and ourselves. That was where my buddy Ray Linfanti and I washed our bowls after we ate. They had guards all around the place so we could not escape. You have to remember that we Americans didn't look like an Oriental as some do today.
When we first arrived at Camp 1, there were many healthy prisoners. It all depended on how they had gotten there. A lot of prisoners who were captured went straight to Camp 1, as my friend Gene Ramos did. In an e-mail to him, I asked him if he had gone through the Mining Camp. He answered, "No, I went straight to Camp 1 but I heard how bad you guys had it." To separate the sick prisoners from the prisoners who were going to die, they were placed in the "hospital." The camp hospital was made up of mud huts with rooms like the huts where all prisoners lived.
Food on Our Minds
Food was the thing that we thought most about. I remember when we got to the camps on the Yalu River we used to sit around and talk about food: What we going to eat first when we were freed. 30 pancakes. 10 hamburgers. 20 pies. I used to get these dreams that I would escape and go home and my mother would give me a bunch of food in a bag to take back to the POW camp. I would be so happy. Then when I woke up and there was nothing there, it used to be such a letdown. Food consumed my mind.
A POW named Ben Chastain made a cake for me for my birthday. It was just a rice cake, but it was the symbol behind it. At Camp 1 we knew the dates--when it was Easter and Christmas, etc. Anyhow, I knew it was my birthday.
The POWs asking for better food was the only "rebellion" I can think of, although there was nothing we could do about it. It didn't do much good to rebel against camp conditions. They were what they were. I don't think the Chinese had much to give us on a local level. They had little food themselves and what they did have was rice in a sock-like thing around their neck. That was their ration.
We were pretty far from their supply route when we were in South Korea and I think the war pretty much went the same way. When we were far up north, supplies were tough to get and it was the same for the Chinese when they were too far south.
We didn't take their lectures against the capitalistic government of the USA. They would tear down the Americans at every chance. They gave us copies of the New York Daily Worker and Shanghai News (communist papers), and we used them for toilet paper. Later, only the guys who were interested in communism (like Tennison and Wills) received it.
Lots of guys also saved those papers for the marijuana that they found in the woods when they went into them for firewood. Most of the POWs (but NOT me) tied the marijuana to their leg and hid it when they got back. The guys in my room were notorious for smoking pot and they usually did it around 5 p.m. I didn't care. I went outside and sat until I figured it was time for bed-check, and then I went back in. I was afraid to smoke it due to the problems I was having with my lungs. I was just out of that so-called "hospital" for my lungs.
We had to carry in logs and the load was at least 150 pounds a man. That was tough for me, especially after I got well. But you know, we found a way. Some guys made wheels and some guys dragged the logs. I had to drag it because I didn't have the strength to carry one on my shoulder.
Dog Fights in the Sky
The Chinese had searchlights around the camp, which was bad. When those lights went on, our bomber planes came. One time they strafed us, although I think it was a Chinese plane using it for propaganda. If one of our planes was shot down, the Chinese walked through the camp with aircraft parts from the downed plane.
We used to watch the dog fights between the Russians and the Americans. It was like going to a football game. We rooted for our planes. If the MiGs outnumbered the allies, they stuck around for a fight. If they were outnumbered, they flew back over the border, as our planes were not allowed to go into China.
One time the Chinese said that the American planes shot up one of our mail planes. We got what mail hadn't been burned. I got a letter and opened it and the letter on the inside was burned but not the envelope. (Propaganda again.)
One day about 50 planes came over the camp. They tipped their wings, as now they knew that we were down there. We believed they bombed the Tokson Dam and knocked out all the electricity. They did what they had to do.
There was no rank among the POWs because the Chinese sent all the officers to one camp. I believe they had one by Pyongyang. We had our sergeants and lower rank, but there was no one that took charge. We did have a leader in the rooms, but there was no one we could turn to. In a situation such as that, rank meant nothing. You had to find a guy with character.
We had seven Turkish soldiers in our row of houses. One of them died and the other six really mourned his death. They were strong. It has been said that no Turk died in captivity, but I know that one did.
As we settled into Camp No. 1, it got colder. All the guys were having problems with frozen feet. One guy put his feet out the door in the snow so they wouldn't hurt as much and he lost all of his toes. I tried my darnedest to take the pain, but then I came down with pneumonia and my chest felt like it was exploding.
I was sick with pneumonia from December of 1951 until about April of 1952. I was very weak, so the Chinese put me in their so-called "hospital." There, the Chinese put the sick prisoners in three rows. Row 1 was for sick guys. Row 2 was for the guys who were a little sicker, but were expected to live. Row 3 was for the real sick who were expected to die. This last row was known as Death Row and that's where they put me. Prisoners who made it there also made it to boot hill unless a miracle happened.
I remember that my blanket got soaking wet at nighttime and was dry during the day. My chest hurt so bad it was like I was going to burst any time. My feet burned. I finally went unconscious. I came and went--passing out and coming back. It is very possible the Chinese may have given me something for my lung problems, but if they did, I was not awake to know it. I did not see anyone else get help.
I still remember the sound of them dragging the guys out of our room who had died in the middle of the night. One morning I woke and realized that the two guys next to me had died in the middle of the night. As the Chinese dragged them out of the room, their heads bounced on the floor and as they went over the doorstep. I also remember there was always someone different on each side of me when I woke up. When I was "out of it" I used to see the back of a train with two red lights. I tried to catch it, but I never made it. What a dream!
While we all were laying there so sick, big green flies hovered over our mouths and rectums. When they laid their eggs and they hatched, maggots began eating away at the POWs. A lot of guys died from that. One day as I was laying there sick, flies were hovering over my mouth as I lay motionless. Two guys picked me up to bury me. I moaned when they picked me up and one guy said, "Hey, this guy is still alive. We'll get him tomorrow." Apparently I was close to going in that hole alive. I think of that many times and it really gets me.
