It was after sundown when we reached our destination. The truck stopped near a cluster of small buildings just long enough for us to unload, then moved on to park some distance away. The rider having hopped out of the cab directed us to one of two mud-walled buildings and himself went on to a larger frame building a few yards beyond.
Eight or ten rag-clad figures already occupied the room we entered, seated or lying on the hard clay floor. From one of them came in greeting, "Welcome to the slave camp!"
When eyes had accustomed to the dim light, recognition of two of the occupants caused a feeling of well-being and of achievement; no matter how miserable our new circumstance might otherwise be. The faces of Air Force Lt. Joe Green and Navy Lt. Harry Ettinger atop two of the rag bundles were assurance that we were in good company. The sense of achievement was realization that our non-cooperative attitude at Pak's Palace had earned for us this new "assignment" in company of other non-cooperators.
Our usefulness as wood gatherers and latrine cleaners was apparently outweighed in the judgment of Pak and his interrogators by our otherwise troublesome natures.
We were now at a supply center which served various of military and other installations in and around Pyongyang. It was only a few miles from Pak's Palace, situated on the western side of a ridge which separated it from the railroad marshaling yard that we had observed from the high ground near Pak's. It was called "slave camp" because those were the conditions in which we lived and labored. Day or night, and sometimes both, we were put to all manner of tasks around and about the supply center and sent with the trucks for loading and unloading of supplies many miles around.
"Idle Hands" was the moniker already given to the North Korean officer in charge of the place. A somewhat arrogant and self-admiring fellow, he liked now and again to remind us that he was actually doing us a favor by allowing us to work there because "idle hands cause discontent." But his primary concern it seemed was to get the work done and he mostly left it for his subordinate supply sergeants, truck drivers and guard soldiers to order and supervise us in the doing of it.
The supply sergeants and truck drivers also simply wanted to use us to get their work done; showing very little of personal animosity toward us. But the fact that there were several of them, some working at night and others in daytime, resulted in very little of sleep or rest for any of us. Often as we completed a task for one of them another would be waiting to use us; without regard for how long or hard we had already been working or whether we had any sleep. And after a night of pickups and deliveries, drivers and supply sergeants would have daytime sleep; but not us slaves. There was work to be done around the center during the day.
Our basic food ration was every bit as meager as at Pak's Palace. Plus which it was sometimes reduced or withheld entirely if we rebelled against the excessive work or were judged by one or another of the bosses as working too slow. Sometimes we were able to pilfer a little from some of the food supplies which were at hand. But en toto our diet was far from sufficient to maintain health and strength, even if we had not been put to hard labor.
As for sleeping quarters (for whatever time we might have to sleep) it could be said that our bosses also slept on a hardened clay floor. Theirs was a heated floor, however, with one of us assigned each afternoon to tend a fire for warming it. Also, they had some manner of bedding and blankets, whereas we had only the rags in which we were otherwise clothed. After a time, we were allowed to bring a bucket of coals from the fire which had warmed their floor to take some of the chill out of our room.
The soldier guards were generally indifferent of attitude towards us. Some were in fact quite lackadaisical, probably because they were themselves captured South Korean soldiers who had switched sides, so to speak; not for ideological reasons but simply to avoid themselves being put to slave labor or death. Most of them when put in charge of us at work were less inclined than our other overseers to push for us to work harder or faster.
A marked exception to that was "Little Commie;" the corporal of the guard. A very short, pudgy fellow, small of mind as well as of body, he spoke English quite well and liked to inflate his ego by lecturing us during rest periods when he was in charge of a work detail. He would stand atop some convenient object as a pedestal to deliver a memorized spiel about the evils of capitalism and the glories of communism; probably acquired at an indoctrination session. He might sometimes include a bit about our starting the war and dropping germ bombs, but mostly just superficial bits of Marxism.
Sometimes he made it just a little bit personal by calling us "lackeys of the wall street warmongers."
Little Commie's orations were not at all difficult to ignore. And typical of small persons with even smaller minds he didn't like to be ignored. So at first, that was what we did, quite obviously, to antagonize him. But then we realized that by pretending interest in what he was saying, and asking questions, we could extend the rest periods. This we did quite successfully for a while, to the apparent amusement of the other soldiers who probably considered him quite as obnoxious as we did. But one day he seemed to suddenly realize that was what we were doing. He cut off his spiel in mid-sentence and yelled, "Back to work! Bali-Bali!"
"Bali-Bali" thereafter became such a byword of his that it almost became his new nickname. And it provided an opportunity for some mockery of him. We would call it out to one another as we resumed work and use it as reminder to work slowly. Some amusement was gained by substituting "Bali-Bali" for lyrics in the once-popular song, "Boola-Boola." But that was shortly abandoned because Little Commie seemed to somewhat like it and because its tempo tended to speed us up. Then was discovered that the expression could be fitted into the chant of "Volga Boatmen," dragged out to slow our pace in whatever we were doing. His reaction to that was to shout: "You must not sing that song! It is forbidden!" There would be subsequent indications of a grudge against myself for having started it.
Though not borne of any good intentions on his part, there was an element of truth in Idle Hands' contention that we were better off to be doing some work rather than idle. That, after all, had been the reason that Arnold, Gilliland, Rambo and myself had volunteered for work details at Pak's. Another benefit evident at the Slave Camp was the unity of attitude and purpose which the circumstance impelled in a group comprised of otherwise quite diverse personalities; and also many other differences. A small group it was; only fourteen of us; six officers and eight enlisted men. Beyond the officer-enlisted distinction was the great variance in individual backgrounds, both within and outside military service.
Four of the officers were pilots; Ayers, Duquette and Green being Air Force and Ettinger Navy. Felix Ferranto and Bob O'Shea were Marine ground officers. Lt Ferranto, a mustang officer, was the oldest man of the lot at age of 40. Myself at age 32 was elder of the enlisted men and Arnold about 3 or 4 years younger. Gilliland, one of Ettinger's flight crewmen and in his early 20's, was a "hillbilly" from Arkansas, Jimmy Hibbert, a British lance corporal somewhere in his twenties, had been a POW briefly during WW2. The rest of the enlisted men were all quite young, 20 years or less when they were captured. "JW' Rambo, medic, was from the hills of eastern Tennessee. John Shaw, an army truck driver, was from St. Louis, Mo. Les Ribbeck, Marine private, had been a machine gunner on the line captured after he ran out of ammunition. And Airman Al Wedsworth, was a Canadian citizen enlisted in the US Air Force.
Despite those differences, the sort of personal antagonisms and bickering which had quickly developed at Pak's Palace did not develop at the Slave Camp because we all had the same and much more appropriate targets for any feelings of animosity. There was neither opportunity nor need to set up a strictly military order within the group. Mutual concerns plus mutual respect borne of the fact that all were there because of their "non-cooperative attitudes" at Pak's or elsewhere, effected an internal discipline as good or better than strict military order could have achieved. Working together, huddling together for warmth, sleeping together when we had a chance to sleep, helping the other guy if for no other reason than knowing you might at any time need his help who could give a damn either way about military rank in that situation? The more miserable the circumstance, the more tight became those instinctive bonds of unity.
And Little Commie's juvenile arrogance one day solidified it still more; at the same time opening the way for a direct confrontation with Idle Hands which resulted in much improved working relationship with all other of our overseers. After a full night of labor and little or no sleep for all of us, Little Commie set us to work on the supply center grounds under his own supervision. He bustled about happily, urging us on with his calls of "Bali-Bali." There was to be no resting except when he said so, according to a "work and rest" schedule which he had himself designed. And he proudly flashed an apparently new wrist watch with which he would time them.
The fact that we were all afflicted with diarrhea compelled frequent requests for his permission to go to the "benjo." He began to suspect, possibly with some justification, that some of those requests were an excuse to stop working for a few minutes and ignored or refused them. That was effectively countered when several of us stopped near him at the same time, dropped our pants and did what needed doing. To Little Commie's further embarrassment the two of his soldier subordinates who were at hand showed amusement about the incident.
Fatigue actually compelled that now and again one or another of us would just have to stop and sit down for a moment of rest. This would prompt him to some personally abusive words and eventually he kicked a man. From another who saw it came the call: "Everyone sit down!"
