Quite a number of Koreans were in the truck, so Peters and Wolfe sat back against the tailgate. They bounced around considerableand three small bowls of rice a day doesn’t make for much padding on a man’s sitting-bones. They had ridden for perhaps an hour when the truck pulled in at a cluster of buildings.
"You get off here," one of the Koreans told them.
"Do we stay here just tonight?" Pete asked.
"This is your new home," the Korean answered. "Here you will have things to do, and your hands will not be idle. Idle hands make trouble."
"What kind of a place is this?" Sergeant Wolfe asked.
"This is one of our supply centers. Here you will work for peace. This is your chance to atone for your crimes against the people. But you will learn these things—it is no need to ask." The Korean got back on the truck to depart.
"Wonder if we’re the only prisoners here," Pete said to the Sergeant.
"No. There are others you know," said a voice from the darkness. The speaker was a young Korean, still in his teens. "Come, I show room where you stay; you meet others."
The boy led the prisoners to one of the mud-walled buildings and into a room nine-foot-square—no windows, but two doors on opposite sides. Inside six men were seated, and the light from a twisted cotton wick in a bowl of bean oil revealed a familiar big grin in the corner. Bowmar! And beside the young medic, with his long legs folded under him Korean style, sat Gus. Five other pris- oners, the newcomers learned, were absent on a work detail. This, then, was the "slave camp"; there’d been news of it in the grapevine. Their hands would not be idle. Here, they knew, would be labor—slave labor, with slave hours and rations.
But there were compensations. Lieutenant Ruck was missing. Ruck and his petty gripes had been a demoralizing influence. Pete and the Sergeant were heartened by the solid unity which prevailed among the "slaves." The days and nights of hard labor, with only meager portions of rice and very little rest, melted the flesh from their bones, but as physical strength ebbed, spirit and determination seemed to grow.
Emmett, the Navy lieutenant, was an inspiration in himself. He was the smallest of the lot, weighing perhaps no more than one hundred and thirty-five pounds normally; under these conditions he must have weighed less than ninety. Yet he took his turn with the others, and at the sight of the frail-looking fellow toting more than his own weight of rice on his thin back, the others would have been shamed at even the thought of giving up hope.
Sometimes they had a chance to steal a bit of food. Once it was apples. Chun, the Korean in charge of the food supplies, noticed some bad ones in the two bags he had on hand, so he set Emmett and another prisoner to work sorting them. As they worked, Chun sat nearby on a bag of rice to see that the prisoners didn’t eat any of the fruit.
The storeroom was the usual mud-walled building. Light showed in several places under the base log of the wall where the two prisoners sat sorting. Outside the building several others were at work digging a drainage ditch. Emmett checked the holes under the wall. They weren’t big enough for an apple to go through. So he started to sing, as though entertaining himself, to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic""If this damn hole was bigger, I could roll an apple out! Oh, if this damn hole was bigger I could roll"
"Na-pa! Na-pa!" Chun said sharply. Apparently Emmett’s singing had disturbed the poor fellow’s thoughts, whatever they could be.
"Oh, you don’t like my singing, Chun? I thought I was pretty good myself. But if you say so" The Korean didn’t understand English, and Emmett’s tone was light. Chun noted the prisoner’s joking manner and then ignored him.
Emmett saw a shadow by one of the holes, as Bowmar, on the outside, moved over to the wall, and set his shovel down. "I hope we’re digging in the right place at the right time," the Navy lieutenant heard him say loudly, "I’d hate to have to do this more than once."
Chun had resumed his stonefaced meditation. The Korean wasn’t paying much attention to the prisoners. "Okay," Emmett said as though talking to himself. "Be-damned if I’ll sing for people who don’t appreciate it."
The guard outside called in Korean for Bowmar to get back to work; but making signs that he needed rest, the medic pushed the shovel down and twisted it to loosen the dirt by the hole. "Chokum- ida," Bowmar said, and sat down with his back against the wall. The guard grumbled, but looked away.
