The storm arrived before full darkness, but moving slowly enough to suggest it would last through most of the night. A quick and not really needed trip to the latrine confirmed that the sentry was well-position under the metal roof of the guardpost some l5 yards from the door, and would likely remain there so long as the rain continued. There had been in any case up to that time no "bed-checks" of us at night since the only exit from the Little Schoolhouse (also up to that time) was its front door. Nor was it likely that Konrad or Tsai would have reason to visit us at this late hour in a rainstorm..
With the exception of Shaw and his new-found buddy, Wem, all hands were bedded down in their spaces when I returned; but without the quiet conversations that usually continued for a while between neighbors. Obviously the word had spread throughout that I intended to depart the place on the first such night. Shaw and Wem were seated at their spaces, with a makeshift backpack for Wem consisting of his extra pair of trousers stuffed with whatever else he would be carrying along. I suppressed my continued bad feeling about having a third person tagging along, told them to bed down until I would roust them when it was time to depart, and went to my own space to do likewise. There was no need to hurry, so it seemed better to wait until later just in case someone of the enemy might for some reason still come to our quarters. I even had the vain hope that at least some of the others would by then have gone to sleep.
But such was not at all the case. When I rousted the other two and began cutting on the wooden bars of the north window there was not a single snore to be heard. In fact, except for the sound of the whittling on the bars the silence inside the Little Schoolhouse was so "loud" as to cause wonder if everyone except me was holding their breath. Of course the rumble of the very heavy rain on the roof would have covered a great deal more of noise than the whittling caused and its pelting on the metal roof of the guard post outside must have been near-deafening for the sentry.
All which generated a most unusual sensation a feeling of tension which seemed to be engulfing everyone in the place except myself. I had actually to restrain myself from saying aloud something like, "Why don't you all just mind your own damn' business and go to sleep?" I did whisper to Shaw and Wem to sit down and relax until I finished the cutting. For although they were only about an inch in diameter, the bars were of a very tough wood. And with no handle on the short blade for leverage it was very slow going with four cuts needing to be made.
Because the bars were tightly wired together at their crossing points, when the cuts were completed the two segments were held together as an "X." I placed it gently on the floor, leaning against the wall under the window, with the self-amusing thought that it wouldn't be at all right to drop that bit of the "Chinese Peoples'" property outside, and the hope that Konrad would be the one to find it.
With Shaw's help in effect as a step ladder, I went out feet first. After he had handed out our packs, I pulled him out head first. He in turn did the same with Wem, who began to giggle and laugh nervously as soon as his feet were on the ground. Shaw slapped his new-found buddy to stop that. I then told Wem he should go back inside, because he was not at all in condition to go with us. Like a child he whispered back, "No, no, I wanta go along." I tried then to get Shaw to tell Wem to go back, but there was still enough of boyhood in that young man that he would not do so. It being difficult to argue in whispers, and apparently futile to do so in any case, I shouldered my pack with the disturbing thought that I might find it necessary to abandon the both of them later. But at the moment there was need to get started without further delay.
Except for now infrequent flashes of lightning, it was so dark in the storm that visual contact with one another could not be maintained at more than a few feet of distance. A three foot length of leather thong attached to my pack enabled Shaw to maintain contact with me and another on his pack would enable Wem to follow him. We were in a small field of corn in the cultivated terrace immediately alongside the Little Schoolhouse. After but four or five steps I stumbled against a pile of rocks and after feeling the way around that one hit another just a few steps beyond. A broken-off corn stalk, used as a blind man's cane, enabled avoidance of stumbling into two more of them before reaching the edge of the field. The slope from that point was steep enough to proceed on "all-fours," thus feeling the way around outcroppings until we crested the ridge.
A resting pause before reaching the crest provided a panoramic view of the village during lightning flashes. It might reasonably be called "spectacular." In addition to the heavy rainfall and water streaming off the roofs, several small lights were blinking on and off along the roadway. Flashlights had been issued to at least some of the camp personnel only a few days previously. About a half-dozen persons were flashing theirs on and off as they slushed along the roadway in the downpour. Shaw wondered anxiously if perhaps our departure had been discovered and they were looking for us. I calmed the young man by telling him to just watch for a while and think what the action below really indicated. His reaction confirmed that by himself he could quickly learn, as he realized there was no activity around the Little Schoolhouse.
We paused again briefly when we crested the ridge and I, at least, enjoyed a last look at the scene of the village below; dim though it was through the continuing heavy downpour. I wondered for a moment that the storm was so perfectly suited to my needs, one might say precisely what I had hoped for. It had completely covered the noise of our breakout and provided concealment from view until we would be otherwise out of sight on the north side of the ridge. And as we began descent from the ridge I realized it provided additional help which I hadn't even thought of. The slope was so steep that the only sensible way to descend was by sliding down on our butts, feet extended feeling for rocks and trees in the pitch blackness. The wetness made for easy sliding and the thick scrub growth provided handholds to prevent sliding too fast.
That procedure of course caused us to mostly follow the course of the water runoff. Eventually that would lead us into a small ravine or runoff stream formed by drainage from two directions coming together. Four times after reaching such runoff streams, they led eventually to an unseen precipice. Unseen, but in every case well-heard; the sound of the falling water let us know it was there. The procedure then was to parallel the precipice eastward, as the ridge itself extended in that direction. Feet extended over its edge while holding onto scrub growth stems maintained a course parallel to the precipice until it faded into the downward northern slope. A rock tossed northward would also send back a signal, depending upon how long it took to strike ground.
Almost suddenly, it seemed, we emerged from pitch darkness of the scrub growth onto a flat area at the northern base of the ridge which we had just traversed. The rainfall had stopped almost completely as we did so, with further lessening of the darkness. Again, there was a fleeting sensation of amazement that Mother Nature seemed to be orchestrating the weather to fit my needs. Plus which, in the estimated 4 or 5 hours of our sightless travel to this point, none of us had suffered any at all of significant bruises or scratches. There would be another 4 or 5 hours before the sentry would open the door of the Little Schoolhouse to conduct reveille. By that time it appeared likely we could have reached the first objective of this trek a mountain peak which I had noted during wood gathering trips from which a good view of surrounding terrain would be helpful in choosing a second objective.
The stream flowing eastward from that point would lead us to another stream alongside a well-trod pathway which we had traveled on those previous wood-gathering excursions. That, in turn, would take us northward toward the mountain peak. .We reached the northbound pathway within a few minutes, and the cloud overcast thinned allowing much improved visibility including dim outline of the peak toward which we were headed. Very shortly we were at a place well-remembered from the previous wood gathering trips. A sizable flat rock in the middle of the stream beside the pathway served as a stepping stone for crossing to the other side.
From that point, the well-traveled pathway bent northeastward and upward toward crossing of a ridge extending eastward from the peak. Because that main pathway was obviously much traveled, it seemed advisable by that time to get off of it rather than risk meeting some early morning travelers. So we crossed over the stream via the natural stepping stone and headed directly toward the peak. A moderately sloped open area led up toward it; no trees or boulders, but waste high grass and light shrubbery now quite wet from the rain. We would leave an obvious trail passing through it, but a search party would not likely have much difficulty tracking us to the peak in any case. Only after reaching there would I be able to devise a way to send then off on a false trail or otherwise evade their finding us.
We were about half a mile from the peak when daybreak brought with it a clearing of the sky on the eastern horizon. It also brought a virtually indescribable sensation of freedom. I paused for a while to fully enjoy it; and of course my companions stopped as well. Whether they in any measure shared the feeling I do not know. We were standing in the midst of nowhere and nothingness, clothing saturated, still dripping from the rain, no food, until we might find some, no way of knowing what all manner of obstacles may yet lie ahead, how long it might take to get out of enemy territory, or if in fact I would make it all the way. But none of that seemed to matter just then. All that mattered for the moment was the tremendous sensation of freedom! Indescribable it was, inexplicable.* [ * Two years later, in the writings of a German officer just released from 10 years of Soviet imprisonment, I would find a question which may in itself contain the answer "Must a man escape from prison before he can fully appreciate Freedom?" ]
When we arrived at the peak we found a small area close by the very top which was obviously often used as a resting place for travelers, with a few flat rocks and small logs that were obviously used as seats. We unshouldered our packs and removed some of their contents to squeeze or wring water out of them. Shaw wondered if we shouldn't be moving on.
