~~Thirty-Four~~

Donald E. Barton

23rd Infantry Regiment

2nd Infantry Division

U.S. Army

Prisoner of War

On February 26, 1951, I sailed from San Francisco aboard the General Nelson M. Walker, headed for Korea. As the ship pulled away, a band standing on the pier was playing, “Farewell to Thee.”

After being at sea for twelve days we finally arrived at Yokohama, Japan. From there we were taken to Camp Drake, which was near Tokyo, for processing. A week later, we boarded a train bound for Sasebo, and then from there we took an overnight ferry ride to Pusan, Korea. As we docked in Pusan, on the 16th of March, a phonograph at the dock was playing, “If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake.”

I would be assigned as a medic to I Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Most of my time in Korea was spent working out of the 3rd Battalion aid station. Our main area of responsibility was from Wonju to Inje, including the Soyang River.

On the 16th of May, the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) started their spring offensive. The Tenth Corps called it the Battle of the Soyang River. Later it would be known as the “May Massacre.” Six Chinese divisions attacked along a twenty-five mile front, overwhelming us. As Item Company withdrew, I was ordered to stay behind and help evacuate the wounded.

The Chinese had set up a roadblock cutting off the Hongchon-Inje Highway, just north of the village of Hangye. Vehicles from both the 2nd and 3rd Battalion’s were trapped, and the wounded had to be evacuated overland from the valley floor. This had to be done by going up a hill and through the position held by Item Company.

When word came down for the 3rd BN to withdraw, Item Company was the last to receive the orders. We medics watched as the company withdrew, and waited for the arrival of the wounded. After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was probably only thirty minutes, they finally arrived. Drivers of the vehicles that were trapped behind the roadblock quickly dismounted and started destroying their vehicles by placing white phosphorus grenades on the engines; these burned through the blocks. Four aircraft dropping napalm were called in to finish the job.

With four men to a litter, we carried the wounded along a ridge line the 3rd BN rifle companies had taken less than an hour earlier. There was a parallel ridge, about three-hundred yards south of our ridge. We hadn’t traveled very far when we noticed a group of men, wearing OD rain gear, moving toward us on the parallel ridge. A short distance ahead, both ridges merged into a single trail. As we neared this point, these men began to yell as us. Thinking they were Americans, and happy to see friendly forces, we yelled back. Shortly afterwards, they opened fire up on us with burp guns, almost cutting one of our wounded soldiers in half. For the next two hours we engaged in a firefight. However, being outnumbered, cut-off, out of ammo, and badly shot up, our group of approximately fifty-six men surrendered. On May 18, 1951—I became a Prisoner of War.

A week later on the twenty-fifth, around 3:00 AM, as our group of about three-hundred POW’s marched north in two columns on either side of the road, an artillery shell exploded in the middle of the columns killing or wounding several POW’s, along with several Chinese guards. A piece of shrapnel hit me in the right shoulder knocking me to the ground. Another POW cried out, “Help, help. Someone give me a tourniquet, my leg is off.” Men were yelling, screaming, and crying out in pain. In the pitch black darkness, it was utter chaos.

Fearing more explosions, my main concern was to get the hell away from there as fast as I could. I yelled at a buddy, who was walking behind me, and told him what I was planning to do and for him to follow me. So, we took off running leaving the sounds of the wounded behind. In the process I also left men from Item Company behind; I never saw them again until the end of the war. My buddy and I were found the next morning by a Chinese artillery officer, who spoke broken English. He told us to walk north and we would not be killed. That night, around dark, we were recaptured by the Chinese infantry.

A piece of shrapnel from my right shoulder caused a steady stream of blood to run down my body and fill up my combat boot. A Chinese medic bandaged my wound with the shrapnel still sticking up through the top of my shoulder bone.

For the next few days we continued walking north and collected small groups of POW’s as we went, until we arrived at a POW collecting station—called the Pines. While here, another Chinese medic pulled the piece of shrapnel from my shoulder with a pair of pliers; shattering and splintering a lot of bone in the process. We were here only a few days and our numbers swelled to between two-hundred fifty and three-hundred men.