I finally broke out of my illness about April. The weather was warming and I tried to get up, but I couldn't because I was so weak. I dragged myself outside. Some of the guys saw me and yelled, "Volpone is up!" I beat death again. I was like my mother. She was a strong person and my dad wasn't too bad either. Now I was back into the population, although I could not walk because I had no strength at all. A buddy of mine from Cleveland, Ohio, Kenneth Conacher, made a set of crutches out of tree limbs for me. He also made me bar bells out of wood so I could lift them. Would you believe, I got all my strength back.
Carrots, Turnips, and "Grave Digging"
The food got better at the camp around June of 1952. Although we never got any meat, we did start getting some greens, rice bean juice, carrots, and turnips. Before we started getting food, we all started to get night blindness. It was crazy. As it got dark, our sight got smaller and smaller. Then in the morning, our sight came back. This is why we started getting carrots.
Now about those carrots and turnips.... One morning I got up, went to the door, and opened it just to see if the sun was going to come out. A guard saw me and in five minutes two guards came in, grabbed me, and brought me down to the main honcho in headquarters. He wanted me to confess that I was lookout man for an escape. Of course, I denied that it was true. He wanted me to confess and I would not. I didn't know what was going to happen to me if I didn't, but I was not going to confess. He then had the guards take me up the hill. They handed me a shovel and told me to dig. I had to dig a hole five feet wide, six feet deep, and eight feet long. I thought I was digging my grave, but it turned out that I was digging the hole for our carrots and turnips for winter.
As I mentioned earlier, Ray Linfanti was my best buddy at Camp 1. He and I became friends as we were assigned a space on the floor next to each other and we were both Italian-Americans. All the guys were new to Camp 1 at that time and everyone picked their buddies just as they would in a regular day in the service. When the guards made me go dig that hole, they went and got Ray to help as they knew he was my buddy. Those Chinks knew everything that went on in that room. Anyway, as we were digging, Ray got sick and the Chinese sent him back to the room. It took me all day and night to dig the hole alone. When I was done they let me go to my room. By then everyone else was asleep. I had gone without eating all day and even missed my breakfast. I dug that freakin' hole all by myself. The next day Ray apologized for being sick, but I told him not to worry about it. I said, "It's over. I got it done." Ray turned that incident in when he got released because he thought it was a war crime committed by the Chinese. After my release I was asked by an interrogator if I thought that had been a war crime against me. I said no because as far as I was concerned, it was just part of being a prisoner.
We got beat and hit at any given time. Our captors didn't need a reason--they just hated the Americans. I got beat up by the Russians in the bunker on the way to the camp, but that was only to show off their strength. Some prisoners were put in jail for whatever reason not to the Chinese way of thinking. It did not happen to me. They put one POW in a room by himself when it was ten or so degrees below zero. The other POWs put a hole in the wall and put in hot bricks for him to stay warm.
Snitches and Confessions
Unless you have lived with them, you may not understand that the Chinese had this thing about "confessions." If they felt we had done something wrong, they wanted us to confess it. In my case, as I mentioned above, they wanted me to confess that I had been a lookout man at the door of our hut. I did not care what they were going to do to me--I was not going to confess to something I did not do. (I would not have confessed to them even if I had been guilty.) I had been through so much I really didn't care and, at the time, I didn't even know if we were ever going to leave that damn place. Screw their ideology--it meant nothing to me.
Every morning we had to sit through lectures about how capitalism was bad and how communism was the way to go. (Twenty American turncoats were convinced they were right.) I remember when Old Shin, one of the Chinese, gave us a lecture about tearing our clothes. He called it "breaking" our clothes instead of tearing them. We made fun of the way the Chinese talked, but at least they tried to communicate. The Latinos are going through the same problem in our country now. They seem to talk English backwards.
We had our share of progressives in the camp. They tried to change our minds about the USA. Richard Tennison was a "turncoat". He was successfully brainwashed into communism and he did it openly. He did not care what the other prisoners thought about him. In fact, he offered a cigarette to anyone who wanted it to get them to talk to him. One day I told that damn Tennison that he was a turncoat. I said to him, "You do what you want to do, but leave me alone." There was another guy who always read a book about communism every chance he got. He lived three doors down from me. We didn't know that he was a turncoat until the time of release. His name was Morris Wills. He came home about ten years later. I don't know what the charges were against him, but he wrote a paperback book after he got back. In fact, only one POW that stayed after the war later returned home to the USA. They all got prosecuted, but I don't know what the charges were besides being a traitor. The one POW that stayed got married over there and later came back to the States for a visit. From what I hear, the US government didn't do anything to him and he went back to China.
We didn't really know who the snitches were, although we kind of had an idea. One time I made a Monopoly game. It was pretty neat. I had to use crude tools to make it and then we used different-sized stones for the houses. We enjoyed playing it until one day two guards came in and tore it up by dismantling it. That was when we knew we had a "snitch" in the room. One POW was a pretty smart guy. He is the one who had his toes cut off after they froze. They say he was a progressive (studied communism). From what I hear he got a dishonorable discharge. He came home and drank himself to death. That is just what I heard, so I won't say his name here. He did read a lot about communism. There had to be a snitch in our room because the Chinese knew everything that we did.
