The most disliked of all the supervisors was "Little Commie." He was a guard, so named because he delighted in assuming an heroic pose on a rock or other elevated position to lecture the prisoners on the wonders of communism and the evils of capitalism. The fellow’s English was quite limited, but intelligible enough to be disturbing. The prisoners, however, learned to work his lectures to advantage. By inviting the orations and appearing to listen, they frequently gained periods of rest, which lasted until the pompous little fellow either ran out of words or suddenly remembered that he was supposed to get work from his wards.
What was most obnoxious about him was his "Bali-bali!" "Bali" meant hurry; "Bali-bali" was only more emphatic. The double term was something of a byword at the slave camp. The prisoners were awakened by it—often accompanied by a toe gouged in the ribs or hindsides. They heard it repeated again and again throughout the day, or at any hour of the night when they were called out to work. The term was at its worst when Little Commie used it. Often he seemed to use it more from habit than necessityas on one morning when the prisoners were loading a truck with logs.
Work was progressing much faster than usual, but Little Corn- mie wasn’t satisfied. The prisoners were working in pairs, and as they passed him, whether carrying a log or returning for another, Little Commie called out his sneering "Bali-bali!"
Emmett and the Sergeant got fed up. Approaching the puffy little guard, they saw him open his mouth, but before the Korean could speak out, the prisoners began to sing, to the tune of an old college song, "Bali-bali! Bali-bali!"
At first Little Commie thought it funny. He laughed a bit and smiled at the prisoners—unusual behavior for him. But there was other laughter which caused the guard to cut his mirth short. A small cluster of laborers and soldiers from a nearby Chinese com- munist unit, who frequently watched the slaves at work, also seemed to find all this very amusing.
Their laughter made Little Commie indignant. "Nappa!" he yelled in Korean. "Not good!" Then, in his poor English, he shouted, "No sing! Do not sing! Not permitted!"
Emmett and the Sergeant put their log down and sat on it. "Why not sing?" Emmett asked mildly. "Better work when we sing."
Little Commie struggled to think of reasons and to phrase them in English. Other prisoners arriving with logs put them down and sat also, following Emmett’s example. Emmett firmly insisted it was easier to work while singing, hoping the Korean wouldn’t agree.
"You make joke song," Little Commie complained. "Make joke song’Bali-bali."
"Okay," Emmett offered. "You no speak ‘Bali-bali’; we no sing ‘Bali-bali."
Little Commie wouldn’t agree. He started lecturing on the "decadence of the capitalist society" and the prisoners as "tools of the warmongers." Suddenly remembering about the work which was supposed to be in progress, he cut the spiel short: "Now everybody work." The prisoners continued to stall until the threats of "no breakfast" began to sound sincere, then picked up their logs and started moving, much more slowly than before.
A couple of minutes went by without a word from the guard, but Little Commie couldn’t restrain himself for long. "Bali!" he or- dered, as Emmett and the Sergeant came by again. As though on signal, Emmett began to sing, and the other prisoners joined. As the slaves chanted, one of them got a better idea, and the tune slowed to the dragging tempo of "The Volga Boatmen."
"No! No!" Little Commie shouted. He was so excited he couldn’t think of other English words and started jabbering in Korean.
"Why not?" someone asked. "Russian song. You no like Russian song?"
"Not Russia song!" Little Commie screamed. "You not sing!"
"You ‘Bali-bali,’ we sing," Emmett said. "You no ‘Bali-bali,’ we no sing. Okay?"
"No more talk!" Little Commie ordered, regaining some com- posure. "Now everybody work."
The slaves resumed their labors. For once the master remained silent until they finished.
The presence of the Chinese and their laughter had been very disturbing to Little Commie. In fact, their presence was somewhat disturbing to most of the Koreans at the slave camp. Often the Chinese wandered about the area or stood watching the prisoners. At first, the Americans resented it, too.
At noontime one day, one of the prisoners became particularly annoyed by several Chinese who watched, stonefaced, as the Americans ate their meager portions of rice. The Chinese occasionally pointed at the Americans and talked with each other. The disturbed prisoner said bitterly, more to himself than anyone in particular, "Yeah, you slant-eyed bastards; I guess you get a big charge out of watching us starve."
