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I Was A Prisoner In North Korea
by Eric Donnelly 1400205 3RAR
For me, Korea, "The Land of the Morning Calm" erupted violently on that morning in the cruelly cold Winter of 1953. I had volunteered to be a member of K Force. The advertisement in the Courier Mail had read, "2 year enlistment in K Force for service in Korea. No previous experience necessary. Help stop the Communist thrust south. Apply any Army Recruitment Office. . . "
Now after many months training in both Australia and Japan I was about to find out whether I would measure up. Suddenly a flickering "glow worm" object arched its way through the velvety blackness of the Korean winter sky. It exploded with sickening finality between the snow-covered mountain called Hill 227 and the body of Peter White, our patrol's Bren Gunner. Peter was just lowering himself into position to cover the return of the prisoner "Snatch Party", off to our left. It was the first grenade of what was to become a maelstrom of sparkling arcs that were flying over my head to the rest of the patrol below and behind me.
Lt. Brian Bousfield led the patrol. Sgt. Jack Morrison with two others detached themselves from the main patrol in an attempt to capture a prisoner for Intelligence to question. Before leaving our position on Hill 355, known to us as "Little Gibraltar", we studied aerial photographs of enemy trench lines. The plan was to stop some 200 yards from these trenches. Unfortunately for us, since the aerial photographs had been taken two weeks before, the enemy had constructed a new trench line 200 yards lower down the slope. This is what we had nearly walked into.
After cautiously crossing the valley, we arrived at our designated position from where we would be able to observe the routes being used by the Communist troops to infiltrate the valley. This new trench line puzzled me but the reality of the event didn't sink in until these strange glow-worm arcs started to explode. The explosion lifted Peter two feet into the air before dropping him back to the snow. I could see that he was badly wounded but because of the intensity of the grenade barrage, I had my hands full trying to pin point the exact location of the throwers. I threw the two grenades I carried on my belt to where I thought the glow-worm trails were originating, about 15 yards away up the hill.
The first grenade exploded with a lot of noise. The second was muffled and I heard a lot of Chinese yelling and shouting. This makes me think that it landed in the enemy trench line. I let off a couple of bursts from my Owen Gun but could not see nor hear any results. The firefight with the rest of the patrol was really hotting up by this time. I was leading a charmed life with all the grenades going over my head to the patrol below. Lt. Bousfield, in the thick of these exploding grenades, had to do something quickly to extricate us from this decidedly tricky situation. His order rang out above the din. "Down the hill - reform".
Until now, it was as if I were invisible. I was the closest to the enemy lines and no one was having a go at me. The only thing I can think of to explain this immunity is that I was invisible. I must have had a black rocky out-crop that was not covered by snow or a dark bush behind me that blended my battledress into the background. Although it was a dark night, after a couple of hours of traversing the valley, you could see quite a lot against the background of the thick, white snow.
Another call from Lt. Bousfield to get "Down the hill - regroup", spurred me to cross the four yards to Peter White. I wanted to pull him down the slope like a sled. I only took two paces to my right when a bullet smashed into my right leg causing me to spin around like a ballet dancer pirouetting in the snow. I crashed to the ground alongside Peter, losing my grip on the Owen Gun as I spun around. I called out, "I've been hit", and a mate of mine from Tasmania, Gordon Welles, yelled out "Blue's been hit. I'm going to get him." Lt. Bousfield screamed out, "Don't be a bloody fool - down the hill".
Gordon got to within two yards of me but then decided to obey Bousfield's command. He went down the hill as ordered. In the months to come I was to replay this scene many times in my mind's eye. At first I was bitter thinking that I had been deserted by my comrades. Over time I came to realise that Brian did the only thing possible, as he had the responsibility for getting us all out. If I had obeyed his order to get down the hill and regroup, instead of trying to get Peter White out, I may not have been shot. Who knows? The reality now was that the patrol had withdrawn down the hill and Peter and I were left to our fate. Peter mercifully died a few minutes later, so my attempt to get him out would not have succeeded anyhow.
I could hear the patrol fighting its way back across the valley. I tried to crawl down the hill in the direction that we came but I could not move my legs. A nerve in my leg or spine must have snapped because I had no feeling from the waist down. I started to think that I had lost both legs. Lying in the snow and coldness of the Korean winter would not be helping the shock. Just then a spine chilling noise that sounded like a hundred screaming locomotives coming straight for me erupted into a great explosion off to my left. The Canadian 25 pounder barrage had begun. The ground shook like an earthquake as shell after shell gouged craters out of the landscape. How close the nearest shell landed, I do not know, but I do know that every shell felt as if it was coming straight for me.