The POWs eventually experienced a few small changes at Camp 1. They finally made a new outhouse for us where we could go in one place. They put one log on the ground that we could use as a seat. It was better than squatting. We also finally got rid of lice in Camp 1 after we settled in a room. We boiled our clothes and cleaned out the rooms and they were gone. But the Chinese still had them. I think they got the message and did the same. Now we all knew not to bring in any straw mats, as that is where the lice thrived. Our guys started making bunk beds, working on one room and then moving on to the next. It was a tough job and I could not participate because I was still too weak, although I could walk. In April of 1953 the Chinese agreed to release the sick POWs who couldn't walk. I got well too soon (ha ha). The release was called "Little Switch" and 149 Americans got to go home.
While at Camp 1, trucks came one day with clothes for us to wear in the summer and those quilted pants and jackets for winter. Whether the Americans want to admit to it or not, those quilted clothes kept us warm. We also all got a pair of tennis shoes. It was not much, but it was better than what we had. Also, one day we got a bowl and a spoon when the supply trucks came into the camp. Sounds a little on the skimpy side, but when we had nothing, it was a big thing for us. In 1952 they also gave us shots against the plaque of some kind.
The Chinese started letting mail come in and we also had a chance to write home. We watched what we wrote because we thought the Chinese would read our letters. I wanted to ease my parents' pain, so I wrote like nothing had happened. I was going through hell, but I made it sound good. I wrote that I was okay and that I was a prisoner of the Chinese but getting along good. I said that I hoped all the family was well. I wrote like I was just out of town rather than in a prison camp. That might have been a mistake because they never took me seriously when I got home. Of course, they were happy to receive that first letter telling them that I was okay and they wrote back to me. I still have three letters from them in my scrapbook. The letter and envelope were one and the same. The letter folded into an envelope. We were not allowed to receive packages from home. If we could have, a lot of guys would still be alive today.
While writing this memoir, one night at dinner I told my wife about the POWs not getting any help in Korea. She said, "Yes you did. Our company had a drive every week filling up boxes of everything you needed." She worked for the Weatherhead Company in Cleveland, Ohio at the time. Would you believe that my own wife didn't know that we never received anything from home? All she knew was that the company where she worked sent us packages every week. I had never talked to her about it before. It took 60 years for her to find out that the POWs never got help from our government or the Red Cross. Now you know why the rest of the country never knew.
In addition to mail, we started to have a church service. One of the POWs conducted it for anyone who wanted to go. We all had our religion, but there were some who had no religion at all. They said to us, "You pray and I don't and we're both here." My thought was, "Well, you think your way and I will think mine."
They started having sports in 1953. We were allowed to play basketball and volleyball and they had the camps play each other. A lot of people said that it was propaganda, but it was okay. It made the POWs happy. I could not play as my legs were not yet strong enough to run.
Back to the USA
One day the Chinese came on over the loudspeaker that could be heard throughout the camp and announced that the war was over. When we heard that, the prisoners of war all cheered. When they said that the war with the capitalist imperial United States regime had been won by the Chinese People's Republic Communist Army, we all booed. But for the moment we were so happy. It just felt so good to think that we would be leaving this place and heading for home.
I was repatriated on August 21, 1953 after the truce was signed on July 27, 1953. When the war was over we were a happy bunch of guys.
The morning we were leaving Camp 1 and getting ready to go to Panmunjom for release, two Chinese guards came in and got Gerald Glasser. We just thought they were taking him to headquarters, so we all left and he was completely out of our minds. After we got home, I noticed that Glasser's name turned up on the MIA list. I'm sure the other POWs who were in the room that day noticed it, too. Years later, the POW Association asked if anyone heard what happened to Glasser. No one knew then and no one knows today. A bunch of POWs were sent to the Russian Gulag system and white workers (POWs) have been seen in China.
They drove the rest of us down to Panmunjom and we had to stay in their houses until our names were called. We went out every day and waited for our name. It was getting to where I wanted to escape across the river before this freakin' war started again. Finally, on the 19th day, I heard my name. I went through the line of Chinese officers and American officers and they let me go. I ran so fast across that bridge that I fell and scampered across on my hands and knees. What a moment! There was a Major waiting for me there. He hugged me and gave me a pack of cigarettes. I then was sent to a priest. Each man had a minister of his religion waiting to talk to him upon his release. We were given a dish of ice cream and a cup of coffee and that was it until chow time.
Not All Glory
From there it was all glory. Well, actually it wasn't all glory. Something happened at Panmunjom that irritated the hell out of me. We were interrogated the second day after our release. The reason I didn't think it was right was we were an excited bunch of guys. You cannot imagine how overwhelming it was as I saw my fellow POWs wide eyes, crying very emotionally because they were now free. Then on the second day we were interrogated. It was not right. Our minds were not sharp. They did it too soon. We were interrogated first at Panmunjom and then on the ship coming home by an Interrogation Officer. I was questioned by three of them at Panmunjom. They could take a rest, but we had to sit there and answer their questions.
I have a briefcase of papers two and a half inch thick. The papers include information about the types of questions that we were asked upon our release: "Did you know the Chinese army's movements from such and such a date to such and such a date?" "Who were the POWs who studied communism?" "What POWs got friendly with the Chinese?" These questions went on and on.... "What POWs were picked out to study communism?" They asked questions about buddies, such as when Heitkemp, Morgan and I were captured by the Russians. They wanted to know what we said (so they could compare my answers with the other guys' answers). They asked, "Who collected diaries?" "How many times did Soviet Union representatives visit the camps?" "What POWs circulated petitions and recordings?" It just went on and on. "Locations of towns and industries?" "Do you have any records of electric plants or damaged electrical industries?" "What USA radio broadcast were you able to hear?" (The answer to that question was "None.") "What news did they let you hear from the outside?" (Again, the answer was "none", although when the war ended they announced that the People's Republic of China had won the war...blah, blah, blah.) A lot of questions were about who we thought might defect.