Confronted by a complete sit-down strike, Little Commie fell silent for a while, obviously trying to figure what now to do. He gave some manner of order to the two soldiers but they did nothing but glance at him and make no moves toward any of us. He then said, "Okay okay everyone rest now for few minutes." Which we did and continued to do after he in quiet manner said after a short while that it was time to resume work. One of the officers sought then to reason with him; mentioning that we had all been without sleep and working through the night. As he mulled that in silence, obviously trying to think what next to do, someone else suggested to him that since it was nearly noontime, if he would allow us to rest, even get a little sleep until then, we would be able to do some work after we had eaten.
But instead of eliciting a reasonable response, that reminded Little Commie of something he would have heard in what had probably been a rather quick course in Marxism. He stepped up onto a convenient log and said, "He who doesn't work doesn't eat! That is one of the principles of communism!" He then went on to say that if we did not resume work at once he would inform his officer ("Idle Hands") and we would not get anything to eat at noontime.
"Bring your officer here, then," one of our officers called back. "We want to talk with him. He's the one who should make decisions not you."
Stymied again, Little Commie pondered that for a while. Then after a few words to the other two soldiers, he scurried off to the building in which Idle Hands had his office. He returned after a few minutes and said he had been ordered to bring us to the main building. In front of it, adjacent to our own sleeping quarters, he said we were to sit and wait. He then went into the building where others had already gathered for their noon meal. The two soldiers remained standing near us.
Idle Hands emerged then, strutted near to where we were seated, glared down at us and brusquely said: "You have refused to work! Therefore you get nothing to eat! You will remain here while we eat our lunch. When we have finished eating you will return to work or you will have nothing to eat again tonight!" After a deliberate pause with scornful glare he profoundly reiterated (more accurately than had Little Commie) the Marxist maxim: "He who does not work, neither shall he eat!" He then turned and strutted brusquely back into the main building.
Well, at least we would have some rest while our "overlords" were eating. Silence reigned amongst us for a time. Perhaps each of us was thinking deeply on the circumstance and on its prospective consequences for our individual selves. Loss of weight, strength and stamina were already very evident. (I had begun to take one of my remaining vitamin pills every third day.) Rampant diarrhea was accelerating those losses. The possibility of dysentery and other illnesses was immediate; intensified by the total lack of sanitary facilities and accumulation of body lice.
The singular, positive aspect in my own thinking during that while was that the circumstance did include reasonable opportunities to attempt escape. Traveling in the trucks provided acquaintance with the surrounding area. It would also provide opportunity for breakaway. I had one night jumped out when the guard wasn't looking, then yelled for them to stop and pretended that I had accidentally fallen out. Some of the trips were to near the mouth of the Chinanpo river. The outflow there, together with outgoing tide, would quite rapidly carry a floating object within paddling distance of the offshore island, Cho-do, or otherwise into the areas where various of our ships regularly patrolled. Each truck carried one or more spare inner tubes in case of a flat tire, and a shortage of check valves for them left the stems open for oral inflation. The big question about all that was whether under present circumstances one could survive and maintain strength through the several weeks ahead until weather conditions and spring foliage would be more suitable for such attempt. Or should I make such attempt at the next opportunity during some nighttime truck ride?
My private and inconclusive meditations on that were interrupted when Lt. Ettinger broke the silence by saying: "It's times like this I'm glad we never get very much to eat, because we lose so little when they take it away."
After a few chuckles about that some serious discussions began, in subdued tones, about what we could, or should, or might be able to do not merely regarding the immediate situation but our overall circumstance. Both soldiers who had been left to watch us were leaning against the wall, rifle butts on the ground; perhaps even dozing. Not that this suggested we should at once overpower them, take their guns and storm the building where the others were eating. But it was exemplary of the fact none of the rather few guard soldiers at the place appeared well trained or at all enthusiastic about their duties. We knew that at least several of them were themselves captives who had decided to accept the cap with a red star instead of going into a forced labor battalion or worse. Except for one who sometimes carried a burp gun, they had only rifles which would not be difficult to overcome at close quarters. The corporal of the guard, Little Commie, didn't even carry a gun. Neither did any of the drivers or supply sergeants. Idle Hands wore a flap holstered, Soviet pistol on his belt behind his right hip. Whether he would really know how to use it after fumbling it out of the holster seemed at least questionable since one of the interrogators at Pak's had barely missed shooting himself in the foot while playing with the similar pistol which he wore.
So if the situation became desperate, as well it might, it would not be beyond reason to attempt takeover of the supply center rather than let ourselves be worked and starved to death; and perhaps do some damage elsewhere before our small rebellion would be obliterated.
But that was not for now. The objective for the moment was to try parlay the present confrontation into effecting some changes of our circumstance to improve our chances of survival less work, more rest, and at least a minimal and consistent ration of rice. And suddenly from someone in the group came the key idea for doing it. "I just realized..." the fellow said, "...They need us! They don't have anybody else to do the work! So what we need to do is make Idle Hands realize that so he'll want to keep us alive and in condition to do the work."
From that and to that purpose a plan of action was developed. Most likely Idle Hands would himself return after they had finished eating to order us back to work. If not, whoever did so, be it Little Commie or anyone else, would be firmly told by our spokesman* that we would not return to work until the officer in charge of the supply center did personally order us to do so. [* Memory fails as to which of the officers actually served as spokesman.]
Idle Hands did himself at once come to tell us to return to work. And of possible significance, Little Commie was not present. Not unexpectedly, Idle Hands had in mind to give another of his brief lectures along with the back-to-work order. He began by saying, "I hope you will now have learned your lesson...." continuing with remarks about our need to "adopt a proper attitude" in view of the fact that we were prisoners of war and therefore could be suffering worse conditions. Shortly he repeated his favorite theme that "idle hands cause discontent." At which point our spokesman interrupted, saying:
"We agree with you on that! It is much better to have things to do than to sit around idle, and worry, and feel sorry for ourselves. And we understand your situation;
that you have much work here to be done. We are willing to do work for you. But we cannot work without some rest and some food ...."
More than merely surprised; Idle hands appeared almost stunned by that. Having been himself stopped in mid-sentence he stood open-mouthed for a moment and after that listened with evident interest as our spokesman went on to explain along the following lines: We had all worked throughout the previous night; on the trucks delivering and picking up supplies. The truck drivers and supply supervisors with whom we had worked were all resting and sleeping during the morning. But the corporal of the guard (Little Commie) had rousted us out to work around the grounds of the supply center would not allow much of rest times for us and even refused to allow necessary trips to the "benjo."...
Although listening attentively, Idle Hands' facial expression showed no reaction until our spokesman mentioned that his "corporal of the guard" had kicked one of us who had stopped for a moment of rest, after which we had all refused to work further and demanded that "...we wanted to see you to find out if what he was ordering us to do and the way he was treating us was something you had ordered, or just things that he decided to order us to do."
Slight though it was, Idle Hands' reaction to all that served to confirm the expectation that it was quite different from what Little Commie would have told him. He then asked a couple of questions of our spokesman, in manner indicating realization that his corporal of the guard had misled him about the situation. It could not be expected of him to actually say so. Then after a few thoughtful moments he said that the work we had been doing that morning around the grounds of the supply center was something that needed to be done so we should continue with it But we should take rests when we needed to; because there would be deliveries of supplies to be done that night. He said something to the effect that he appreciated having been told of our feelings about working for him and hinted, almost apologetically it seemed, that he might even have let us have something to eat before going back to work but all of the rice which Anjimonee had cooked for lunch was gone.
A couple of the guard soldiers supervised our work around the supply center grounds that afternoon; and seemed gladly to share with us the frequent and prolonged rest breaks. Little Commie was never again in charge of any work at the center, though sometime later he and a couple of soldiers would escort some of us afoot to jobs away from there.
More importantly, there followed a considerable change in our working relationship with the drivers and supply sergeants. No more "Bali-Bali" or threats of no food if we didn't work harder or faster. And sometimes before rousting us out of our quarters there was an inquiry as to whether we'd had some rest since whatever our last work might have been. Also on two occasions Idle Hands involved himself in starting us onto a new job. But that was discontinued probably because both instances resulted in some embarrassment for him.