Bowmar moved the shovel aside and with hand behind him worked his fingers to loosen the dirt from the hole. He was still fumbling when the first apple rolled into his hand. Two more followed shortly. The guard looked his way again, and Bowmar moved to get up. "Pete," he called, "you’re working too damn hard. Let me in there to dig, and you take a rest."
"Okay," Pete agreed; and he took the place as apple-catcher. A short while later, Pete went back to work and Gus "rested." They had acquired a dozen apples, when the Korean who had set them to work on the ditch came back and called for them to unload a truck. Gus was in the apple-catching spot when they were called away.
"When you gotta go, you gotta go," he said as he got up.
The diggers left their shovels and moved down the slope some thirty yards to the truck. The guard followed, took a position half-way down, and stood idly scuffing the ground with one foot. An apple rolled down the hill from the supply building. The guard stopped scuffing and watched dumbfounded, as the fruit went past him and came to rest against the truck’s front wheel. A second apple came rolling. Catching it, the guard glanced up the slope to see if more were coming and then went to retrieve the first one. Quite puzzled, he walked toward the supply building and called to Chun. Chun shouted in reply, and the guard went to the door of the storeroom.
Emmett, not hearing Gus’s announcement, had continued to drop apples through the hole. The sight of Chun and the guard with the fruit in his hand came as something of a shock to the prisoner. Chun took the apples from the guard and showed them to Emmett with a questioning look, as though to ask, "What hap- pened?" Emmett thought rapidly. He displayed his hands palm up and shrugged his shoulders, bland innocence on his face. As Chun moved toward the pile of apples to investigate, the Navy lieutenant pretended to look about; then, with an exclamation as though he had just made the discovery, he pointed at the hole. With many motions he laughingly showed the Korean how the apples must have rolled from the pile as they were sorted. Chun, too, seemed to find the coincidence amusing, and in turn called the guard and explained it to him. The guard laughed a little, nodding his head in agreement. Chun looked about, found a small piece of matting and handed it to Emmett to cover the hole, and went back to his position on the bag of rice. The prisoners resumed their sorting. With the job finished, in obvious good spirits, he rewarded his workers with four of the spoiled apples.
There was still a little good left on them.
Much of the misery and hardship at the slave camp was really brought about by the ignorance rather than the malice of the "straw bosses." Of course, the interrogators responsible for sending the prisoners to the camp may have counted on ignorance adding to the punishment of the Americans. No one individual was responsible for assigning the work details. Actually, there were as many masters as there were slaves, and the Koreans vied with each other for the prisoners’ services. Communist truck drivers, supply sergeants, guards, and a variety of nondescript flunkies all ordered the prisoners about.
In consequence, the prisoners got little sleep or rest. If one boss promised rest for the slaves when they finished a job, after it was done he would deny responsibility if someone else took them for more work. Perhaps there were orders from higher authority to keep the slaves always busy at something. It was not uncommon for them to dig a ditch one day and fill it up a couple of days later.
The slaves adopted a go-slow policy, but it had its limits. A job given them in the morning often had to be finished before they would receive their breakfast rice. Pre-meal work was a favorite way of trying to force more effort from them. If the job was unreasonably long, the only course was to work as much as seemed necessary and then stage a strike at chow time. The masters said, "No work, no eat!" The slaves could only reply, "No eat, no work!" Obviously, the advantage lay with the masters. But sometimes the slaves could snatch victory, of a sort, from defeat. Glum as they felt on being denied their meager ration of rice, there was still laughter, however sardonic, when Emmett said: "At times like this I’m glad we never get much to eatwe lose so little when they take it away."
For a time the Koreans used solitary confinement for individual punishment. They may well have thought all Americans had claustrophobia, so vociferously the prisoners complained on being assigned to solitary. A "recalcitrant" could expect to be locked up for an hour or two in a small room. For one fine week, there was someone in solitary confinement through nearly all the daylight hoursusually for "refusing to work."