I was told later that Lt. Bousfield had called in the artillery to give him cover to try and get Peter and me out but his patrol had been surrounded by enemy forces before he could achieve this aim. It was all they could do to fight their way back across the valley to our own lines. The nightmare of being a human target for a battery of Canadian artillery continued for about ten minutes, then there was a break in the firing.
I looked up towards the enemy trench line and saw a Chinese soldier carrying a Burp Gun, heading in my direction, crouching as he made his way across to where I was lying. He prodded me a couple of times to make sure that I did not pose a threat to him. Then he reached down and grabbed me by my right leg. Up to then I could not feel it. As he exerted pressure on my leg, a shaft of pain went right through my body. I let out the most spine-chilling scream of agony that would have shocked the most stouthearted, the Chinese soldier was no exception. He dropped my leg. Just then another shell came thundering in to our position.
The Chinese soldier scurried back to his trench line for protection while a couple more shells crashed in. Shortly there was another break in the shelling and the enemy soldier once again ventured to where Peter and I lay. This time he grabbed me by my hair and started towing me like a toboggan through the snow on my back. I was able to assist by pushing with my hands. Anything to get away from the horror of the 25 pounders. He towed me the 15 yards or so up to his trench and then let me go over the edge. I remember being in free fall and then blacking out. Where he had dropped me was ten or twelve feet deep to the bottom of the trench.
The trench itself was about 5½ feet deep but every 20 yards or so the trench was dug down another 5½ feet and a cavern or bunker was dug into the side of the hill. This is where they kept their stores, radios, sleeping gear etc. The spot where I was dumped was right over one of these deepened sections of trench. I landed on my head, which knocked me senseless, I don't know for how long.
When I regained consciousness I was surrounded by about 20 Chinese soldiers who offered a drink of hot water and gave me some biscuits.
Lying further over in the bunker or cavern were five or six wounded Chinese soldiers. One had his arm off at the shoulder and I wondered to myself if one of the grenades I threw had caused these injuries. At this stage of my imprisonment I did not know which injury was causing me the most pain, the bullet wound in my leg which had shattered my right femur or the pain from my upper spine caused by the eleven feet fall on my head.
As no one spoke English and I could not speak Chinese, I tried to communicate with sign language. I indicated the sign of the Red Cross on my upper arm battledress sleeve and asked for morphine injection simulating the pushing and action of getting a needle injection. After a few attempts at this, they indicated that they had no morphine by shaking their heads and repeating. "No morphy, no morphy". I then asked, with signs, for a cigarette, this time with more success. They gave me a Chinese cigarette which must have been made of saltpetre and a little tobacco by the way it flared and sputtered when I took a draw on the end of it.
After smoking the cigarette I held up a matchstick to get their attention. I then started pointing to the match stick and then to my leg. I then proceeded to snap the match stick in half and pointing to my leg to try and get through to them that my leg had been broken in half. After repeating this pantomime a couple of times, I could see that the message had got through to them.
Thinking that I was getting pretty good at this communication business, I decided to try and get a more complex message through to them. I would try and get them to put a splint on my leg. I recalled that during basic training in Australia, we were taught that if you were in an area where wood or sticks were hard to find or unavailable, (the desert for example) you could make a good splint for leg injuries by strapping a .303 rifle, which in an Infantry Company, were always available.
I could not believe my luck when I turned around and spotted what must have been the No.1 Bren Gunner's .303 Rifle leaning up against the wall, within easy reach of where I was lying. This, in hindsight, was a stupid idea, to even begin to consider, let alone try to do. My only excuse is that they seemed so friendly. As I reached across and lifted the rifle to lay alongside my leg and use my belt to strap it up tight to relieve the dreadful spasms of pain that kept shooting up my leg, all hell broke loose.
What had been a nice friendly meeting among front line troops, albeit from opposing sides, suddenly erupted into a World War Three scenario. Everyone seemed to want a piece of the action at the same time. The soldier leading the charge gave me the butt end of his rifle across my mouth, smashing my teeth. Another one of the pack hit me across the head. I passed out again. Thus ended my attempts to become the world's greatest communicator.
When I regained my faculties, everything had settled down once more. Around midday I was put on a stretcher and a party of four soldiers were given the task of carrying me to the reverse slope of Hill 227. When we arrived I was carried into this huge tunnel inside the mountain. I could see all sorts of vehicles, supplies, radio transmitters and lots of Chinese soldiers.