The first instance was on a morning following a quite heavy rain which had left several water pools in the roadway in and out of the area. Four of us, including AF Lt Joe Green, were summoned out as a shovel brigade to drain them. Three of them were quite easy to drain, requiring only digging of a shallow trench about 6 inches deep leading to the edge of the roadway which dropped off into an adjacent rice paddy. But the fourth was in a depression in the roadway with a ridge of dirt about two feet high and 5 feet wide between it and the drop-off into the paddy. Idle Hands held a shovel out into the middle of the pool to measure its depth and then indicated that we should dig a trench that deep up and over the ridge. Joe sought to explain that the water wouldn't flow up and over the ridge in such a shallow trench, that it would be necessary to dig deeply through the ridge. It was soon evident that in addition to unacquaintance with the law of gravity and/or basic engineering principles, Idle Hands' proficiency in the English language was somewhat limited. He insisted the water would drain if we would just dig a trench up and over the ridge at the same depth as the center of the pool. Joe insisted to the contrary but suggested if there might be a hose available we could siphon it out.
"Siphon?"... "Hose?" It appeared that Idle Hands did not understand either word.
Joe tried at some length to explain; but to no avail. But there were indications toward the end of the dialogue that Idle Hands had realized the water would not drain out as he had prescribed and was now looking for a face-saving way out of it. He closed the discussion by saying: "Just do it the way I say to do it. I must go now to my office for some work."
We stood with our shovels and watched as Idle Hands returned to the main building without ever looking back. Then the rest of us needled Joe a bit. Was he absolutely certain that water couldn't be coaxed to flow uphill? Maybe it was different here in Korea; many other things were different. Joe had studied engineering at West Point; did the course include digging of drainage ditches? We were now almost precisely on the opposite side of the globe so the ditch would actually be going down to cross the little ridge, instead of up....
Then of course we discussed if we should go ahead and dig a shallow trench over the ridge since that was what Idle Hands had ordered. We were beginning to do so when one of the supply sergeants hurried out to inform us that his officer had decided that we should help him move some supplies and not bother with draining that last water pool..
The next occasion of Idle Hands' personal involvement in a work project was agricultural. Arnold, Rambo, Gililland, myself and a couple more of the enlisted men were summoned out at evening mealtime and he happily informed us that on the following morning we would have a different and he thought more pleasurable job than usual. We would plant "kong," which he explained was the Korean word for "corn." Not only would it be a different kind of work, we would eventually share in the eating of some of it when it was grown. There would be a Korean at hand in the morning with the seed and to show us where and how to plant it.
Arnold told him, politely yet with a hint of something else, that we didn't need anyone to show us how to plant corn because he'd done much of that on the farm where he was raised. Idle Hands responded that it might be done differently in Korea and said he would meet with us in the morning after breakfast to introduce us to the Korean who would supervise the planting.
And so he did, shortly after our morning ration of rice; and led us a short way from the buildings to await arrival of the Korean who was to supervise our planting of the "kong." He chatted a bit as we waited, with only a slight hint of condescension. [After all, he was an officer and we were all enlisted men.] Not really surprising, when the Korean arrived with the corn seed it was Kim, the former South Korean sailor who had been in the room with us at Pak's Palace. And he was wearing a new cap with a bright red star on its peak.
Arnold led our "revolt;" perhaps more vehemently than any other of us might have done because of his bitterness over the fact that two South Korean marines had sold him into captivity. He said, "I'm not gonna plant corn or do any other work under supervision of a goddam turncoat!" then turned to walk away. But he stopped and turned back in response to Idle Hands saying, "But he will only show you where to plant it and how to plant it, after which you can supervise the others in the work."
Arnold's quite profound and somewhat longer verbal response to that is not accurately remembered, plus which it included several expletives which are as well left out of print. Idle Hands showed no signs of anger or resentment of Arnold's remarks. Possibly he didn't clearly understand them. He simply said, "You may return to your quarters, then, and the others can plant the corn." But if he may not have fully understood what Arnold had said, he must surely have gotten the message when all of us "others" followed Arnold back to the quarters; leaving Idle Hands and his new soldier standing by themselves with a bucket of corn to plant.
And they were still there for several minutes after we had reached our quarters; probably discussing what Idle Hands should now do with his new soldier Kim since there were now no workers to plant the "kong." Obviously that project had been intended as something of a "graduation" ceremony for Kim. His first reward for switching his dubious allegiance to the North Korean army was to be supervision of some Americans at work. If it may have been intended thereafter to keep him at the supply center for further assignment as supervisor or guard, Idle Hands would likely now be having some second thoughts about it. Kim was never seen again.
Neither did Idle Hands ever seem directly involved in any of our work projects after that. But Arnold, Rambo, Gililland and myself did subsequently have the pleasure of doing a special job for him. The four of us were cleaning out the "benjo" when a jeep arrived, driven by a Russian with a woman companion. It parked somewhat apart from the buildings and Idle Hands hurried out from his office to meet with them. Shortly he summoned supply sergeant Chun to join them. When Chun returned from there he called for Arnold and myself to go with him to one of the buildings where various foodstuffs were stored. There we filled, or partially filled, several containers with such things as salt-dried shrimp and small fish, seaweed, peppers and soybeans, regretting that because Chun was there we couldn't snitch even a little bit of it for ourselves. Then he handed us a larger container and told us to take it to another building where soybean mash was stored and put in four shovels of the mash.
A special shovel was kept atop the barrel of bean mash to be used for only that purpose. Arnold tossed it over some bags of beans out of sight and said, "I don't see the shovel, do you?" Honest fellow that I am I could only say "No." He then stuck his head out the door and yelled to Rambo, "Hey JW, come over here and help, us quick! Bring a shovel and hurry!"
Rambo arrived at the door momentarily and Arnold said, "We Gotta put four shovels of bean mash in this can right away and the shovel that's supposed to be here ain't here,"
"We can't use this shovel," Rambo said, "because it's the one I've been using at the benjo."
"This is for the Russki in the jeep ...."
"Oh well, in that case...."
After scooping the bean mash, Rambo hurried back to his previous job with his shovel. I quickly found and replaced the shovel which had been missing from the mash barrel. Arnold carried the container of bean mash back to the other building for Chun to add to the box of goodies. And as Chun carried the box out to the jeep Arnold expressed the hope that the Russki would be appreciative enough to give Idle Hands a couple of rubles for all of our inconvenience.
Whatever if any deficiencies there may have been in Lt. Joe Green's training and experience in ditch digging were compensated for by what he had learned of diplomacy; not only how to apply it, but upon whom! At the Slave Camp the primary target of his diplomatic genius was supply sergeant Chun. For Chun was the man really in charge of the supplies of receiving them, storing them, issuing them and accounting for them. He
was therefore, at least in effect, overseer of everyone involved in the handling of the supplies. And one of his major problems was to prevent some of said handlers from stealing some of said supplies.
When Chun personally supervised our work, it was better organized and conducted than with any others. Most importantly for us, he recognized the need for "breaks;" and usually himself called one when it was needed. At which point slave laborer Joe Green transformed into a diplomat. While the rest of us would be relaxing in conversations with one another, or in private meditations, Joe would be entered into conversation with Chun. What all they may have talked about is both unknown and unimportant. Sometimes it included an "arm wrestling" contest, or a tic-tac-toe scratched on the ground. Chun's appreciation of the companionship was at once evident. And the rest periods were sometimes some extended because of it. Also, it had been noted that he seemed to have no close associates amongst his Korean co-workers; perhaps because he had to be as watchful of them as he was of us to prevent some of the supplies from being "misappropriated."
Worthy of note also, unlike some professionals in the diplomatic corps, our diplomat Joe had no difficulty remembering which side he was really serving. When the rest period ended he was at once back on the job with the rest of us and as watchful as any for opportunity to snitch something of value for use in our common interests. Which was sometimes a bit complicated to achieve because of Chun's watchfulness of us. He had established a practice whenever we had been handling materials which might otherwise be easy for us to pilfer of lining us up for inspection and shakedown before allowing us to go to our quarters. To get around that required some manner of maneuvering to stash the desired item someplace where it could be picked up later
Les Ribbeck and I teamed up on such a maneuver one day, and but for a rather fluky interference by one of the guard soldiers on the grounds would have had a bundle of clean, new socks to share with the most needy of our group. Instead it resulted in a near violent outburst by Chun which could have been much worse but for Joe's "diplomatic" intervention. We were unloading a truckload of comparatively lightweight boxes into an underground bunker, by hand-to-hand passage from the back of the truck to the point of stacked storage. Chun had positioned himself in the bunker entrance, from which he could watch in both directions. And he did so, turning his head quickly from side to side as the boxes moved down the line.
