The next round came in close and we dove over the tail gate and headed for the ditch. Wherever we looked there were Chinese. They swarmed at us like ants coming out of the side of the hill.
I was scared, damned scared, but I knew we had to fight. I remember men running and then spilling into the snow as they were hit, some quietly, others screaming. I looked over my shoulder and watched one of the men on the other side of the truck disappear in the middle of an explosion. When I turned back the man next to me had been hit shattering what had once been his face.
Oh God, why couldn't we have made the other 100 yards to the bridge and the safety that lay on the other side? I wiped the sweat from my eyes and fired three rounds at the enemy on the hill just across from us. I can remember saying to myself hell, I missed him. This time I took careful aim and he went skidding sideways as the bullet plowed into his side. While he lay there on the ground two of his comrades stopped to help him. Seconds later they also fell.
Please God, don't let me get hit. I rested my head on the stock of my rifle and took a deep breath. I can't stay here. But I can't run. They'll get me for sure if I run. I took another look at the bridge.
Over to the left some guys got one of our heavy guns into action. I don't think they got off more than four bursts before they were all dead. It was just as though every damn Chink in North Korea was shooting at them. I tried to get closer to the ground and I remembered, for no apparent reason, the story we use to tell on Okinawa during the last war. When you're in the infantry, don't carry your cigarette papers in your breast pocket--it keeps you from getting close enough to the ground. I have never felt so alone in my life. But even in the panicky feeling that goes with a battlefield, I was conscious of other M-1s firing on both sides of me. God, I wonder if they're as scared as I am. My heart was pounding so hard I thought I would choke. I tugged at my collar trying to get a deep breath. Smoke and dirt from the exploding rounds made it tough to see, but there wasn't much to see anyway. They were still swarming over the hills straight at us. I fired my last round and then rolled to get the next clip out. As I did I hit the motionless body laying next to me. I felt like I was going to get sick. Please God, don't let me get hit. I took another look at the bridge. My mind calculated the chances of making a dash for safety. If I get up and run to the back of the truck, and then if I haven't been hit, run to the rock. And then if I haven't been hit, run down the road to that spot in the ditch. Then, if I haven't been hit, take off for the bridge for all I'm worth.
Don't be a damn fool, you'll never make it. Their rifles can't hit me if I stay in this ditch. But they had a lot more than rifles out there and they were using them all. I can't stay here forever; I decided to try it. It felt like I had been thinking about it for hours, but in reality it had only been minutes since the first round hit. I struggled to get to my feet to make the dash for the rear of the truck. As I looked towards the vehicle, a machine gun stitched a pattern through the side of the truck. Another crew was methodically working the area between me and the rock. You'll be killed, don't try it. Hell, you're going to be killed right here if you don't do something quick. This can't last forever.
Why didn't I go out with the first truck? I would have been across that stupid bridge and still had a chance to see my wife and kid again.
The sight of one of our gunners standing up walking for the truck woke me up. Get down you crazy fool! Get down! He kept walking, just like he was taking a walk in the park. His carbine was gripped in his fist, hanging by his side. Little puffs kicked up beside him. He hunched his shoulder and winced in pain. He just stood there then finally crumbled to the ground. His eyes were looking straight at me. You dirty, rotten... I fired wildly into the hill ahead of me. I got off about eight shots before I realized my gun was empty. I reached for my cartridge belt to get another clip. I couldn't find one, so I rolled over to get one out of the right side of the belt. Suddenly another loud burst and I felt blood splash on my arm. At first I starred at it in fascination thinking it was my blood. The whine of a ricochet brought me back again. Then I realized the blood was from one of my buddies about 25 yards from me. I pushed the clip into my rifle and moved my gloved thumb out of the way of the bolt, then kicked the operating rod forward with the heel of my hand and looked up again. It was the same sight I had seen earlier. The only difference was they were closer to us now. I thought again about running to the bridge. The final answer was given to me when three mortar rounds hit in succession between me and the bridge. I ducked down again, wanting to cry. For some reason the tears wouldn't come out.
Oh, please God, don't let me die here. Where the hell are we anyhow? I remember someone telling us last night that we were in Hangseong. That's just north of Wonju. What a hell of a place to die. Another Chink stuck his head out from behind a rock on the hill. He carefully looked around and then signaled for those behind him to move forward. I fired and he rolled down the steep slope. Then there was silence. It was shocking, no rifles, no mortars, nothing. I looked over my shoulder and froze.
Okay you dirty bastards, shoot me. Go ahead get it over and shoot me. Twenty gun barrels were pointed at us. How did they get there? Where did they come from? I had looked over there just a few minutes ago, and our guys were there. Now just 15 feet away from us were 20 Chinese soldiers. They didn't say anything, but we knew what they wanted. I lifted my rifle. They tensed. I could almost feel their trigger fingers taking up the slack. I nervously looked around me. God, there are only four of us left.
