And it was indeed a better place; at least with regard to housing accommodations. It had been a schoolhouse, a wood frame building constructed during the time of Japanese occupation, when this village had obviously been headquarters of mining operations in the region. Quite probably it had been for very young children, since there was a much larger school building and yard about one fourth mile down the valley eastward; and also judging by its interior character. In its west end, opposite the entrance, a semi-circular stage area was elevated about eight inches higher than its main floor.
An ordinary single door was the entrance, off-center southward on the east end of the building. There were three windows each on the north and south walls; none on either end. The windows had small but quite strong wooden bars affixed to their outside framing. Interior floor dimensions of about 18 by 30 feet seemed almost excessive space for the mere 20 of us just arrived. And the fact that the floor was of wood seemed downright luxurious. After ushering us in and indicating the spaciousness with a sweep of his arm, Tsai said that we could "arrange ourselves" for sleeping spaces, and that someone would be along soon to give us further instructions. He then departed without reminding us to take good care of our "healthy."
Shortly after we had arranged ourselves the "someone" arrived to give us further instructions. In self-conscious manner, slightly strutting, he walked briskly to the stage, stepped up on it and turned to introduce himself. His name was Li (Lee). He said we should call him "Comrade" Li (we decided "konrad" was close enough to that) and with what struck me as at least a tinge of arrogance further identified himself as the "political officer"* of the camp. [ * It would subsequently be realized during confinement in that camp that in a communist military organization the political officer is in certain respects superior to the military commander. And subsequent to return from communist captivity, expressly in early 1961, a similar arrangement would be seen imposed on our own military forces, but with a different label. In the name of CIVILIAN authority and/or civilian control, (a gross perversion of our Constitutional principle of CIVIL AUTHORITY over our military forces) politically appointed officials in the Executive Branch, particularly in the Departments of State and Defense, came to be allowed to exercise powers with regard to military forces and military affairs which our Constitution had vested exclusively in the Legislative Branch; there to be exercised in behalf and in the best interests of the CIVIL POPULACE Id EST, We, the People of the United States of America, instead of whatever segment of our political or ideological diversity might be currently dominant in the Executive Branch. ]
Li was some taller than Tsai, but not large, perhaps five and a half feet in height. He was clothed some different from the usual drab uniform, but still quite plain. He spoke English fluently, including good grammar. He had a sheet of notes in his hand but referred to it infrequently as he delivered further instructions at some length.
The first of those, of which we would frequently be reminded in subsequent sessions with him, was the proclamation: "Now that you are prisoners of war there is no longer any differences of rank among you. Everybody is 'same-same'!"* [* There would be subsequently encountered several young enlisted men and even a few junior officers who very much liked that idea except when situations arose wherein someone must assume responsibility at risk of displeasing our captors. ]
The instructions following that had to do with details of our physical circumstance. During daytime we could spend time outside if we wished in a small level area in front of the building. It was unfenced, but in full view from a covered guard-post at the top of the steps leading up to this small plateau. The latrine facility was in the northeast corner of the area. At night we must remain inside the building, except for latrine visits only one at a time, for which we must first get permission of the guard by calling "so-bien" or "ta-bien"
Our food would be brought to us from a place nearby where some other of American prisoners were assigned to do cooking. There was a container of water and basins just outside the building for washing of hands and face, and boiled water ("kai shwee") for drinking. We would be escorted to the stream for bathing and washing clothes, and frequently to the larger school yard where there was room for exercise, including softball and basketball. Li emphasized in connection with that, if we might meet other groups of prisoners while so moving, or pass by places where other prisoners were kept, it was forbidden to talk or otherwise try to communicate with them.
Also emphasized, there would be no work assignments except to do things for our own benefit, such as gathering firewood in the nearby forest areas for the cooking of our food or warming our quarters. Arnold and I later wondered apart if there was awareness by our Chinese "hosts" of the Koreans' use of some of us at the Slave Camp. We agreed in any case that our situation was certainly much improved and, if continued as Li described, as good as could be reasonably expected and in some respects perhaps a bit better.
Our noon meal arrived outside the building while Li was explaining those things; two buckets one of rice, the other of soup borne by a stocky Chinese using the typical "chogi stick" balanced across his shoulders. Li immediately announced the fact, stepped down from the stage and led us outside for introduction to the man who had brought the food. His name was Liu. He would be our "orderly," as Li expressed it; to bring our food and do other errands for us. He did not speak our language, but would "usually understand" our needs or otherwise bring someone who could understand English.
Some older appearing than any of the soldiers, ruggedly stocky of build, Liu stood motionless and placidly expressionless of face during his introduction. Then after a word from Li he put the food buckets down and seated himself on a rock. No matter that Li did not refer to Liu as a "coolie" his manner toward him indicated that he regarded him as inferior. Li himself departed then, saying he would return after we had eaten.
Our "orderly," Liu, having taken the food buckets away when they were emptied, was back carrying a box filled with books before "Konrad" Li returned. He placed the box on the floor just inside the doorway, then returned to the rock on which he had seated himself before. When Li returned he explained that the books were something akin to a circulating library. We could select from it now books which any of us might want to read, the remainder would be taken to other prisoner groups for the same option, and after a time picked up to effect the circulation. But he also had some papers and booklets carried with him which he would leave for us to "study." And a "few days from now" would begin weekly discussion sessions with him regarding the content of those papers..