What was in the boxes if known then is not now remembered, and they were in any case not open to easy pilferage. But behind me in my position in the line was an open barrel, filled to its brim with bundles of new socks. Although I was myself still well equipped in that regard, there were several of the others very definitely in need. The rhythm of motion was such that it appeared possible that while Chun would be looking out toward the truck I should be able to pivot around and grab one of those bundles as I did so without delay of the next box coming down the line. I did a practice pivot to confirm that and shortly thereafter the real thing quite successfully. I was wearing at the moment a comparatively good coat which I had salvaged from the "rag bin" [a bin of castoff clothing's from which we were allowed to pick for wear or for cover when sleeping]. Its pocket was deep enough to hold the socks without noticeable bulge. All that remained was to find a way to bypass Chun's shakedown inspection after we finished unloading the truck.
That way appeared when Chun called our next rest break. Ribbeck and another man were at the end of the line and had been receiving and stacking the boxes. As he started to sit down for rest, Ribbeck toppled from a sudden dizziness. Chun hurried to him, helped him up and asked if he was ill. [Another element of his basically considerate attitude toward us.] He then told Ribbeck he could return to our quarters and steadied him as he walked toward the doorway. I had already removed my coat and extended it with the suggestion that it would keep him warm along the way. Chun helped Les into the coat and ushered him out on his way.
The job was finished within a few minutes after Ribbeck's departure and we lined up outside the bunker for Chun's shakedown inspection. Myself at one end of the line was the first to be frisked and, finding nothing, he had just begun on the next man when the guard soldier who had been posted near our quarters appeared and Ribbeck with him. As he spoke to Chun in Korean he extended his hand to display the bundle of socks. [He had challenged Ribbeck upon his arrival at the quarters because he was wearing a coat which he had not been seen wearing before. Discovery of the socks in the pocket had resulted.]
Chun just looked at the socks for several seconds, then reached and took them still just looking at them in silence perhaps a stunned silence. He looked at Ribbeck for a moment, then again at the socks, back and forth between Ribbeck and the socks, still silent. Until suddenly he began shouting, almost screaming at Ribbeck; an unintelligible admixture of English and Korean words. During a brief pause, perhaps for breath, I called to Chun reminding that it was my coat, that I was the one who had taken the socks. If he heard me he chose to ignore it and resumed his tirade; waving his arms as he did so, fists clenched yet not as though to strike Ribbeck. Then suddenly he stopped, looked around, spotted a short handled shovel lying on the ground and started to pick it up, dropping the socks as he did so.
But the shovel was lying directly in front of Joe Green. Joe's maneuver in this case was one which most professional diplomats seem reluctant to do in any case. He put his foot down firmly directly on the shovel so that Chun could not pick it up. Chun tugged on it several times with both hands, then with only one; slapping Joe's leg with the other. Shortly he stopped all that, but still gripping the handle looked up and said as though in pleading, "Joe?"
Joe looked down at him, calmly, and wordlessly and just shook his head from side to side as expression of "No." Chun dropped his gaze then, let go of the shovel handle, stood up and turned away from Joe looking at the ground. After several thoughtful seconds he flapped his open hands downward with some soft word as though saying to himself something like "Aw, t'hell with it." Then he flipped his hands outward, still looking down, and said: "Go back to your quarters everyone! Go! Go!"
Joe and I discussed the incident some immediately after return to our quarters, expressly with regard to Chun's unusual behavior. We didn't arrive at any conclusions about it, except the fact that Joe's prior establishment of congenial relations with the fellow had certainly kept it from developing into a more serious confrontation. Had Chun actually picked up the shovel and tried to attack Ribbeck we would have had to physically subdue both him and the lone guard soldier who was at the scene. Since none other of the soldiers or other personnel were near at hand it would have been easy enough to do. But it would likely have left some bad feelings detrimental to our overall situation.
It seemed possible that Chun's initial outburst was due to injured pride. He had apparently given much thought to preventing any pilferage during the transfer of those supplies from truck to storage. His quick and careful watchfulness up and down the line of its passage was indication of that. The lineup for shakedown inspection of us would have been further check on it. So the appearance of the guard soldier with the bundle of socks was revelation that despite his close watchfulness, we had managed to steal something. The fact that he had himself helped Ribbeck into the coat would have been an added hurt and would in turn have caused him to think Ribbeck had faked the dizziness. That was not in fact the case, but from Chun's viewpoint it would have appeared so.
Beyond such speculations about Chun's behavior, discussion of the incident with Joe set myself to thinking more objectively about the rest of the Koreans in and around the supply center. The primary concern of most of them would be much the same as ours: Survival! The people we'd had to contend with at Pak's Palace were clearly "enemy."
Col. Pak, himself, the interrogators, the conversational "professor from P'Yang U" all of them would have been either actual members of the Communist Party or closely enough as functionaries to be very much under the Party's discipline. At the Slave Camp our supervisors, with the possible exception of Idle Hands and Little Commie, would be people just doing what their circumstance compelled in order to get along with the dictatorship and get enough to eat to stay alive. Even as they might be watching us to see that we didn't pilfer anything, they would be watching for the chance to pilfer something for themselves.
That was well demonstrated by a maneuver John Shaw managed with one of the truck drivers. John was from St. Louis, a high school drop-out, draftee, sent to Korea, and captured along with the truck he was driving before reaching his 20th birthday. Why he had dropped out of school is not known. But it must not have been learning disability because by the time he arrived at the Slave Camp he had developed passing ability with the Korean language and continued to develop it in conversations especially with the Korean truck drivers. One of them found that interesting enough that he often invited John to ride with him in the cab.
While picking up flour at another supply point in Pyongyang to be brought to the Slave Camp for further distribution, Shaw began counting in Korean as the bags were being loaded, along with the fellow who was in charge of that place. Hearing this, the fellow told John to load 100 bags, and himself then chatted with the driver until the loading was complete. After departing that place, while still within the city of Pyonyang, John informed the driver that he had loaded 101 bags of flour, instead of just 100. The driver's first reaction was to say to him "Hun'h," with a look as if uncertain of what he'd just heard. When John assured him that there was an extra bag of flour, he wheeled the truck around onto a side street and parked near a small building. He told John to get the bag of flour and come with him. After making a deal with the proprietor, they were both served something to eat and when they returned to the truck the driver had some candy for the three others who had done the loading.
While Chun seemed conscientious about preventing us from pilfering, as much or more was probably being taken by his co-workers and the guard soldiers; for their own use or for trading with the citizenry. And it was unlikely that Idle Hands had received only "komopsumnida" from the Russki for the goodies Chun had carried to him.. Even Chun, himself, quite probably did some trading and dealing with materials which he could not subsequently account for. For such is the circumstance of the general populace under any dictatorship, even if not involved in an on-going war. And in this case, in addition to being useful to do much of the work we prisoner-slaves were conveniently at hand to be blamed for probably more than our actual share of the pilferage.
It may have been with intent to convey such an impression on his boss (Idle Hands) that Chun and 3 of his associates in the supply business pulled a surprise shakedown inspection one day. We were called to assemble outside of our quarters and remained there after thorough search of our persons while they searched through our rag-bundle belongings and potential hiding places in and around our quarters. And they did in fact find a considerable amount of loot. Idle Hands did not seem to be personally involved at the outset; at least he was not personally present. But he eventually became involved because included amongst the materials which they contended had all been stolen from the supplies was one item which definitely had not.
It was a nearly new bar of soap which had been found in Capt. O'Shea's belongings. He had it when he came to the Slave Camp. He vehemently informed Chun that it had been given to him by Col. Pak at the interrogation center and that therefore Chun had no right to take it from him. O'Shea also expressed doubt that there was any of that kind of soap at the supply center because it was a very good and quite expensive brand of soap. Chun admitted that he had not seen that brand of soap amongst the supplies, but insisted he must check to be sure before he would give it back. O'Shea then demanded to see the "officer-in-charge" (Idle Hands) about it. Chun said he would have to wait until tomorrow.
Idle Hands officially and quite officiously rendered decision in the case on the following day. It was a split decision. O'Shea was in effect "acquitted" of stealing the soap because it had been determined that there was none of that kind of soap in the supplies at the Slave Camp. But in keeping with one of the "principles of communism," as Idle Hands explained it, the soap would not be returned to O'Shea because "...none of the others have soap so we must keep your soap then everybody same-same."