One morning, the Chinese singled out a small group of ten-to-twelve wounded men, placing the most serious ones on an ox-cart with the others walking behind. In this fashion, we moved from one primitive hospital to another—I was in this group. During this time we were turned over to the North Korean Army. We traveled through Wonson—on the east coast—west to Yong Dock, finally reaching the NKPA’s 39th Field Hospital in Pyongyang.

Within days of arriving, blow flies had worked their way underneath my bandages and maggots had begun to eat the infection. I was taken to surgery where two female North Korean doctors, under the supervision of Russian or Czech civilian doctors, operated on me—without the use of anesthetic. They removed shrapnel, and bone fragments, during two surgeries. For the next three months I carried my right arm between the second and third buttons of my fatigue jacket. Finally, the drainage stopped and the wound healed.

During this time frame, the group of wounded men who left the Pines with me died one-by-one. Those who became too weak to travel were left behind, in filthy hospital rooms, to die later. We were thrown out of the 39th Field Hospital, by a North Korean general, after a large U.S. bombing raid almost leveled the city of Pyongyang on August 20, 1951. We then had to walk twenty miles to another prison at Kang Dong, which had been built by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. It was surrounded by barbed wire, and had guard shacks at fifty-to-seventy feet intervals. Here I was thrown in with a room full of ROK prisoners. I protested, and that night one of them stole my shoes—I was now barefooted.

On the 10th of September we received word that we would soon be moving; some of the ROK prisoners had already been sent north. Around noon on the fifteenth, a group of one-hundred ten GI’s, British, and Turk POW’s moved out on foot, on a march that lasted thirty days—and covered two-hundred and twenty miles. Being without shoes, I reminded a North Korean officer that he had promised to find me a pair of shoes for the march. He furnished me with a pair of thongs that had a coarse rope, which formed the upper part of the shoe. The rope rubbed against the side of my feet as I walked, grinding into my feet like sandpaper.

The first day out we marched most of the night—over rocky mountain trails—to avoid being spotted by U.S. Planes. My feet had become a bloody, blistered mess. Finally, I just kicked off the thongs and continued barefooted. I thought to myself, “What a way to start a long march.”

The next morning I went to the officer and showed him my feet. He told me not to worry that he would get me a good pair of shoes. Shortly afterwards, they carried a dead GI out of a room, and I noticed that he too was barefooted. A short time later, the officer brought me a pair of high-top tennis shoes.

Two dozen or more Americans died on the march due to their wounds, dysentery, malnutrition, and just plain fatigue. Some even predicted their own deaths; others got a death stare, which everyone recognized. When one got the stare, he would be dead by morning.

Approximately two weeks into the march we stopped at another Japanese built prison camp, which the Koreans called “Camp DeSoto.” It had log walls and enclosed buildings that resembled an old American fort. During our week stay there, seven more GI’s died. We placed their bodies in rice sacks and buried them on a hill outside the compound.

Leaving Camp DeSoto, we marched for another seven days, reaching the Suiho Dam on the Yalu River. Once again a small group of sick and wounded prisoners, including myself, were separated from the main group. We were told we would travel by boat to a hospital at POW Camp #3, which was run by the Chinese. It was here that the North Korean Army turned us back over to the Chinese; we waited for three days for the boat to arrive. On our last day there, a North Korean guard murdered a British prisoner. Finally, the boat arrived and we took a one day boat ride to Camp #3. Here we stayed for nearly two years—it was October 15, 1951 when we arrived.

In late November we were released from the hospital and joined the company, which was housed in an old schoolhouse, in a Korean village a few miles from the hospital.

In December 1951, an agreement was reached with the Communists at Panmunjom to exchange a list of the POW’s held by each side. The list of Americans being held was rushed to the U.S. where each name, and home town, was announced on the radio. This is how many mothers, fathers, wives, sisters, and brothers found out for the first time their loved ones were alive. Some of those captured early in the war were listed as MIA (missing-in-action) for as long as a eighteen months before their families learned they were alive.