I could feel the eyes of the other three looking to me. I could commit suicide by making the wrong move. All of them will shoot at once and maybe I won't feel it. There was a pleading in the eyes of the man closest to me. I looked the Chinese soldier nearest to me right in the eye and squared my shoulders. The muzzle of his gun came up and he pointed it right at my gut. I was sure that he was going to shoot me. I could almost read his mind.
He wanted me to make a break, any move, so he could shoot me. His leering made it plain that he was playing for keeps. Every muscle in my body tightened. I remember how tired he looked. We were all tired and almost relieved that it was coming to and end. I dropped my rifle into the muddy ditch, and the other three followed suit. The tangled nerves started to unravel, and the screams that eluded me earlier were now released in an unintelligible growl. That was all that came from my throat. It was over. I was still alive and it was all over.
As of that day, 12 February 1951, my freedom came to an end. If I had known what the next 26 months would bring, I would have invited the quick, certain death further resistance would have brought.
At a signal, we fell into line and were marched across the street and up a hill. The same hill the Chinese had swarmed down to capture us. There was still a lot of fighting taking place on the other side of the hill, so they sat us down to wait it out.
There were two guards assigned to us and they would not let us talk to one another. All we did for the next two hours was wait, each of us sure that we were waiting to die.
I thought about my daughter, my wife, my mother, and the guys in my outfit I had seen massacred this day, and worried. I said a few prayers and tried to keep warm.
The scream of jet engines overhead brought us abruptly back to reality again. We dove into the hill side from habit--our guards did the same. For the next few minutes all hell broke loose just over the crest of the hill as jets cascaded streams of rockets onto the Chinese below.
"Thank God those guys are on our side," I mumbled, mostly to myself. Then I thought that it might be much better if they were somewhere else right now. Wouldn't it be awful to get killed by our own forces after living through the nightmare of the past few hours?
Now with their ammunition expended the jets went topside and headed south. Except for scattered rifle fire off in the distance, all was quiet. As the smoke and dust settled on the mountain from the initial shock of an aerial attack, the awesome sight of rockets fired upon exposed troops could be seen. Now screams of the survivors echoed between the hills. Our two guards motioned for us to get to our feet and we started back towards the top of the hill and the nearest Chinese stronghold.
The Chinese must have been very busy the next two days, because not one of them came near us, except the two guards. We had assumed that we would be interrogated immediately, but I guess they weren't too interested in us at the moment. They were preoccupied with pouring more and more of their troops at the American lines.
It was cold that night, awfully cold. About 50 of us were lying on the dirt floor, huddled together for warmth. One of the guards motioned to a pile of hay outside the door. We grabbed handfuls and tried to keep some of the penetrating cold out. We were hungry, but there would be no food this day.
The next day came, and we still were waiting for something to happen. A flight of our jets hurdled the hills and headed for the valley beyond. They caught about fifteen of the Chinese out in the open and the lead jet dropped a tank of napalm. All fifteen disappeared as the jelled gasoline mushroomed into a wall of flames.
With no food or water we were pretty weak when they decided to move us, but even if we had been in good shape the ordeal we were about to face would have worn us down. We didn't know it at the time, but we were the victims of a deliberate attempt to weaken us to the point where we could not go on. Then we would be left to die or be shot. This valley would later become known as Massacre Valley, not without good reason.
On the third day it started. We were lined up, all the prisoners taken the past week, and we started walking. Helping each other as best we could, constantly prodded by the evil-looking guards, we traveled about 20 miles that day. That night we had our first meal since our capture, plain cracked corn. We were so hungry that even it tasted good.
From that point on, we didn't measure time in days, but distance. We marched over many hills and on many roads. We crossed scores of streams, some choked by ice, some shallow enough that we could walk across on the stones. It comes back to me as a nightmare of cruelty and torture, during which the strong turned weak, and the weak were no longer with us.
It must have been about the tenth day when we saw our first chance to escape. Five of us passed the word quietly and decided to take a chance. Anything was better than this constant process to wear us down. One of the five was South Korean. If we got caught it was sure death for him, and possibly for us as well. The North Koreans weren't doing too much for their southern countrymen those days, and the Chinese were doing less. We nicknamed the South Korean "Stewart". The only thing that had kept him alive thus far was the fact he spoke excellent Japanese. Posing as a Japanese-American he was able to stay alive, at least for a while. For the purposes of our escape plan he was to play the part of a North Korean guard.
I passed the word. "When we get out of this village, wait until the guards are far enough up the line and drop out. Pretend you're taking a crap." The four nodded, Stewart even smiled.