By the time I had sat through all of their questions, I was beginning to feel weak and a little sick. Remember, we had only been out for two days and we were not prepared to sit there for eight hours. Damn if the government didn't treat us as if we were the enemy. I didn't answer all of their questions. I just started to say, "I don't know" to everything. I did not know the answers.
We were at Panmunjom for maybe three weeks. During that time we got de-loused, got cleaned up, took a shower, etc. We communicated with our families by sending a Western Union telegram to them. I still have those telegrams (both ways).
Some of us got interviewed as to the way we were captured. A reporter kind of grabbed me and stopped me to ask me questions there on the spot as I was heading to the ship General Pope. The only thing I didn't like about that was I got separated from my friends and they were now way ahead of me. I lost them and did not find them on the trip back to the States.
We were on the General Pope for 22 days. There were a lot of returning GI's on the ship. They were all assigned to the front or back of the ship and we POWs got their bunks in the center of the ship where it wasn't as crowded. There were some remarks about that from the non-POWs. They couldn't understand why we got better treatment than they did. Actually, I could not blame them as they had had their share of miseries in Korea too. The mood on the ship among POWs was that they were happy to get a cup of coffee and some good food, but there was a lot of anxiety. I mean a LOT of anxiety. We were fed certain foods and had to take a vitamin at the chow line. We got home, but we left a lot of guys over there who will never be found.
I believe we landed in San Francisco. No one was waiting for me when we landed. You have got to remember that not too many families had the money to go cross country, get a room, etc. Some did, however, because when we got off the ship I got enough welcome from the people of San Francisco. Upon arrival we were sent to a building and processed. We were given orders for a 30-day leave, as well as money to get home.
When we were released, they sent us home for thirty days. Everyone going towards the Midwestern states came home on the same train. My brother Donald picked me up at the train station. I kind of felt sorry for him because I called him Ray a few times on the trip. (Ray was my buddy at Camp #1.) It's a wonder I knew my own name that day. Getting off the train and going home to see my family was very emotional for me. Donald was driving and not saying too much. My parents were waiting for me at home and they cried and hugged me when I got there. My friends started showing up. It was a good homecoming.
During my leave I met Dolores Ann Vacca. I had gone to school with her sister and we knew the family. Dolores was pretty as heck, so I dated her while I was home and we were married a few months later. She was my date on the night that the Sons of Italy sponsored a dinner dance for me and sold tickets. I remember this event. The tickets sold for $35.00 a ticket and it was supposed to be held in honor of James Volpone, ex-POW from the Korean War. In addition to Dolores, my parents also attended. I really felt sorry for them after what happened. When we were seated, I was at the end of the table. In the center were all the big guys who were running for office of some sort. The politicians moved in and made a name for themselves, plus a lot of money. One politician's son was graduating from college and he sat at a chair near the center of the table. He was honored at the event supposedly being held in my honor. Events like that brought me down and I lost a lot of respect for the people of Ashtabula, Ohio. I still have the newspaper clipping from the banquet.
Now all this is not sour grapes. I didn't expect any more or less than any other Korean War veteran. I was just mad that they had used me and my parents for their own self-serving political agenda. Eventually it got worse. As time went on, I generally never mentioned that I had been a prisoner of war. It became something I hid. I no longer was proud of the fact that I survived and was an ex-POW. In fact, I never talked too much about anything in the Korean War as I knew so little about everything combat. I had been there only a short time before I got captured.
After my leave I was to report to Ft. Sheridan in Illinois. That is where they found a spot on my lung and put me into the Great Lakes Naval Hospital because I had a mild case of tuberculosis and PTSD. Dolores came up from our hometown of Ashtabula to see me while I was in the hospital. The Red Cross found her a place to live. It was a blessing, as I was all alone again in a TB ward. She was allowed to come in to see me and she brought me things to eat, etc. Because I still had residual effects from frozen feet and neuropathy, I was later shipped to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania where I was hospitalized at the Valley Forge Army Hospital. That is where I got discharged from on November 17, 1953.
I did not get my automatic promotion of one stripe when I got released as they told me that I had to be assigned to a unit to get my promotion. But I felt very thankful and honored to get home after fighting off frozen feet, pneumonia, night blindness, acute dysentery, and lying on a mud floor with no medication in 30 to 40 below zero weather.
Life After Korea
Korea was a different war. The mood of the country changed after World War II. Senator Joe McCarthy was going after everybody and anybody who belonged to a club of some sort. His main mission was to go after the movie stars and other people of high status. To him, in his perverted mind everyone was a communist. And the people in those days of the 1950s were running scared of the communists. It was so much like today, when uneducated and educated people are going after the government. There are some that have an agenda to destroy our great nation. Back in the 1950s, the people in this country were so afraid of the communists their fear got to where they thought a communist would come down from the sky and swoop them up. You can thank Senator Joe McCarthy for that, as he convinced other people that it would happen. McCarthy, who was from Wisconsin, died in disgrace.
When we POWs first got home people seemed to care, but as I said, the mood of the country had changed and it was a big swing from the way they all really felt. The POWs in the Korean War were the first prisoners of war of the communist army. The American people were told that the Chinese were brainwashing the POWs, and after hearing all the crap about communists, people worried when we POWs got home. The Chinese did try to brainwash us, but they were not too successful. They tried separating the black prisoners from the white prisoners, thinking they had a better chance to get to the young blacks, but it did not work. Then the Chinese came up with the idea of "voluntary repatriation." The United States laughed as it never thought any American would stay. (Most POWs came from good families and had fairly good homes to go back to.) The communists got only twenty Americans and one Britain to stay with the North Koreans/Chinese after the war. But what the Chinese hadn't figured on was over 100,000 Chinese stayed with the Americans.
