April of 1953 was an eventful month in many ways. After months of haggling over that and other matters, negotiators at Panmunjom had agreed to an exchange of "sick and wounded" prisoners of war at once, no matter that agreement on ceasefire and armistice remained indefinitely remote. This brought a flurry of inquiries from our own camp's officials especially Tsai as to who among the 70 or so men in the compound might qualify to be sent home. In this instance the enemy chose to respect rank and seniority amongst the prisoners enough to ask several of the senior officers, Sgt. Arnold and myself for recommendations in that regard.
There were four who seemed to be fully qualified according to the criteria Tsai had told us would apply. There was a young officer with 2 or 3 burp gun slugs lodged in his right shoulder area, and the same in his left hip. An Air Force sergeant with part of his foot blown away by a land mine, was also plagued by persistent internal disorders beyond the diarrhea and dysentery which otherwise plagued most everyone. A young army private had lost most of his toes to frostbite, and badly needed treatment to preclude further losses. Another young private, though in fairly good physical condition, was in emotional and psychological state sufficiently unstable to need help in looking out for his own best interests.
Tsai was quite pleased with our recommendations, especially because all of us whose advice he had sought agreed upon them. Two or three others, who had recommended themselves as qualified on a basis of "sickness" were rejected by the "friendly" little interpreter on his own. Had he asked, he would have had unanimous approval of his selected "advisors" on that, as well.
Happily, then, Tsai departed for Pyoktong, confident enough that his selections would be approved that he had told them all to expect it. He returned, sadly to report that only one of the four would be sent home. He insisted, perhaps truthfully, that he did not understand why the other three weren't approved also. Quite simply it was because of their attitude towards their captors; though that had not been listed in the criteria he had been given for his selections. The young man allowed to go was grateful to the enemy for having saved his life by amputating his frostbitten toes. Grateful enough, he was, to overlook the fact that it was also the enemy who caused the problem of frostbite. Another factor which probably contributed to the enemy's decision to send him home was evident after his release. The poor fellow could recall but very few names of men with whom he'd been as a prisoner, and had no idea at all as to where he had been held.
Shortly we were reading about "Little Switch," the exchange of sick and wounded, in the communist publications hurried to us from the U.S.A. and Britain. There was mention in those articles that U.S. officials were claiming that many, perhaps most of those who had been sent home were "brainwashed." The communist writers of course derided that claim as nonsense. So also did many of us who were still in prison deride the brainwash theme, though for an entirely different reason.
There was intensification of the enemy's use of the "yo-yo" tactic, in conjunction with "Little Switch." The yo-yo types among us would be one day convinced that the exchange of those few would somehow shortly be followed by exchange of all of us, even perhaps without a ceasefire and armistice. Then would follow the gloomy assessment that with those supposedly sick and wounded released, nobody cared how long it might take to arrange for the Big Switch of the rest of us. Insofar as the enemy was concerned, that was indeed an accurate assessment.
The main difference yet to resolve at Panmunjom was that of voluntary versus compulsory repatriation. That was indeed a difficult one for the communists to handle in the arena of "world opinion." For while insisting on the right of "peoples" to choose a "political system" as justification for continuation and expansion of their own socialist dictatorships, they had in this instance to publicly deny the right of an individual not to return to control of such a system.
Shortly our captors sought to get support from us for their position on the issue. First having contended that our side was using this issue as cover for trying to retain some of their men against their will, the camp commander asked while we were at assembly: "Is there any of you here who does not wish to go home when the war ends? If so, please step forward from your ranks!"
After a time, then, he said: "You see! No one! No one steps forward! Because you all know that any prisoner of war wants most of all to have the war over so he can go home!..."
After that came the pitch: "The war continues because your side wants to keep some of our men that they hold prisoner; claiming that those men who are prisoners of war just like you, do not wish to return home when the war is ended. That is a lie! We know that is a lie! You know that is a lie because you are prisoners and you want the war to end so you can go home! You know best of all because you are yourselves prisoners, that all prisoners of war want the war to end so they can go home!..."