The long line of prisoners, with a machine gun armed guard every 50 yards, wound its way through the small village. The few civilian inhabitants that remained came out into the darkness to insult and taunt us. As we left the other end of the village, I looked both ways and stepped into the bushes to the right of the road. The others followed.
The five of us pulled down our pants and squatted. Either the guards didn't see us, or they didn't care, at least they didn't bother us. The column went on past us, hundreds of men, and gradually we relaxed. Guards further to the rear looked at us and probably figured we had the permission of the guards in front. The prisoners in line were too tired to even look our way.
We stayed in that position for about 40 minutes and were only disturbed once. Stewart saw the guard coming, and stood up with a stick in his hand. The guard assumed he was assigned to watch us and turned back to the column. Once the column had passed we stood up.
We carefully checked the trail over which the column had passed and then headed for the main road. We had gone only about half a mile when we ran into a Chinese guard and North Korean civilian. Before I could say a word, Stewart touched me on my sleeve as a warning and spoke to them in Japanese. The Chinese guard looked at the North Korean who acted as interpreter. He then painstakingly advised Stewart, through the North Korean, how Stewart could return his "four prisoners" to the column of captives. Stewart thanked him profusely and we passed on.
"What did he say" I asked.
"Him say Merican prisoners go on right road up ahead. We go left instead, huh?" Stewart whispered back.
I asked, "Why weren't they suspicious when you spoke to them in Japanese?"
Stewart explained that the North Korean thought he was speaking Japanese because he was Chinese and couldn't speak Korean. The Chinese, on the other hand, assumed he was North Korean speaking Korean.
"Never mind, you have me all mixed up now," I said with a grin. "Just keep talking buddy, and see if we can talk our way out of this mess."
We deliberately made the turn in the opposite direction from the one the Chinese soldier had pointed out and found ourselves in a solid stream of Chinese soldiers, heading south. We just fell in along with them and nobody asked any questions, figuring Stewart was our guard.
A varied assortment of men and material flowed over the road that night. The heavy movement of troops, trucks, mule carts, and motorized guns kept the Chinese so busy thinking of the battle that was to come, that we went virtually unnoticed.
A few times when a particularly large unit of Chinese soldiers passed, Stewart would talk to us in Japanese and we would move off to the side of the road and wait until they passed. We were still pretty scared, but very happy to have made it this far. We kept heading south.
We entered a pass about five miles long with steep cliffs on one side and even steeper mountains on the other. This left us no options, we had to stay close to the road until we got out of the pass. Once through, we could head into the hills and away from the enemy column.
We did fine until we neared the end of the pass. I figure we were within a few miles of our lines at that point. But as we turned into the valley, two Chinese guards were waiting for us. The sight of them coming out of the bushes, guns aimed straight at us, brought us to an immediate stop. They were in front of us before we ever saw them. They challenged Stewart for his authority to transfer prisoners.
Stewart did his best to talk us out of this one too, but since he was taking prisoners south rather than north they insisted on seeing his pass. He went through the motions of searching his pockets, but they were suspicious enough to realize he was bluffing. If he had even had a scrap of paper on him we could have been on our way, we knew they couldn't read Korean, but without it we were recaptured.
They tied our hands behind our backs and headed us north once again. While it was obvious these guards meant business, they were not as abrupt as our previous captors. They seemed unconcerned with our conversations. Stewart began to tell us what had taken place in his discussion with them. It seems that these two Chinese soldiers belonged to an outfit that had captured two American soldiers earlier that day. The two had escaped by overpowering their guards, tied them up and taken their weapons. The two guards who had caught us were waiting for them to try to make their way out of the pass. If this earlier chain of events hadn't taken place we would have never been caught.
At first, our two captors seemed confused. The had been ordered to look for two American soldiers armed with a machine gun and a pistol. Instead they had captured five unarmed escapees. They finally decided to abandon their post and return us to the holding area. This probably meant that the other two American prisoners would make it to safety. The thought of this, and the fact they didn't decide to shoot us and wait for the other escapees, lifted our spirits a bit.
It was a feeling that would only last a short time as we realized the position that Stewart was in. As long as they were convinced that he was an American soldier he was not in any more danger than the rest of us. But if they found out that he was South Korean, coupled with the fact he was helping us escape, it would be curtains for him. I could see he was worried about it as well.
As we trudged northward, our hands lashed behind our backs, I began to tell Stewart about California to take his mind off his predicament, but more importantly to give him information to keep up the charade.
"Tell them you are a Jap." I explained. "Tell them you were born in Reedley, California. Your mother and father are American citizens. Tell them you worked in a grape packing house in Reedley. You understand?" He nodded.
I gave him the address of my aunt in Reedley and described the entire countryside in that part of the country, including all the surrounding towns. I had visited that area for a year just after my return from World War II, and I used my experiences there to give him some facts to back up his story. We knew it was a long shot, but we were desperate, it had to work.