A Chinese Officer came over to my stretcher and asked in perfect English who I was. I gave him the card we had been instructed to supply should we fall into enemy hands which gave name, number and rank. He told me it would be difficult to get medical treatment until I told the People's Liberation Army the truth. He said I would be going to school when I was better. I asked him what he meant, but he would not enlarge on his statement. He then called out in Chinese and a group of Chinese soldiers, perhaps ten in all, gathered around him and myself.
One of the soldiers was instructed to take off my winter boots which were keeping my feet warm. He did this with some difficulty because of the pain he was generating in my hip. After he got them off he put his own feet inside them and then pretended that they were so heavy he couldn't lift his feet. The Chinese wore light sandshoe-type footwear made of canvas. These are a lot easier to walk in but would not be very effective against the severe and bitter cold of a Korean Winter.
After clowning around with my boots, the soldier was instructed to remove my flak jacket. The Chinese Officer made some disparaging remarks in English to me about how silly the bullet proof vests were that we wore because they would not stop a bullet from entering our bodies. I did not argue with him because he held all the aces. The Officer held up my flak jacket and gave the assembled soldiers a brief story about how ineffective they would be against a bullet judging by the laughs he was getting from his audience and their actions.
This little talk/demonstration ended with the Officer taking his Luger pistol from its holster and holding it about six inches from the jacket and firing his pistol. The jacket, which was never designed for such a task, was no match for such a demonstration. The soldiers in the group laughed and clapped his performance with much gusto. It was about this time that I heard very faintly, the muffled rumbles of high explosives detonating and the slight hum of aeroplanes flying.
The Chinese troops, with grins on their faces, pointed to the ceiling of the tunnel we were in and started saying, "Fiji, Fiji" which is Chinese for aircraft. They told me by signs that an aerial strike was taking place on Hill 227 and yet, where we were, you could hardly hear it. Before being captured I had watched a few air strikes take place on Hill 227 and I used to wonder how any one could withstand such battering from high explosives and Napalm? Now I knew!
Late in the afternoon I was moved again by a team of four soldiers who took turns to carry my stretcher. My weight at this time was 12 stone 7 pounds so I was not an easy assignment to be toting around the mountainous tracks. As we stumbled along, I was upended a few times which caused the most agonizing pain in my hip. A few times I thought that I would get a bullet in my head for making such a racket with my screams of pain. I wished over and over that I had been able to get them to splint or strap my leg to stop the jagged ends of my femur from rubbing together.
After this horrific move, I was placed in a cave with about ten other wounded Chinese soldiers who had been issued with little red books they had to study. The soldier nearest to me on the raised platform, where we had been placed, looked like the one I had seen in the bunker when I was first captured. He had his arm off at the shoulder. I was groaning with the pain from my wound. It kept coming in spasms or waves and increasing in intensity as time passed. Somehow or other, the armless Chinese soldier rolled over and lit a cigarette for me, which he placed in my mouth.
I smiled my thanks for his compassion, and he smiled back without either of us saying a word. He lit a cigarette for himself, smoked it and straight away died. I often think of this soldier, even after all these years, and when they say the Ode at the ex-prisoners-of-war meetings, his smiling face dominates my thoughts as we repeat the Ode and finish with the words, "Lest we Forget".
The next day I met up with another Australian soldier, George Smith. George had been sent out on a stretcher party to try and get any survivors of the previous night's action. George told me that the stretcher party was ordered to carry rifles and incredibly, a smoke screen was laid down to "protect them". From the Chinese side, this party of soldiers advancing through a smokescreen and carrying rifles and stretchers, heralded a daylight attack and they sent a couple of companies of men to meet the threat.
When the stretcher party saw the hordes of angry Chinese soldiers advancing and firing their automatic weapons they did what any prudent person would do in the circumstances, they attempted to retire to previously prepared positions with great haste. Lance Corporal R. J. Tippet from Melbourne was shot in the stomach by the advancing Chinese and George Smith decided to stay with Tippet to protect him from the enemy and to help him.
When the Chinese over-ran their position, they took George prisoner but decided that Tippet was too far gone to merit taking him prisoner. He was left to die, but with a remarkable display of courage and tenacity, he managed to claw his way back across the valley to our lines. As he was waiting to be identified by our outpost men, he was shot again through the back by a Chinese sniper before our blokes could pick him up for much needed medical help.