Those twenty-one traitors were a black eye for the Americans and it caused bad press for the Allies. And there were others who used the POWs for their own agenda--selling books or whatever. There was a psychiatrist named William Mayer who claimed outright that he was against the POWs. He had a high position in the Pentagon and Department of Defense. A Dr. Segal had the same views as Mayer. They blasphemed POWs, as did Col. Robert J. Berans, author of Heroism in Ambiguity. So did the author of the book, Korea, authored by Kinkaid. These men should be held responsible for the way they did the American POWs of the Korean War. We went to fight for our country and came home not knowing how the public felt about us.
After having my name all over my hometown newspaper (I still have all the articles) and then getting home, no one really cared. I did not expect anything better. Who was going to do this and that was all hot air. I could not even find a job. I actually wasn't supposed to be working yet anyway because of the lung problems I came home with, but I was not crippled. I bought a new Buick. For the young man that I was, it was a big thing driving a car like that. As I came from an average Italian-American home, we lived modesty. You could expect that from the "boys up the hill". I had one good friend. I happened to overhear what he said: "How lucky Jim is to have a new car." I also remember going into a restaurant and overhearing a man saying, " Hey, here comes a Boy Scout." I really wanted to tear into him, but I pretended I didn't hear him. It was that sort of thing happening. I just cannot understand how anyone can be jealous of a young man who went through the treatment of being a POW of the Chinese at such an early time in his life.
I remember when the boys came home after World War Two and how they were treated. No matter where they went people honored them. They never had to buy another drink at a bar. People asked me if the city bought me the car and I gave them with a puzzled look. Before I got home there was a lot of talk about what they were going to do for me. Everyone was getting their name in the paper, etc. No one did anything.
Dolores Vacca and I were married on February 27, 1954. We have now been married for 58 years and we have four sons. Our oldest son joined the Palm Springs Police search and rescue unit and he is still there after 30 years. He also does silver engraving. Our second son was a heavy duty mechanic who ended up in the oil industry. He lives in Bakersville, California. Son number three has been at the New York Hotel and Casino here in Las Vegas for 30 years. Our youngest son was in the leather and saddle business and is now a sales representative for a prominent company, managing offices in Bakersville and Fresno, California.
The first summer after my discharge I was at my wife's father's house when government officials came to interrogate me again. I let them in and we sat at the table and had coffee. They then started asking me the same questions that interrogators had asked me at Panmunjom and on the ship. I got a little upset and asked them what they wanted of me. More or less, I told them, "Let's get down to business." Well, as it turned out, they wanted me to go testify against some POWs who were on trial. My answer to them was, "Go get the guys who turned them in." Now, I did turn in Richard Tennison and Maurice Wills from my camp, as everyone did. They were two of the 20 turncoats. In no way was I going to protect them as our government already knew what they had done. But these other guys I didn't really know. There are things that I had heard, but that didn't make the men guilty. If anyone had something on them, I told the government officials, "Let them go testify. This session is over. The war is over for me. I said what I had to say after I was released." I told them that the two of them should have to go through what the POWs went through and then I would like to see them after that. They said, "Thank you for your information" and when they left I never thought about them again. My feelings at the time: They could shove that war up their you-know-what.
So many things happened that I wanted to leave Ohio and go West. My parents didn't understand. They just took it as the usual everyday event. My wife and I stayed in Ashtabula for five years and then we moved to Phoenix, Arizona. From there we went to Anaheim, California, and then moved to Las Vegas to retire.
It was like this. I got married, had three children, bought a new house, and was working for the post office when another friend of mine, Nick Landolfhie, moved to Phoenix. My wife and I talked it over and thought it would be a good idea if we moved there too. I had lung problems and never felt too good. (I always got a headache after I got home from Korea.) I had also worked many hours and was overworked for the time that I had been home. We thought the warm air would be good for me. I was done taking my shots for minor Tuberculosis three years since then. I was working 60 hours in a week. It was too much for me and I could not handle it. At the time, it was around 20 degrees and snowing quite a bit in Ohio. We left in the winter of 1958. I had just bought a new Country Squire station wagon--at that time that was a dream car. We packed it up with all the belongings we would need and left at nighttime with the temperature at zero degrees.
Our biggest problem was our families. Her dad didn't want us to go as my wife's mother had passed away years ago and we were taking care of her brother who was ten years old. We were taking him to Phoenix with us also. My family wanted to own me. They were so mad. They wanted to dictate my life and I would not let them do it from the day I got home. I told my mother, "I am 29 years old." But they still took me as a young boy. I think they carried the name "Junior" a little too far. They all dominated my life. I wanted to be free.
Looking back and after all I went through in my life after I left, I realize that I was nervous and irritable. It all got worse. I started having flashing light in my eyes. I was always dizzy, etc. I got to where I didn't want to socialize, although I made sure the kids and my wife were not deprived of anything. I made sure the kids played sports, etc. We stayed in Phoenix for two years. When I decided that I had to leave Phoenix, I wasn't going back to Ohio. I knew back when I was a kid that I would leave that town someday.
We eventually went to Anaheim, California. I had the same problems there. I worked one custodian job to doing anything I could to make a living. I finally saw an ad in the paper one day that they needed inkers at Butler Publication. I was good in art and thought, "How hard could it be?" I went for the job and was immediately turned down. The general manager and I just started shooting the bull and he began to ask me questions. I told him that I played the sax and clarinet and that impressed him as he played the clarinet, too. So now we were talking music. Would you believe he hired me as a trainee? I was kind of old to be starting as a trainee, but at least it was something. In the meantime, my wife started working down the street at a food chain store. Now I was progressing. I moved up the ladder fast and started working for a design service (job shopping). I was on my way.