We walked for about ten miles that night. Then they locked four of us in a big concrete vault-like structure. It was about ten feet square, no windows, and a big steel door. The door was solid except for a four inch hole at about eye level. Stewart was taken away to be questioned.
After about two hours the door clanged open and Stewart was thrown in. He was badly beaten. One eye was closed and there were long strips of skin missing from his cheek and chin. But through it all he was still smiling.
"I am an American soldier," he said, and then simply passed out. He had passed another test. At least for now Stewart would be treated as an American, a member of the U.S. Army. I felt sure that given enough time to brief him, he could pass any interrogation they threw at him - or answer any questions they tried to beat out of him. Since I was from Massachusetts they would never connect the incidents of Stewart's new life with my own.
Over the next three days, they really put the pressure on us. I guess they were hoping one of us would crack. But none of us did. At all hours of the day and night, at an irregular schedule, they would bang on the steel door with clubs until the noise was unbearable. We couldn't hear ourselves think. We tried to figure out how they were timing their noise barrages, but I guess that was part of the "treatment", wondering how long it would be until the next assault. We might get one hour, or three. We had two hours without noise once and then the pounding every eight to ten minutes for the next hour.
During those three days we were fed only once. The meal consisted of sorghum and soybeans rolled into a ball about the size of a baseball. The door remained locked and by the end of the second day the stench was unbelievable. We were forced to relieve ourselves inside the room, and the four inch opening in the door provided very little ventilation. We felt like animals. By then we were probably acting like animals as well. It was all a part of their softening up process to make sure we understood who was in charge. This was all intended to get us to the point where we would answer any question just to be relieved from the noise and horrible living conditions. It was as though they expected us to develop the attitude that hitting ourselves over the head with a hammer was good because it felt so good when we stopped.
At the end of the third day they took us to something they called a hospital. It more closely resembled a morgue. It was where the seriously wounded were left to die. God only knows how many of our men did just that in this place. Since none of us were badly injured we weren't there very long. Just long enough to rip up our undershirts and shorts to make bandages for those in the worst condition. We knew full well that most of them would eventually die. The real tragedy is that it would have taken so little to save most of them, just simple medical attention. But the communists were not about to go out of their way to save these poor souls.
Out of this mass, about fifty of us were capable of walking and were started on a march where most were to suffer the same fate as those left behind - death.
After marching for hours without a break we were all pretty weary. They said that we were going to the rear, but in reality we were going up, moving uphill ever since we started. Breathing was difficult and the muscles in my legs were tied up in knots. I was on the tail end of the line. The guard behind us was getting on my nerves.
I stumbled. "Move, keep moving. No lagging!" he shouted.
"Get off my back you son of a ***** or I'll kill you," I said, mostly to myself. Where the hell are they taking us now? A couple of the guys up ahead were really having a rough time. We were all deliberately walking as slowly as the guards would allow. We tried to give them a break. We knew if they fell out of line it would be over for them.
Tired as we were, four of the men ahead of me helped the two exhausted men, supporting them on each side despite the narrow trail. They continued to stumble every few yards. The guards never let up.
"Move, keep moving. No lagging!"
I was beginning to think that was the only English they knew. The prod of a bayonet convinced me I couldn't stall much more. I moved up with the rest of the pack.
We were a few hundred yards passed a small village when the guard grabbed me and the four men just ahead of me.
"You, all of you, go back down the road. Bring up the food." Food, did he say food? We hadn't had a meal in so long I'd forgotten what food tasted like. One of the men said "Ya jerk, why didn't you let us stop while we were in the village?" I knew how he felt. A few hundred yards felt like miles at this point. But I told him to stow it. I knew this guy was crazy enough to shoot.
We started back down the trail towards the village. We didn't talk too much, we were too tired. We got to the village and a guard came running up with his gun at the ready.
"You halt!" he commanded. "Where you go?"
"We were sent down to get food," I explained.
"You lie, there is no food. Go back."
Hell, here we go again. We started back up the trail.
Then a shot rang out, then another. "Hit it!" I yelled and we dove for the bushes. I figured they were shooting at us. We lay panting on the ground for a few minutes, but nothing happened. We couldn't hear anything. So we started up the hill again. If we delayed much longer it would have meant trouble.
As we approached the column I spotted the guards moving something into the bushes. I paused. Oh no, Mother of God, no. I whispered to the other four, "Quick follow me, don't look around. Keep coming. Keep coming."
I took a closer look and saw that what the guards were putting in the bushes were two bodies. There was blood on their heads. Now I knew what caused the shots we heard earlier.
We caught up to the rear of the column and the interpreter hurried back to meet us.
"What did you see? Tell me what you saw." His tone was very insistent.
"What do you mean?"
"Did you see soldiers back there?"