"But now I will tell you there is something you can do about it," the pitchman, camp commander continued. "You can now do something which may help to bring this war to an end so you can soon go home. You have been allowed to write letters. We have sent your letters to your loved ones. And many of you have received letters, too. When your government has sent them to us we have delivered them to you. When next you write to your loved ones, tell them how you feel about wanting the war to end so you can come home.... How all prisoners of war must feel ......"
So went the basic pitch for our support of the enemy's position on the matter of prisoner exchange. Not a one in the assembly would actually believe it. Too well known was the fact that tens of thousands of the Chinese soldiers held by our side were defectors, rather than captured in the course of battle.
But some would go along with the idea of pressuring our negotiators to give in on the issue, if they possibly could. No matter to them that those thousands had risked their lives to cross to our side of the line in response to promise they would not have to return to Communist control. What some may have included in their next letter home is unknown. But several would actually say it: "Who gives a damn what happens to those 'gooks'? All I care about is for this damn war to end so I can go home!"
There was yet another way the enemy sought to gain a measure of support for their position on that issue. How extensively it may have been tried is unknown, since no others mentioned a similar experience. But the interpreter Chung singled myself out for a private discussion of it one day. He may have done so on his own initiative, rather than under instructions. For he was an ambitious little fellow, perhaps with a measure of jealousy over the fact the Tsai was more "popular" with the prisoners, and also more often used as interpreter by the camp commander.
In any event, Chung "invited" me out of the compound one day for a "social visit" in his quarters about a hundred yards or so from the west gate. He did a quite good job of playing the proper host, clearing a space on one cluttered bunk for me to sit down, while he busied himself in the preparation of tea. His idling conversation meanwhile was not nearly so adept as an experienced interrogator would effect, but seemed intended to similar purpose.
He mentioned first the fact of my considerable variety of activities in the compound. That seemed to require no comment from myself. He asked as he poured tea why I did so many things.
"Just to have something to do," was enough of an answer.
"To stay busy with something to do while you wait for the war to end ... ?" He said it as a question to which again no reply seemed necessary.
"What do you think about while you wait for the war to end?" was his next venture.
"I'm not much for thinking," I replied. "That's why I try to keep busy."
"Do you think of your family," he asked, "while you wait for the war to end?"
From that came inkling of what he might be angling for. Having from the outset of captivity avoided giving the enemy any information about my family, instead of answering his question I asked one of him:
"Do you think of yours?"
Chung's reaction was very surprising. He had been about to sip from his teacup. He brought it down quickly, his hand shaking enough to slosh a bit.
"I have no family!" he blurted out, so quickly and fervently as to indicate that the question must have touched some sensitive thing in his personal life. His inexperience as interrogator had made him further vulnerable.
"What about your parents?" I asked, for no particular reason except the pleasure of keeping him off balance if I could.
"I have no parents! I never had any parents!"
His manner of response still suggested this was a very sensitive subject with him. Was he perhaps one of those myriad "children of the State" who had to renounce and perhaps betray family or parents to gain favor with the Party? Possibly so, and it would have been easy to keep him upset over the matter. But there was nothing to be achieved by doing so. Better to let him get on with what he was angling for, the sooner to be done with it.
" What about your parents?" he asked after at few moments. "Are your parents still alive?"
"They're gone now," I replied. "But I remember them well. They were wonderful parents - wonderful people." If that subject might be something of a dagger in his side it wouldn't hurt me to just twist it a little. If it might bother Chung some more, that was his problem.
This time, however, he showed no sign of being bothered. He just said, in questioning manner: "But you have friends back in your country, of course. Even though your parents are dead, you have friends you will be glad to see again and who will be glad to see you...?"
"Oh, sure," I replied. Relieved that he was apparently going to ask nothing about family other than parents, I failed yet to realize what Chung was angling for. His next statement made that clear.
"Then of course you must hope that the war will end soon so that you can go home and see your friends again ...?" He paused as though awaiting response, but receiving none continued, "But that is a foolish question, isn't it? Anyone would know that a prisoner of war must want as soon as he can to return home."