Was this, perhaps, beginning of the manner of indoctrination effort that had been described in Life Magazine, with which the revised "in event of capture" instructions had said it might be useful to go along? I recalled that it was Chinese captors involved in that story rather than Korean. No matter, really, the idea of pretending to go along had already been proven self-defeating so far as I was concerned. But it should be interesting to see what kind of stuff "Konrad" might try to teach with his discussion sessions here in the little school house. He departed after making those few further announcements. Though not unfriendly, his words of farewell were not at all so blithe-some as those of our "friendly little clothing salesman."
There was no mad rush, but several of the men began sorting through the books. Kubicek, now seeming quite recovered from whatever his sickness may have been at start of our de-lousing, began at once to examine the special papers we were to "study" for the discussion sessions. Shortly he brought some to show me. Clearly they were indoctrinal materials, and deserving of examination. But that could be done later, I had a priority concern at the moment; Lt. Stahl was idling around by himself and it seemed a good time to see if he would let me have the leather tops from his boots.
Stahl was very much preoccupied with his own thoughts when I approached him; probably with regard to potential consequences for himself of the tape recording he had made while at Pak's Palace. I was at the time aware only that he had made a recording, not of the full extent of collaborative statements it contained. He gave attention to me readily enough when I said I wanted to talk with him again about the tops of his boots, and asked me to tell him again what it was I wanted them for.
"To make a pair of moccasins," I said, "to wear in place of these heavy, clumsy boots."
"Oh, yeah," he said, "I remember now that's what you told me before. I'll think about it. Remind me of it tomorrow."
Since the young fellow obviously had something of more importance to think about at the moment, my footwear problem would have to wait until tomorrow. I went inside the little schoolhouse then and notice the book box of the "circulating library" was now sitting on the small stage with no one near it a good time for myself to check its contents. Most of them were what I would call "time-killing" reading material. But one hard-back volume in practically unused condition was Charles Dickens' classic, "A Tale of Two Cities." I would hold that from circulation for a while.
Having already selected our sleeping places, we mostly spent the remainder of the afternoon outside the building, on the small flat area where we were permitted to do so. There were some reasonably flat rocks on the perimeter of the area, and a couple of slab-sided logs as benches; plus which we had all become accustomed to sitting on the ground when tired of standing or walking around the place. Meanwhile our "orderly," Liu, sat apart on his chosen rock, silently observing without appearing to do so. Sgt. Arnold and I, observing him in turn, had been wondering Was he our servant? Or were we his wards? Did he really not understand English, as Li had said? Or was he perhaps very proficient in it, and put in this position to listen to our conversations and report to political officer Li on our conversations?
Liu arose from his rock in late afternoon; moved down the steps, past the large building on the lower ground, and soon out of view beyond it. He reappeared within a few minutes, now bearing the two buckets on the chogi stick. So smoothly did he walk that there was no up and down motion of the buckets from the flexible chogi stick until he climbed the steps, and then only very slight. Dipping of the knees deposited the buckets gently on the ground and a slight twist of the body unhooked them from the chogi stick; after which our "orderly" returned to his self-selected, rock seat "station" to await his next task.
"He's not a plant, Bill," I said to Sgt. Arnold. "He's a hundred percent Chinese coolie, grade A-plus."
I had said it impulsively in admiration of Liu's dexterity; and realized in the next instant from Arnold's reaction that I shouldn't have said it in that way. For it had aroused curiosity in his mind about myself as well as about Liu. He asked in immediate response: "And just what do you mean by that?" But his look as he did so indicated there would likely be further questions, and I could think of no way to avoid them.
"Did you notice the way he handles that chogi stick?" I asked, in turn.
"Cripes yes," he responded. "If I was to try carrying buckets like that the soup'd be sloshing all over the place and probably the rice bouncing out of the bucket."
"That's the coolie shuffle," I explained. "and the smoothest I've ever seen. I hadn't intended to mention it to anyone, Bill; but since you'd be asking anyhow I might as well tell you now. I spent a couple of years in China right after the war. I reckon you can understand why I haven't mentioned it before. and why I'd prefer no one else know about it.."
That revelation of course led to many questions from Arnold, a few immediately and more during further private talk that evening. Had I learned any of the Chinese language while I was there? No, but I now wished I'd had sense enough to do so. Why was I so certain Liu couldn't be a plant to listen in on our conversations even if he was a coolie? He couldn't read or write his own language; would understand a few of our words but wouldn't be able to translate a combination of them. He seemed to be watching all of us very closely before he left to fetch the food. Why?
"Studying us;" was my response to that question; "figuring out how to get along with us; and deciding which ones of us to come to with questions, or to relay instructions from Tsai or Konrad or whoever's in charge."
Arnold mentioned during our conversation on the subject that evening, that he was under the impression that Chinese coolies were something of a sub-class in their society; ignorant, uneducated workers; socially apart and looked down upon by other of their own countrymen. My response to that was in effect: Socially apart? Yes. Looked down upon ? Not really, except perhaps by fools amongst his own countrymen or some of ours; but rather respected and appreciated for their capabilities and reliability as workers. Uneducated? Not so! Illiterate, because of lack of formal schooling, but well educated physically and philosophically by centuries of knowledge and experience handed down from their ancestors. Ignorant? Definitely not so! No doubt individual variance of fundamental intelligence, as exists in any group of people....
"...But when you become acquainted with him," I told Arnold in conclusion in that regard, "you're going to realize this coolie that's been assigned as our orderly is a very intelligent and perceptive man."
"And just how in hell am I going to get acquainted with him," Bill wondered, "when we can't even talk the same language?"
"He'll manage that," I told him, "because he's experienced at it; and you're the one he'll most often come to when he has a question to ask or something to tell us."
Arnold looked at me curiously, but didn't ask my reason for making such prediction. Within but a few days he would know it was accurate, and shortly thereafter would come to understand why.