"You mean the soldiers back there where there wasn't any food," I said.
"No," he answered, "The other ones."
"I didn't see any other ones. Why, did some get lost?" I hoped the desperation I felt wasn't reflected on my face.
"Never mind, That's okay." He headed forward again.
"What happened?" I whispered to the man ahead of me. He didn't even look around at me, just remained silent.
A few seconds later he replied, "They couldn't keep up with us. They had to fall out. That dirty bastard said they were going to put them in a house until they got better. Then we heard the shots. Are they...?"
"Yeah. Both shot."
"The dirty, rotten, sonofabitches..."
"Stow it, they'll hear you," I whispered fiercely.
"You're lucky. If they found out you saw it they would have shot you too."
"Yeah, I suppose." I still hadn't come to the point where I understood that the Chinks were capable of such things without giving it a second thought. Thank God, I'm still alive.
One thing I did realize now was that we had to learn real soon when to fight back and when not to. I don't think we ever really stopped fighting back - when we had a chance to gain something. We had to be smart enough not to fight back against hopeless odds to stay alive. The feeling of complete despair, along with the horror and torture we had seen to this point had proven to us that we had to take the path of least resistance, at least for now. Giving in on some minor point today meant that we would live to see tomorrow, and tomorrow might give us the chance we need.
The main problem with the situation we now found ourselves in was that the life and death decisions had to be made quickly, leaving little time to distinguish the minor points from the major ones. The distinction was also blurred by the fact that we were so sick, tired, and hurt that even the most outrageous indignities, that would have appalled us earlier, now didn't even penetrate our feelings.
It was at our next stop that I found that we still were fighting the wrong battles.
Four Chinese guards came into the building they had thrown us in to search us. Some of us got real smart, yeah, real smart. We took off our rings and watches placing them on the dark floor and sat on them. Our judgment was so clouded we didn't realize that even if they weren't found during this inspection, they would be on the next. The searches came all to frequently. For less than fifty buck in jewelry each of us were risking the beatings that were sure to come.
When the beatings did come they taught us a lesson in relative values - the only thing really important was our lives and the lives of our buddies. Nothing else mattered, nothing else was worth the risk.
During the next few days we came to find out how animals in the zoo feel. After assuring themselves that we were beaten, mentally and physically, they made a point to parade us through the town and call out all the townspeople to see us. It wasn't a pretty sight. It surely wasn't the parade we thought would be awaiting us when we entered this "police action". It was the parade of some pathetic human beings who were fighting for survival, not of a heroic army fighting for freedom. It was however a good show for the citizens.
The show finally ended when some of the Korean people didn't react the way the communists had expected, throwing us tobacco and cigarettes. We were to spend the night in the home of some of the Koreans. It was apparent that they were forced to open their homes as much as we were forced to stay there. It was in some of these homes that we experienced the first acts of kindness we had seen since our capture. We were given some food out of sight of our Chinese captors. Some of the North Koreans had found that their Chinese allies were treating them as badly as they were treating the Americans. They seemed to know that the North Koreans were invaders, not the friends from the north they pretended to be. They had seen too many of their countrymen pushed aside by the Chinese in their ruthless attempts at conquest.
Eventually our pitiful group reached the "Bean Camp," so called because all we ever got to eat there were bean balls made from sorghum and half cooked soy beans. It was April 17, 1951 and only 35 of the fifty that began this journey were still alive.
They joined us in with some other unfortunates and then separated us into groups of ten. We dragged ourselves into our assigned huts. I don't know what we expected, and God knows we had seen enough Korean huts, but this one was particularly lousy.
I can remember all the times we complained about how bad the Army supplied us. Looking back on it from this vantage point, I realized how wonderful the Army's logistics system was. Even when things were really tough in combat we got food, when it was cold we got blankets, when sick we got medicine. Even if things just cooled off a bit we got shelter. It may be a hole in the ground, an elaborate sand bag bunker or a pup tent. Now all we got were Korean huts. No matter where we went, it was a dirty, filthy Korean hut.
This one amounted to two rooms constructed out of packed mud. One room served as a combination living room, dining room and bedroom. The other was a tiny kitchen. The ten of us would live in this eight foot square patch of earth. The only equipment provided to us was an improvised table and crummy blankets, absolutely nothing else. We slept on the dirt floor and would make shelves by digging out an area in the mud walls. We were surprised to find an electric light supported by a mostly bare wire. We also found that the Koreans had long ago learned an ingenious way to heat their huts by building a series of tunnels under the floor.
The fire in the kitchen was made in a fireplace fashioned from mud and rocks. The tunnels under the floor were connected to this fire source and drew heat from it forming an elaborate, if not primitive, heating system. A cast-iron pot hung over the fireplace and we used it for everything.
"Well, well, well, home at last--at least until they decide to move us again."