Again he paused, as though awaiting a response. There was no reason to give him one, and good reason not to do so. So he proceeded to ask: "Can you imagine any prisoner of war not wanting to go home?"
"Oh sure I can," I replied at once. "Of course..."
That response was totally unexpected, by Chung. He pondered it for quite some time before he asked: "Why would anyone not want to return home? Who would not want to return home?"
The answer to those questions would set him aback still more. "Someone who didn't have anything worth going home to," I said, "who could go to a better place by refusing repatriation."
Chung had to think on that for a while. He covered his need for delay by pouring more tea and asking if I might like a rice cake, which he then had to obtain from the kitchen room of the house. To his credit, he did then recover well.
"Is there any of the prisoners in the compound you know who do not want to go home?"
It was necessary to do a little covering up of my own on that one. Only a few nights previously Watash had informed the residents of the mudhut that he would consider staying if the enemy would agree to provide him with a house, a woman, and a few coolies to boss around. I had rather wished the little stool pigeon might have stepped forward when the camp commander gave this invitation for someone to do so. But I certainly wasn't going to tell the enemy of the young man's foolishness. So I said, without hesitation:
"Of course not. Any of them would want to go home because you could not offer anything of conditions and living standards better than they will have at home."
But on this point Chung was ready with what he believed was a valid offer. "If I could tell you of a place where you could go and where you would have a better life than in America, would you go?"
"Sure," I said, "if you could prove it."
"Well there is such a place!" he said it gleefully, obviously believing it to be true. I can tell you of such a place!"
"Where is it?" I asked, confidant that I knew what his answer would be.
"Russia!" he said, still bursting with self-confidence. "The Soviet Union! It is a much better...."
"Have you ever been in Russia?" I asked.
"Yes I have!" He was nearly shouting, now. "I have been there and so I can tell you it is a much better place than your country than America ......"
There was no reason to doubt that he had been in Russia. In fact there was reason to believe he had been schooled and trained there. The spiel he was starting to present probably originated there. It needed interruption so I said:
"Have you ever been in America?"
"No," he replied. "But I know all about America because I have studied about it in...."
"In Russia, of course," I interrupted.
"Yes, in Russia," he continued expounding, "And so I know in Russia everything is better than ...."
"You cannot compare unless you have seen both."
"That is no matter," he said and resumed the memorized spiel. "In Russia there is much higher living standard than in America.... better houses, better automobiles, better...."
"Show me something from Russia," I said, "and something from America to compare. Words are nothing. Let us compare something from Russia with something from the United States."
"Of course we cannot compare any such things here," he said, "because we have none here. But I ......"
"Oh yes we do have some things to compare," I interrupted. "Something from Russia and the same kind of thing from the United States. Compare them and you will see that from the United States is of better quality."
"What?" Chung was really puzzled. "What do you have to compare from Russia and the United States?"
"I don't have them," I said, "You have them. Right there. . . "
I pointed to the clutter of Russian magazines on Chung's bunk right beside him. With them was a single copy of "Masses and Mainstream," the magazine published by the Communist party U.S.A. The difference in quality of paper, printing and binding was indisputable.
Chung was sufficiently surprised that he had no quick comeback. Hence, he had in this circumstance lost the contest, and seemed to recognize the fact. To save face, he glanced at his wristwatch and said something to the effect that he must go to a meeting soon so we would have to end our "friendly" visit. He escorted me back to the compound telling me, quite unconvincingly, that he had enjoyed our conversation very much even though we disagreed on some things. In parting he expressed the hope that we might soon have another "social" visit, then hurried on through the compound toward camp headquarters beyond. No invitation was received for another such discussion.
If in fact interpreter Chung was trying to compete with interpreter Tsai for popularity with either the prisoners or the other camp officials, he didn't stand a chance. Chung's inept conduct of the discussion with myself was not due merely to inexperience. His mind was too channelized, perhaps due in part to its party line conditioning. And his lingual ability, at least so far as the english language was concerned, was strictly by the book.