In the spring of 1952, the companies at Camp #3 were reorganized and moved. Black soldiers, Brits and Turks, and all ranks above corporal were sent to other camps. Second Company moved around an inlet, in the Yalu River, to a different location about four road miles away. At the new location we were joined by a company of POW’s known as “Tiger Survivors,” so named because a North Korean officer in charge executed several of their group, and ordered his guards to shoot stragglers on their march north. This group of soldiers from the 24th Infantry Division, and some civilians, were captured in July of 1950. There were originally seven-hundred fifty-eight in the group, but five-hundred of them died—or were murdered—during the winter of 1950-51. The name of each POW who died was put on a list made by an eighteen year prisoner by the name of Wayne “Johnnie” Johnson. When the war ended he smuggled the list out in a hollowed out toothpaste tube.

In June of 1952 the power generating turbines at Suiho Dam were bombed and knocked out of service—permanently. However, this eliminated what little lighting that was available in the barrack we occupied. From then on, until the end of the war, our only light at night was in the form of a small bowl of oil and a cotton wick placed in only one room of the house. When lit it threw off a low flickering light that was inadequate for reading, but bright enough to find your way in and out of the room.

Life had become monotonous in the camp. Our hopes of being released skyrocketed in June of 1951, when negotiations with the Chinese began in Kaesong; in fact our Chinese guards told us the war was over. However, more than a year later, it appeared the negotiations would drag on indefinitely. We followed the progress of the negotiations in Communist publications like the “New York Daily Worker.”

Winters were especially hard. Everything froze with the temperatures dipping to thirty and forty degrees below zero. Ice on the river was several feet thick, and there was little heat in the rooms of houses we occupied. The heat came from an evening fire built under the “kang” (cooking pot) in the kitchen, which was always at one end of the house. The heat traveled from the kitchen through a flue under the floor to a chimney at the opposite end; thereby heating the floor as it passed through. Sleeping on mats, on the floor, which was the custom, you were either roasting hot or by early morning—freezing cold.

On and off, for nearly two years, POW’s were exposed to Chinese “brainwashing” or political indoctrination. The first phase of the indoctrination was the study of life in the Soviet Union. There was a daily lecture by a Chinese, who we were instructed to address as “instructor so-and-so.” After the study of the Soviet lifestyle, we studied the American economy—this was nothing more than criticism of the U.S. Government. Every bit of corruption, in the history of the American political system, was exaggerated by the Chinese instructor. After a time, some GI’s began to muster up the courage to argue with the instructors, and to voice opposing opinions the Chinese did not want to hear. These men were labeled “reactionaries” and soon began to disappear from the company—sometimes in the middle of the night.

The Chinese set up a hard labor camp, where those who disagreed with them were sent. Others were court-martialed and given prison sentences. One GI received two years for conducting religious services that the Chinese viewed as sabotage. Another one received a one year sentence for refusing to attend a Chinese sponsored sporting event. However, a few GI’s began to cooperate with the Chinese; these men were given separate rooms instead of sleeping five-or-six to a small room. They ate better, were given Chinese made cigarettes, and given positions of authority within the company.

Near the end of the war these men formed a voluntary study group, even after the Chinese had given up on converting the mast majority. This group continued to meet daily to study communism. Towards the end of the war, it became known throughout the camp that this small group of men would refuse repatriation when the war ended. When the war did end, twenty-three Americans refused repatriation, although twenty-one actually stayed with the Chinese; four were in Second Company. They had been our friends; now they were shunned.

In early June of 1953, several men were transferred to Second Company from the hard labor camp that was located up the river. The Chinese were breaking it up and shutting it down. One day as I was walking down the main street—of the company—I came face-to-face with Willard Ward. Willard was an Item Company soldier who was standing next to me—on the hill—when we were captured twenty-eight months earlier.

As we looked at each other, he said, “You’re dead.” I told him my story of escaping during the confusion when the group was shelled that night some two years earlier. He then explained those who I had known in Item Company believed I had been killed when the artillery shell exploded. He went on to say the column regrouped and moved north to POW Camp #1, taking only a couple of months to reach it. It had taken me five months to reach Camp #3, which was only twenty road miles from Camp #1. We became close friends as the end of the war neared.