There were many significant developments in our first few days at the Little Schoolhouse; some of which had been foretold, but others quite surprising. One of the first surprises was issuance of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste. Almost reluctantly I discarded the now broken-handled brush I had brought with me. I invited Sgt. Arnold to share in the sad ceremony of its disposal, and we wondered together if such niceties were ever provided to American soldiers by their captors in previous wars.
A few days later a container of sugar was brought to be divided into individual shares, with assurance that it would be replenished regularly for each to use according to his own wishes. Also some tobacco was provided, crudely cut; with considerable of coarse pieces of leaf stems and veins which some of the users shortly decided needed to be sorted out for a more refined flavor. I stashed my ration of that aside for trading purposes (at such time as there might be someone with something worth trading for). Large sheets of rather stiff paper were issued for the rolling of cigarettes, and other purposes.
Konrad had begun his discussion sessions in less than a week after our arrival at the Little Schoolhouse. The first was just a sort of get-acquainted session, the teacher introducing himself to the class and describing the procedures for subsequent sessions. It was obvious that the fellow took his job very seriously and thought similarly of himself. He had brought additional materials which he wanted us to read in preparation for the next, really first discussion session. It included copies of the Daily Worker, Masses and Mainstream and other US and British communist publications. Quite obviously it was a planned indoctrination project.
There was some discussion after Konrad left regarding how might be best to deal with it. There was immediate suggestion from some (often crudely phrased) to just make it very clear when Konrad returned that we wanted nothing to do with his communist "___!" Which was well enough justified, and would probably have terminated the program at once. But Kubicek came up with the idea that it would be better in the long run to "kill it with kindness;" to ask Konrad to explain things to us and when he tried to do so, flood him with still further questions.
So a number of questions were prepared prior to the first actual discussion session. Kubicek and O'Shea presented them; one at a time, of course, and non-argumentative. All hands at least pretended listening attentively to Konrad's responses. Shortly there were some impromptu questions in response to Konrad's explanations, including from some of the young enlisted men. But always in the non-argumentative vein, seeming sincere expression of interest in what he had to say.
Konrad appeared much pleased by all that. When he had no ready response to a question, he would make a note of it and assure the questioner that he would provide further information at our next session. By the end of the session he had a considerable list of such notes, reassured us he would have answers at the next session, expressed his pleasure that this first discussion session had gone so well and confidence that future of them would also be mutually enjoyable. To myself, it was mindful of the enthusiasm of the self-proclaimed "professor from P'Yang U" during our brief discussion at Pak's Palace, when he at first thought he was making good progress.
It became evident prior to the next discussion session that our "teacher" needed help to come up with answers to the questions posed by his "students" in that first one. He departed next morning on the pathway to Pyoktong and returned therefrom in late afternoon. There was some satisfaction in the probability that unless he might have caught a ride on a mule cart, he had to walk the whole distance. He began the next session by reading answers to our previous questions from several sheets of paper. There were indications of slight disturbance when the answers he was reading brought only further questions from his "students," instead of agreement. But he made notes of the new questions, and another trip to Pyoktong to get some answers. After the third such sequence he canceled further discussion sessions.
More pleasurable and usefully educational of "student" activities during the first three weeks at the Little Schoolhouse were the "field trips;" excursions to gather firewood for the cooking of our rice and soup. Tsai came to inform us the number of volunteers needed for the first one. Arnold, Rambo, Gilliland and myself were first to volunteer. Six soldiers escorted us to a nearby wooded area. Liu accompanied, carrying some short ropes with which to bundle and carry the wood. When sufficient had been gathered, mostly of fallen deadwood, he supervised the bundling of it and particularly positioning of the bundles on our backs; after which he deftly flipped his own bundle upon his own back and led us down the mountainside. Arnold remarked that my "coolie buddy" sure seemed to know how to pack and carry fire wood, and that he had decided "we should call him 'Happy' because he never smiles." I silently enjoyed that my comparatively old friend Sgt. Arnold was so quickly becoming acquainted with my new-found friend, Liu. I openly agreed that "Happy" was an appropriate nickname for him
Happy managed with no difficulty to inform us of subsequent wood-gathering excursions, indicating the number of men needed by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, and describing the mission by exhibiting the ropes for bundling and carrying. As expected, he looked for Arnold or myself whenever he wanted to convey such information, and I usually managed to be busy with other things to make Arnold his primary target. Those ropes had reminded that I would be needing something like that when the time came to head out through those wooded mountains on my own. So I began gathering whatever fibrous strands might be found from which to braid one. The excursions themselves provided acquaintance with the kind of terrain through which I would be traveling.
The need for different footgear was reconfirmed, so I broke into Stahl's self-imposed solitude several more times and he finally agreed to let me cut off the tops of his leather boots; providing that he could watch and I would explain as I made moccasins from them. Which was of course quite all right with me, even somewhat enjoyable in that it seemed to bring Stahl out of his self-isolation But I had barely begun the project when he was removed from the group. His collaboration with the North Koreans at Pak's Palace (the tape recording on the subject of "germ warfare") had apparently "qualified" him for assignment as a writer, or at least signer, of articles in the prison camp newspaper "Toward Truth and Peace;" under supervision of communist propagandists Wilfred Burchette and Alan Winnington.