The Chinese now made George carry one end of my stretcher while they took turns to carry the other end. We seemed to travel for hours at night over very rough terrain but never once did George falter or upend me on to the ground, as had happened a few times, before he started carrying the stretcher. At one stage, while resting, I thought that my feet were becoming frozen.
The Chinese stretchers were shorter than the Western type and my feet were sticking out over the end. The Chinese soldier had taken my boots in the big tunnel under Hill 227 and I had no protection from the frozen night air coming down from Manchuria. I told George that my feet were aching and stinging from the cold. Could he do something to ease my pain? He propped the stretcher up on some rocks, undid his battledress top and put both my feet under his armpits to get the blood circulating in my feet again. Without George Smith's help I could easily have lost both my feet as happened to a B29 Tail Gunner who I was to meet some months later. As long as I live, I will remember George Smith and his selfless compassion for me on that bloody cold Korean Mountain.
After travelling all night, we ended up in a cage with a very low ceiling. This room or cage was about ten feet square, and the ceiling would be about three feet from the floor. This stopped you from standing up but you could sit or squat on your haunches. As I was in the horizontal position, it didn't affect me too much. In the cage with George and myself, were three South Korean soldiers who looked as if they had been there for some time.
This was an interrogation centre. English-speaking Chinese or Korean soldiers would come in at all hours of the day or night to question me. These questions were of a general nature and were always followed with the threat that I would not get medical treatment unless I told the truth. A typical question might be, "Where did your grandmother go to school when she was a little girl?" If you told them you didn't know, they would get very upset and say, "You must tell us the truth. You will not get medical treatment until you tell the truth".
The easy way out seemed to be to make things up for them. I would make up a fictitious story and tell them she had attended such-and-such a school which they would duly note down in their little notebooks. All the time I was in this centre I was in extreme pain from the injury to my leg, mouth and back. Sleep was very hard to get and whenever I did fall off to sleep from sheer exhaustion, I was shaken violently to wake me and then asked further questions.
As I was making up answers to a lot of the questions, I gave the wrong answers when they repeated their questions. They would scream out with their eyes bulging out of their heads and their face a matter of inches from my face, "You have lied to us. You will not get medical treatment".
Every day a bucket of rice would be placed in the room for us to eat. As I couldn't move off my back, George would have to get food for me. The three South Korean prisoners would almost fight to get at the bucket of swill and George had to force his way to get two handfuls; one for him and one for me. I received some shots of morphine from time to time to ease my pain. The leg had started to swell around the top and after a couple of weeks I thought that it would be easier to be shot rather than put up with all the pain and nonsense they were putting me through. At this time I hadn't heard about brain washing perfected by the Russians and who were now Communist China's closest ally.
I told George that from this time on I wouldn't answer any more questions and I would abuse any bastard who came in to ask them. He said that I had his support and so we started "Operation Abuse".
We refused to co-operate in any way and shouted at our interrogators at every opportunity for the next couple of days. On the evening of the next day, an old mule and cart pulled up outside our cage and I was put on a stretcher and carried out to the back of the cart. Straw was piled on the floor of the cart to cushion the ride. A Chinese soldier got on the back of the cart with me and he was carrying an automatic machine carbine. I thought this was going to be the classic gangster film one-way ride and I couldn't care less. At least the pain of the last two weeks would be ended. I said goodbye to George and off we went into the setting sun. After travelling for about twenty minutes, I realised that if they were going to get rid of me by shooting they would have done it before now.
As we made our way through the darkness, we seemed to hit every pothole or shell hole in the surface they called a road. Each time we hit a pothole, my hip was jolted and I would let out a cry of pain. The Chinese guard would hit me with his gun to shut me up. After one particularly loud yell from me, I got the butt across the bridge of my nose, which thankfully put me in blackout condition once more.
After this nightmare ride which went all through the night, I found myself in what looked like an old Korean farmhouse. It was the 27th January 1953. On the raised platform, where I was placed, were wounded Chinese and Korean soldiers. A soldier who had been hit by Napalm was right alongside me in the sitting position. He was very badly burnt over his whole body and the only thing that moved on him were his dark brown eyes. They seemed to pierce right into me and I had the feeling that if he could move his arms he would fall down on me and throttle the life out of me. This has been a recurring nightmare for many years.