"Call this dump home, hell, I've seen more comfortable foxholes."
"I'll bet these knockers won't even let us try to clean it up."
The rest of us were much too tired to even comment about the accommodations. It was a place to rest, and God knows it was time to rest.
I took off my uniform for the first time in weeks. I couldn't remember the last time I had clean clothes. As I took my pants off I stopped and just starred at myself. Being of Lebanese decent I naturally had a lot of hair on my body, chest, back, shoulders and legs. I stood in shock as I found that all the hair on my body was gone. Instead of hair I found my body was now covered with blood sucking lice. Once I was finally able to look around the room I found that the other men were making the same discovery.
As part of my training I remembered reading that epidemics can be carried through lice and I began to worry. "Here's the first thing we've got to do," I commented to the room in general. "These damned things will kill us if we don't get rid of them fast."
"Let's get to it then, I want to see if I have any skin left," one of the boys said. There were a lot of wise cracks while we killed the lice, but we all knew how deadly serious it was. We agreed on the spot --"anybody that doesn't clean the lice off of them can get the hell out of this hut." We meant it and everyone got the message without further elaboration.
It took hours working with fingernails, picking one off, capturing it between our fingernails and squashing it. My hands looked like I had dipped them in my wife's red nail polish before I was half finished. My wife, I wonder what she is doing now. I wonder if she knows I'm alive. I wonder if the Army's telegram told her that I was killed, missing in action, or POW. Oh, dear God, take care of her and my little girl. Please let me get back to them safely. Please let me live through this hell. I can't let go, they need me so much. I was sure the family would look after them till I got home. But my daughter won't even know me when I get home, if I get home.
It took days to completely rid ourselves of all the lice and at that it took every minute of our time. By then one pest was replaced by another. Flies so thick we had to keep our hands moving back and forth over our food to get it into our mouths. They would swarm onto any open cut or bruise. They covered our dead buddies. The smell of death hung in the air. Death is the only smell you can taste. Anyone who has lived near a dead body knows what I mean.
I began to wonder when you become immune to human feelings. When do you look at a bloated body, the skin so tight it is ready to burst, without getting sick? When do you pass a skeleton without wondering who he was, what did he look like? I didn't know the answer to these things yet and hoped I never would. But if I ever did find these answers I was sure they would be found in a place such as this.
The latrine at Bean Camp was a hundred yards from our hut. It didn't take us long to learn that unless you had dysentery you would be better off to make as few trips out there as possible.
One of the guys from the 187th Airborne learned this lesson the hard way. He started out one night and as he approached the latrine, he heard; "Halt, where you go?" It was the guard.
"Right out there to the latrine, " he replied.
"Take off your boots," the guard demanded.
"You go to hell buddy, I ain't taking these things off in this weather for nobody."
"Take off your boots, now!" the guard got rough.
"Now look, what's the idea, I need these boots." He said pointing to the jump boots on his feet. "What will I use for shoes?"
"I give you my sneakers," the guard replied. He held up a beat-up pair of tennis shoes, the foot gear of oriental soldiers.
"Oh, no you don't, I'll be damned if I freeze my feet just because you want a pair of jump boots...Ohhh" The guard had swung the butt of his rifle against the soldier's head. He fell to the ground fighting to stay conscious.
We heard the commotion and looked out the door. The guard was getting furious because each time he reached for the boots he was kicked by the still resistant soldier. "Beat me, you sonofabitch, but you'll have to fight me for these boots, I ain't gonna freeze my feet."
One of the guys in the hut took off to get the interpreter. He yelled at the interpreter, "You told us we were going to be treated as prisoners of war, not slaves. What the hells the idea of that guard stealing those boots?"
The interpreter ran to the seen of the incident as the guard climbed off the top of the soldier. I don't know what the interpreter said to the guard but from the looks he was giving us it must of been hell.
The interpreter then helped the soldier off the ground and said, "So sorry, it was a misunderstanding. The guard did not want your boots. It will not happen again."
Yeah, it won't happen again-- not until the next time. The guards continued to try to force us to give up what little clothing we had every chance they got. Sometimes they would strip us down to our underwear, but they were mainly after good boots, watches, wallets, and rings.
Everyone was a target of opportunity for the guards, dead or alive. In combat you never get use to watching someone die and be carried off the battlefield, but at least you know he will get a descent burial. Even when you are not in combat, because of the way we live, you expect some kind of funeral--or at least some respect. You never get use to seeing a man laying stiff on the ground. You know that no matter what your circumstances are something must be done--he has to be buried.
Our problem in the camp was finding out when we had one to bury.
One night I started for the latrine and had walked about fifty feet when I saw him. He was not only dead, but naked.