There was soon another very interested observer of my moccasin project. Konrad happened to come into the Little Schoolhouse while I was cutting out the basic patterns of them. He was quite intrigued, possibly impressed, when I explained what I was doing, and why that is, because the old boots I was wearing were so heavy and cumbersome. He mentioned that I would "very soon" have new shoes to replace the boots, but agreed the moccasins would be nice to have for inside wearing, even so. He expressed eagerness to examine them when they were finished; which I assured him I would be pleased to have him do. The fact that he didn't notice (or at least made no mention of) the crude but very sharp instrument I was using to cut out those patterns was encouraging that he was not a particularly perceptive fellow. [ It causes me at time of this writing to think that some at least of politically ambitious people in the Communist Party are as oblivious to practicalities as many of those in our own political parties.]
Konrad also happened by while I was sitting outside the Little Schoolhouse one day adding some fibers to my braided rope. It was as yet only 3 or 4 feet long. He expressed wonder about that. "Just something to do," I told him, "...and sort of keep in practice....;" continuing with explanation that sailors often did such braiding aboard ship when there was nothing else to do, and that I had done a great deal of it back on the farm ... only then braiding pretty belts and hat bands out of horsehair of different colors. I asked if he thought it might be possible to get some horsehair to braid with even mule hair would do and make some prettier things instead of just what I was doing. He said he doubted so but would try to find some for me.
On the first wood chogi wearing the moccasins, they felt as though my feet were hardly touching the ground. As a check of my stamina, I followed one of the guards almost in lockstep as he led the way up into the woods. He stopped suddenly and turned around to take position overlooking the area where it was intended for us to gather wood. More than mere surprise, the look on his face only about one foot from mine seemed to have a tinge of alarm. I smiled, nodded to him, turned and went back downslope to where the others were starting to gather firewood. My moccasins were not only light of weight, they were also quiet of tread.
On our next firewood excursion, in a new section of woods, I spotted a very large burl. With one of the hatchets carried along on those excursions by the guards, I hacked a sizable chunk off and carried it back to the Little Schoolhouse. The piece of broken hacksaw blade, extracted from my old heavy boot, served to cut it into several smaller chunks. When Konrad next happened to notice me working on something, I had begun carving a pipe from one of those smaller chunks. He commented that it was really good that I had so many interests and seemed always to be busy with something instead of spending time worrying or looking unhappy as some of the others did. As soon as he departed on that occasion I plaited a few more strands into my now much longer braided rope.
A surprising and somewhat encouraging event during our second week in the Little Schoolhouse was the arrival of our "platoon leader;" a ChiCom military officer who could not speak English. Tsai introduced him to us, explained that himself would serve as translator-interpreter of our platoon leader's orders to us and our questions or requests of him, and provided a brief biographical sketch of the man. He was a colonel in the ChiCom army. He had just been released from a hospital after spending many months there recovering from wounds received in combat in China during the Revolution.
Tsai's manner of speaking as he did this indicated very high personal regard for the colonel. The colonel's first words to us, as translated by Tsai, compelled at least tentative high professional regard for him on our part. He said:
"I am a soldier. And you are soldiers. We both know the risks of battle. So I believe we can understand each other." After that had been translated to us he said:
"Now you are prisoners of war; which is one of the risks all soldiers must face in battle. But you are still soldiers and I respect you for that. If you, in turn, respect me the same, we can get along together very well even though we are soldiers of opposing armies."
From that beginning, in similarly short statements for Tsai's translation, he reiterated some of the activities of which we had already been told wood gathering, exercise and bathing. He said that he would sometimes himself accompany us on those activities, but not always; and emphasized that even when he was not himself with us, his soldiers who would be escorting us would have been ordered to treat us respectfully and that he expected us to do the same with them. As Tsai translated on that point:
"If any of you are disrespectful toward my men, they are to report that to me. If any of my soldiers are disrespectful toward you, you should also report that to me."
In closing he said that because he had just arrived for this assignment he must now do "some study" (apparently of our identifications) "to become acquainted" with us, and that he would speak to us again in the morning. A nod and further word to Tsai brought in translation, "You are now dismissed," and the two of them at once descended the steps down from our schoolyard.
Should it be called a "stunned silence" which followed? Certainly there was silence for a while, perhaps everyone of us in some way wondering that we had just heard from an enemy officer the same manner of brief, direct, and sensible orders we might at one time or another have heard from one of our own. Soldierly discipline show respect and receive respect. It sounded too good to be true! Eventually some one said, "That sure sounds good if he really means it."
The way it had been presented brief, explicit, directly to the point; he certainly sounded as though he meant it. And one could not but hope that he did. For in contrast to what most of us had experienced before at Pak's Palace and the Slave Camp, the conditions he had described would certainly be a pleasant circumstance in which to endure however much longer we might be held as prisoners. Yet skepticism remained. Though I sensed that same feeling in Sgt. Arnold, we did not discuss it that evening, nor did any others seem to do so. Perhaps we all hesitated to share our hopes because they might turn out to be in vain, and at the same time withheld our doubts to avoid despoiling someone else's hopes. Those first orders from our ChiCom colonel platoon leader were such that we could certainly live with. But a question remained with at least some of us, whether he would live up to their promise.
At assembly next morning shortly after breakfast, it certainly appeared that he intended to. The first order of business was designation of squad leaders in our platoon. The colonel had acquainted himself with us sufficiently to organize the platoon in a military manner. He handed a paper to Tsai, from which the little interpreter provided to us the details. There would be three squads (certainly sufficient in a platoon of only twenty men). Air Force Capt Kubicek would head the squad containing the other five officers. Sgt. Arnold and myself would head the other two, each containing another six enlisted men. Good, sound, military order to which no one would have reason to object and no one did. I kept to myself for a time the slightly dissident thought that it might be contrary to the "political" order. Konrad had emphasized that there was no differential of rank as prisoners of war; "Everybody same-same."