"We can't outrun 'em," I told him. "We have to out-fox 'em;" then pointed out that about this very same time our absence was being discovered. It would take quite a while for them to find out which way we went after we reached the top of the first ridge. And with no clear trail after we reached the northern bottom of it they must spend some time scouting until someone noticed the broad one on the slope leading up to the peak They could rest a bit and dry their feet as best they could while I would figure out which way we should go from there.
Three ridges extended from the peak. The two going east and west had narrow and very hard-packed footpaths on their crests. The crest of the one going north showed no sign at all of traffic, and north was the direction I wanted to go. The question remaining was on which of the others should I lead the search party to think we had gone. The path eastward would shortly intersect with the larger one we had been following, and since that pathway continued northward it would not do at all.to lead them in that direction. The path on the westward ridge led down to a flat, hard packed area beyond which was a fairly level forested area of medium-size trees and large patches of bushy undergrowth. "Amazing!" I thought. I couldn't have designed a better lure than that.
I walked into the woods to the edge of the first large patch of undergrowth, then backwards alongside those tracks to the hard-packed area, then returned to the peak. After a basic explanation to Shaw and Wem the three of us walked side by side a short way down the western ridge. There were scrub trees in the ravine between that and the north ridge. By putting our feet at the bases of them and holding on to branches we could cross to the north ridge without leaving appreciable sign of our passage. After starting the other two on their way across the ravine I walked down to the end of the western path again to make certain it would appear that all three of us had done so.
By the time I returned to our crossing point Shaw and Wem were already on the other side of the ravine waiting, as I had instructed, just short of atop the ridge. As I neared them in my crossing and had come within whispering range, Shaw watching me was batting vexedly at something dangling from a branch of the small tree behind which he was standing. I asked him what that was that he was slapping at. He looked at it closely then and said, "It looks like a small pear."
"That's exactly what it is," I whispered back. "So pick it and put it in your pocket instead of getting mad at it. That's the kind of food we'll be having on this trip. It may be all you'll have for breakfast."
He smiled in amusement at himself, and found three more little pears on the tree. Not much, but a good beginning; encouraging that we would indeed find food as we traveled.
The absence of a footpath on the northbound ridge was opportunity to give some instructions about moving through brush with minimum of noise and leaving minimum of trail sign. Shaw's reaction was attentive and interested. But the reaction of his tag-along buddy was exactly that tagging along. When we had traveled but perhaps a quarter mile, the ridge crest began to descend steeply. Ahead could be seen broadening into a saddle effect, with a rising of the ridge again beyond. And when we had descended onto the broadened area we found our breakfast. We were in a very large patch of raspberries!
Was it Providence? It seemed that it must be Providence! So many things, in such rapid sequence, happening or being in place to help us on our way. There was need even so to keep in mind the full circumstance. There was vivid evidence that we were not the only persons in the neighborhood aware of this raspberry patch. Someone had been here yesterday and someone else would no doubt be here again today; probably quite soon. For there were well used pathways leading up to it from both sides, it was a very large patch, and ripe berries were abundant. We ate some as we filled our caps, then moved on quickly into tall bushes on the north side of the patch to continue on our way..
But Mother Nature had another surprise awaiting us. It had appeared as we descended onto the broadened area of the raspberry patch that the ridge thereafter rose, narrowed, and continued on. But after only about 20 yards of upslope travel in the tall bushes we emerged onto a sizable flat area of solid rock; solid, smooth, and it seemed almost perfectly level. It broadened to about 30 feet in width and extended northward perhaps 60 feet where it ended abruptly, overlooking a valley filled with tall slender trees. Three trees stood so close to edge of the rock plateau that their upper branches extended over it. On either side of us as we approached its northern end solid rock walls, perpendicular and smooth, extended upward about 10 feet. When we reached the northern end, there was a sheer drop of about 40 feet to the floor of the forested valley.
The place was phenomenally beautiful; a natural setting for a pleasurable gathering, perhaps even a small concert. But just then it was disconcerting instead. For it had obviously been recently used by someone as a resting or gathering place; probably by berry pickers on the previous day. And unless a way could be found to safely descend from it to the valley floor, there was no way out but back through the berry patch. And that would no doubt have others within it very shortly.
If one could get onto the stem of one of the trees that projected up past the edge, he should be able to work his way down. They were about 10 inches in diameter at this level and appeared less than two feet at their bottoms. But they were out of reach from the edge of the precipice and the branches extending over it appeared of questionable strength for hand over hand climbing to them. However, on closer inspection peering over the edge it was discovered that this precipice was "sheer" in more ways than just one. About 8 feet below there was a narrow ledge, probably less than 20 inches wide, but flat and smooth enough for one to safely stand upon. And the stem of the westernmost of the 3 trees would be within easy reach from that ledge.
For my own descent, the other two held the rope fast while I slid over the edge and down to the ledge. After that, it would be looped over the strongest of the overhanging branches and I would ease their weight and steady them as they came down. But first they lowered the packs and our breakfast berries down to me. And when I took the first of those to the western end of the ledge (as it had appeared from above) I found that it continued around the corner and was much broader on the west side of this unique rock outcropping; about 30 inches at the widest area. Also, two trees projecting up past that area were so close that one's feet could be placed against them while sitting on the ledge.
No need, then, to descend at once to the valley floor and far better in any case that we not do so. On the Western ledge we would be completely out of sight from above and well screened by foliage from the view of anyone below. It was a perfect place to wait out arrival of the search party. The peak we had just departed was not in view, but the west-running ridge from it was in full silhouette about one-half mile distant.
Wem lowered down first and I steadied him (he was trembling with fright) along the north side ledge. He managed on his own along the west side to the point where I had deposited our packs. Shaw had no difficulty on his own after his feet were on the ledge. I retrieved the rope from the branch above and followed.
Berry pickers began to arrive very soon after we were seated on the ledge and began our breakfast. From their voices it sounded to be only women and children. Eventually there were more than just a few, but there was no loud or boisterous talk. None of the berry patch was within our view
Our breakfast was leisurely one berry at a time; even though we had a quite good supply, We had of course already eaten quite a few a handful at a time while we were picking. But there was no reason now to hurry. To the contrary, there was good reason not to do so. I took advantage of the opportunity to offer my young companions a bit of "Chinese wisdom" (without mentioning its source): "The less you have to eat, the more slowly you should eat it" That could become important at times along our way. Shaw was interested enough to ask why. After I had briefly explained that to him he asked further questions, confirming my previous judgment of his learning ability. He wondered why we didn't continue on right away, since none of us were tired. I pointed out to him that the search party would likely be in the area soon. There was hardly any at all of underbrush in the valley beneath the tall trees. Anything moving there could be readily seen; probably from the western portion of the berry patch. We would stay right where we were until the berry pickers and any troops who might come looking for us were gone. Shaw appeared to be some reassured by our discussion and settled himself on the ledge thereafter with some occasional whispers of conversation with his tag-a-long buddy.
It was indeed as near-perfect hiding place as could be imagined. Even if the search party discovered that we had crossed over to the northbound ridge, the trail on its crest would end at the berry patch. This western portion of the ledge was not visible from anywhere above or from the berry patch. Studying it, then, I realized the smooth texture of the ledge surface was the same as that of the flat area 8 feet above and appeared parallel to it. Which indicated that eons ago, long before formation of soil to nurture the berry patch, some tremendous force had pushed against the upper portion of this huge rock formation, sheering it from the base part and moving it to form the ledge. Now here it was, so well-suited to my needs as to seem to have been constructed expressly for this venture. I amused myself by thinking it was certainly an extraordinary example of advance planing. The sound of a rifle shot from the vicinity of the peak interrupted my geological speculations and esoteric fantasy. It also disrupted the soft chatter of the berry pickers; completely for a few moments after which there were a few words back and forth probably expressing wonderment about the shot they had heard. Shortly, the sound of voices floated down from the same area. The search party was gathering in response to that signal. Shortly, two figures came into view moving down the westbound ridge from the peak. Barely discernible at such distance ( perhaps 1/2 mile) one of them appeared to occasionally point at something on the ground as they walked, probably at the tracks I had deliberately made in the softer ground alongside the hard packed path. They stopped when they reached the point where the slope of the ridge had faded into level ground. One of them pointed out toward the first large patch of underbrush. There would be very clear sign that someone had walked to there. A few moments later the sound of their voices drifted to us through the forest stillness.