In the meantime, I was still having my physical problems. I went to the VAT at Long Beach, California and talked to a doctor. He recognized my problem in the short time I talked to him and he gave me some medication. In those days they didn't make up a folder for you, so every time you went to the VA you saw some different doctor.
I started playing music again and things were looking good again. That was around ten years after I got back from Korea. I couldn't play too good at first because I had been out of practice too long. But I made a small comeback and played in some combos before landing a job with a accordion player and guitar player. I played sax and drums. We worked down around San Juan, California at the time Richard Nixon was President of the United States. We played at the El Adobe, a high class dinner house. President Nixon's wife Pat loved Mexican food and came there once in a while. We played for a few White House parties. That job lasted five years. After that we played a few nightclubs and then quit. It was fun while it lasted. My wife and I then took up bowling. Now that is where my talents were hiding, but it was too late to go professional. I just bowled around Anaheim.
At the time, property was high. You couldn't touch a house for $20,000 and the interest rates were so high that my wife and I were at a standstill. I had lost my rating at the VA as my lungs were looking pretty good and that was a plus. We moved again to an apartment near Hugh Missile and Radar System, where I finally got a steady job.
Our sons grew up. My oldest, Michael, was in the silver engraving business. He works for the Palm Springs Police Department now and still has a silver engraving business. My second son, James Jr., joined the Navy, learned to work on heavy duty vehicles, and was in the Sea Bees during the Vietnam era for four years. He works for an oil company and plays several musical instruments. My third son, Gregory, went to college. He has been a crap dealer at the New York New York Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas for 30 years. My youngest son, Franco, was carving leather and eventually started making saddles. He went to work with ADT Security Company and worked in Las Vegas until he got promoted. He was then sent to Fresno as a sales representative to open an office there and one in Bakersfield, California.
Things were looking good, but in the meantime I withdrew from everything. I quit my music for good and spent more time with my wife. That was when we started bowling. Time went on. Carter was President of the United States and interest rates were so high we would never be able to buy another house. We decided to move to Las Vegas, as now my nervous system was completely gone. I figured I could get a job in one of the hotels doing something. Meanwhile, my older son moved to Palm Springs. My other son moved to Moreno Valley to a new subdivision hear Riverside. By then both were married. We took the other two boys with us to Las Vegas. I got a job as a porter at the Maxim Hotel--the perfect job for me because I wasn't tied down to one place at a desk anymore. My wife got a job the first week at a hotel. My third son got a job as a crap dealer. He is now in New York, New York.
I got lucky again. The hotel poker room was having a tournament and had a piece of notebook paper advertising. I saw it and made a 30x40 poster for them on the house (free). Although I was still on the hotel payroll, I had also set up a sign business at home. The general manager of the hotel saw the poster and wanted to know where it came from. They told him that I had painted it for them. The GM then called me into his office and, would you believe, he gave me a room in the hotel so I could make signs and an open account for anything that I needed for the sign work. I was then on the payroll for a porter and for doing sign work, as well as doing sign work at home. Between my porter pay and sign work pay I was knocking down some serious money. It was all on the up and up and was included in my yearly wages on my tax forms. I did this for ten years until I retired.
Problems with the VA
In the meantime, I was on depression medicines such as Valium. I went to POW support groups and met a few guys who were POWs in World War II and Korea. My health and mental problems were tied to me being a POW. I spent three months in a veterans hospital in Loma Linda, California. I discharged myself as I told the head psychiatrist that I had to get back to work. He said, "That is a first." He wanted me to stay and get 100 percent disability, but I turned it down and went back to work. A few years later I began to get worse and had panic attacks. I was really whacked out. I got let out of my job, as they feared I might hurt someone.
After that I went for my VA disability. The POW coordinator told me I was wasting my time and the Disabled Veterans refused to make another claim for me. I took the papers off his desk and said, "I will do it myself." Although everyone at the VA told me that I was wasting my time, I sent claim papers to Washington DC. In the meantime, the VA continued to treat me for my various health problems associated with being a POW in Korea. You have to remember that I came home with lung problems, residual of frozen feet and neuropathy in my nerves and muscles and a few other things. The VA gave me all the medications that I needed and I had a good POW doctor.
In two years I heard from the VA in Washington. I knew about all this before the rating board as the fellow that worked my case called. I got 100 percent again with three years back pay. I had nothing but time to lose. Before, every time I put in a claim they put ten percent on my feet. I had at least five disabilities on ten percent of my feet. I was walking with a cane, and my feet and legs were so bad it went on that ten percent. Before I got my disability, I lived a tough life for years. But being the sort of person that I am, I didn't quit. That's why I came home from that death camp in Korea. I tell the veterans coming home now to keep trying and don't give up.
Today, after-effects from the Korean War still linger on. I have terrible dreams. For instance, I dream that I am fighting a Chinaman and I'm kicking him. I wake up when I fall off the bed. I dream the Chinese have my house surrounded and I get my wife and kids together while I fight them off. They are all crazy dreams, but they are scary. My wife really gets frightened sometimes. A lot of times when I wake up my mind goes to Korea and then my mind jumps around from one place to another. When I went to the hospital for my cancer surgery, I awoke one night. The room looked different and I heard voices, so I thought that I was in another place and the Chinese were going to experiment on me. I was scared that night.
I gave my body to my country and now I am 83 years old. I outlived the army expectations and the VA expectations. When the VA did a fast job on my teeth and I had them re-do what they messed up, a person in the dental department of the VA told me that the only reason I got my 100% ratings was because they thought I was going to die years ago. They just tried to push me out. I had a doctor who asked me questions and then did not believe a thing I said, especially my story of the Russians and about all the POWs who died.
