High Road to Low Places

      The first part of the ride to Pyongyang was almost euphoric. We crested the mountain range at nightfall. Though it was a moonless night, the sky was clear, the stars brilliant, and the snow cover served to illumine the woods alongside the road. The air was crisp, but not particularly chilling because the below freezing temperature had dried it out.

      Even the roadway lent to the pleasant feeling. The snowpack on it was probably smoother than the surface beneath. There was very little of the jouncing usually felt in the back of jeep. The driver handled it well. He drove without headlights. On this night that was no handicap. Though moving quite fast down the curving mountain road there was no feeling of danger.

      The feeling was akin to a sleighride on a quiet winter night. It did not cause delusion that all was well. But it seemed to reassure that eventually it would be. It did not diminish relaxation that there would be great hardships ahead. But it seemed as respite to better enable the enduring of them.

      Naylor-Foote tried several times to start conversation. I looked at him the first couple of times, but after that ignored him completely. That was not done because of anger at him. Talking with him would be a waste of time. There were serious things needing to be thought about, pending problems to be considered. And it was evident the fellow was incapable of sensible contribution to dealing with them. On the other hand, he was quite capable of further damage. When he tried to strike up conversation with me he either did not notice that the Korean officer in the front passenger seat had an ear turned to listen in, or else did not think that mattered.

      It was possible while enjoying the immediate situation, to think realistically about the difficulties which surely lay ahead. It cannot be said that what was subsequently encountered was accurately envisioned at the time. It would take a while to learn that I'd now entered into a different kind of combat — the third war of Korea. Projections at the time were based upon what little was then known of happenings in the past to men who had fallen captive of the communist enemy.

      Some of those tales, of course, were quite horrendous; and also quite true. Grim proof had been seen that groups of captured American and South Korean troops had been slaughtered by their captors instead of being moved to the rear. And there was no reason to doubt the stories which had filtered out of "death marches" for some of those who were moved northward from the battle areas during the earlier part of the conflict, when the communists thought they were winning. Emotion-charged troops — the heat of battle can generate behavior in soldiers of any army which would be viewed as "atrocious" by distant observers; and sometimes by the soldiers themselves in retrospect. In the early weeks of the conflict, North Korean troops were further urged to such by the "hate Americans - kill Americans" theme of their communist leaders.

      Entrance of Chinese communist forces into the conflict had apparently brought considerable change. In the summer of 1951 "Life" magazine published an article titled "How We Fooled the Communists." It pictured a group of Americans who had been captured by Chinese forces and released a couple of months later. The essence of the story was that after listening to a series of lectures about the evils of "capitalism" and the goodness of communism, and neither arguing nor disagreeing with their captors, the men had been released with instructions to return to America and tell what they had learned.

      That incident had brought about an official change of policy regarding what a man should do when interrogated, if he became a prisoner of war. A directive in that regard had arrived at the squadron shortly before my departure in September. The long-standing rule still remained that one should give the enemy no military information other than name, rank, serial number and date of birth for purposes of identification. "But if they start talking about politics," the new instructions were, "pretend to go along and they might release you."

      I had wondered at the time as to how likely it would be that more men would be released in that manner now that a dramatic article about it had been published. Did whoever came up with the idea for the change in policy think the Chinese communists couldn't read english? [Or perhaps it had been determined that Mao Tse Tung was not on Life magazine's list of subscribers.] But since it was an official order, perhaps I would learn if the enemy still would continue their part of the policy. However, that had been done by Chinese communists. My captors were North Koreans.

      The on-going "peace talks" were more encouraging that they would be less likely now to treat prisoners as harshly as they had in early months of the conflict. The matter of prisoner exchange after an armistice had become a primary issue in the negotiations. One could not expect, even so, that what was now in immediate offing would be a pleasant experience. And the lack of any real progress to this point indicated those so-called peace talks might drag on for many months — even years. {Wasn't there something in Chinese history called a "hundred years war?"} And one didn't have to be a genius to realize that having failed to take over South Korea as they originally intended, the Soviet communists would like to keep us bogged down in this Korean situation for as long as they could — especially since they had the Chinese communists doing the fighting for them.

      Hence, since there was no longer the possibility that Chun and his general might arrange to help me out, and prospects didn't look good for quick agreement at the "peace talks," it was definitely time to begin thinking about a do-it-myself exit. Time to start thinking about it, but planning could begin only after I got to wherever I was now going. A loud clatter interrupted such meditations. We rounded a curve and met a Soviet tank grinding up the grade toward Wonsan. Two more were met in short order. Then quietude resumed with only the soft sounds of the jeep's tires on the snow and its almost idling engine to disturb it. But not for long enough to get deeply involved again thinking of the future. A rifle shot sounded close by and the driver quickly swung the jeep to a stop close against the mountainside.