Bowmar spoiled it. Chun put him in solitary one day, despite the young medic’s loud objections. As the Korean was nailing the door shut, Bowmar pounded on it so hard that Chun opened it again. He indicated that the prisoner only had to remain there for an hour, but if he complained he must stay longer. When one was enduring solitary confinement, he counted on the noise of removing the nail to wake him in time to greet his jailer with loud complaints at having been left so long. The second time he closed the door, Chun forgot to nail it.
A short time later, the Korean either relented or felt the need of Bowmar’s labors. When he saw the nail was not in place, Chun became excited, hurried to the door, and jerked it open. He found Bowmar stretched out on the empty rice bags, sound asleep. From that time, at the slave camp solitary confinement was no longer used as punishment.
The slaves came to understand the traits of the various bosses and developed ways to deal with each one. There wasn’t much the prisoners could do about who the captors chose to put in charge of them, but once they objected to a "supervisor" and succeeded in winning their point.
Bowmar, Pete, and a couple of others were assigned to plant corn in a field near the supply buildings. One of the junior interrogators led the prisoners to the field and gave them instructions. Each prisoner carried a shovel.
"You will plant ‘kong’ here," the Korean said, holding out in his hand a few kernels of corn.
"You mean that?" Pete pointed to the corn.
"Yes," the Korean answered. "What do you call?"
"Ah yes, corn."
"Is that all we are to plant?" Pete asked.
"Oh, no," the interrogator replied. "The South Korean, Kim, is bringing more."
Kim, the South Korean who had been with them at the interro- gation center, had arrived at the slave camp a few days previously. Till now he had not been put on work details with the Americans. Although he could do fairly well at speaking English, the South Korean hadn’t seemed as eager to talk with the prisoners at the slave camp as he had at the interrogation center. That morning, as he came from the storeroom with a pan of corn in his hands, Kim wore a new cap with a bright-red star on it.
"The turncoat sun-uva-bitch!" someone exclaimed.
The interrogator did not seem to notice. "Kim will supervise," he said, "because he knows how to plant kongcornin Korea. He will show you where to dig and how many."
Pete swore and threw down his shovel. "I’m not workin’ with any goddam traitor!"
"What is wrong?" the interrogator asked. His comprehension of English was not good enough to grasp things spoken quickly.
"I said I won’t work with him." Pete indicated Kim. "If you want us to plant your damn corn, get him to hell outta here." To Kim he said, "You no-good, cowardly, bas"
"Hold it, Pete," Bowmar cautioned quietly. "We’ve had the sneakin’ rat pegged all along, and he knows what we think of him. No use givin’ ‘em an excuse for anything."
Curiously, the interrogator did not seem angered at Pete’s out-burst. "Come," he said to Pete almost solicitously, "I give you other work."
Pete looked at the others as the interrogator took his arm, gently enough, to lead him away. Seeing the other Americans moving to follow, Pete went without resistance. They had gone several yards before the Korean noticed. He stopped.
"Oh, no," he said. "Only he come with me. The rest will plant corn."
"No," Bowmar said quietly. "We won’t work with Kim either."
Under other circumstances, Pete’s outspoken belligerence and threats toward Kim might have brought punishment. Apparently, the inflation of Kim’s ego by making him supervisor of the Ameri- can prisoners was to have been the clincher in his switch to the communist side. It was not, however, because of such a possibility that the Americans rebelled. It was personal conviction that compelled them to take an unyielding stand on the issue. When you boiled it all down, the presence or absence of conviction on such matters determined whether or not the enemy could break a man.
Had the interrogator been acting on his own initiative, he would have noted Pete’s belligerence and probably ordered punishment. But, no doubt, his orders were specific"Put Kim in charge of American prisoners"and all he saw in Pete’s actions was interference in carrying out those orders. The instructions from the superior had not included what he should do if the Americans rebelled. Now he had the unpleasant situation of having to report that he had failed in his assigned mission. Because he was apprehensive of his superior’s reaction, his mind was not free to act on its own. If he went beyond instructions, it might be worse. If he made a mistake!
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.