Tsai, who already had quite good command of the english language when first we met, was constantly working to improve it. He had special interest in idioms, never hesitating to ask what was meant by any expressions he might hear during his frequent visits to the compound. And of course, the talkative types were quick to explain such things to him, not realizing it could sometimes be to our benefit if he didn't understand them.
Very observant was the small statured man whom we had dubbed "the friendly little clothing merchant." Those of the prisoners who regarded him as nothing more than an interpreter were themselves quite unobservant. Whenever he visited the compound, for whatever other reasons, he showed awareness and interest in all that went on about him. He showed special interest in a certain few of the prisoners including, along with myself, Maj Harris (before his removal), Lt Moritz, Capt Flynn and several other of the officers.
His occasional attempts to talk separately with one or another of us while in the compound were usually disrupted by a flock of the yo-yo's hurrying up to ask him how the peace talks were going. This was one way in which the yo-yo element served a somewhat useful purpose. For none of us wanted private discussion with the "friendly little clothing merchant" unless it was ourselves asking the questions instead of him.
So far as is known, Tsai never took any of the others out of the compound for private talk, as Chung had done with me. But we all learned that he was well acquainted with details about us from the files accumulated by interrogators since the beginnings of our captivities. My own first experience with that was in January, when I had drawn up plans for building ovens out of the sheet metal roofing we could see on an abandoned shack near the compound. Tsai had taken the plans to HQ at Pyoktong, to see if they would be approved. Flynn and I happened to see the little fellow returning from Pyoktong before any of the yo-yo's did. We intercepted him and asked if the oven building plans were approved.
He didn't answer the question immediately, but asked one of me instead: "The officials at Pyoktong want to know," he said, "how it is that you can draw such good plans for building an oven; but when you were asked by the Koreans at Pyongyang to draw a helicopter you told them you could not do it?"
"To make a picture of a helicopter," I told him, "would require skill in mechanical drawing. The plans I did for building ovens is just simple lay-out."
The look on Tsai's face would probably have translated into something like: "Oh, yeah? You expect me to believe that?" it also looked as though he was about to say or ask something more, but I beat him to the punch:
"Now what about the ovens, Tsai. Can we get the metal off that old shed so that I can build ovens?"
"That is under consideration," he said. "Perhaps in a few days it will be decided." He looked still as though he wanted to ask more about the drawings. But by that time several of the yo-yo's were hurrying towards us.
"Hey, Tsai!" one of them called. "You just get back from Pyoktong? What's goin' on...?" Flynn and I moved away somewhat amused by the chagrined expression now on the "little clothing merchant's" face.
The matter of my having refused to draw a helicopter for the Koreans while at Pak's Palace was of no particular significance, of course. But it was nonetheless the sort of thing the enemy sometimes would use just to badger and harass a fellow about his "non-cooperative" attitude. "Why did you do this? You must explain! Do you think it is some big secret you are protecting?" Silly as they may seem, such were the things the enemy would make a big fuss over, just in order to get a fellow talking, especially if he tried to explain or was defensive about it.
The next time Tsai confronted me with something out of the files, however, could have been some troublesome. It was related to the fact that for tactical reasons (previously described) I had deliberately misrepresented my age immediately after capture as 28 years, rather than the actual 32. In late March or early April the little interpreter happened by while a volley ball game was in progress. He was already aware that we arranged different combinations of teams from time to time, and called to whoever might respond, "What teams are playing today?"
One of the young men, who was ever anxious to talk with Tsai anyway, called back at once, "It's the old farts against us young guys!"
"Ahh!" said Tsai, "And at what age do you divide?" "Thirty!" the young player called out.
Without a moment's hesitation, Tsai pointed at me and said, "You are only 29! Why are you playing on that side?"
My answer the fact that I was able to make it without hesitation - was almost as surprising as the question: "In America I would be 29," I said. "Here in the orient by your count I am 30." It was easy enough then to ignore the "friendly" little fellow as attention had to be given to the game. He said nothing more, watched the game for just a while, then walked away.