      There was momentary thought that Chun and his general might have arranged a "rescue" of us from our "captors," quite as they had definitely tried to arrange for Ettinger to be taken out by helicopter and subsequently considered my proposal to take him out in a raft. A very fleeting thought, however; as several more distant shots down the way ahead of us indicated it was some kind of signal. Moments later an Able Dog passed overhead and fired a burst from its 20mm as it did so. Next came sound of a bomb burst a short way down the road. Then Task Force 77's "night heckler" droned away toward his next target.

      In less than five minutes we reached the area where the cannon fire and bomb had struck. It was a plateau area, apparently used as a rest stop on the mountainside roadway. Several trucks could be dimly seen. Four small fires may or may not have been result of the Able Dog's strike. Other than that, how much if any damage had been done could not be seen. The thought did occur that if the night heckler had a arrived a few minutes earlier the Soviet tanks might have been in the target area. A few minutes later and we would have been there.

      The remainder of the ride to Pyongyang was anything but pleasant. Below frost level, the roadway minus the smooth snowpack was very rough. Both Naylor-Foote and I were seated over the rear wheels, the rear seat itself being laden with some manner of cargo. In addition to having no cushions, this put us directly over the bumps. It was necessary to hold onto the vehicle's frame to keep from sliding off. Flimsily clothed as we were, the sliding resulted in chafing of the posterior. Although the air was a few degrees warmer than before, without drying effect of the frost it was moisture laden. Instead of exhilaration , then, it provided penetrating chill. This was added to by moisture held from evaporation inside the frogman suit. By the time we reached Pyonyang the chilling effect was quite severe. In my own case it had brought on a bad case of sniffles.

      We reached the outskirts of Pyongyang at sunup. We stopped at a house, were given some rice gruel and rested on the floor for about an hour. The stop was probably as much for benefit of the two Korean officers as for Naylor-Foote and myself . It may also have been to await proper time for delivery to our ultimate destination; which was the huge hill (or perhaps it could be called "small mountain") in the city which contained the command center. At a bench some 25 or 30 yards from the south entrance of those underground headquarters I was told to wait — with no indication for what or for how long. After speaking briefly with a fellow at the desk in the in the entrance the two young officers took Naylor-Foote on into the tunnel.

      Fortunate it was that the entrance was on the south side of the hill, and the bench was beside a wall of solid rock. The morning sun warmed that spot considerably. It was no cure for the sniffles acquired along the way, but it helped. A steady stream of people moved into the entrance during the first half hour or so. A few came out. Those in uniform were mostly Korean or Soviet — only a few Chinese. Very few of them took much notice of me. And those who did seemed only to glance; except for one young Korean in civilian attire who paused close in front of me. Himself well bundled against the chill, he seemed interested in the way I was clothed. When I looked up at him for just a moment he shrugged and hurried on.

      There was very little traffic after the morning rush. Though warm enough in the sun, there was no way to get comfortable enough for dozing. Nor was there really need to do so. Despite having had no sleep for more than 24 hours, I felt amazingly rested. Perhaps that unique feeling during the first part of the ride from Wonsan had provided rest and refreshment without need actually to sleep. Neither did I attempt to think a great deal about what to expect next, or what to do about it. It seemed better for now to just wait until something more happened and then figure what to do. The only immediate thing to worry about was the sniffles acquired during the ride. And all that could be done about that for the moment was to absorb as much as I could of the sunshine.

      At about mid-morning, a Korean girl-soldier came from somewhere inside the underground, spoke briefly to the man at the desk and brought to me a bowl of tepid water. A mere nod of gratitude as I handed back the bowl brought a slight bow and quite friendly little smile. She returned at noon with a bowl of reasonably warm soup. She had with her a magazine which she opened after handing me the soup — to show me a picture of a park scene in Moscow which included in its foreground a mother and child. She pointed to the blond hair of the child, then to my hair, obviously impressed with the resemblance. Quite certain that she could not understand the words, there was no resisting the impulse to say: I'm sure it's not mine. I've never been in Moscow,"

      A beaming broad smile this time, and a bigger bow. Then she scurried happily back into the tunnel, perhaps to tell some co-workers of the encounter. Did she think I was Russian? Probably so. The fact that I was there unattended, and dressed in a manner which she might recognize as pilot's garb.... It was interesting enough to think about while drinking the soup ... might even be of some significance. If I looked somewhat like a Russian, what a shame that I couldn't speak the language.

      As the afternoon dragged, there was time to ponder what might be expected in the way of interrogation, and how best to handle it. First were thoughts of what might be going on with Naylor-Foote. That first night with Chun and the general he had shown eagerness to talk at great length about himself. Be what he said fact or fiction, he clearly wanted to impress everyone, including the enemy, that he was a very "intelligent" and "important" personage. That was his own problem, and perhaps one for his interrogators as they tried to separate fact from fiction in whatever he might say. Important to my concerns was what he might tell them about me. Certain it seemed that during this long session with them his interrogators would inquire some.