I was even accused by the VA of not being a POW. My POW doctor, Dr. Rys-Jones, was a good guy and did a lot for the former POWs. Well, to show him how much we appreciated him, I framed the congressional charter picture of the ex-POWs and I put a POW medal in it. When he left for Florida he wanted to give it back to me, but I said to him, "Hang it in your office in Florida." He thanked me again. But in our POW group session room I was accused of not being a POW because I gave my medal away. (You can buy them a zillion places.) I tried to be a nice guy, but I got burned.
Fighting for Our Honor
A few years back, three American soldiers were captured in Iraq. At that time Aaron Brown was anchorman on CNN and General Wesley Clark, ex NATO commander (retired), was his military advisor. Brown asked Clark what his thoughts were about it all. Clark stated that World War II prisoners of war were mistreated pretty badly and two percent died in captivity. When asked about Vietnam POWs, Clark said they were also mistreated and about two percent of them also died in captivity. (I saw on TV that the Viet Cong were feeding Sen. John McCain, which was fine with me.) But when Aaron Brown asked General Clark about Korean War POWs, Clark stated that the prisoners of war of the Korean War broke the code of conduct. When I heard that I blew up and I was fuming. I ran to my computer and got Aaron Brown and Wesley Clark's e-mail addresses. I wrote to General Clark:
The next day, Aaron Brown laughed as he said to General Clark, "Hey, General, after that e-mail you got yesterday I didn't think you would show up today."
My Personal Honor in Question
Here in Las Vegas I had to continue to fight for my own personal honor, even up against a fellow POW. POWs all knew each other pretty good. A former POW moved to Vegas and told the POW coordinator there that I was not discharged from an Army Hospital. Things got messy and one night while laying in bed I started thinking, "Why am I taking this crap from these people?" I looked at my DD215 form and there it was: "discharged from Valley Forge Army Hospital." When I was discharged I was 100% disabled for about 12 years or so. But a woman in the VA didn't believe that I was discharged with 100% disability when I came out of Korea. The Reno Rating Board agreed with her. I finally wrote to Washington DC and explained what they were doing to try to discredit me. One day I got a notice from the Reno Rating Board saying they were going to do me a favor and were sending all of my records to the Las Vegas office. When they did, there it all was. Everything I said was true. I had been given a 100% rating upon discharge from the army. Now when it was all cleared up, I wanted to know why I was picked for them to go after. The woman in the VA said, "I never said that. You must have me mixed up with someone else." I just left the room.
I went to another doctor in the VA for my gall bladder. She started asking me questions about Italy and wanted to know when I came to this country. I told her I was third generation in my family and that I was born in America. Guess what? I just could not comprehend why, after all I went through in Korea--living without food and water and the essentials of life, I was now being treated this way by the VA. Just imagine. After going through all that hell in POW camps in Korea, now I had to fight for my honor.
All of the repatriated ex-POWs were supposed to get discharged from Ft. Sheridan. They all did, but I was the exception. I was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois, which was just a short way from Ft. Sheridan. I spent time in a TB ward and was then sent to Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. I had the option to sign out since the war was over, which I did. I was discharged from there on November 17, 1953. I was picked up by the VA after a Red Cross worker came into the hospital and helped me fill out a bunch of forms. Little did she know that when she submitted all those papers to the VA, I would get 100 percent disability right after leaving the Army.
The same ex-POW who accused me of not telling the truth later got interviewed at one of our ceremonies. He stated that he came home on a stretcher. But I have a picture of him taken on the day he returned to the States as he was walking down off the ship with three of his buddies and being interviewed. He was not on any stretcher. So I guess it's the one that lies that does all the dirty work against other veterans.
I have been burnt so many times since the day I came home--by family and by many who I thought were my friends. I helped start a POW museum and helped get a local mental facility ready for the sick--all with my own time and money. Then when they were finished, others took the credit and that hurt. This all turned me against anything to do with the POWs, so I just stay away from them. But Uncle Same came through for me, eventually giving me 100% permanent disability and back pay. When they came out with a new benefit for former POW's, I was the only one to get the top dollar amount.
The Korea War is a war I would like to forget. It has two lines in the Cold War section of our printed history books used in the schools. Over 36,000 of our military died there and 8,000 are still missing. (I say there is more.) And they list it as a "cold" war??
I think that the United States should have sent troops to Korea in the first place because it helped stabilize South Korea. If the Chinese had captured all of Korea, they would then have gone after Japan. But I question whether Truman had to send American troops in as fast as he did. He seemed to be in such a hurry. The United States did not know anything about Korea. It underestimated our enemy. They didn't know how mountainous it was or how cold it would be, so they sent our troops in there with regular winter clothing. You don't go into zero temperatures with just a field jacket and a parka with fur lining under it. I mean, I was only an E3, but I was smarter than that. They had all that rank, yet they didn't realize how our troops were dressed. It was a shame on our country. I personally think that Truman was afraid of Russia and he was afraid Russia would go into South Korea as Russia had troops in Manchuria already having just pushed the Japanese out. That is my take on the war.
The United States beat the North Koreans, but the Chinese came in and then we were fighting another enemy. I think we should have gone up to the Yalu River, but instead of sitting on our laurels after we beat the Koreans, we should have known that the Chinese might possibly get in the war. We should have had more troops up there to protect what we had won. We should have had warm clothing and the ammunition and heavy equipment needed. They should have been ready for the Chinese while MacArthur was fighting with Truman (the Chinese must have loved that). MacArthur wanted to go into China but Truman did not. While they were making a decision, the Chinese came across the China/North Korean border and kicked ass. Truman and MacArthur knew that China or Russia were a threat while they were sitting on their butts waiting to make a decision. The outcome of the war would have been so different if we could have held the Chinese at the Yalu River.