O'Shea's bitterness was probably intensified by the fact that Idle Hands exhibited the soap and then rather blithely carried it with him as he departed. Rambo, with his shy smile, said to Arnold and myself that he was sure O'Shea was telling the truth about who gave him the soap because it was the same brand as the one he had stolen from Pak. We jointly warned him not to let O'Shea know about that. Why? Because if O'Shea appealed the case he would call Rambo as witness, Pak would find out who stole his soap, and order Rambo back from the Slave Camp to stand trial! Rambo said he sure did not want to return to Pak's Palace.
Such jocular dismissal of otherwise disturbing or disgusting actions of our North Korean overseers was a very important element in maintaining good spirit and morale amongst ourselves. And with the sometimes exception of O'Shea and the British lance corporal, Hibbert; most of the "slaves" at the camp were quite good at it. Plus which it appeared to have a beneficial effect on the attitudes of our overseers towards ourselves.
Someone had noticed during that first search of our belongings and quarters, that not all of the things found went into the pile of recovered loot. Some of it went into pockets of those who found it. Thereafter in the various hideaways in and around our quarters, we would put part of the loot where it was easily found, and some more better hidden behind it. Having recovered the more readily seen of it, and found it sufficient to keep a portion of it for themselves, the searchers would often look no farther. And except for that one-time outburst of Chun's over the stolen socks, and Little Commie's egocentric rantings prior to our "sit-down strike," none of our Korean overseers made much of a fuss at us if they caught us in the act of taking something, or in after the fact possession of it. Sometimes it even seemed as though they perhaps admired our
ingenuity in those regards.
All which eventually caused realization that most of the North Korean citizenry would not regard pilferage of usable things from the government's supplies as a grievous offense. Rather it would have been for many of them the way of life. During the prolonged Japanese occupation, and subsequent imposition upon them of the more severe, Soviet-communist dictatorship, that would have been the only way they might acquire a little bit of something beyond the needs for subsistence, and sometimes just those needs in themselves.
In addition to sharing some of our loot by taking it from us, a few of our overseers came eventually to count on us to give some of it to them. That was particularly so with regard to cigarettes. What the individual ration of those may have been for the various of North Koreans in the camp is unknown, but it never seemed to last them very long. Meanwhile some among us "slaves" usually had a few available even though we received no ration of them at all.
Chun was himself the first of them to receive a cigarette from one of us after he had already used his ration. It happened during a rest break at a job under his supervision. He was, as per usual, involved with Joe Green in conversation or perhaps a game of tic-tac-to. Al Wedsworth, our young airman from Canada seated nearby, called to him: "Hey Chun tombay eso?" (Do you have a cigarette?)
Without looking around at Al, Chun replied, "Upso." (I have not.)
Quietly then Al said, "I guess I'll have to use one of my own then;" fished from a pocket a firm packet which he had filled from his "stash" that morning, and offered around to all others. He then called, "Hey Chun pul eso?" (Have you a match?)
Again without looking at Al, Chun maneuvered as necessary to extract a match from his pant pocket; then as he turned to extend it to Al suddenly realized what was happening. In open-mouth surprise he pointed at Al and said something in a mixture of Korean and English; obviously much amused. Al gave him a cigarette, of course, after which Chun did the lighting all around. He then turned back to conversation with Joe, smiling and shaking his head in continued amusement. He of course did not ask Al how he had acquired the cigarettes; probably not really caring and probably realizing he would not get a straight answer anyway. Yet had he known how Al acquired them he would likely have been further amused. For Al's supplier in this instance had been one of the non-smokers in our group namely myself.
A few days previously, one of the truck drivers had beckoned me to go with him "to pick up some supplies." He said he only needed one worker because there were no heavy things to be loaded. Upon arrival at the pickup site I realized why he had chosen myself. The boxes which I was to load onto the truck were quite large but not at all heavy. For they were filled with small brown packages, each containing perhaps 200 cigarettes. The boxes which I was to put on the truck were stacked apart from the many others. There were some loose cigarettes from broken packages scattered about of which the driver gathered up a few and then went somewhere aside with the fellow in charge of the place while I did the loading.
It was well after dark when we returned from that pickup. The truck was not to be unloaded, but would be going elsewhere the next day for deliveries. All but two of the others were already in our quarters. Questions as to where I'd been and what doing stopped as I began dumping cigarettes out of the pockets of the several layers of ragged summer uniforms I was wearing, onto the floor alongside of Joe Green. I awarded him the privilege of dividing them around while I scurried off for a much needed visit to the "benjo." By the time I returned he had completed that assignment, and indicated that the considerable pile in the space beside him was my share. I asked why he had kept some for me since he knew that I didn't smoke.
"Oh I forgot about that, Chief," he said, slid the pile in front of himself and began flipping them to the others in the manner as dealing out cards. Suddenly he paused, looked over at me and said, "...So why did you bother to steal them?"
"For practice, Joe. A fellow's got to keep in practice. And there wasn't anything else in the place worth stealing."
In case it might appear that our proficiency at pilferage should have enabled us to appreciably augment our meager rice diet it needs be mentioned that there was not really a great amount of foodstuff from which to pilfer. And the readily edible of that was kept in locked storage's with someone assigned to keep an eye on them. We had access to those only at such times as we might be ladling out some, under close supervision, for delivery somewhere; or as in the instance of providing a special ration for the Russki. Sometimes it was possible to snitch a bit of bean mash or some salted smallfry fish to add to one's next bowl of rice, but no substantial amounts. Where food was involved, the Koreans at the supply center (and likely most everywhere else) were watchful of one another. It was, after all, a war-time situation. Except for the probable special provisions for the top brass, Party members, and their upper level lackeys, the individual ration for the populace of North Korea, including most of our overseers, was not much greater than the three small bowls of rice per day and occasional ladle of seaweed soup which was provided to us.
A happenstance in late April enabled a fair measure of the physically debilitating consequences of our situation. Eight of us were unloading bags of rice into a storage bunker at a comparatively remote location. Arnold and myself had been assigned at the truck to load them onto the backs of the others for transport to the bunker; perhaps because Chun judged us to be better equipped strengthwise for that assignment than most others. Ours was unquestionably the easiest task. The distance from truck to bunker was sufficient that we spent more idle time between the loading's than in the loading.
Nominally a "picul," each bag weighed about 135 pounds; no strain for Arnold and myself in the loading. But as the men moved away toward the bunker Arnold mentioned that with some the load would far outweigh the carrier. Ettinger and Wedsworth in particular, both slight of build, probably had normal weight of 150 pounds or less. From their appearance at that time we estimated they each weighed less than 100.
We decided while awaiting return of the carriers, to check our own weights on a sizable, primitive balance bar scale which stood beside the truck. A bag of rice on one pan balanced myself on the other almost exactly. So from a well-conditioned weight of 185 I had lost 50 pounds in two and one-half months. And every other member of the group had been prisoner longer than I.
The small bits of additional food which we were sometimes able in one way or another to obtain could at best only slightly lessen the deficiencies of diet. They were in fact more nourishing to our spirits than to our bodies. In Pyongyang one day four of us waited in an otherwise empty truck while the driver and guard soldier were in some manner of cafe. Most in the steady stream of passers by did little more than glance in our direction. But an elderly gentleman wearing a tall, cone-shaped hat and a sparse but carefully groomed mustache, stopped abruptly at sight of us and quickly came to ask in quite good English if we were Americans. He then, a bit puzzled until we had explained our circumstance, told us that he was a "retired farmer." He described as "wonderful feeling of everyone" when Americans had arrived and liberated the city a few months previously. He hoped they might return again soon and again drive the communists away. He wondered how long we might "be here right now." We knew only until the driver returned to take us away.
He said he would be back quickly, disappeared briefly into the passing crowd, and shortly returned with two apples, apologizing that he was unable to obtain four. When the driver and guard arrived he ignored them, continuing conversation with us until the truck pulled away. A hand salute was our response to his wave in farewell.
There was an occasion when we were able to boast of living a bit "higher off the hog" than did our captors; albeit momentarily. Chun took Rambo, Gilliland and myself to one of the locked food supply sheds, wherein there was hanging a very large, frozen hog carcass. It had just arrived from Manchuria, he told us, but unfortunately was spoiled so we were to bury it at the edge of the supply center.