The second order that morning was dismissal from assembly to get our towels and soap, after which our colonel led the way to the big school yard for exercise, and following that to the stream for bathing. It was evident by the way he observed us during those periods, that having "become acquainted" with us with regard to ranks and ratings from studying the camp records, he was then appraising his platoon as individuals during that excursion with us. Sgt. Arnold was sufficiently impressed to venture comment that our ChiCom colonel platoon leader was "for real," a truly experienced military officer who meant exactly what he said. Arnold also decided at that point that rather than try to remember the colonel's name, which Tsai had told us in the introduction, or refer to him by such an ordinary title as platoon leader, it would be fitting to give him the moniker of "Peter Love" (phonetics for the letters P and L). It is doubtful that any of us long remembered his actual name.
Peter Love accompanied us on only two or three more of the exercise and bathing excursions. Konrad sometimes went with us, instead. And sometimes it would only be four or five guard soldiers to escort us. In which case, one of them might only indicate where we were going by holding aloft a basketball or softball, rather than saying anything in English. But there was little doubt that at least some of the guards could understand our language quite well, even though they did not speak any of it to us. Happy usually accompanied us on all such excursions, and sometimes Tsai..
The new clothing Tsai had promised also arrived during those first hectic three weeks at the Little Schoolhouse. He proudly issued them; with frequent reference to the list of sizes he had made while we were in quarantine for delousing. Two for each of us of blue trousers, jackets and caps, white shirts and undershorts, and two pair of socks fashioned from white cloth cut in foot shapes and stitched together. A bit crude, perhaps, but serviceable.
But no shoes! Tsai quickly explained, with a slight tinge of apology, that they had to be ordered separately from a place farther away in China than where the clothing was made and therefor required more time for delivery. Other than that, we by then had very little to complain about. No work to do, except wood gathering for cooking of our food. Which was not at all hard labor, but rather enjoyable outings; and for myself opportunity to become acquainted with the manner of terrain through which I intended shortly to be traveling. Food was brought to us regularly; not sumptuous, and perhaps even lacking in some of needed nutrients, but our "hosts" weren't eating very high off the hog, either. We had spacious quarters, easy for ourselves to keep clean, reading material, playing cards, boards for chess or checkers. Trips to the big school yard allowed those who wished exercise to play basketball, or softball, or just meander around. The lazier, of which there were a few, could just sit in the shade and watch the active ones or dwell with whatever of thoughts they might have for company.
And now we had one set of clothing to wear while the other was drying after washing them during our refreshing baths in the stream. Yes, all things considered we now had very little to reasonably complain about. And there was really very little of complaining except by "CJ," the reservist Air Force lieutenant navigator. Now in addition to continuing complaint that he should not have been called to active duty for this silly war in the first place, he was quite upset by the idea of having to wash his own clothing. But being a resourceful fellow (at least in that respect) he relieved himself of that inconvenience by hiring one of the young enlisted men to do it for him to be paid if and when they had both returned to the USA
After terminating the discussion sessions, Konrad did still frequently visit us at the Little Schoolhouse. For what all reasons he did so remains uncertain. But one of them was to check on the circulating library; sometimes bringing new reading materials and/or taking some away which seemed no longer to be in use. He seemed also always interested in my various activities, which I had told him were "things to do to kill time." Of particular interest to him, it seemed, was the rope I was braiding; wanting to know how much longer it had become. So I attached it just outside the door and he would often take hold to examine it before entering the Little Schoolhouse. He expressed appreciation of the variance of colors because of the different fibers it contained. I told him it would be prettier if he would just find some long strands of horse hair for me to include. He was never able to manage that, but he did bring a tattered piece of sisal rope which eventually added 3 or 4 feet to its length
Konrad's office was in the larger building below yet close beside the Little Schoolhouse, only a few paces from the steps leading up to our quarters. So when working outside on something I didn't want him to be aware of I could quickly shift to braiding on the rope when he approached. One such project, after our new clothing had arrived, was construction of a backpack and several pouches from the remnants of my old clothing. The ball of thread and needle brought from the Slave Camp were put to good use in that. Stowage for such items when completed was beneath my sleeping space just inside the door. I had selected that space because of a short piece in the flooring at that location which I had carefully pried loose and could be fitted back in place without being noticeably loose.
Another diversionary arrangement if not braiding on the rope was to have a book at hand for reading when Konrad approached. On one occasion it happened to be A Tale of Two Cities. Noting this, Konrad paused at the door steps and asked what I thought of "that" book. "It's an excellent book," I said, " a classic work. I have read it before but it is well worth reading again."
Brightly then, Konrad said: "And do you not see the similarity between that revolution and ours?"
"Yes, I do," I replied, "very definitely;" and flipped a few pages back to one where I had previously inserted a strand of my rope-making fiber as a marker. It was the point at which Dickens had scribed that while the revolution he was writing about was fully justified, "the tyranny which followed was worse than the one against which they had revolted."
Konrad was momentarily dumbstruck by my reading of that passage. But he recovered quickly and said, "I certainly agree with you that it is a classic work. And I think I should read it again myself. Let me know when you are finished with it."
I didn't actually tell him when I had finished with it, but simply put it back with the other books. It disappeared from there quickly and to my knowledge "A tale of Two Cities" was never again seen in our circulating library.