The two figures turned then, moved a short way back up the slope and stopped. A call up toward the peak brought about a dozen more figures down the ridge to join them. They assembled at the very bottom of the slope. Next came the sound of orders being given to them. Then as we watched they all ran into the woods and disappeared into the big patch of underbrush. A few seconds after that came the sound of a shouted command followed by shooting of all the others.(probably the Chinese equivalent of "Banzai!") and even the noise of the troops crashing into the underbrush. Those sounds, including shouting, continued to come to us for several minutes though none of the searchers were any longer in view..
What a spectacle! I had expected the ruse would work, but had certainly not expected to have a grandstand seat to observe it. What Shaw said to me in reaction to that scene is not remembered. But his smile conveyed appreciation of the achievement and what struck me as a sense of increased confidence in myself and beginning understanding of the sometimes need for patience in our venture. We would remain on that ledge until the troops returned from their "beating of the bushes" and we could be sure they had departed the area. There remained the possibility their leader might realize they had been following a false lead, look for and find our trail to the berry patch.
The ledge was not wide enough to lie on. But the two trees down which we would eventually descend were close enough to put our feet against while sitting on it. So it was possible to lean back against the rock behind us and relax while awaiting developments. The sounds of the berry pickers began drifting away shortly after the sun passed noontime. But it was late afternoon before the troops reappeared and assembled at the base of the west ridge. Very little of sound drifted to us from that assembly and shortly they trudged back up the slope toward the peak and disappeared from view. We waited about half an hour longer. Hearing no further sounds from the direction of the peak it seemed safe to assume the troops were now well on their way back to the camp.
Because the trees in that forest were growing very close together, there were no lower branches on the boles of the two we used to descend. We had only to hug them, as it were, to prevent sliding down too fast. The floor of the forested area was a thick carpet of spongy humus covered by from 6 to 8 inches of more recently fallen leaves and small twigs. So dense was the foliage at the tops of the trees that no sky was visible; which probably accounted for the almost total absence of brushy undergrowth in the immediate area. Horizontal visibility was unlimited except for obstruction by the slender tree stems. So edges of the tall tree area were visible except to northward where their blockage of view became total at about one-fourth mile.
Despite their dampness from the heavy rainfall, the thick covering of leaves were very noisy as we began walking through them; sufficiently so that in the otherwise stillness it could probably be heard at considerable distance. And our passage through them created a path which would be readily visible, especially from atop the precipice we had just departed. Stepping high with the others following directly behind me reduced the noise a bit, but there was no way to eliminate the visual evidence of our passage.
After about one-half mile of travel the northern edge of the tall woods came into view. By judgment as well as appearance, I expected the Suejo Reservoir was just beyond it. A fallen tree and rock outcropping provided a good place to leave my companions to quietly wait while I would scout ahead. Shortly I reached higher and firmer ground, minus the leaf accumulation, over which I could travel quietly.
Almost suddenly a vast expanse of the Suejo came into my view, through a screening of bushes atop a low bluff. About fifteen feet below was a much traveled pathway which would deserve surveillance until dark. Of immediate interest were two small boats on the beach just a few yards out from the water's edge. They appeared to be about 10 or 12 feet long. The distance was too great to determine if they were serviceable or possibly abandoned shells. Observable also was the roadway just outside the jagged perimeter of the portion of the Suejo which was in view. It was broad enough for mule carts and such, but there was no indication of use by motorized vehicles. No houses were visible, but pathways off the main roadway into ravines indicated likely habitations there. I found a comfortable place midst the bushes near the edge of the bluff from which I could see and yet keep myself unseen.
The sun had dropped below a ridge crest west of this location but was still lighting the slopes of those eastward of the bay in the reservoir over which I was then looking. There would be an hour or more of waiting time before approaching darkness might put an end to human activity which needed to be observed. And to this moment there had been none at all of that. So there was time for appraisal of the geographic circumstance.
The northern shore of the reservoir was visible, but the distance to it was impossible to even estimate from such a low observation point. I recalled from maps and photographs that the reservoir's southern shoreline was quite irregular and that its widest area was about one-third of its length upstream from the dam. It seemed possible that was my present location. For a formation of ridges projected northward about one-half mile to effect the eastern edge of the bay I was looking out upon, while its western shoreline angled away distantly to the northwest with a continuation of the fairly wide beach area which lay directly in front of me. Since that northern shore was in any case my next objective, if one of the small boat hulls visible on the beach before me was serviceable it might be possible to cross over to there that night. I suspected from their positioning on the beach, however, that they were more likely just abandoned shells. In that case, it appeared best to move into the rugged formation of forested ridges which projected northward along the eastern edge of the bay.
That being as much geographical appraisal as was possible at the moment, my thoughts shifted to assessment of the personal situation. Shaw's new-found, "tag-along" chum was totally handicap. He'd had to be helped along the narrow ledge and had difficulty descending on the tree even after instruction and watching Shaw and myself descend ahead of him. He'd shown no understanding or even interest in my discussions of plans with Shaw during the time we waited on the ledge. And what little I heard of their whispered conversations was about things he had done "back home." He had followed the instruction to follow behind, "stepping high" through the leaves, but it was questionable if he understood the reasons for it. Had he not been along, I would have brought Shaw with me to this point, instead of having to leave the two of them behind while I scouted ahead, and soon having to return there to get them. .
The sound of voices from westward interrupted those cogitation's and momentarily six people appeared on the pathway below the bluff. The small baskets and lunch boxes they carried indicated they were returning home from work someplace to the west. They passed by quickly and disappeared around a bend in the trail. Shortly several more passed by and then a group of about twenty. And trotting alongside one fellow in that group was a quite nice looking dog. Absence of a leash indicated a companionship between the two, which in turn indicated there would be need for care in any traveling that night in the vicinity of dwellings. It was unlikely that there would be dogs at very many dwellings; that was in fact the first one I had seen since arriving at Pyoktong. But that's all that would be needed to sound an alarm if it heard or smelled some unknown creatures passing by its territory.
I waited another ten or fifteen minutes in case still more people might come along the pathway. None did. Meanwhile, it was noted that there had been no one on the northward pathway along the eastern edge of the bay; an encouraging sign since it now seemed probable I would myself be using it for a short way to go into the ridges in that area during the coming night. I moved then downslope eastward from the bluff until I could see the rest of the eastbound pathway on which the people had traveled. That brought also into view the southeast corner of the bay. There was a crossing of pathways at that point. The one eastbound continued up a narrow valley alongside a small stream which flowed from there into the reservoir. Though no buildings were visible, that must have been the destination of the travelers. For the other pathway would go southward, up and over the ridge which had ran east from the mountain peak, then on to the village where the prison camp was situated. That was enough of scouting for the moment. I retraced back to where I had left the other two; thinking as I did so such waste of time would be unnecessary if Shaw had not insisted that his new-found buddy come along and/or I had not been so foolish as to agree to it.
Full night darkness was upon us when we reached the intersection of the pathways. I directed Shaw and Wem to the further darkness of some bushes east of the intersection to await my return from checking condition of the boats I had seen on the beach west of there. As I had come to expect, the boats were worthless shells. When I rejoined the other two in the bushy area to which I sent them, a "gurgling" sound led us to a spring of wonderfully fresh water. As we drank our fill from it I again mused with increased amazement about the several providential conveniences which had been encountered in the past 24 hours.