"Don’t let it bother you," someone advised. "Just ignore ‘em." At that moment one of the Chinese called two more over to the group and told them something, pointing at the prisoners as he spoke. The two newcomers pushed themselves past the others to look.
"How the hell can you ignore ‘em when they crowd around staring at us like we’re animals in a cage? By god, I’m gonna find Chun and tell him to chase ‘em outta here." The prisoner started to get up.
"Hold it a minute," Emmett said, placing a restraining hand on the other’s arm. "Let me try something." The other American re- laxed, with a glance at the Navy lieutenant to see what he planned to do. He knew Emmett had learned several Chinese phrases.
"Weih!" Emmett called to the Chinese. Having their attention he pointed to his own bowl of rice. "Chig-ga," he said. "Hao? Boo hao?" He was asking them if they thought his ration of rice was good or bad.
One of the Chinese came forward. He reached to touch the outside of Emmett’s bowL "Chig-ga?" he asked"Is it this you mean?" Emmett nodded.
"Ah-h," the Chinese said, shaking his head. "Boo hao. Chosen [Korean]boo hao," he made a small bowl sign with his hands; "Chung-wah [Chinese]ding hao." He made a large bowl sign. He had said in effect that the ration of rice the Koreans gave the prisoners was not good—too small. The Chinese ration was much bigger.
"Well, I’ll be damned!" the prisoner who had complained ex- claimed softly.
"If we play it right," Emmett said, "we may be able to work this to advantage. Be careful, though, let’s not overdo it."
In the following days the Americans talked with the Chinese at every opportunity and learned much about them. Mostly the Chinese were laborers, nondescript individuals, a part of the great mass of people who had lost their identity under communist rule, unable to do otherwise than serve the power that ladles out the rice. It was said they were volunteers, and perhaps they were— helpless beings who, rather than starve to death, had agreed to go wherever they were sent and do whatever they were told.
Their sympathy for the prisoners was genuine. Ironically, that was due to the communist propaganda. Of course, everything the Chinese told the Americans was by no means accurate. They told the prisoners repeatedly that in the Chinese POW camps on the Yalu there was plenty of good food—American-style food. There, so they said, the prisoners played games, sang, danced, and had contests with prizes. From the little yellow men’s point of view, such prisoner-of-war camps were Utopia. For, uncomprehending as they were of the vagaries of communist promises, if they were fed today and assured of being fed tomorrow, these poor creatures wouldn’t mind sitting through long sessions of communist propa- ganda—for they would be unable to understand that either.
Because they themselves believed what they were told, they were not, in any true sense, lying to the Americans. And even allowing for the fact that what they heard was propaganda, the prisoners themselves felt the camps on the Yalu would be a healthier place than the slave camp. But there was no way for them to know at the time if they’d ever go to the Yalu, so there was no use dreaming or even hoping for a change. Time was much better spent in making the best of the situation at hand.
So the Americans courted the sympathy of the Chinese, and it paid off. Sympathy itself perhaps didn’t do any real good, but the occasional bits of food did. Sometimes it was "ping," something like a baked pancake, or the steamed balls of dough called "manto." Once there was "bow-dsuh," the same flour-and-water dough wrapped around chopped meat and greens. "Bow-dsuh" was really choice.
The Chinese were quite shrewd in these interchanges. First, they offered through the Koreans to give some of their own food for the prisoners. Apparently they thought the slaves were poorly fed because Korean supplies were short—a notion which also may have been due to propaganda. Then, when the Koreans refused their offer, the Chinese found ways of their own to pass the left. overs from their own kitchen to the prisoners. They would slyly attract the attention of one of the Americans and leave a carefully wrapped package where it could be picked up. At other times they would boldly hand something to one of the Americans at chance meetings on a path, or when they stopped to talk with the prisoners during the brief rest periods. A couple of the guards made the problem easier; unaverse to variety in their own diet, they were willing to permit the gifts if the prisoners shared the spoils.