But the incident did not seem to dampen Konrad's interest in my various activities. An event shortly thereafter indicated quite to the contrary. He happened upon two of the young enlisted men in some manner of argument inside the schoolhouse. Seeing it as an opportunity to demonstrate his authority, he took them to his office to give them a lecture about it. And because they were members of Arnold's squad, he took the sergeant along. Arnold later described it as a rather lengthy dissertation on the evils of the capitalist society, which Konrad said he "realized" was an environment in which people often argued and fought with one another. But he said that was not at all the way in a communist society, and could not be permitted. So while they were here as guests of the Chinese Peoples Volunteers they must conduct themselves accordingly!
From my vantage just outside the Little Schoolhouse I had seen the four of them emerge from Konrad's office, and noted that he pointed up toward myself while saying something to the others. He then re-entered his office and the others returned to our quarters. The two younger men went on into the building, while Arnold stopped to tell me what had happened. After describing what Konrad had said to the young men inside his office, Arnold said, "...And after we came out he pointed up at you and told them they should follow your example find things to do to keep busy while waiting for the war to end. I think Konrad likes you, chief. You two could be buddies."
With a tilt of my head toward Happy, who was seated on his chosen rock as usual solemnly observing everything within his view, I said, "I prefer the one I've already got over there." Arnold said he thought that was a far better choice, and himself went on into the Little Schoolhouse.
I had not to that point mentioned to anyone my escape intentions, nor would I do so until I decided which if any I might approach as a partner. Neither had anyone broached the subject with me, although O'Shea had done so while we were at the Slave Camp. I rather wished that I could fathom Happy's thoughts with regard to the various things he observed me doing. It was very possible that he was by now suspecting me of such intention. But even if he did, I was confident he would keep it to himself; partly because it was a characteristic handed down from his ancestry and also because it had become evident that he felt more kinship toward us, especially Arnold and myself, than he did toward his own countrymen in this camp. Particularly, I sensed from slight variances of the eyes in that otherwise expressionless face that he felt no obligation or loyalty toward Konrad, and probably disliked him.
Most important at the moment was the evidence that Konrad had no suspicions of my intent. There was special pleasure in calling his attention to my progress in braiding the rope. It was left hanging just outside the door, except when there was rain and for brief periods when I took it inside to check its strength. And although Arnold's remark that he thought Konrad liked me may have been facetious, there were some indications that such might actually be the case;
Konrad had begun consistently to accompany us on our excursions to the big school yard and bathing. (Peter Love had discontinued doing so after only two or three, probably having satisfied his curiosity about the individual characters in this "platoon.") There seemed to be particular interest on Konrad's part when we played basketball. He stopped me apart one day when we returned to the Little Schoolhouse and said he thought we should arrange a basketball game between a team from our platoon and one composed of soldiers from the guard company.
I told him I didn't think it was good idea, or even proper under the circumstances. He said that some of the guard soldiers who liked to play basketball had suggested the idea to him. (I would later have some doubts about that, and suspect it was entirely his own idea.) He said they were especially impressed with the team play of Rambo and myself. Having found that I had lost the knack for which I was famed in high school of consistently making baskets from far outside, I would put the ball against the backboard and the lanky hillbilly from Tennessee would tip them in from there. I told Konrad that although I certainly respected the guard soldiers, and appreciated their respectfulness toward us, I still didn't think it was a proper thing to do; especially because there was always some body contact and we were, after all, members of opposing forces at war. He still persisted with the idea. So I told him I would have to check with the others who would likely play on our team.
Although we all liked the idea of playing a real game against someone other than from within our small platoon, Rambo and the others shared the uncertainties I had expressed to Konrad. After considerable discussion, we decided to do it. Konrad was so informed the following morning and a couple of days later he had several off-duty soldiers with him for the game; including an extra man to serve as referee together with one from our platoon..
We won the game without any difficulty; so easily in fact that Rambo and I deliberately eased off in defensive play to give the ChiCom soldiers more opportunities to score. And they were certainly good sports about it; several times smiling and showing a thumb-up "ding hao" when Rambo and I scored a basket with the "alley-oop" maneuver. Also, they were a bit handicapped. Only four of them seemed really to know much of how to play basketball. The fifth member was Konrad, who had positioned himself to play a forward position in opposition to me. He not only never scored a basket, he didn't even get clear enough to attempt. And he posed no appreciable interference to my offensive play although he was sufficiently aggressive to be called twice for fouls by the ChiCom referee and perhaps deserved even more.
In fact, Konrad brushed and bumped against me so much during the game as to cause me to suspect that was why he wanted to arrange it in the first place. And his repeated expressions of pleasure afterward, despite having lost the game, furthered my suspicion that he may have been afflicted with some measure of hormonal imbalance along with what I regarded as ideological disorientation. I thought it best, however, not to mention that suspicion to anyone.
There had also appeared during those first weeks at the Little Schoolhouse an indication that Peter Love's attitude toward us was some divergent from political officer Konrad's perspective and purposes. Although our soldierly platoon leader had discontinued accompanying us to the big school yard after the first 2 or 3 trips, he continued to appear daily for a few brief orders or statements to us. When he did so, he and Tsai would be standing near the top of the steps leading up to the Little Schoolhouse, which was within earshot of Konrad's office. It had been noted one day that Konrad emerged from his office as Peter Love began speaking and after but a quick glance in our direction still appeared to be listening.
In subsequent such assemblies it was noted that after translating whatever few words Peter Love might have spoken, Tsai was adding something more. It would be some brief statement about the peace talks, the intransigence of our negotiators perhaps, or something about Syngman Rhee doing things to interfere the sort of comments which Konrad often inserted in his occasional announcements to us. Several times Tsai's additions were lengthy enough to cause Peter Love to look at him as though wondering why it was taking so many English words to express whatever he had said in just a few Chinese words. Or he may have been suspecting that Tsai was adding something to whatever he had said. It did in any case further our feelings that Peter Love's attitude and actions in our regard were not entirely consistent with the Party line.