Such attention to detail about at least some of us, caused the feeling as though we were something akin to laboratory specimens; scrutinized minutely by several technicians whose compilation of findings and impressions would be analyzed later by "experts." Which in fact was probably very much the case. The persistent and sometimes seemingly ridiculous questioning as to why we said or did certain things, was hardly necessary to any purpose in dealing with ourselves in the prison circumstance. But as "samplings" from the society which the communist enemy perceived as the main obstacle to their global objectives, an understanding of why we so behaved would be valuable to them, indeed.
In any case, prior experience had taught that if Tsai had even suspected that I had previously lied about my age, I would very probably have been questioned extensively about it by one or several experienced interrogators. Even a truthful answer as to why I had done so, would not likely have satisfied their curiosity. For one reason, because they might not have believed it. Beyond that they would have then been demanding to know what other lies I had told them about myself and, still further, what "truths" about myself had I neglected to tell them.
Such was the way of the upper echelons of the POW camps' administration in the handling of prisoners. So Tsai's acceptance of my answer without further question was cause for feeling of relief.
"Know your enemy!" is an ages old maxim of warfare. Communist strategists apply that maxim in all fields of warfare, not merely military conflict. In the field of psychological warfare, which was sometimes called the "battle for the minds of men," they had in the POW camps the opportunity to study a broad sampling of minds from their main target society, that of the U.S.A. Whoever would understand the real purposes of such a study, needed first to understand clearly the communist objective in that so-called battle for the minds of men. Control of minds, was the primary object in their programs for the prisoners of war; not conversion to a communist ideology. For any mind weak enough not to see through the falsities of that would be of very limited value. And obviously some minds are more easily brought under control than others. Hence the enemy's special interest in the minds of those whom they called "incorrigibles." And hence the realization by those "incorrigibles" that the idea of "brainwashing," as applied to most of the returnees in Little Switch, was mostly a hoax. It served as excuse for submissive behavior in enemy hands of mostly young men who for one reason or another lacked the mental maturity and stamina to do much other than submit to the enemy's demands.
Once one recognized that himself (particularly his mental processes and attitudes) was under such studious scrutiny by the enemy, it became a duty of sorts for a man to make that study as difficult for the enemy as possibly he could. Such had been part of the pleasure of confounding "Dr. Flick," during the interrogation session with him. It became something of a game for several of us in dealing with Tsai, to say or do things which would bring something of a wondering look into his eyes as he tried to figure out its significance, of which it might really have none.
One might also then realize that as surely as the enemy was studying us, the circumstance allowed ourselves to be studying them. And they were of perhaps greater variety, so far as personal character and motives were concerned, than might be seen by them of variances in us prisoners.
A prime example was the difference between the interpreters Chung and Tsai. Chung was doctrinaire in his concepts. Not likely was he a Party member. No doubt he aspired to be one, and probably expected one day to achieve that goal. But he had little chance of doing so because his was a channelized mentality capable of following the Party line, but unable to anticipate its frequent changes or understand the reasons for them. Such slavish minds are sometimes useful as "party members" in the communist cells in a target society. But in the ruling elite of an established communist dictatorship, party membership requires awareness of the basic duplicity of the ideology in order to understand the ever changing party line and explain it to the "masses" and to low level functionaries such as Chung.
Tsai was probably not a Party member either. He was smart enough to be one but quite possibly didn't care to. He was certainly intelligent enough to recognize the duplicity and worse in the ideology. He would serve the regime, nonetheless, and much more usefully than could Chung. But he would serve not out of loyalty to the regime, or belief in the ideology, but simply because it seemed in his own best interests to do so.
The likes of Chung would serve the communist masters because they actually believed the specious ideology, were generally unaware of anything much different, and so mentally conditioned as to be unable to recognize an alternative if one were presented to them. The likes of Tsai would serve without belief in the ideology simply because no reasonable alternative was available to them. And from what could be observed from the somewhat limited vantage of being their prisoner, it appeared that of those who were serving the communist enemy, at all levels, far more were the likes of Tsai, than the likes of Chung.