Shaw whispered something in effect crediting me with all those things; as though he thought I had foreseen or somehow known we would find them. There was impulse to try to explain otherwise to him. But I sensed that he lacked the background of schooling and, at least as yet, of experience to comprehend providence. Also, I was beset by the realization that all of our good fortune and such of our success as might be due to my own planning or good judgment could be despoiled in an instant by the third member of our party. The poor fellow was obviously incapable of doing much of anything on his own. I'd had to steady him moving along the ledge. Shaw had helped him down from the ledge on the tree. He'd followed instructions to walk behind Shaw and lift his feet high as we walked through the leaves to the point where I had left the two of them; but had to be reminded when I returned and led them on out to this point. In addition to apparent inability of himself to understand or learn, his presence was inhibiting of Shaw's otherwise quick ability to do so. So it would be insensible to continue carrying the fellow along any further. The only reasonable alternative was to send him back to the camp. In which case Shaw would almost certainly go with him. But so be it! By himself, I was now even more certain Shaw would have become a very helpful partner. But he was not essential.
We were right then standing at the northern end of the pathway which led directly back to the prison camp village; the one which we had followed northward toward the peak. But it would not do to even mention at that moment the idea of them returning there. That must wait until morning. For they would not likely be willing to start back in darkness on an unknown trail, or even for certain capable of following it. So we would follow that pathway northward along the edge of the reservoir for a way, then go up into the wooded area on one of the rugged ridges and spend the night. I did, however, explain right then that the path going southward from where we were standing led back to the village. I could direct them back to that point from wherever we might spend the night.
A low cloud cover over the area made the darkness almost as complete as it had been during the storm. And a light rain began to fall as we reached the base of the first of the ridges. Unknowing if there might be habitation beyond the western point of that ridge it seemed best to move up onto it to spend the night. The slope at its very beginning was so steep it would be impossible to ascend without leaving a readily discernible trail in the soft humus. But after about a quarter mile of travel a rocky area was found which enabled a less noticeable entrance. And a small outcropping near the crest provided a place to huddle. The atmosphere itself was not chill, but there was still dampness in our clothing from the previous night's downpour and this night's drizzle was adding to that.
Shaw and Wem, huddled close together, soon appeared possibly to be asleep. But there could be no sleep for me. For there were too many things to think about; troubling, contradictory, and sometimes directly conflicting thoughts. I cursed myself for having violated my own instinct and good judgment by agreeing to bring Shaw's new-found friend along. It was not Wem's fault that he was deficient of knowledge, experience, or whatever else, to do anything other than just follow along. If fault was to be assigned in that regard, it could well be placed upon those of political and military authorities back home who would draft such young men into military service and send them into combat situations without adequate of training. And for what purpose? It was now clearly evident our political leaders didn't want us to win this war. They wouldn't even call it a war or declare it a war just a "police action" for the United Nations. Our ground forces were restricted to just holding a line of position against repeated assaults by much greater numbers of enemy troops until such time as some vague manner of "peace agreement" might be negotiated at Panmunjom.
I recalled the Chinese laborers I'd seen near the Slave Camp practicing "human wave" assault carrying shovels, and their supervisor's explanation that they were training for soon moving on to the battle front. Then I recalled Marine Corporal Les Ribbeck's description of how he was captured. He had burned out two barrels on his machine gun against a series of such assaults and ran out of ammunition with the third barrel allowing them to overrun his position. But of course such was the way of communist leaders send wave upon wave of untrained troops as "cannon fodder" to absorb defensive firepower. Then when the defenders' firepower diminished, trained troops advanced to kill, capture, or drive out the defenders.
Might not untrained troops in the defending forces be regarded as "cannon fodder" as well? Especially when they were forbidden to launch a counter-offensive toward the purpose of actually defeating the enemy and thus ending the war? In addition to endangerment of their own lives, putting such untrained or otherwise incompetent youngsters on the battle lines greatly increased the hazards to all others.* And now one of such was handicapping me because I had been foolish enough, albeit unknowing of his deficiencies, to let him come along on this venture.
[ * It was subsequently learned that two walking wounded men were captured along with Wem. He had been detailed to escort them back to an aid station, turned north instead of south after leaving their battleline position, and led them directly into enemy hands. ]
The drizzling rainfall stopped after a time, and the sky lightened enough that I moved on up to the crest of the ridge hoping to view whatever might be on the other side of it It was a narrow valley with a similar steep and rugged ridge just beyond, but light was still too dim to see if there were any buildings in it. I found a comfortable place to sit leaning back against a tree to await the dawn. I struggled meanwhile with the problem of how to present to Shaw that I would not have his new found buddy tag along any further, even if Shaw would not then continue with me as well. That problem was still unresolved when daybreak arrived.
There were no buildings in the narrow valley, nor even much of vegetation. Its floor was rocky and so steep of slope that the heavy rainfall of the previous night was already all absorbed or drained away. Shaw and Wem appeared still to be asleep where I had left them, so I moved westward along the crest of the ridge to a point where it dropped sharply toward the reservoir. From that vantage could be seen a comparatively large field of corn in the broadened mouth of the valley. And beyond that, near some trees and bushes along the very edge of the reservoir, was a small pile of cut logs; which appeared even from a distance to be of size manageable and suitable for building of a raft.
My two companions were awake and waiting when I returned to where I had left them. I led them from there directly down to the valley floor, trying without much success to make it without leaving much sign of our passage. Once there, however, we could move toward the reservoir on a hard packed pathway or large areas of barren rock. That ended against the northbound pathway which I had noted the previous afternoon along the ragged edge of the reservoir. The corn field was immediately alongside, between the pathway and the edge of the reservoir. Though nearly full tasseled, the ears on the stalks were still quite small. But between those stalks were stringbeans, full ready for picking.
There seemed to be time to gather a few of the beans and then move into hiding before the local citizens would be up and about. I wanted also to quickly check the logs I had seen as to their suitability for a raft. So I told Wem to go into the corn field "keep low and move carefully" and fill his pockets and perhaps his cap with beans while Shaw and I would check on something else I had seen. (I wanted Shaw to see the logs and their potential in case he might be agreeable to sending Wem back to the camp and himself continue with me.) The logs were indeed suitable and there were vines in the area for lashing them together. But when Shaw and I returned from quickly checking them, Wem was just standing full erect in the cornfield , unmoving.
I called to him in a loud whisper, "What in the hell are you doing?"
He replied plaintively, "I don't know how to pick beans."
There was a large strip of brushy growth on the slope of the ridge just a short distance north of us. I told Shaw to take Wem with him and the two of them work their way carefully upslope into that brush. I would pick some of the beans and join them. He did so as I began stuffing my pockets with beans. I hurried then to the point where I had seen them enter the brush. But when I arrived there they were both coming back out and Shaw said, "There's no place up there, chief. It's all just real thick brush like this."
It was probably a combination of exasperation, anger and lack of any sleep which caused me to overlook that what Shaw had described was exactly what was needed. Thick, more than head-high brush, on a southern slope from which it would have been possible to observe activity during the day while resting and drying ourselves in the sun. Urgency of time was a factor also. Sunrise was near at hand, and some manner of resident activity would soon begin. There was a brush-covered ravine on the slope of the ridge south of us. We had in fact descended from that ridge right alongside the ravine. I led my two wards across the forty or so yards of barren rock, ushered them into the ravine, brushed away small signs of our passage and scattered a few fallen leaves outside the vine-draped entrance.
Though the ravine was about twelve feet wide at its outlet, the brush growth met overhead to screen it completely. We moved on in about 30 yards where a bend put us out of view from the entrance. There was still width enough there to stretch out comfortably under the canopy of brush. It was more convenient and perhaps more comfortable than we might have managed in the brush patch. But it lacked the sunshine exposure and observation advantage we would have had there. I privately cursed myself a bit, then, for having failed to realize that soon enough to go on up into that brush patch. But it was too late to risk crossing back over to it.
We were in any case now well hidden for the day. So I instructed them to remove their shoes and socks for drying of feet, and did the same myself. It seemed also a safe time for myself to get some sleep, and I asked if one of them was rested enough to stay awake and keep watch for any activity around us . Wem said he could do so because he had slept quite a bit during the night and on the previous afternoon in the tall woods while awaiting my return. So I leaned back against the wall of the ravine, closed my eyes and at once dozed off.