The exchange of sick and wounded POW’s, from each side, took place in April of 1953. Now rumors were beginning to run wild that the rest of us would be liberated. Everyone thought the war would be over any day.

The Chinese anticipated there would be retribution against the GI’s who played ball with them for special treatment. That is why—I believe—when the war ended, a small number of prisoners from each camp, including myself, were singled out, accused, and tried for war crimes; we were all given prison sentences. There were five permanent camps—for America Prisoners of War—with as many as seven companies per camp. They were located along a fifty mile stretch of the Yalu River. This group of twenty or more prisoners convicted at trials, were a reminder to other prisoners to not start any trouble; or receive the same punishment as the progressives.

My trial took place the day the announcement was made that the war was over. Later that day my sentence of one-year at hard labor was read over the camps public address system.

Those convicted of various crimes were of course segregated from the prisoners. They were moved, under heavy guard, to a central location in a camp that previously housed ROK soldiers; they had long since been moved south for repatriation. The senior American officer, with our small group, was a Lt. Colonel who commanded a combat engineering battalion prior to his capture—in December of 1950 at Kunu-ri. He told us to do, or say, whatever the Chinese demanded that would help our case for release.

Some weeks later, after appropriate confessions and apologies were made to the Chinese officials that were holding us; we were taken to the rail head at Antung, North Korean, and put aboard a train bound for Kaesong—which was located on the north side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Arriving at Kaesong, the group was put on display at a ceremony that had been arranged by the Chinese for the benefit of their foreign press. Reporters and photographers from all the Soviet Bloc countries were present to document the occasion. The Chinese said we were the worst war criminals from all the Americans they had captured. However, in keeping with their policy of lenient treatment, and after our confessions, they would pardon our crimes and return us to our home country.

When the U.S. and UN military brass at Panmunjom were informed the Chinese would be holding the twenty Americans in our group as war criminals, a senior American official threatened to immediately stop the prisoner exchange. He also said that thousands of Communist prisoners would be held indefinitely until they released, and repatriated, all American prisoners—they released us immediately.

Afterwards we were transported to a tent city where all POW’s waiting release were assembled. We again waited for several days before being put on trucks and driven across the four kilometer wide DMZ, to our release point in Panmunjom.

Following our release, on September 3, 1953 at the exchange point in the Joint Security Area, we POW’s were taken to Freedom Village. Here we each received a shower, light meal, a new uniform, and a medical evaluation. Then we were flown, by helicopter, to Inchon.

The USNS General A.W. Brewster lay at anchor in the Inchon Harbor. That evening we would board her for our trip home, but first, there was the matter of the Army’s inquisition—officially called a counter intelligence debriefing.

Once the Brewster was underway, the Army’s CIC officers lost no time in calling each POW into a small room to debrief them. A forty page counter intelligence questionnaire, designed by G-2 experts to determine whether or not a soldier had succumbed to Communist indoctrination, was completed and all answers recorded. Then there were another thirty-seven pages of questions that covered the enemy’s military capabilities, and infra-structure. The answers given by the POW’s during this questioning, were then classified SECRET – SECURITY INFORMATION.

When the debriefings were over, the Army had a large file on every POW. A typical file was as thick as an unabridged dictionary, and some were two feet thick. My own dossier, declassified and released to me in April of 1994, runs two-hundred and seventy-seven pages.

We knew there would be investigations into the conduct of individual POW’s who were guilty of making propaganda speeches, and other acts of collaboration with the Chinese. However, no American POW’s in the history of our country has ever undergone the level of interrogation as those released at Panmunjom in August and September of 1953.

* * * * * *

Returning home from Korea, in November of 1953 I re-enlisted in the Army; with duty at the Presidio in San Francisco, California. That same month, in a ceremony in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, I married Daisy Battenfield. My best man—Willard Ward.

In January of 1957 I retired from military service at Letterman Army Hospital, for reasons of physical disability—a shoulder that Army doctors couldn’t fix.

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