For most of them, the only alternative to slavish service was something along the lines of what the coolie, Liu, whom we called "Happy," was now experiencing. Because he had shown friendliness to the American prisoners in general and to myself in particular, he was now somewhere else undergoing a program of "attitude adjustment."
One could not but wonder about the private thoughts and feelings of the soldiers in the guard company. Quiet young men they were, almost exclusively showing no signs of animosity towards us prisoners. The singular exception in my own observations was the pompous little fellow we called "recruiting poster boy" who had a few times been posted to guard Shaw, Wem, and myself after the escape venture.
It might be assumed that the guard troops behaved so simply because they were well disciplined as soldiers. Well disciplined they indeed were, but it had for the most part the appearance of self-discipline, rather than military training. Certainly, the sergeant escorting us back to the camp after our recapture displayed something other than military discipline when he allowed us to drink from the stream in violation of his officer's order that we be given no water. So also did the little wrinkle-faced soldier set to guard me immediately after return to the camp. He had watched solemnly as his officer shouted curses and threatened to shoot me, at the same time ignoring my request for water. Then as soon as the officer was out of sight, he asked a Korean woman to give me some water.
That same soldier had also observed the incident that night when Commissar Lee struck me without justification. His telling of that to his buddy on the next day was anything but respectful of the commissar, yet very much so of myself.
The respect with which various of the guard troops behaved towards Sgt Arnold and crew, when they came to pick up rations for prisoners they were guarding elsewhere, seemed more personal than merely professional. So also the attitudes of several who accompanied us on work details outside of the compound, or watched curiously while Flynn and myself butchered a hog. No overt signs of friendliness dare they show, of course. The informer system in a communist-controlled society is much too pervasive that one of them would risk doing something of that sort where another might see him.
Yet there was one of the guard soldiers who did make his sentiments quite clear to a small group of prisoners held in isolation elsewhere in the village. The fellow spoke excellent english, and liked to talk with his prisoner wards, but only when he was absolutely certain that no other of his countrymen were aware of it. Otherwise he was as quiet and aloof as the best of them. The prisoners were aware, of course, of the reason he had to be so careful. But they were curious, also about him, and why he acted as he did towards themselves when none other were around. Someone asked, to begin with, if he really volunteered to come to Korea (thinking so-called Chinese Peoples' Volunteers were probably mostly conscripts).
The soldier assured them that he had indeed volunteered, adding in jocular manner that one of the reasons he did so was because he liked "to eat rice." He went on quite seriously to say that he did not volunteer for the duty here as guard at a POW camp. He had wanted instead to go at once to the front lines. Lt Ettinger asked him why he wanted to do that. "You are friendly to us here in the prison camp," the lieutenant said. "Do you want to go to the front to kill Americans?"
"No," the fellow replied, "that is not the reason I want to go to the front." With a stick, he then sketched an outline map of Korea on the ground. Included was a line across the peninsula outline representing the battle line. He scratched five "X's" on that line. "If I could get to the front," he said, then pointing to the X's, "...and get here, or here, or here, or here, or here, I can cross the line and go to Taiwan!"
The tens of thousands of his countrymen who had done exactly that, were proof he was far from the only "volunteer" who had that in mind. It was those same thousands of escapees that the communists were now arguing should be returned to their control. Some of our "dovish" and worse countrymen in the compound agreed with the enemy on that. "I don't give a damn about those 'gooks'," one of them had blatantly said. "It's us our negotiators ought to be concerned about. They oughta agree to that so we can go home!"
The "incorrigibles" in the compound, and scattered elsewhere in the village, to a man as fervently disagreed. For if our negotiators were to give in on that issue, then our resistance of the enemy and endurance of hardships as prisoners of war would have to be considered as totally in vain.
NOTE: This is as far on this chapter as the papers we have go, so we do not know if this is the end of the chapter or not.
Table of Contents
©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.