But I was suddenly awakened in but a very few minutes by what must have been some manner of instinctive impulse! Shaw alone was seated beside me and I asked where Wem was. "Oh he went back outside to stand watch, " was Shaw's answer.
What, if anything, I might have said in response to that at the time is probably as well left un-remembered. I slipped on my shoes and hurried down to the entrance. Immediately outside, Wem was sitting with his shoes off atop a huge, bald outcropping of rock and looking westward toward the reservoir. I called for him to come down. He just sat there unmoving and said, "There's a woman coming."
"Dammit!" I repeated, "Get down from there!". .
"It's too late, " he responded. "She's already seen me."
It was at least five seconds, possibly ten, before the woman came into my view. There were two youngsters with her; probably about 6 and 8 years old. The grubbing hoe in her hand indicated she was probably on her way to till some gardening spot farther up the valley. Coming upslope as she was, almost trudgingly, concentrating on placement of her feet and with the morning sun glaring directly into her face, she did not see Wem until she had advanced into the shadow of the outcropping on which he was seated.
Surprise shock possibly fright showed in her face at sight of him. He called down to her a Korean word meaning something on the order of hello or good morning. She said something to the older of the youngsters, who quickly ran back down the slope and out of sight. The woman and the other child then skirted around the outcropping, probably a little wider than usual and with some trepidation, to continue toward their original destination.
Wem put his shoes on then, slid down from his perch, entered the ravine and wordlessly continued on to sit down beside Shaw. I brushed away the tracks he had made in the entryway, scattered a few more leaves upon it and joined them. There was neither need nor any point in discussing the matter right then. It would be difficult in any case to properly cuss someone out in whispers. Also, though I had for certain decided the course of action which must be taken from this point, I had not yet decided how best to present it to them.
Since Shaw had not shown sense enough to keep Wem from going outside the ravine I would tell them both to return to the prison camp. But they could not reasonably leave for there at the moment, because there would very soon be people arriving in the area as result of the message carried by the child whom the woman had sent back to wherever she came from. So I put my still damp socks back on, laced and tied my shoes, readjusted a few things in my backpack and began putting it on. Which prompted Shaw to break the silence and ask: "What are we going to do now, chief?"
"I'm going back up on the ridge where I can see what goes on around us," I told him. You two can stay right here 'til I get back...." The sound of voices approaching from the west interrupted and kept me from adding that if I didn't make it back by nightfall they should plan to go back over the ridge to the intersection where we had paused last night, and take the southbound pathway from there back to the village; either this night or on the following morning. Very shortly then, about eight or ten Korean men arrived in the open area outside the entrance of the ravine. They were carrying clubs, shovels and one of them a pitchfork. No doubt word had spread in the community that three "dangerous" Americans had escaped from the prison camp, and any citizen who might see us would be in deep trouble if they did not report it to "proper authorities."
The Koreans showed no interest in looking for us. But their presence forbid my moving on up the ridge because the ravine and the brush covering it extended only about halfway toward the crest. One of them did peer through the vines hanging over the ravine entrance, but then rejoined the others who only stood or milled around as though waiting for someone else; undoubtedly for troops from the prison camp There was no point in berating Wem for his actions, or saying much to either of them except that it looked as though we were at the end of our escape venture. The look on Shaw's face indicated that he recognized at least in some measure that his tag-along buddy was the primary cause of our situation. How long it would take for troops to arrive depended upon how the message of our presence here was delivered to them. Their arrival in about half an hour indicated they must have been notified by phone or radio.
They clattered up into the open area where the Koreans were waiting and conversation began between the officer of the guard detail, a captain, and one of the Koreans; no doubt inquiring as to the situation. They had conversed only a minute or so when there was a sound from the ridge above as of something moving there. It was probably a falling branch, or a stone which might have been loosened when we descended from there at daybreak. But to the soldiers it sounded as though someone was moving up there right then. There was a grunt sound from someone of them and the entire troop rushed up the slope along the western side of the ravine. Their officer bid a quick farewell to the Korean with whom he had been talking and followed his troops up and over the ridge.
Was there no end no limit to the providential things which seemed to be in place or happening to help me in this venture? I was dumfounded for a while. And even after recovery from that I held back from expressing my thoughts to my two young companions. For neither of them could be expected to comprehend the depth and intensity of feeling and wonderment which this incident had imposed upon me.
The troops were now following our backtrail. They had rushed up the slope right over the trail we had left when we descended from it, obliterating any signs which a good tracker might have noticed that would have told him it was made by someone coming down instead of going up. And when they reached the crest they would see the trail we had made coming up that side of the ridge the night before and likely assume that it was instead just made by someone going down that slope. For it would not be clear footprints indicating direction of travel, but disturbance of leaves, twigs, and small rocks; which could have been caused by someone going downslope instead of coming up. That would lead them to the rocky area at base of the ridge where we had departed from the hard packed and much traveled footpath. And on that they could not expect to find clear sign of anyone's direction of travel.
One could only imagine what they might do after that. There was considerable of thick and bushy growth between that footpath and the edge of the reservoir. They might well assume we had gone into that, and it would not be an easy place in which to search. There was impulse for myself to follow up to the ridge crest from which I would be able to see what they were doing. But I dare not do so because, although the Koreans had departed from the area immediately outside the ravine entrance, some or all of them would probably still be in the vicinity. And in the dark blue, uncamouflaged clothing I was wearing it was unlikely I could even crawl up to the crest without being noticed. I had noted that two men had gone up the valley from there, probably to wherever the woman and child had gone. There would be others active in the area, possibly including in the field from which I had taken the beans.
Shaw had apparently been watching me during my meditations. When I looked at him he asked, "What are we going to do now, chief?" I told him we would stay right where we were. He asked if it wouldn't be better if we went somewhere else, like over in that brush patch where I had sent them to begin with. I told him that was where we "should be and would be" if I hadn't been so foolish as to abandon the idea when he came back out and said there wasn't any place in there to stay. The look on his face in reaction to that indicated that he was probably recognizing that he was in considerable measure responsible for our present situation. It was best if he might figure out on his own that had we gone up into those bushes Wem would not have perched on a rock for some passerby to see and so we would not have fallen into our present situation. I added mention then of the obvious fact that we couldn't return to the brush patch now because of the Koreans lingering about or working in their fields. He said, "Oh. Yeah," in response to that and looked at the ground between his feet.
There was naught to be gained by belaboring the matter. My purpose was to make Shaw realize when I would tell him that he and Wem should return to the village that I had very good reason for doing so.
After a minute or so he asked if I thought the search party would be coming back after failing to find us on the other side of the ridge and if so, how soon? That would of course depend upon whether someone of them figured out or eventually assumed that they had been following our back trail, and where all they might search before coming to that conclusion or assumption. Meanwhile, there was nothing much we could do but sit and wait until such time as the Koreans might be gone from the immediate vicinity. And that would likely be several hours because, judging by the sun, it was still only about nine o'clock. I applied my thoughts then to the problem of when and how best to tell Shaw I had decided that both he and Wem should return to the camp. They sat silently with their own thoughts during that time.
After a while I went up to the beginning of the ravine, crawling through the last few yards of the dwindling brush growth. From there I could see quite fully the barren floor of the valley immediately below. Westward I could see only the northern portion of it and the pathway as it bent around the point of the next ridge. There were two people there, apparently doing something in the vegetation, possibly a small field, alongside the path. They occasionally seemed to look in my direction. A pedestrian appeared from the south and stopped to talk with them. There was considerable of looking and pointing in my direction during their conversation. He then walked on and disappeared beyond the point of the next ridge. Several more people moved in and out of view in the lower end of the valley from time to time, perhaps involved with the plantings between the pathway and the reservoir. I wondered if someone may have discovered that a few beans were missing from one of those patches.
Eastward, the valley narrowed and rose rapidly, disappearing where the two ridges which formed it converged against the slope of a slightly higher ridge extending north and south. No people were in sight, but there were at least four there somewhere the woman and child and the two whom I had seen move on in that direction after the troops arrived. It appeared possible that one might be able to crawl eastward, angling upward along the slope from where I was then looking, without being seen from below. But only one! And before doing so there was need to get my pack, tell Shaw and Wem to go back to the camp and make sure that Shaw knew how to get back on the pathway leading to there.