The Forgotten War
During World War II everyone had their minds on the war and everyone did their part, whether they were on the front lines or on the streets in America. It was so different when the Korean War rolled around. Not everyone was sent there to fight it--the government just picked a few here and there to go. There were ways to get out. It was possible to get a deferment if you entered college or got married, which a lot of guys did. When they got me, I really didn't mind going to war, but it was the way they did me. I knew all about the war, but I think I underestimated our Korean enemy just as much as General MacArthur. I just wish I could have had a full stomach when I got there and after I got there before the Chinese got me as, again, I went without eating.
The Korean War carries the name "The Forgotten War" because the White House wants it to be forgotten. The boys who fought there fought their hearts out for nothing because they died in a war that was not even thought of as a war. The United States should apologize to every military man who fought in that war. Our government let us down when we needed it. It could have done something, but instead it let our prisoners of war die and suffer without helping them. It could have had an air lift and dropped food to the POWs who were helpless with the Chinese with no food and no medical attention. The United States just forgot all the POWs. Over 4,000 died and 8,100 are still missing. The prisoners of war that came home were very lucky to come home after that onslaught. That is the reason the United States hides everything to do with the "Forgotten War."
I don't think the Allies are doing a good job in their efforts to locate and return missing in action personnel from the Korean War to the United States. Every time they go to Korea to search for remains, they go to the Chosin Reservoir area. There were other big battles. Why don't they go to other locations?
I wonder how many people in this country know that our government let their men die horrible deaths in the POW camps? They were all death camps. Damn! The people who died in the Holocaust were not our people, but they keep talking about it. Yet our own people died the same way and they ignore it. I don't get it. I wish that someone in Washington would open an investigation and let's see why!!!
I have two nephews who have acknowledged my service and sacrifice. My nephew Lenny got two newspapers from my aunt who passed away. They tell of me being captured and being released. I got an e-mail from another nephew David, who is from California. He said to me, "Nothing is too good for all of you that fought our wars and suffered." He then thanked me for my service and said, "I heard something about it, but never took it serious as I knew so little about your ordeal."
I saw many young American soldiers die in Korea. No human being should have died the way they did. It was inhumane. We buried many along the way with no dog tags and at the Bean Camp, Mining Camp, and at Camp 1--one of the only recognized camps by the USA. The Bean Camp and Mining Camps I guess didn't count, but that is where most of the dead are and along the route to get there.
We never had any humanitarians come to the camps to check the conditions. The Red Cross was not allowed in the camps. If they had been, fewer guys would have died. We never received "little things" that helped ease up our miserable life in the camp. The US government did nothing to help us. You would think they could have made a deal with some other country to come in and feed us or drop some food to us from our planes, but no. Our government deserted us and I would like to know why. With over 8,000 American servicemen missing and 40 percent of the prisoners of war dying, you know they had to have known that. That is my main bitch with our government. They let us starve and die, and then they swept everything under the rug after we got home. All they talked about was the POWs of World War II. I've got pictures of those POWs opening packages from home and from the Red Cross. They never even clothed us right. We were in that cold temperature with a fur liner under our jacket and a field jacket. That is something that bothers me about that war--why did they do that to their own army?
I believe that Korea changed me. I was always the type of person to take charge. For instance, back in those days, no one had any special place to get a ball team together like Pop Warner's football. I was always the guy to organize a team and to get others to play us. As I mentioned at the beginning of my memoir, I used to make drawings for other students in high school for 50 cents. In order to get sponsors for the team or to get stores to buy equipment for us, I went to stores and got them to sponsor us by putting the store name on the back of our jerseys. I was an extrovert.
When I came back from the war, I became an introvert. I became the guy in the back of the room. I had so much to offer society, but I had lost all my confidence, even in my music and art. For instance, I worked for an aerospace company as an illustrator when I came back from Korea. I was one of the best schematic artists in the business. I could do a three-foot by five-foot drawing and ink it before anyone else even finished their drawing. (I was called into the office one day and my boss told me to slow it down only because of the others.) I got the privilege of making a huge drawing because others could not do it. Today nobody knows what I'm talking about because they do all that with computers now, but back then we did the work manually that computers only started doing 25 or 30 years ago just before I retired. The Korean War ruined or at least changed my life. I would finish a drawing, take it up to my supervisor, he would say that he liked it, but then I would start telling him what didn't look good about it. I would tear myself down. I did not associate with the old crowd anymore as I had moved. I had new friends who did not know the change in me.
I try not to think about what happened to me as a prisoner of war, but that is real difficult. When I am lying around doing nothing, I just start thinking about all of that stuff and I cannot help it. My wife called my psychologist many times after we moved here to Las Vegas because I was very hard to get along with. I found that Valium helps subdue me, so I am on mental medication to quiet me down. I wouldn't wish this on anyone, not even my worst enemy. Korea is engraved in my mind. No one and no medication will ever take it out.
I don't go anywhere except to the doctor or to my wife's doctor. My doctor sends me to another doctor if he thinks I need more attention. I had cancer surgery, but I went through my HMO because at the time we had to go to the Los Angeles VA. Now we have our own medical centers in the Vegas area. We have five medical centers throughout the valley, plus other clinics for different illnesses. We also now have a new Veterans Affairs hospital.
Did I make a mistake in leaving Ohio? No. I would have died if I had stayed there. I left, had a hard time, got some lucky breaks, and here I am. God gave me the talent for music and art. I never went to school for either and I worked right alongside of people with college degrees. Now I live for my grandchildren. (PaPa's bank of "anything I want.") We have had a good life, but Korea ruined my life otherwise. I made the best of it. Looking back, I am proud to have served my country, and would go back if called. God Bless America!
Hero Unit Essay