I can't tell you how I felt. It was a mix of embarrassment and shame. Nakedness on a living being is one thing, but on a dead man, laying on the snow covered ground, frozen solid, is something that defies description. I looked around for something, anything, to put over him. I finally took my jacket off and laid it over his head. What entered my thoughts next made me realize the effect this place was having on me. I remember saying to myself, "Take back your jacket, the Chinks will just steal it if you leave it here." I stifled a sob, grabbed the jacket, and stumbled back to the hut.
That night we made a decision. Whenever one of our buddies died, we would appoint an honor guard to stand watch over him until we were given a chance to bury him.
The first few nights we had to fight with our bare fists to keep the Commies from undressing the dead. But those soldiers were buried with their clothes on --but then we found another striking character flaw in these Chinese.
Less than a week later. We were carrying a dead sergeant up the hill to lay him to rest. Four of us carried the body and two others followed with a shovel-- we had insisted that the company commander furnish us with one.
None of us were prepared for the sight that met us at the top of the hill. All the bodies we had buried the past three days were dug up. They were all naked.
Callous as it may sound, we wouldn't have minded too much if they had only buried them again, but as we now knew, they had absolutely no respect for our dead.
If this is communism, and I think it is, they can have it. When we protested to the Chinese commanders they had the gall to tell us the dogs had dug them up. Some smart dogs that can dig up a body and undress it.
It was also here that we had our first experience with brainwashing.
In those days we weren't familiar with the term. What we did know was that they did their best to get us as physically and mentally exhausted as possible and then would drum in the same bits of propaganda over and over. Eventually it was hard to tell the fact from the fiction. In the beginning their efforts were careless and laughable. It was easy to fight back.
Our first lecture was on combat situations. They drilled it into us that the Chinese People's Volunteers and the North Korean People's Army had pushed the United Nations troops all the way back to Pusan. One of the "Facts" they gave us was that the U.S. troops would be pushed all the way back into the sea. One of the men decided to dispute this fact. He jumped to his feet and yelled, "The only way you bastards will ever get to Pusan is the way I got to this Goddamned hole--as a prisoner."
They were very patient. He didn't get any food that night. The following day they spent hours "convincing" him that they were right.
We soon found that we could use this process to our advantage. If we pretend to accept one of their "Facts" we could get a meal, some sleep, and they would leave us alone for a while. Our education on which battles were worth fighting was beginning to pay off.
Each of us knew where we stood. Life here is unbearable. Tell them yes to anything to make it a little easier. Tell them anything, we know you don't mean it.
The knowledge that we stuck solidly together in this little scheme made it easier to fight back when we felt we could no longer sell our dignity. Every now and then we each had to take a stand. If for no other reason than to reassure ourselves that we were worthy of survival. When one prisoner was told he would not get any supper because of his arguments against the "party line." The defiant one knew that meant he would get more to eat than the rest of us in the hut. Each man in our hut would sneak a mouthful of their meager rations to the disobedient soldier. It was our way of paying tribute to him.
Infections, beatings, starvation, and exposure, all served to thin out our ranks over the next few weeks. It was more than just one or two now and then. It was ten or twelve men each day. More than anything else it was the lack of proper food and medicine that took it's toll. We begged for more food for the starving and more medicine for the sick, promising to work even harder to make it up. Our efforts resulted in even less food and even less attention being paid to our sick and wounded. We hated ourselves for even thinking that our begging would accomplish anything.
Their excuse was always the same. "Sorry, we would like to feed you and give you medicine, but your planes bombed train with your supplies."
After hearing that excuse over and over in answer to our pleas, I decided it was my time to assert my dignity. I challenged, "It's damned funny that our planes bomb our supply train and let yours come through. How stupid do you think we are?" That cost us some more food and some more sleep.
The march to our next location was the longest and by far the toughest. This one lasted twenty-three days and it seemed to have only one objective--to get rid of as many of us as possible.
It began on the 24th of April, 1951, when 760 of us were formed up and told to walk. That first day we walked about 30 miles and most of the weaker ones died that day, being shot as they fell out of line. It wasn't anything we hadn't seen on our way to the Bean Camp, only the numbers were larger.
At the end of the first day we stopped in a small village. To hide us from air attacks they jammed us into small huts. There were about fifty of us to each structure. Those of us that were able stood in order to allow the sick and wounded enough room to lay on the ground. Some of the men would collapse from sheer exhaustion and fall on the wounded men at their feet. The interpreter laughed as he called, "Get all the rest you can, we move out early."
The day that followed was even worse. We needed water desperately. We protested to the guards who finally stopped us a short distance from a well. We became delirious at the thought of getting a cool drink. Each of us that were in fairly good shape took the canteen of a wounded man and headed for the well.
As we approached the well the guards pushed us back using their bayonets for emphasis. We got the message, we were to go no further.
"We want a drink!" we yelled.
"You wait!" the guards said, pushing us back with sadistic grins.