As I was returning down the ravine to where they were sitting, Shaw and Wem were conversing, but stopped doing so when Shaw saw me coming. Significant behavior for certain, even if one could not be certain of what it signified. I seated myself beside Shaw and described to him what I had observed from the top point of the ravine; except that I did not mention the thoughts about crawling eastward from there. I still had more thinking to do about that and would not in any case have them follow along if I decided to do it. Shaw, as was usual, asked a few questions. Wem, as usual, said nothing.. The sun was nearing its zenith by then. I handed a half dozen of the string beans to each of them, with reminder to eat them very slowly and chew them well. While doing the same with my own ration I gave more thought to the several problems now confronting.
After considerable of that I decided I should try to crawl eastward from the ravine along the slope and upward toward the crest of the ridge. But first, then, Shaw had to be told that he and Wem should return to the camp. And they couldn't start immediately because of the Koreans in the vicinity. Actually, Shaw would probably be able to crawl as well as I, and by himself I still felt that he had the potential of being a good partner in the venture. But Wem had to go back in any case and Shaw's somewhat commendable, though boyish attachment to his new found buddy would forbid his agreeing to sending him back alone. It was even probable the poor fellow couldn't follow instructions well enough to make it on his own.
Exactly how I broached the subject to them is no longer remembered. But as soon as I made it clear that I had decided they should both return to the camp Shaw reacted vehemently, saying, "We can't do that now!"
I asked, "Why not?"
"Because if we go back now they'll kill us!"
So what I now had for companions were two very frightened 20-year old boys! . Was that perhaps what he and Wem had been talking about when I returned from the upper end of the ravine? Were they worrying that if the troops had found us when they arrived, or if they came back and found us, we would all be killed? Quite possibly so. But if so, they must surely realize their own responsibility for our present circumstance Wem's stupidity in going outside of our hiding place and atop the bare rock where he could be readily seen, and Shaw's lack of common sense allowing him to do so.
Attempts to reason with Shaw were futile. Gone, at least for the moment, were all signs of the developing manhood and adult intelligence which I had observed in him at the Slave Camp and which were part of the reason I had invited him along on this venture. Most likely if the two of them returned to camp of their own volition they would have been in a sense welcomed, as examples to others of the futility of trying to escape. They would be questioned about me, of course, as to my location and plans; which they could and should answer freely including, if they wished, blaming me for "talking them into" the breakaway to begin with. His response to my mention of that was something of a grunt in dismissal of it. Similar were his responses to all else that I presented to him, and with never once a look at me, only staring glumly at the ground between his feet. Finally, I asked him if he thought I should still try to carry him and his buddy along with me after what had happened that morning. A silent shrug was his answer to that.
The sun now indicated mid-afternoon, and some of its beams were coming through the foliage to where we were sitting. It was time to get started crawling eastward from that place. But as I was gathering my pack a noise from above on the ridge indicated it was a little too late. Moments later the search party rushed back down along the edge of the ravine and gathered in the open, flat area shortly outside its entrance. All of them except one rather short soldier who was picking his way more carefully down the rocky slope. And as he did so he was noticing things round and about himself, rather than hurrying down to the bottom as the others had done. Apparently sunlight on the blue of our clothing caught his eye. He stopped, peered through the foliage no doubt then seeing us quite clearly. He called something down to the others, and then something more after receiving an answer from below. He was carrying a burpgun supported by the usual strap over his shoulder, but though it was gripped in his hands he evidently felt no need to point it at us. When the officer of the guard arrived beside him he swung the weapon to indicate we were in the ravine, but still without pointing it at us.
The officer peered down through the foliage at us, stepped back away and called something down to the group. Two soldiers came up, hacked down a swath of foliage on that side of the ravine, then moved away out of my view. The officer then moved to alongside the soldier who had discovered us and for a while just stood there looking down at us; it seemed to me rather strangely. Was it uncertainty? Or he may have been a bit winded, since he had led his troops in their rush down the slope and then almost at once climbed back up the slope to where we were. After that while, he spoke to the soldier beside him; apparently a question. The soldier nodded "yes" as he responded.
In response to some further word from his officer, the soldier removed the cartridge clip from his weapon, opened and checked its breach, then placed the clip he had just removed into his ammunition pouch and brought out another. After careful check of the new cartridge clip, he inserted it in the weapon and looked toward his officer for further order. Logically, he had just replaced a clip containing live ammunition with one containing blanks. If it might be the other way around there was nothing could be done about it. The officer was looking squarely at me. I held his gaze as he gave the order and the soldier fired the blanks. He quickly turned aside then, and shortly called something down toward the other troops. Meanwhile the soldier had turned his head to look at his officer, in manner indicative of disdain and/or disgust. Then noting that I was watching him he looked down at his weapon, removed the empty clip, and auspiciously did not replace it with a new one.
Three soldiers, without their weapons, came down into the ravine and ushered us up and out. Two others gathered the gear that we had beside us. Everything that the three of us had been carrying was stuffed into my pack and loaded onto my back. Then one of the soldiers began binding my wrists with the leather thong that was attached to it. The officer moved in behind me and took over that task, drawing the damp thong more tightly than was needed. When he had finished and I turned to look at him, he turned away and indicated for everyone to move down the slope to the valley floor. From there he led the way with two soldiers close behind him to the pathway which would take us back to the village. Further significant of the officer's attitude was the fact that Shaw and Wem walking along beside me were both unburdened and unfettered. It might have been a quite impressive parade; the three of us escorted by about a dozen Chinese troops. But there were no spectators seen along the way. The sound of the gunfire had apparently sent the Koreans scurrying home or into places of hiding.
Shortly after crossing the intersection of the pathways we arrived at a rest area close beside the one leading to the village. Included in its facilities were several log benches and rocks to sit upon and a small spring flowing into a basin of rocks from the mountainside at its edge. All of the soldiers, including their officer, found seats for themselves at once. The three of us remained standing. As some of the soldiers stretched out their legs or took reclining positions, I realized that they'd had a much more strenuous day than had we. A quick march from the camp quite early in the morning, the rush up and over the ridge immediately after arrival, the day long search for us in the heat the troops were some tired and showed it. Their officer showed it as much or more. Seated on one of the rocks, elbows on his knees, head hanging down; he appeared possibly to be dozing.
Some of the soldiers were sipping from their canteens. The freshwater spring at the edge of the rest area was further reminder of my own need. I called out "Wo-di yao schwee" (I want water) in the officer's direction. He lifted his head and looked at me in response. I repeated the request with a nod of my head toward the spring. He muttered something, then shook his head negatively and lowered it back down.. Two soldiers seated near him, one of them a sergeant, cast what may have been disapproving glances in his direction but said nothing.
Drying of the leather thong binding my wrists was cutting off circulation. Efforts to stretch and loosen them by working my wrists were not appreciably successful. I spoke to Shaw about it; he and Wem were standing to my left. As he moved a step back to look at my wrists, wondering if he dare try to loosen the bonds, someone moved up alongside me on the right and called out something to the officer. To my great surprise, that someone was Liu; our coolie attendant whom we had come to refer to as "Happy." I had not until then noticed that he had accompanied the search party.
When the officer lifted his head, Happy said something more to him, meanwhile pointing at my bound wrists. The officer grunted something briefly in return and lowered his head again. But Happy did not accept whatever the officer had said. He said something more, in what seemed an insistent tone. The officer's more lengthy response to that indicated possible irritation that a lowly coolie should dare to argue with him, and probably included something along the lines of "mind your own business" or "shut up." But whatever he may have said was no deterrent to Happy. He spoke a few words in return, moved behind me, and began himself to loosen the bond on my wrists.
The officer then spoke to the sergeant seated nearby to him; who came at once to attend the matter, said something softly to Happy, loosened the bond and then retied it, checking as he did so that it would not cut off circulation. I nodded my appreciation to him. There was no opportunity to express gratitude to Happy. For he had moved out of sight behind me into the quietude in which Chinese coolies are supposed to remain in the presence of their "superiors."