"Spoiled?" the three of us questioned of ourselves, but not of Chun. Except for a few small spots on its shoulders and hams, the carcass was solidly frozen. But we knew Idle Hands had himself inspected it so the order to bury it was by him. It was quite large, 250 - 300 pounds; and the three of us agreed it would qualify for a Grade A, USDA stamp without having to bribe the inspector. But we slung it feet upward on a pole, carried it to its gravesite, and while JW and Gil dug a shallow trench, I sliced out a strip of tenderloin; with a handle-less, two inch blade which Ferranto had honed on sandstone from a piece of shrapnel and given to me shortly after I arrived at the Slave Camp. Smuggled into our quarters, concealed in rags, the strip of pork tenderloin was char-broiled that night in the bucket of coals we were allowed from the fire one of us tended to warm the floor of our overseers' quarters.
It was more charred than broiled. Having no pan in which to cook it, nothing with which to wrap it, and not daring to risk putting it on some manner of spit to hold it above the coals for fear of being caught in the act, it was simply put in directly on top of some of the coals and more of the coals on top of it. The net result was about a two-ounce serving of charred pork for each of us. Amazing was the brief surge of energy which some of us felt next day as result of that little bit of extra nutrition. Which was at the same time indicative of how weakened we had become.
Now and again a Korean woman would appear at the center with a basket or bag of something she apparently wanted to sell or trade. She one day displayed to me a small pouch filled with the little black crabs often seen scurrying around the edges of rice paddies. They were still steaming slightly from her cooking of them. I indicated I had nothing to trade. She pointed at the much worn old uniform jacket I was wearing. I could get a replacement for it from the rag bin. The paddy crabs were neither tasty nor un-tasty. But they were crunchy and if nothing else must have had a little calcium in the shells. Also, they displayed so well atop a bowl of rice that I shared with two companions at our next meal.
A more consistent source of a bit of additional nutrition was soybeans toasted
over the floor-warming fire. They had first to be snitched a few at a time by whoever might have opportunity to do so as they passed by the sacks of soybeans and found one of them open or with a hole in it. Those "snitchings" were then turned over for toasting by whoever tended the floor-warming fire that afternoon. A scrap of sheet metal served as a pan. However many got toasted were shared that night by however many of us were on hand to enjoy them.
That system worked quite well for a couple of weeks. But it was disrupted due in part to a previous bombing error by a night raider of the US Air Force. A couple of 50 pound bombs dropped from a B-26 under radar control, had straddled that building one night and broken off most of the chimney through which smoke from the floor warming fire emerged. USAF Lt. Joe Green happened to be in the building all alone on the night that it happened. He felt certain the bombs were intended for the railroad marshaling yard which was situated three or four miles east of the supply center. Disruption of the soy bean toasting resulted directly from the fact that a guard soldier standing near the broken chimney one day smelled them and caught Gilliland in the act of toasting them. For the next two days, therefore, we were deprived of our evening treat of toasted soybeans because the guards were regularly checking to see if the fire-tender was toasting any. But then I found a replacement for the toasting pan. A short piece of pipe with a wooden plug on each end looked like just another stick of wood in the fire when the guards checked. It also prevented the aroma from going out the chimney. A few toasted beans each day were thereafter part of our diet until the weather warmed enough to discontinue the fire.
Installation of an 88 mm anti-aircraft battery immediately adjacent to the supply center increased the possibility that there might be more of US firepower striking in vicinity of ourselves. But it also brought an additional source of supplements to our diet. The Chinese workmen and gun crewmen were curious about us, sometimes watching us at work and even when we were eating. A couple of our group showed resentment of that at first; apparently not realizing that the occasional "boo hao's" were in reference to the way we were being treated, rather than to ourselves. Joe Green, of course, applied his diplomatic genius and shortly some of those Chinese were bringing us leftovers from their meals. They also brought the news, or at least rumors, that we might soon be transferred to the Chinese prison camp up north near the Yalu River. Americans already there, they said, had better rice and more of it, played games and enjoyed music and dancing. Asked with whom they danced, the answer was "with each other."
For reasons to this day for certain unknown, our strategists back home declared Pyongyang an "open city" (i.e., off limits to air attacks in the much publicized "Operation Strangle"). That prompted an immediate project to move materials into places within the city limits of Pyongyang. So about half of us loaded trucks at the Slave Camp and the others unloaded and stored in the new locations.
There was a labyrinth of underground storage at the Slave Camp, containing a tremendous variety of probably untabulated goods. Our orders were simply to strip the place clear; load everything with no concern for sorting. But early in the job I found some items which I thought should not be so carelessly handled. I hid them temporarily until everything else had been removed, and arranged to be the very last man out of the empty chamber. When I emerged the others were already lined up for the shakedown inspection. Chun standing in front of them appeared possibly a bit irritated by my tardiness. I called to him, "Hey Chun! Eso! Eso!" (which was the closest I could manage of saying in Korean "look what I have for you") and held aloft three candles in one hand and a small box containing ten spools of sewing thread in the other. Chun's grim look changed to a broad smile as I handed them to him. He may have said something in appreciation, but I had turned at once to take my place at the end of the lineup. I did put my hand on my stomach momentarily after reaching my position in the line, because of slight discomfort. Chun noticed that, waved the candles in direction of the benjo and said, "Go go go."
I didn't really have to go to the benjo right then, but I went there anyway just in case Chun had thought that I needed to. He was at once busy checking the others to see if they might be trying to steal something. So I quickly moved on to our quarters and removed the box of thread and two candles which were actually causing the mild discomfort in my midsection. The sound of someone approaching compelled quick hiding of them. But it was the woman from whom I'd gotten the cooked paddy crabs. This time her trading pouch contained six apples. I retrieved the box of thread, removed one spool for myself, and extended the others as offer in trade.
Her smile was perhaps even broader than Chun's. She put the apples atop my rag bundle and tucked the thread box out of sight beneath her outer clothing. She said something which I did not understand. I indicated to her that I had no needle to go with the thread I had kept for myself. She nodded understanding, spoke a few more words and departed.
Whether or not Chun found any contraband during his shakedown of the others is not known. But it had taken a while to complete. When the others arrived I was seated by my rag pile transferring my thread from its spool onto a stick to better the chance of retaining it at the next inspection. Joe approached directly, demanding: "Okay, chief, what did you get away with this time?"
I indicated the six apples atop my pile of belongings, handed him my crude blade, asked him to cut the apples for distribution and told him I would explain it all later. Early next day the woman returned. With a nod and big smile of greeting, she gave me a needle. She then displayed in her trading pouch a dozen more of apples. I displayed my empty hands to indicate I had nothing more to trade. She shook her head to indicate that nothing more was needed, and poured out all of the apples
When I later explained it all to Joe, as I had told him I would do, we both wondered at the value of just a few spools of thread in the circumstances of the civilian populace. We wondered also what manner of trade Chun might have made with the box of thread I had given to him.
Relocation of the supplies caused another change in our work assignments. About half of us were sent to various wooded areas to cut logs. The others were taken to Pyongyang to build new storage bunkers with them. I was pleased to be assigned to the log-cutting because it was opportunity to further appraise the territory and development of foliage as the time approached for reasonable attempt at escape.
There had already been some other encouraging developments in those regards.
Sgt. Arnold had brought back some useful information from a trip he'd made to pick up some fresh fish at a place near the mouth of the Chinanpo River. A flat tire had delayed them there, sufficiently that the truck driver had arranged for them to be fed. In addition to a much bigger bowl of rice than he would have received upon return to the Slave Camp, he had been served a bowl of fish soup and was given a pair of shoes by the woman who provided the food. She seemed to be very much in charge of the place, Arnold said, and when she noticed how his feet were wrapped she selected a pair from the line of them just outside the door and told him in very good English to put them on. When the owner of the shoes complained she said something to him in Korean which must have meant "Shut up!" because he immediately did so.
The dozen or more Korean men in the place appeared to Arnold to be fishermen.
There were many boats of various sizes and the width of the river indicated it must be very near to its outflow. Only a little of wishful thinking was required to envision myself going to that or a similar place, disabling or delaying the truck until after nightfall, etc., etc., etc. An outgoing tide from the mouth of the Chinanpo would carry anything that floated to within paddling distance of Cho-do in very short order. The friendly treatment Arnold had received there substantiated official reports that most of the citizenry in that region were pro-American.