Discussion of it with Arnold and a few others led to conclusion that Peter Love's attitude toward us was in fact contrary in several respects to the official policy. Was he unaware of the policy which Konrad had expressed that now as prisoners of war there was no differences of rank amongst us "everybody same-same"? Apparently so, since he had immediately shown respect for our ranks and ratings in designation of squad leaders. But why had he been allowed to do that? It was otherwise clearly evident that political officers in communist military organizations were in those and several other regards superior to the military commanders.
This led to conjecture that there must be something about Peter Love which made political officer Konrad reluctant to directly deal with him on the matter. Which led in turn to recollection of Tsai's introduction of Peter Love just recovered after long hospitalization for wounds suffered during the fighting in mainland China during the revolution. Perhaps even very probably Peter Love was somewhat of a legitimate "war hero;" an actual, distinguished combat veteran, sufficiently renowned that the political overlords dare not openly criticize or rebuke him. That would explain Tsai's evident high regard for him. It would also explain the sincere respect which Peter Love demonstrated for us as "soldiers," no matter that we were of the opposing forces.
"Attitude" was a term much used by the enemy interrogators and propagandists. If a prisoner disagreed with something one of them said he would be told he had the "wrong attitude," and/or that he must "change": his attitude in order to qualify for the "lenient treatment" which our captors "wanted to provide." Deprivation of food, or drinking water, or washing privilege and even solitary confinement were represented as "unfortunately" necessary in order to effect the proper change in attitude. Peter Love's attitude toward us was definitely "wrong." We wondered in those first weeks at the Little School house what sort of things might be done by his political overlords to change it. In the ensuing months, both the procedure and the outcome would prove to be very interesting and educational.
Another of our original Chinese associates at Little Schoolhouse who would eventually need an "attitude change" was our coolie "orderly," Liu. After the first few days of quietly studying us Happy began to mingle a bit. Beyond his approaches to Arnold or myself to somehow convey messages or ask questions despite the language difference, he would sometimes approach some of the others with some thing to show to them, or quietly observe what they were doing. He did this on a somewhat selective basis however, indicating he had made individual appraisals of us; avoiding the very few whom he had probably judged would not welcome such approaches. With regard to myself, having for some time observed my various activities from a distance, he one day paused beside me to look directly at what I was doing. I was seated outside near the doorstep at the time, stitching a shoulder strap onto the cloth backpack I was making. I looked up at him and while pointing at the stitching said, "Hao? Boo hao?" (Good? Or not good?)
He pointed first at the backpack and said, "Hao;" then pointed at the braided rope hanging beside the door and together with a few Chinese words which I did not know said, "Ding hao." (Very good!)
So he admired my rope! It was by that time about 8 or 10 feet long. I took hold of the loose end of it, tugged it between my hands and then handed it to him. He tugged it several times, more strongly each time, then handed it back to me and made sign with his hands as though climbing a rope. I nodded "yes" to the question he was obviously asking, in response to which he repeated more emphatically, "Ding hao!" A trace of a smile appeared on his somber face when he did so. I elected to not tell Arnold of the incident. Better that he learn on his own that Happy could smile when he felt he had reason to do so. Besides which I now felt quite certain that my coolie buddy had figured out why I was making the rope. And I felt even more certain as he moved on into the Little Schoolhouse that he would not tell anyone. Subsequently he often brought more fibrous strands to add to the rope.
A day or so later while I was alone outside, Kubicek called from the doorway of the Little Schoolhouse for me to come in and see what Happy had just shown them. As soon as I arrived, Happy stretched out, face down on the floor. Two men positioned themselves seated on the floor on opposite sides of him, legs interlocked across his shoulders, then grasped hands and pulled their butts off the floor. Two others alongside balanced the first two on Happy's shoulders as he pushed up to full extension of his arms, drew his legs and feet under them and stood up. "Think you can do it, chief?" Kubicek asked as the two slid onto their feet from Happy's shoulders. "No one else could."
Well of course they couldn't, I thought to myself; because they didn't know how and weren't perceptive enough to observe the necessary details to figure it out. It was an example of "coolie know-how;" practical wisdom passed down from his ancestors without need for any text books or the ability to read them. It was so fundamental and basically simple that the pseudo-sophisticate graduates of modern schooling would consider it beneath their "academic dignity" to even think about it. Happy seated himself on the floor with the other spectators as I stretched out for the two live "dummies" to position themselves across my shoulders. Checking then, as Happy had done, to see that both of their butts were off the floor, I levered them up to the straight-arm position, drew legs and feet underneath and stood up.
There were a few mild gasps along with the surprised looks of my countrymen spectators. Happy's eyes, in his otherwise solemn face, shone with appreciation. I blinked both my eyes quickly along with a slight nod to him, and received a similar blink and nod in response. Mine, I felt certain, would convey to him that I would not share "our" secret with any of the others. From his I felt in addition to his appreciation of my performance and pledge of secrecy, a sort of welcome into a centuries old and most honorable club the practitioners of coolie wisdom.
I returned outside, then, to whatever I had been working on in preparation for my soon to be started trip. Having demonstrated what Kubicek had asked for, I saw no reason to comment to anyone. If they might think that it showed Happy and I to be some stronger physically than any of them, so be it. It might even be advantageous to have some of them think that. No need to mention, then, that together with whatever we had of braun we had both used a little brain power. It might even hurt the feelings of some to be told that a Chinese coolie and a dumb old sailor were in some respects maybe a little smarter than they.