The footpath toward the prison camp village from that rest area ascended steeply from its very beginning. It would take us up and over the ridge which extended eastward from the peak we had reached on the first morning of our trek. Though the pack on my back was not extremely heavy, it was sufficient to make the ascent much more tiring for me than for the escorting troops. As we neared the ridge crest, it became steep enough to fake passing out without damage from the fall. Shaw was alert enough to catch my wink to him as I did so, and reassured his worrisome buddy that I was faking it. I rested so for several minutes. When I pretended to regain consciousness and began moving to get up one of the soldiers grasped my shoulder to assist; firmly yet gently and respectfully.
Once over the crest the going was easy; a gentle downslope toward the village about two miles away. Even so, we stopped for another rest break about one third of the way down the slope, at the point where we had crossed over the stream from the footpath that first morning and made our way directly to the mountain peak. It appeared to have been the sergeant who called halt for the rest break. The quickness with which most of the soldiers plopped down to take advantage of it was remindful that they'd had a busy day. The sergeant and the officer remained standing discussing something for a while. A third man stood silently with them. Shortly, the officer called what appeared to be an order to Happy. He arose to join the officer and the third man walking on toward the village.
The sergeant watched the departing trio until they disappeared around a bend in the footpath. He came then to where I was standing, unbound my wrists, pointed at the stream and with appropriate demonstration with his hands said, "Splashy-splash okay. But no drinkee Angh?"
Okay indeed! The three of us stepped into the water facing up stream.. Cool, clear water; coursing over a bed of rocks and gravel from numerous springs seeping or flowing into it from cavitys in the mountains on either side. And of course, "no drinkee;" though one was compelled to swallow some of it if he happened to have his mouth open during a "splashee-splash."
And while we were complying as best we could with the instructions he had given to us, the sergeant was saying something to his troops who were lounging alongside the stream. From the smiles and chuckles among them as he spoke I judged that some of what he said might have translated along the lines of : "If any of you so-and-so's rat on me about this you'll regret it when I get out of the pokey!"
When we had done with the refreshing "splashee-splash," the sergeant beckoned for us to follow him down the footpath. His troops following casually behind us now chatted lightly with one another as good soldiers usually do when not inhibited by the presence of an arrogant officer. It was good to see and know that circumstance amongst the troops in the prison camp guard company. ( It would serve me even better than expected in the months to come.)
As we neared entrance to the village, before coming within view of the headquarters building, the sergeant signaled us to halt. He rebound my wrists then, perhaps less securely than before, and with a light pat on the back of one hand when he had finished. He summoned two of the soldiers up with him to lead us on. The others thereafter followed quietly behind us. We halted in front of the headquarters building.
Konrad appeared in the doorway as the sergeant approached the building. He spoke briefly to the sergeant and then disappeared back inside. Upon return to us the sergeant called two men from the group, and they escorted Shaw and Wem to the westward on the main street of the village. He dismissed all the others except the two who had been walking with him, to whom he spoke some instructions. He then removed the bond from my wrists again, took the pack off my shoulders, and indicated for me to go with the two remaining soldiers. I noted as we departed that the sergeant was carrying the pack to the headquarters building..
We crossed a bridge spanning the larger stream which flowed through the village, then traveled southward and upward on a narrow footpath to a somewhat isolated and comparatively prestigious looking house on a sloped bluff overlooking the village. There was a considerable open area around the house and a Korean woman, better dressed than most of those seen in the village, appeared to be tending some flowers alongside of it. A child of toddler age was with her.
A small, cone-shaped structure, mindful of a miniature Indian teepee, stood in the open area about 20 yards west of the house. Its opening faced northward. A crude rake, wooden mallet and a few other small items indicated its purpose was for storage of such implements. The lead soldier of my two-man escort indicated for me to sit in the structure (it was too short for standing). He then bid the other a quick adieu and departed. The remaining soldier posted himself beneath a short but rugged tree about ten yards in front of me.
He was a quite smallish fellow, and a heavily pock-marked face made him appear much older than he probably was. He idled around a bit under branches of the tree, looking up at them and then grasping a leaf to study it closely. His burpgun dangled loosely in front of him all the while. His relaxed attitude perhaps prompted or added to my own placid feeling. Obviously this was a temporary holding place for me; probably for just until nightfall when I could expect some manner of interrogation or might it be an inquisition by Konrad. Darkness would be the time when he would likely conduct some such, because of its presumed psychological impact on the subject. Such was to be expected therefore, but it was not worrisome. So my thoughts shifted review of some of the more interesting things which had just happened during my great escape venture.
Those thoughts were interrupted, however, when the idling guard soldier suddenly snapped to a more attentive pose, looking westward. Shortly the officer of the guard appeared, strode briskly to confront the soldier and gruffly said something to him. The soldier handed his burpgun to the officer, who quite dramatically charged the weapon then gestured with it in a manner which seemed to be an order for me to stand up. As I did so, the Korean woman picked up the child and disappeared from my view beyond the house. The officer at once began ranting at me in his own language, and continued until he seemed to run out of breath. At the end of it there was a questioning sound of "angh," which I presumed to mean something like "what do you say to that?"
So I said, "Wo-di yao schwee." (I want water.)
Another, though less lengthy blast of the ranting ensued; ending again with the questioning expression of "Angh?;" to which I responded the same as before. After a series of such ravings, which I did not bother to count, he shoved the loaded burpgun back into the soldier's hands and without further word haughtily stomped away. As he watched his officer depart, the soldier flipped one hand at me indicating that I should sit back down. When the officer had disappeared from view, he carefully unloaded his weapon and slung its strap over his shoulder as before. He looked at me then and asked: "Nee-di yao schwee?"
I nodded that I did.
"Lung schwee okay?" he asked.
I responded that lung schwee (unboiled water) was okay with me. He called then to the Korean woman, who was apparently still within his view. She soon arrived with a quite large gourd containing cool water, probably from a well. She waited with no sign of impatience or unease as I took some time in the drinking of it. I expressed thanks to her in her language as I handed back the empty gourd. The soldier thanked her also as she returned to her house.
What an interesting and really foolish display that had been by the officer of the guard company. I could not but wonder some as to just why he had done it. Was he perhaps being blamed by Konrad or the camp commander for the fact that I had escaped? Might he be worried of losing this job and being sent to the battle region? Or perhaps he had been embarrassed over failing to find us on the first day and almost failing on the second; especially if in doing so he had ignored or rejected advice of one or another of his troops. From experiences of my own, I judged him to be the type of officer resentful of any enlisted man who showed as much or more of know-how than himself. And from the same basis, I judged that the sergeant of the guard was much more experienced and possibly more intelligent than the officer. He had in any case not enhanced his standing with his men by any of his performances which I had observed. But rather he had, in oriental lexicon, lost considerable of "face."
Having meditated sufficiently about that now marginally significant matter, I leaned back against the post which supported the miniature "teepee" and relaxed, awaiting further developments in my own case.
It was nearly dark when the other soldier who had escorted me up to this place returned to assist in escorting me back down. After arriving in front of the headquarters building we waited for several more minutes. Another soldier was at hand with a rifle to exchange to my pock-faced friend for his burpgun. A flash of light inside a window was apparently a pre-arranged signal, after which I was immediately ushered in
The scene before me as I entered seemed very much to have been carefully staged. The room was about 30 feet square with a fairly high ceiling. It seemed to be lighted somewhat excessive of need. Konrad was seated at a desk in the center of it. He did not look up when I entered but appeared to be studying a paper. The soldiers positioned me about 6 feet in front of the desk and themselves took positions about that far behind me with their rifles at parade rest. To my left, midway of the room's west wall, Peter Love was standing alongside a taller, distinguished looking fellow whom I suspected was a higher-ranked officer from camp headquarters at Pyoktong. For although his uniform was of the same basic cut and color as most others, it was obviously tailored and bore a sheen of gabardine. (One year later I would learn for certain that he was the commanding general of the POW complex.) A Korean couple standing to their right I assumed to be owners of the field from which I gathered the beans.