The sincerity of the Chinese eventually brought the arrangement pretty much to a halt. They made so evident to the Koreans what they thought of the treatment of the prisoners that a localized rift was caused between the communist allies. It would have been nice to think that the effect extended beyond the immediate area, to undermine the larger conspiracy, but such was not at all likely. Actually, the prisoners would have preferred for things not to go so far as they did. The Chinese were banned from the supply area, the opportunity for contact was reduced, and the hand-outs became less frequent.
In addition to gaining benefit from the food, the prisoners found it a boon to the spirit and morale to know that there remained a spark of humanity and sincerity among the ranks of the enemy.
And it was not only in those few Chinese that lingering signs of decency could be seen. Waiting in a truck in Pyongyang, as they often did, while the driver made arrangements for picking up a load of supplies, the prisoners were frequently surrounded by crowds of curious Koreans, drifting out of the passing throng. The Americans sensed mixed emotions among these people, as they stood staring at the prisoners and talking with each other, seemingly oblivious to the constant blare of the propaganda loud-speakers, as though the noise was another of the elements, like the wind or the snow or the bitter coldone more thing to be endured.
Once in a while some came forward from the crowd to speak to the Americansever so often starting with the question, "Are you a Christian?" There were offers of cigarettes and occasionally food, accepted by the prisoners, perhaps without full understanding of the sacrffice of the giver. A bearded old fellow, wearing the hat which identified him as a retired farmer, one day caught the prisoners’ eye. The old gentleman tugged at the few stringy whiskers, so carefully nurtured on his face, and pointed to the Americans’ bushy beards. When the prisoners tugged their own beards and smiled, the old man flashed a two-tooth grin and, pointing again, said, "Jo-so"—"good." One of the Americans returned the compliment.
The old man held a brief conversation with the guard. From glances in their direction, the prisoners knew that the talk was about them. The guard nodded his head, the old man walked away, and for the moment was forgotten. But shortly he reappeared and, with another word to the guard, came to the side of the truck. Repeating his nearly toothless smile, he held up two apples.
As one prisoner accepted them, all four said, "Komopsumnida" expressing their gratitude. He seemed greatly pleased that they spoke to him in his own language. They complimented his beard again. Embarrassed by the flattery, but all the more pleased, he made signs, along with words, insisting that their beards were much better. Then, with much bowing and smiling, he backed away. Even before he was gone, the prisoners had split the apples in two. The relish with which they ate was enough to emphasize their appreciation. It was no act. Half an apple was a mighty fine gift.
The Americans watched as the old gentleman moved away. They saw him speak cheerily to others in the crowd. Just before he rounded a corner out of sight, he looked back, smiled again, and waved his hand. Only a trace of sadness returned to his face as he turned away and disappeared.
The slaves were able to draw out some decency even from many of their taskmasters. At times an almost friendly contest seemed to be going on between the two sides. Some of the guards and drivers were apparently able to put themselves in the prisoners’ place, and the Americans were aware that much of the abuse they received was due to orders from superiors rather than to the personal antipathy of the Koreans who dealt with them from day to day. The masters took it pretty much for granted that the slaves would avoid work whenever they could, and the prisoners found humor when their trickery failed as well as when it succeeded. The miseries of today were made more endurable by laughing at the misfortunes of yesterday. Some of the Koreans saw the humor, too, or were affected by the light spirit of the Americans.
Not infrequently the masters evidenced pride in the versatility of their slaves, or turned the prisoners’ talents to their own personal advantage. There was the time a warehouseman made the mistake of letting the prisoners count the bags as they loaded rice on a truck, so he would be free to chat with the driver. When they had left the warehouse, the prisoners informed the driver they had loaded an extra bag. The driver disposed of the extra rice on the black market and treated his assistants to lunch in a Pyongyang restaurant.
Except at the very first, the drivers and guards showed no great concern at pilferage by the slaves. Chun, of course, was sorely displeased if anything was stolen from his food stores, but he was greatly amused when they stole from Pyun, in charge of clothing. With their own ration of cigarettes so small that it lasted only a few days of the month-long ration period, the Koreans found it convenient to be able to bum smokes from the prisoners, who received no ration at all. There was benefit to the Americans in this situation, too; the master who seeks favors from his slaves is less severe.