Arrival of our new shoes in early July completed my equipage for venture of escape. Canvas oxfords with soft and not very endurable soles; they were not rugged of construction. But they were light of weight so the heavy old flying boots could be abandoned. Two pair were issued. Together with the moccasins they should endure. My rope was now 15 feet long, and its strength well tested. The frogman suit, no longer serviceable as such, would be abandoned; but its gloves filled with sugar were stashed in the backpack. Two dozen matches had been coated with wax from the candles. For mostly sentimental reasons, I cut the walking stick with the mermaid handle to a length which would fit in the backpack. Notches could be cut in it for keeping track of days. The one-half hacksaw blade and two-inch piece of now razor sharp shrapnel would have to do for hacking and slashing of whatever obstacles might be encountered which needed to be hacked or slashed.
One additional thing needed was a "dark and stormy night;" rain drops pelting on the metal roof of the guard post outside the door to cover any sounds of my intended exit through one of the windows in the north wall of the Little Schoolhouse, and darkness in which to make way up and over the ridge a short way beyond. Mother Nature would have to provide that, I must be ready for instant departure when she did so.
Another thing not absolutely needed but of potential advantage was a partner in the venture. There would likely be some obstacles encountered which could be more easily dealt with by two men, than by one alone. Appraisal of potential candidates had already been made, without explicitly stating such intentions to anyone. None at all had background of training or personal experience in the manner of self-maintenance which would be involved ( i.e., living off the land. ) But I could provide that. Just two basic qualities were needed in a partner reasonably good physical condition and a sincere desire to escape, rather than inclination to "wait a while to see if the war might end," now that our circumstance as prisoners was much improved.
Only Les Ribbeck and John Shaw seemed possibly to meet that criteria. They were both only about 20 years old but had shown both courage and stamina at the Slave Camp. I broached the subject first with Ribbeck, indirectly by asking if he had given any thought to trying to escape. He said he knew he didn't have the necessary knowledge to even try by himself but wanted to know if I thought it would be possible now that we were so far from the battle line. I told him I saw it as very possible, by going to the coast and out to sea on just about anything that would float. We discussed possibilities at some length. He was enthused with the idea, but expressed concern that he wasn't in good enough shape to keep up with me; and might end up being more handicap than help. He reminded that he had twice collapsed at the Slave Camp, and informed me that he had also felt some chest pains on the wood gathering trips here. I could not but agree that he was not in good enough physical condition for such attempt; regretfully, because the young marine had the kind of sensible "gung ho" spirit that was needed.
John Shaw also was totally unequipped by background or training to make any attempt on his own. City born and raised, probably very little of field training after being drafted into the army: but he had proven himself after capture to be a quick learner, including some conversational ability in the Korean language. And he appeared in good physical condition. His questions from the very beginning of our discussion were further indication of his learning ability. So I told him that I was "seriously considering" an attempt, alone if necessary, but if he was interested I believed him to be qualified as a partner. No immediate decision was sought from him. He deserved answers to any and all questions he might have before deciding. I asked in turn only that if he discussed the idea with others he not tell them of my statement that I would be going alone, if necessary.
During the next two days, Shaw's further questions further confirmed my judgment that the young man had the qualities of intelligence and learning ability needed for such venture. When he decided he would go, our discussion shifted to basic details of the plan: Northward to the Suejo Reservoir on the Yalu, cross into Manchuria at night using anything that would float for assistance. Follow the river on the Manchurian side until beyond the dam and past Pyoktong, after which judgment of the terrain would determine our course toward its outflow into the Yellow Sea and whether to work our way around Sinuiju in Manchuria or cross back into Korea and bypass it southward to reach the seacoast. The speed of out-flowing tide in the Yellow Sea would be helpful for reaching either an offshore island or the area where our naval vessels patrolled in any small boat we might be able to steal at night.
We discussed also the specific details for getting out of the Little Schoolhouse unnoticed and away from the immediate vicinity. After getting out through the north window we would have to work our way over the ridge and down the other side through rocks and brush in darkness. There would be need afterward for backtracking and other maneuvering into hiding areas which we must find along the way. It wouldn't be easy, and full achievement was by no means certain. Shaw had wondered what would be done to us if recaptured. I judged that if we harmed no one, because we were "bartering items" in the armistice negotiations, we would be brought back for exhibit to others of the "foolishness" of trying to escape. There would probably be some isolation and other temporary "inconveniences," but the enemy wouldn't want to make martyrs of us. His reaction to all this indicated the manner of venturesome spirit which would help us along.
There were a few more days of waiting for the "dark and stormy night." A back pack similar to my own was constructed for Shaw, some items readied in both of them and stowed in the cavity beneath my bed-down area. But then on the morning of 28 July Shaw informed me that he had a new buddy, a recently arrived young fellow of his age, who wanted to go along with us. It was a ridiculous idea for several reasons and I told him so no advance preparation, no equipage, no way of knowing if the fellow had the stamina to keep up with us, problems of maintaining communication, and so on. Shaw said his new friend could just follow along and that if I wouldn't agree to that he would not go along either.
Storm clouds were beginning to show. The instinctive impulse (which I should have obeyed) was to say, "Okay, forget it!" and prepare for my lone departure. But I had convinced myself before inviting him that once underway the 20-year old Shaw would quickly learn and develop into the kind of man who would better the chance of success. So I said instead, "Okay, he can tag along. But tell him if he can't keep up with us or gets lost he'll have to either find his own way back to camp or wait for someone else to find him. And tell him to get ready because from the looks of those clouds tonight's the night we'll be leaving."
The Great Escape
From Pak's to Pyoktong
Table of Contents
©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.