Spread out on a table to my right were my backpack and its contents, including items belonging to Shaw and Wem as well as my own. As I waited, Konrad placed the paper which he had been pretending to study on some others to his left and picked up yet another from one of several stacks elsewhere on the desk. A flashlight lying among them had evidently been his signaling device. Though he did not look toward any others in the room he was obviously very much conscious of their presence. I sensed that he was as much on trial here as I, possibly in some respects more so, and that he was disturbingly conscious of it. He spent very little time pretending to read the second paper, but put it down, looked up at me and dramatically said:.
"Now that you have been caught in your crime of trying to escape, how do you feel you should be treated by us?"
I could not have designed a more advantageous opening. I replied: "You profess to know a great deal about international law. So you know it is not a crime for a prisoner of war to try to escape. Having committed no crime, I believe I should continue to be treated as a prisoner of war in accordance with international law."
That was obviously a much different response than any he might have anticipated. His eyes focused down toward the desktop and flicked worriedly toward the man in gabardine. It was more than a few seconds before he said: "So now you think you are an expert about international law."
"No," I replied. "But I know enough about it to know that what I just said is true. And so do you. That it is not a crime for a prisoner of war to try to escape."
To his credit, Konrad had come up with a good idea for regaining the initiative. He next said: "I presume, then, that when you talk of international law with regard to prisoners of war you are referring to the Geneva Accords."
"That is right," I said. "The Geneva Accords."
"Then I must remind you," he came back quickly and exuberantly, "that my government is not a signer of the Geneva Accords did not even participate in the convention which produced the Geneva Accords!"
"Quite so," I said. "I am aware of that. But you have said that your government's policy which you call a 'lenient policy' is more considerate of the right of prisoners of war to decent treatment than the Geneva Accords. You, yourself, told us that when we first arrived here."
Konrad's exuberance vanished. He was confronted by his own actual statement to us. He arose from his chair and walked slowly, thoughtfully, from behind the desk toward the table upon which the contents of my pack were spread. He reached out suddenly and snatched from the table the stick on which I had carved. a mermaid while at Pak's Palace.
"Here!" he cried, extending it toward me. "This weapon! You were carrying this weapon while trying to escape! Even your Geneva Accords do not allow that a prisoner of war carry a weapon while trying to escape! That is a crime!"
"That is not a weapon," I said. "It is a stick a small stick on which I had done a carving while held prisoner by the Koreans. I carried it with me as a souvenir, because it holds memories. If I were to make a weapon, I would make a good one."
Somewhat surprising to me, Konrad laid the stick back on the table quite gently. But he then picked up a handful of the string beans and said, nearly shouting: "Here! These beans! You stole them! from the field of hard working Korean farmers! Do you also claim that stealing is not a crime?"
I hoped the Korean couple could understand English; especially because Konrad's proclamation on that appeared to have been in large part to impress them. And from somewhere an appropriate, full response had come instantly to mind. I replied (as well as can now be recalled) as follows:
"I regret very much that it was necessary to take those beans from some Korean farmers' field. For I know that farming is hard work. I was born on a farm raised on a farm have myself done the hard work of farming. I took those beans only because I needed something to eat. I did no damage to the field. According to international law the Geneva Accords an escaping prisoner of war has the right to take food from wherever he can find it, in order that he have something to eat. And it is the responsibility of whoever was holding him prisoner to pay for that food. If I had some money, I would be glad to pay for those beans. But I have none, because all things of value were taken from me when I was captured. So if, as you have claimed, your policy in treatment of prisoners of war is as good or better than the Geneva Accords then you must recognize that it is your responsibility to pay the Korean farmers for those beans."
Konrad had dropped the beans as I was speaking and moved to stand directly in front of me. His frustration was clearly evident staring at me as I spoke, and his hands clenching and unclenching. But I felt certain he would not be so foolish as to actually strike me For that would signify (according to a basic Oriental maxim) that he had run out of words and lost the argument.
But he did so; with a quick swing of his left fist against my jaw. It was not a very hard blow, and I rolled my head lessening the impact. But my jaw was slack and when the teeth slapped together a chip was broken off the corner of a molar. As I brought my feet back together Konrad still stood before me, now speechless and trembling. I turned my head slightly aside and spat out the tooth chip; full knowing that to everyone else in the room that action would appear as an expression of utmost disdain for the camp's political officer.
It seemed to have been a minute or more before Konrad regained enough composure to speak again. And the best he could come up with was: "So now what do you say? Do you still think it was legal for you to try to escape?"
I replied, "It is obvious that you don't want me to say what I think, but only to say that I agree with what you think. So I think it as well for me to say nothing."
He pondered that for a short while, spoke in his own language to the soldiers standing behind me, then said to me, "You go with them."
The rice bowl they had issued was on the table with the other gear. I pointed at it and said, "Shall I take my bowl with me? Or won't I be needing it?
He snatched up the bowl and shoved it into my hand without looking at me. I nodded to my two soldier escorts and departed with them.
Paralleling the east side of the headquarters building was a long uninhabited Korean house, of typical rock and mud construction. The north end of it abutted the man-made terrace on which the Little Schoolhouse stood. It had been noted previously that the room on the south end was sometimes used for solitary confinement. It was to there that my two soldier escorts took me. Waiting there to assist in my incarceration were three more soldiers. And the manner in which they did it was somewhat amusing, and caused wonder if it was a standard procedure or something special which their political officer (Konrad) had designed and ordered especially for me.
Because that room had been the kitchen, its dirt floor was about two feet lower than the ground outside. There were two wooden steps just inside the door on which to descend. One of the helper soldiers opened the door as I arrived. One of my escorts held onto my elbow to steady me as I descended into the interior darkness. The door was then slammed shut immediately, and a substantial log which had been leaning against the outer wall was quite noisily placed against it.
There was a small opening high on the opposite wall. Its designed purpose was for ventilation and some light. There was insufficient light from it now to enable seeing anything in the interior. But it served as a beacon as I felt my way in the darkness toward the ground level ledge which I knew would be beneath it. After reaching that ledge I felt my way southward along it to the southeast corner of the room. And there I felt some strands of straw. How nice, that at least some bedding was provided for whoever might occupy this room. And the ledge was broad enough to stretch out comfortably. But as I did so there was some loud talking and with it much hammering. A board was being nailed over that opening in the east wall.
Was all that commotion supposed to frighten me? Or make me feel alone and lonely; perhaps drive me into depths of despair? It served to the contrary. It was amusing because it was obviously a put-on act; and some at least of the actors the soldiers who were doing it quite evidently considered it so. It was encouraging and reassuring because it indicated that whoever designed the act must be some deficient in judging the likely impact of it on someone other than themselves. Either Konrad or the officer of the guard, or the two of them together, were the most likely designers of it. And what a tremendous day of "face-losing" this had been for both of them.
Overriding the disappointment of having been recaptured was a tremendous and not yet completely understood sense of well-being. While the explicit reason for our discovery and recapture this day was Wem's stupidity, the basic fault was mine for having violated my own instinct and judgment and agreeing to take him along. The sense of well-being seemed to derive from recollection of the many Providential things which had appeared previously along the way. Especially memorable at that moment was the sensation of complete freedom felt at daybreak of the first morning on the way to the mountain peak. Along with that was the realization that in all those regards Providence must be spelled with a capital "P."
But in that case, the thought then occurred, since all of those Providential things at the outset had seemed to be helping me on the way to success in the venture, why had there not been another of them enabling me to still myself break away to go on with it alone?
I pondered on that for just a short while. But drowsiness began to settle upon me and I decided I could think more on it tomorrow; perhaps several tomorrow's since this would likely be my abode for at least several days. The ledge was a comfortable place. With my left hand cradling my head, and my right arm extended up and beyond, I was well on my way to dreamland when I felt something soft in the palm of my right hand and something sharp against the middle finger. A flip of my arm sent the unseen rat hurtling through the darkness. There was a resounding "splat" as it struck the opposite wall, followed by a thud when it hit the floor. Absence of any further sound indicated the poor creature had suffered full consequence of the sentiment I'd had to hold in check during my session with Konrad.
Relaxed again, I soon drifted into sleep with the comforting thought that though my venture had not yet fully succeeded in the physical sense, Spiritually I had made a truly Great Escape.
The Little Schoolhouse
Table of Contents
©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.