John Shaw's flour stealing maneuver contributed indirectly to my escape preparations. The driver involved subsequently asked Shaw to help overhaul the truck's engine. And he did a fine job of it, carefully grinding the valves, installing new piston rings, cleaning and adjusting the carburetor and various other of necessary things. After which, before installing the new spark plugs, he put some sand and steel filings into the combustion chambers. The benefit to myself was that when I happened by to look at the work Shaw was doing I obtained a hacksaw blade, which would be useful in any circumstance, and a cap for a valve stem which would be convenient if I might have need to orally inflate a truck tire inner tube. It would be more convenient than having to use a stick to plug the stem. The shortage of check valves left the stems open in the spare tubes which were carried in the trucks.
I had the crude but sharp blade which Ferranto had given me. I had coated some matches with wax from the candles. I had some thread and a needle. The hacksaw blade and inner tube stem cap quite well filled my equipment needs except for shoes. The heavy and cumbersome winter flying boots were not at all suited for the manner of hiking and maneuvering I would be doing. But since Arnold had been given a pair from the lineup outside of a place on the river front, I should be able to "borrow" a pair from somewhere; perhaps even at the Slave Camp. All more that was needed in my escape plan was spring foliage and a reasonable opportunity; the latter of which I thought was very likely to arrive during some night time truck ride.
Other than occasional mention by a few that our circumstance at the Slave Camp did or might provide opportunities for escape there was very little discussion of it; no indications of anyone else seriously considering it.. Ferranto's gift to me of the sharpened piece of metal, and the manner of its presentation, suggested that he had judged me to be the sort of fellow who might try. Yet Capt. O'Shea one day ventured to say that he "knew" I was planning to do so, and that he wanted to go with me when I did. I acknowledged that I had given some thought to doing so but told him that I had no definite plans
Which latter was either half true or half false; however one chose to consider it. I had definite plans to try to escape. But definite plans for doing so could not be made in advance because so much would depend upon when and where a good opportunity might arise. After that, maneuvers and actions would depend upon the situations encountered. Therefore only persons capable of proceeding independently should try, even if they might make the initial breakaway together. The fact alone that O'Shea said he wanted to go with me disqualified him in that regard. I left the matter hang with him as per my original response.
Meanwhile the widened scope of activities in and from the Slave Camp continued. The route to and from one of the log-cutting areas took us past a Chinese field hospital. As we were returning from the work one afternoon, I suggested to the leader of our three man guard escort that if we stopped there for a rest break we might be able to get some medicines, and/or perhaps a bit of extra food for all of us. He liked the idea so we stopped just outside the entrance. A Chinese woman emerged and in excellent English identified herself as a doctor and asked what we were doing. The question was directed at us, rather than at our Korean "escorts."
I told her our basic circumstance. She at once asked about our conditions, including specific questions about illnesses; after which she brought some pills for our diarrhea conditions and gave instructions for using them. Shaw, much impressed by all this, asked where she had learned to speak English so well. Her answer: "In San Francisco" where she was born, raised and got her medical schooling.
She then asked if we might have time to visit with her American patients. I explained that our Korean "escorts" had control of that, but suggested that since they didn't fare much better than ourselves they might be agreeable if something was offered to them. She spoke with them in Korean and it was arranged.
There were four Americans. Three names are no longer remembered. But Marine Capt. Roy Grey is especially memorable. During one of the wood gathering details with Arnold, Gilliland and Rambo while at Pak's Palace, we had witnessed his crash landing of an F9F jet fighter on the railroad tracks just west of there. The breakup and burning of the plane led to assumption the pilot would not have survived. Grey explained that the breakup had been into three parts; the cockpit section somewhat clear of the other two sections which were aflame. Though somewhat bruised by the impact, he had suffered only minor burns. One of his eyelids was damaged and would not close. He had patch to put over it for sleeping. Capt. Grey and I would be involved in a successful joint effort against our captors many months later.
Shaw wondered as we were trudging on to the Slave Camp why that "good looking" lady doctor, even though of Chinese descent, would leave San Francisco and go to Communist China to do doctoring. She had actually explained that she had gone there for "family reasons" (which Shaw probably did not comprehend) and after ChiCom entrance into Korea she could not return to the USA. Her basic situation was similar to ours held captive and put to work by her captors.
USAF Lt. Joe Green one night experienced another near miss of bombs dropped by some of his squadron mates; and I shared that experience with him. We were called out and went first to a storage cave where drums of gasoline for the trucks were kept. We loaded several empty drums into the truck, then went to the railroad marshaling yard near Pak's Palace where a trainload of full drums had recently arrived from Manchuria. There we entered a long line of trucks bearing empties. We moved forward bit by bit as those ahead of us unloaded empties and loaded full drums from the box cars of the train.. Large stacks of empties stood alongside the train.
We had been there for about 15 minutes, with a much longer wait still ahead, when a series of rifle shots from northward signaled approach of an aircraft. "Oh cripes!" Joe said, "That'll be the night raider and were sitting right on his target." It would be a radar controlled approach and drop, (a considerably over-rated system recently developed). But if it happened to hit this time the marshaling yard would become an inferno. When the engine sounds became audible we knew it was close to on line so we jumped out of the truck and into a quite deep ditch alongside. The two bombs dropped less than a quarter mile westward; a much lesser miss than the two that had struck at the slave camp but still, fortunately for us, a miss.
The driver and guard laughed as Joe and I emerged from the ditch and climbed back into the truck; perhaps intended as derision. Rather than a mark of real courage on their part, however, it was more likely one of ignorance. It is probable that they did not realize what would have happened if one of those bombs had struck on or even near a stack of those vapor-filled fuel drums.
As the B-26 droned away, Joe said: "And now in about 10 or 15 minutes that
sunuvabich will be reporting in to Kimpo and saying that he wiped out a dozen or more of cars and a locomotive or two and tore up a few miles of track." Excessive claims by some pilots during the so-called "Operation Strangle" bothered Joe very much. We talked further about it that night after unloading and re-loading the truck and as we returned to the Slave Camp. Our conversation was well punctuated by several of the nightly "toot-toots" of locomotives detaching to move onto a sheltered siding, or re-attaching afterward.
On the following day at the supply center, a conversation with some of the Chinese gun crewmen (hoping to acquire a few leftovers from their evening meal) was interrupted by the air raid alarm. High overhead was a formation of Able Dogs and Corsairs, which I knew must be from the "jeep" carriers in the Yellow Sea.. As the Chinese hurried off to their gun pits, Joe expressed wonder if the marshaling yard might be the target of the planes.. His question was answered by four of the planes dropping out of the formation in steep dives. The planes disappeared below the ridge line and moments later a huge cloud of black smoke rose into view from beyond it.
A few moments after that the four planes came overtop of the ridge. Two corsairs and two Able dogs flying low, each pair quickly criss-crossing over and under one another, going westward toward the Yellow Sea. We were in position to see the gun barrels swinging around in the pits. Controlled by radar, the several of them would all be aligned and moving together on the same target, then suddenly swing wildly in various directions just a moment before they fired.
"The Thach weave," Joe said. "That must be the Thach weave."
Indeed it was, I told him; and in this case literally so. For those planes were from the small carriers in the Yellow Sea which were then under command of Capt Thach. Joe said he'd heard of it, but had never seen it done before. I, of course, had seen it and even practiced it some. But probably no one had ever seen such a grand demonstration of its effectiveness as we were witnessing. The timing of the weave was such as to disrupt the controlling radar just a split second prior to the guns' firing. The resultant swinging of the barrels scattered their projectiles far and wide, some of them bursting low in the distance, possibly low enough to do damage on the ground beneath them; but none anywhere near to the criss-crossing aircraft..
The firing stopped shortly as the planes disappeared to westward. The huge column of black smoke rising from the marshaling yard was backdrop for the closer, action scene of the gun crews in the pits, securing and storing their guns and other equipment. By the time they were finished the smoke column was towering thousands of feet and still rising. We could not but imagine the scene at its base, of exploding fuel drums in the stacks of vapor-filled empties, the tremendous fire and heat from full drums which were probably still in the string of cars in the yard, and realize that we could ourselves have been at the base of such an inferno had just one of those small bombs struck the target last night.
Shortly the gun crewmen with whom we had been talking prior to the grand "show" returned, shaking their heads in wonderment at what had happened. They, of course, only fed the rounds into the guns and it must have been much more than mere surprise when the platforms beneath them began moving rapidly and violently as they did so. "Don't know what happen," one of them said in English. Others, talking in a mixture of our languages, swung their arms to illustrate what they had experienced.