Actually we didn't mind too much at first. After all we were the captors and they had a right to drink first. We stood silently watching as they each took their turn at the well, the first clean water we had seen in days.
As they finished, however, we were stunned when they ordered, "Get back in line, we march."
"Hey, we need some water. Those men are dying. We can't go any further without water." They laughed at us as if it was some big joke. One of the men screamed, "You dirty bastard, I want a drink", and headed for the well. He was struck by a blow from one of the guards and now lay helpless on the ground just a few feet from his goal. The rest of us turned toward the column of thirsty men and we went on without the water.
We had barely started moving forward again when another man began cursing the guards for not giving us water. He received the same reward - a rifle butt to the head. It was no use, these beasts lacked human emotion. To them this was simply another step in their methodical process to break us down.
I think we marched all over Korea, at least we felt that way. I honestly don't know what kept us going. Maybe it was seeing that many of us who couldn't go on were left to die or be killed.
The next day we stopped marching and rode - if you can call it that. We were packed, standing up, in a railroad coal car and traveled in that position for the next three days. There was no room to lie down or even sit. We were packed so tightly into that car that as men fell asleep or worse yet died, they would do so remaining upright.
During the second day on the rails, just before daylight, the train stopped. They were afraid of air raids so they pulled the train into a railroad tunnel. This proved to be worse than the ride because they deliberately left the smoke from the stack of this old locomotive pouring out smoke. The black smoke was scolding hot and suffocating. We remained in the tunnel for hours. We waited in terror for something to happen, knowing that whatever was to happen would mean death to more of us who had already seen our share of ordeals. By noon we were all more dead than alive as the bitter fumes choked off the breath of already sick men. By early afternoon three men had died in my car alone. We could stand it no longer, climbing through the thick smoke, over the walls of the train car, we dropped to the tracks below. From there most of us were barely able to crawl the few feet to fresh air.
We carried the three dead men, along with many more from other cars, to a bomb crater about seventy-five yards from the track. We intended to bury these poor souls but the guards wouldn't allow that. We were made to leave them lying there as we were forced back to the edge of the tunnel.
Later they brought us some sorghum which we attacked like the starving animals we had become. Then we were placed back onto the train to continue our miserable journey. On the fourth day we started on foot once again.
They kept telling us we were being taken to the rear where we would be safe from our planes. At times I was sure that we had walked far enough to be half way into China by now. I'm sure we were taken around in circles most of the time. It was a process that was reaching it's intended outcome - turning us into zombies.
On May 17th, my birthday, I found out how it feels to be dead. I thought I was and by all rights should have been.
It started as we climbed a long mountain trail. It must have been a mile straight up. Even though I was sure I couldn't make it another hundred yards, I kept myself going by telling myself over and over, Gee, this will be easy going down the other side.
But as I soon found this was another of Korea's one-sided mountains. When we reached to summit there in front of us was another hill just a little higher than the one we just struggled up.
Oh, God, I'll never make this one. It became an endless routine, dragging one foot in front of the other, stumbling, half falling, slipping backwards on the muddy trail.
Half way up this second hill I had given all I had to give. I couldn't force myself to take even one more step. I was too tired to think of the consequences. I had to stop, to rest just for a minute. I eased my exhausted body to the ground. All I need is a minute or two then I can make it.
But one of the guards spotted me before I saw him. Even though I knew he was coming for me I couldn't move. He took his rifle by the barrel and with a full swing hit me across the head with the butt of the gun. I rolled face down to the ground. I was still conscious, but all I could see were lights, and my head felt as though it had been ripped right off my shoulders.
Oh, my God, I'm heartily sorry for having offended thee. I confess all my sins... Jesus Christ, just get it over with - shoot me and get it over with... what are you waiting for? Even though I couldn't see him I knew he was still standing over me with his rifle. I had seen this act played out too many times before, I knew what to expect. I tensed up waiting for the bullet to hit and extinguish what little life was left in me.
I was surprised to feel a pair of hands lifting me to my feet. Why didn't they kill me like they had killed so many others? It was Pete Murphy, he was carrying me the rest of the way up the hill.
But I had already given up, I thought it was over, I wanted a quick escape from this torture. "Let me go, don't try to carry me," I mumbled. I could feel the blood running into my eyes and my stomach turning inside out.
"Hold on sarge, I'll help you," a voice whispered in my ear, "Keep moving, sarge, I'll take care of you."
"No, I can't. I can't walk any more, they'll kill you too," I moaned. But he dragged me over the top of the hill and my head began to clear.
God was with me that day. Half way down that hill, the hill I thought was my final resting place, our "Death March" came to an end. God must have heard my prayers when he arranged to have Camp No. 1 located just a mile from where I had my head knocked in. Having to endure even one more hill would have meant the end for me.