No slouches at thievery themselves, the Koreans had a certain respect for the prisoners’ accomplishments. On the frequent shakedowns to recover missing goods, it was a simple matter for the searchers to return only a small portion to the stores and keep the rest for their own use. The prisoners in turn, by taking more than they needed whenever they could, allowed themselves a margin of loss in the shakedowns. By hiding some of the loot where it could be easily found, they hoped that the Koreans might be satisfied by their early discoveries and not bother to look further.
On the other hand, during the shakedowns one of the Koreans might see something of the prisoners’ few actual belongings and decide to take it for himself. That the object was not stolen and had been passed over by searchers in previous shakedowns made no difference.
Pyun, wearing an armband denoting that he was the duty officer, one day searched the prisoners’ quarters as they were eating their noontime rice outside in the sun. When he came out, he had three things in his handsa bit of candle, a spool of thread, and a cake of soap. The soap, unlike the cake which Bowmar had put to such good use at the interrogation center, had not been stolen; and the prisoner to whom it belonged rushed over to confront the Korean.
"That’s my soap!" the American said angrily, his face flushed. "You don’t take my soap!" Knowing the Korean didn’t understand English, he pointed and gesticulated as he talked.
Pyun said something in Korean. With his hands full, he couldn’t make signs. He tried to step around the prisoner. The prisoner blocked his way. "You know I didn’t steal that soap from you. It’s mine! I had it when I came here!" The prisoner was speaking the truth, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if the Korean had understood his words.
Pyun shouted angrily as he tried to move past. Of all the words he uttered the prisoner understood only one"ka-saki." Literally that meant "dog, son of." With the Koreans the expression was often used as it is frequently used by Americans—as expletive rather than personal invective. There was no way for the American to know which was the case here.
"Now don’t you go ‘ka-saki-ing’ me," the prisoner shouted, shak- ing a finger in the Korean’s face. Since Pyun could understand only the "ka-saki" in that, neither did he know in which manner the term was being used. The argument, though amusing, could easily become dangerous.
Pyun called for Little Commie, and the two Koreans conversed briefly with each other.
"You do not interfere with duty officer," Little Commie said to the prisoner. He emphasized by moving his weapon, though he did not actually threaten with it.
"He has my soap," the prisoner protested, pointing. "It’s mine. I didn’t steal it. Tell him that."
Little Commie translated, or at least pretended to. Consensus was that with his limited knowledge of English, even if the pomp- ous little guard tried to convey what a prisoner said, a great deal was lost in the translation. The argument continued through Little Commie for several minutes with no apparent progress. Pyun didn’t care to discuss whether the soap was stolen or not, he merely insisted that the prisoner was not to interfere with him. The disturbance attracted other Koreans, and the audience grew.
"Get the supply officer," the prisoner demanded to Little Commie. "I want to speak with your officer about this!"
"He is duty officer." Little Commie indicated Pyun.
"He’s a supply sergeant, not an officer! I want to speak to supply officer!"
"After lunch," Little Commie said.
"No! Now! So he can see!" the prisoner insisted.
There was some discussion among the Koreans about that. At a word from Pyun, one of the bystanders went to get the officer in charge of the unit. When he arrived, the affair became a little more dignified, although with Little Commie still serving as interpreter, the accuracy of the translation remained highly questionable. After several minutes of talk, the officer made a somewhat lengthy statement.
When he had finished, Little Commie studied for some time, arranging his English translation. Then the little guard turned and assumed a haughty pose that indicated he was about to say something he felt was of extreme importance. The words he spoke, as the Sergeant remembered them, would serve as an excellent description of one facet of communism.
"My officer say tell you this" Little Commie announced. "We understand you not steal soap from us because we not have this kind soap in our supply. We not say you steal soap. We not take from you because we think you steal. For other reason we take. In communism, not like greedy capitalism, all people share and be equal. No one other prisoner have soap. Sowe take from you, then everybody same-same!"
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.