      Fortunately the fellow knew nothing about me, personally. So there was nothing he might say in that regard which might be useful as opening wedge in questioning me. With regard to the mission, and why we crashed — would he make up some big story about it? He was obviously inclined to make up big stories about just about anything. Otherwise, because of his intense desire to make himself look all-important and all-knowing, odds were he would tell them I was merely the helicopter pilot assigned to fly him on the mission and would therefore know nothing about the planning of it. He would also be likely to point out to them that because I was an enlisted man I could not be expected to know much about such things.

      Which struck me as a very useful position for myself to take when interrogated; not only with regard to the mission but as an evasive tactic in any questioning. Being an enlisted man — just an ordinary sailor — I didn't know much of anything — couldn't be expected to know much of anything — about anything of importance. That was in fact what Naylor-Foote was likely to say to the enemy about me. With his illusion of himself as some manner of super-intellect, that was the way he evidently regarded all enlisted men and for that matter most everyone else. With all the damage he already done, and the danger he might still do more, that was one characteristic which might now be helpful to me.

      Late in the afternoon Naylor-Foote emerged from the tunnel, escorted by two young Korean officers. The bench on which I had sat now being in the shade, I was standing a way out from it to remain in the sun. The three stopped beside me and one of Koreans told Naylor-Foote to wait there with me. The two started at once to move on but paused as Naylor-Foote took upon himself to introduce me to them. "This is Chief Thorin," he said. "He's a helicopter pilot. We don't have many of them, you know."

      The Koreans gave him a "so what?" glance and walked briskly on.

      "And just what in the hell was the idea of saying that?" I asked.

      "Well," he replied in all seriousness, "I thought if I told them that they might release you."

      Never waste breath arguing with fools or children, was a maxim I'd oft heard my mother express when I was a child. Certainly it would have been waste of breath to say anything in response to such illogic as that. He began then to tell me how I should respond whenever the enemy might interrogate me. It was the first time since we were walking toward the village from the crash site that we were sufficiently apart from Korean observers that I could speak to him in appropriate manner. I cut him short by saying:

      "You stupid ass! You are no more qualified to tell me what to do in this circumstance than you were to come along on the mission. If they ask me any questions about you I'll simply tell them the truth — that I never met you until you showed up to come along on the mission. If I had known you before that — even a small part of what I now know — neither of us would be here now because I wouldn't have brought you along on the mission!"

      He glared at me. I turned away hoping he would at least have sense enough to say nothing more to me. Fortunately for him — and perhaps for myself — he remained silent. The two officers returned in a jeep. A soldier riding with them got out to escort Naylor-Foote somewhere. The driver motioned for me to get in the jeep and started out at once to take me elsewhere.

      For about an hour, we traveled northeastward from Pyongyang. Outside the city a short way the countryside was covered with snow. We stopped near a guardpost at the edge of a heavily wooded area. It was manned by just one Chinese soldier. Both Koreans got out of the jeep. One of them carrying a satchel set out at once on a path into the woods. Dimly seen beyond him were some woodframed buildings, which appeared to be small houses or cottages. The other Korean spoke to the Chinese soldier then entered the guard shack and used a telephone. He returned to the jeep, told me to wait until someone would arrive to get me, then himself went on the path into the woods. As I watched his progress, several other figures were visible amongst the buildings. Square-shouldered coats and fur caps — it was apparently the encampment for Soviet "advisors." Great was the wish to be able to report its location to Task Force 77.

      After a short while the Chinese soldier came to the jeep and asked in reasonable english, "You Russki — or American?" To the simple reply, "American," he responded with an "Ugh" and returned to his post beside the guard shack. And I thought to myself half jokingly, "dammit, if I could speak Russian I could pretend to be a MiG pilot."

      It was nearly dark when two Korean soldiers arrived. They took me at once back in the direction from which they had come, up and over a ridge to the westward. A phone line lying in the woods parallel with path must have been between the Soviet encampment and wherever they were taking me. We had traveled about two miles and as we descended from the ridge emerged onto an open area. Visible despite the darkness was a tall, round chimney stack; the landmark which Ettinger had mentioned of the North Korean interrogation Center from which Chun and the general had extricated him.

      The soldiers took me near to the inner corner of an L-shaped building. Someone emerged from a room in the wing extending eastward and took me to the end of the wing which extended to the south. He opened the door to the room and said, "You stay in this room tonight where there are others to help you be warm so you can sleep. But you must not talk with the others, and they must not talk with you."

      Inside the room was pitch darkness. The floor was about two feet higher than the ground outside. Unseen figures lying on the hardened mud floor moved aside as I crawled in on hands and knees. Some whispered instructions guided me to a vacant space in a back corner of the room alongside the whisperer. When low conversations had resumed between others in the room the whisperer introduced himself: "I'm Joe Green, lieutenant US Air Force. Who are you.?"

      When I had identified myself, Lt. Green first whispered a wise caution: "Anything you don't want the enemy to know about you , Chief, don't mention to anyone in here....."


Pak's Palace

Friend or Foe

Table of Contents

©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.