Joe and I tried as best we could to reassure them they had done their jobs well "ding hao;" that the problem was with whoever was aiming the guns and "pull trigger," We told them and indicated that we could see the gun pits and had watched them as they worked. We sought to assure them that they had done their jobs well; that whatever went wrong was not their fault. After they departed we wondered, because of the language difficulties, if we had succeeded in that. Apparently we had. For about an hour later two of them returned with four still warm steamed mantos for each of us
The first day of May, once an occasion for expressions of neighborliness, friendship, and such, has some years ago been somehow usurped by communists as a day to celebrate whatever they might claim of their achievements deserve celebration. But if there was any celebrating by our communist captors on May 1, 1952, they did not include us in it. We had a full day of labor, including a delivery to Pyongyang in late afternoon.
It was nightfall when we departed there and already a little past time for our evening bowls of rice. The driver was apparently hungry, too, and being well acquainted with the road was doing very well speedwise in the darkness until suddenly it wasn't dark any more. A flare had popped overhead illuminating the area in which we were traveling; perhaps not as bright as day but certainly enough that strike planes overhead could readily see a truck moving. The driver swung quickly off the road to await burning out of the flare.
But as the first flare began to fade a second one popped. And that sequence thereafter continued throughout most of the night. But after a couple of hours our driver elected to make quick, short runs, in and out of hidings. We shared with him the hope that none of those above would note clearly enough our stopping places to make a strafing run on us. We reached the Slave Camp about midnight, consumed our bowls of cold rice, and got a few hours of sleep before the next day's work.
In addition to causing some wide-ranging assignments for his labor force (namely us), Idle Hands' security forces (the soldier guards) came to be spread a bit thin as result of the moving of materials into Pyongyang. At the outset, three guard soldiers escorted
the 5 or 6 man log-cutting crew and supervised our work. In the second week of May that was reduced to two. And one of them was Little Commie, of whom we had seen very little after our sit-down strike.
Little Commie did not himself carry a weapon. The one with him, a small, mild mannered fellow, carried a burp gun instead of a rifle; the only one of such seen at the Slave Camp. Whether or not he knew very well how to use it is not known. But he was a bit careless one day in taking care of it. He fell asleep while smoking a cigarette, which set some short grass afire beside him. Our activity putting out the grass fire awakened him and he discovered that one leg of his pants was smoldering. Shaw held his gun for him while he rubbed the smoldering area and pointed out when he handed it back that the fire had scorched the gun butt. Little Commie was not witness of the incident because he was at the time talking with some Chinese who were cutting trees in the near vicinity.
A young Korean woman appeared at the scene two days later gathering branches probably for a cooking fire. I had just felled a small pine tree and was starting to trim its branches. Little Commie brought her there and instructed that I should peel some of the bark for her from the lower part of tree. When he was out of earshot she explained in excellent English that the strip inside the bark which carried nutrition upward for the tree's growth was edible and with no taste of the pine. With a small knife she cut off a small sample for me to taste. It was tough but she said cooking would make it tender..
As she separated that strip from the bark which I had peeled off, I returned to trimming the small branches. Quietly, without looking up from what she was doing, she asked if we came here every day to cut trees. I told her we never knew for sure where we might work each day. She said it was a good place to come for wood for her fire so she would return and hoped we might talk some more. She then gathered a sizable bundle of the branches into a sling of web strapping and slung it onto her back. Loudly enough for others to hear she said as she departed, "Komopsomnida." I set to the task of chopping down another tree.
Puzzling, it was; intriguing! I could not but think about it as I continued working, as we trekked back to the Slave Camp, and after arriving there until I slept. An obviously intelligent young woman, able to speak English very well yet apparently wanting that Little Commie should not know it. Was it mere happenstance that she appeared there just gathering firewood? Or might she be part of some "underground" group, looking to help American prisoners escape; either as a matter of principle or for the sizable reward that was offered to anyone who would help especially pilots to escape. A myriad possibilities could be imagined, though none conclusively. Dominant, of course, was the possibility that she might somehow be helpful in escape, whether by design or by chance. I hoped we would return to log-cutting on the morrow.
And that we did. And so did the woman. But when she arrived we were all working quite close together in a new patch of woods with Little Commie and his one-man guard detail close at hand. She passed us with barely a glance, gathering dry sticks and shortly disappearing in the woods. But somehow I felt neither forgotten nor ignored, but closer to convinced that she had a purpose in coming there quite beyond the gathering of firewood.
Later that day Little Commie decided we were not cutting trees down fast enough. [Our tree-felling equipment, incidentally, was small axes or hatchets; not at all sharp, with no means for sharpening, and with makeshift handles which had frequently to be replaced. The trees were mostly six to seven inches in diameter at the base.] He grabbed the hatchet from my hands to demonstrate for all of us how we should do it, chopped at it rapidly and after it fell shoved the hatchet back to me saying that was all the time it should take to cut down one of those trees.
I said in response that if each of us had only to cut down one tree per day as he had just done, we could probably do it as fast or faster; with added mention that we had already cut a considerable number of them and had a lot more to do. He chose to argue, in manner which suggested that was his immediate desire in the first place. As I turned toward another tree he called for me to come back, with remarks about laziness and weakness of Americans generally and myself in particular. In the course of the resultant exchange he charged that I had called him a bad name. Which I had not in fact done, though I no doubt would have thought some such. Seeing no need to either deny or confirm his charge I merely looked at him, probably in manner further disturbing to him. He then struck a belligerent pose and shouted: "You want to fight me?"
He was standing close beside his one-man guard detail, who was as usual seated comfortably on the ground with his burp gun cradled loosely in his lap and its carrying strap draped around his neck. After the shouted challenge to me, he looked down at his assistant and said to him in Korean, "If he hits me, shoot him."
A blow from the hatchet I held, or even just a tripping push, could have tumbled
Little Commie atop the other fellow. Armed as I was with the hatchet I could likely then have subdued the both of them single-handedly. With the help of one or more of the others who were all close at hand unquestionably. But right then was not a proper time to do it. I said to the egotistical little fool, "You wouldn't be worth the trouble," turned away and set to chopping on the tree I had previously selected.
There was no more of urging by Little Commie during the rest of the day. I thought further as I worked of the possibility that escape might be started from this area, rather than from a breakaway during one of the truck rides; especially if the woman who had appeared on the scene might be willingly helpful . In such case, Little Commie's performance just then had largely eliminated any problems of conscience if it might be necessary do away with him in order to break away. As for the other one, mere removal of his burp gun would neutralize him. He was to begin with a South Korean , now wearing a red star as a matter of personal convenience rather than political conversion.
It would be better in any case if breakaway could be made without violence against anyone. Better still if it might be somewhere nearer the coast and particularly near outflow of the Chinanpo. But spring foliage had now advanced to provide some cover if an overland trek would be necessary. So the possibility of some help from the friendly wood gatherer also deserved further consideration. If she returned again tomorrow I would try to investigate that further.
She did appear the next day. We had begun cutting in a new patch of woods. I chopped one down somewhat apart from the others, split the bark up a way from its bottom end and indicated that with my hatchet as she came near. As she began stripping the edible portion of the bark I chopped energetically on another tree to cover our near-whispered conversation. She answered "yes" to my question if she lived nearby. I then asked if she knew of places where one could hide. She said, "Yes and I can help you if you can get away from them."
The others had by then moved near in their cutting, with Little Commie idling along with them. The tree I had been chopping was near ready to fall. I called out just a sound toward the woman, really to draw Little Commie's attention, and motioned that the tree was about to fall and for her to move clear. She again said "Komopsomnida" as she departed and picked up firewood as she moved away. Unquestionably a very intelligent lady, and I now felt fully trustworthy in her offer to help me escape. What her exact reasons might be for doing so were not for the moment important. I hoped we might be able to discuss it further the next day.
But we did not go to the woods the following day. We did some various work on the supply grounds in the morning and shortly after noon were told that we would be going to the interrogation center (Pak's Palace) that evening and on the following day to Pyoktong to be delivered into ChiCom custody. Packing for the trip was no problem for any of us; we simply climbed aboard the truck when told to do so. I did not notice if there was much conversation amongst the others during the short ride to Pak's Palace. I was preoccupied with my own private thoughts; quite frankly with regrets that we were leaving the Slave Camp just then, because the next few weeks had appeared filled with realistic and reasonable possibilities of escape.
From Pak's to Pyoktong
Table of Contents
©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.