The next day, the 28th January 1953 was my 23rd birthday and it started off by watching the Napalm victim succumb to his terrible bums. After this rather tragic experience, I was placed on a stretcher and taken away to another Korean building where I was given a spinal injection and a Chinese doctor who spoke no English performed an operation on my leg. The operating room had an earthen floor, thatched roof and the illumination was supplied by a pressure lantern, which was pumped every now and again to brighten the light output. As the Chinese doctor made the incision in my swollen thigh, he explained in Chinese what he was doing.
Because the spinal injection only deadened the lower half of my body from the waist down, I was operated on in the sitting position, which allowed me to observe the whole operation. After the first rush of rotten matter which had caused the swelling had dissipated itself, he started probing for shattered pieces of the femur bone which he proceeded to remove with tweezers.
The operation lasted for about half an hour. As he stitched the six-inch cut in my thigh to close the incision, feeling started to return to my leg. However as he continued to stitch I became more vocal from the pain in my leg. Four attendants physically restrained me as he completed his handiwork.
Just as I was lifted off the "operating table" the stitching came undone and I thought I was in for another struggle when he again tried to close the wound. However, instead of trying to re-stitch me, he got an American pack of Sulfanilamide powder and sprinkled it all over my wound before I was carted off to another room. In this room they had an ancient type of device for stretching limbs and applying a plaster cast.
I was seated with one buttock on a small oval platform while my leg was stretched until I thought it would rip my hip apart. When they decided that my leg wouldn't stretch any further, two female attendants or nurses started to apply a plaster cast to my right leg, hip and chest. This effectively made it impossible to even sit up and it meant I would spend the rest of the war on my back being dependent on others for my every need, but just the same, it was a great birthday present. Probably the best I've ever received.
At this time a Chinese War correspondent carrying a small 35mm camera came into the plaster room and decided to take a photograph of me in this rack device. No doubt this was to show how well prisoners were being treated. He set up his camera on a tripod ready to take the picture and then left the room. When he returned to take his picture, I was amazed to see that he had an old-fashioned flash holder and flash powder. He measured out the amount of flash powder he estimated he needed and then tried to get me to smile by behaving like an animated chimpanzee. With the excruciating pain that I was going through, he had no hope of success. When he finally fired the flash powder, he almost burnt down the room with the roof thatching catching fire. This was quickly put out and the nurses politely put him out too.
After this episode I was returned to the first room with my new plaster cast. As the full effects of the spinal injection wore off, the incessant pain returned. No one spoke English. It was my birthday. My spirit was pretty low at this time. The day had started so tragically with the death of the napalmed soldier. I was in pain, worse I was alone.
This feeling of loneliness was made infinitely worse by my mind being filled with visions of my sweetheart, Desma McEvoy, whom I had met on my final leave at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, just a few months before. How I longed to hold her in my arms and hear her voice once more. Our eyes had met across a crowded dance room floor and, for me, it was "love at first sight". We danced the night away and, as the memories flooded back, I wondered if I would ever dance again or if I would live to ask her to marry me.
In the early hours of the following morning, when the pain was at its worst, a Chinese soldier came over and sat beside me. He looked at me for a little while and watched as I tried to control the pain I was experiencing and then he reached down and cradled my head in his arms. He began to sing in perfect English, the old Paul Robeson spiritual, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry, me home". This is one of the most moving experiences that I will always remember.
The soldier I discovered could not speak English to carry on a conversation, but I found out later, that he had attended an American missionary school when he was a child. This was the turning point in my imprisonment. The next day, the pain in my leg subsided and I started to regain my spirit. I felt like an exhibit at the zoo as I had a constant and steady stream of Chinese, both male and female, coming into the room to have a look at the redheaded, blue-eyed prisoner.
There was no such thing as a bedpan, as we know them. Each morning the star turn was being lifted onto a sawn in half four gallon kerosene can to perform my morning bowel motion. This always attracted the big crowd of curious Chinese. The Chinese made no attempt to give wounded prisoners any privacy and at times this could be most embarrassing.
When I had my operation, they took all my clothes from the waist down, i.e. socks, underpants, trousers were all taken from me. The trousers were cut off by the surgeon who operated on me. This left my genitals exposed when I was lifted up to perform each morning for my audience. I found this most off-putting at first, especially when there were so many females among the group. There were no such things as screens like we have in our hospitals, but there again, the Korean farmhouse they were using, bore no resemblance to any hospital as we know them. Some of the audience had the audacity to pull my red pubic hair to make sure it was real.
I was in plaster from the toes of my right leg to the top of my chest with the plaster encircling my chest in line with my armpits. My body would be elevated with my heels touching the raised platform to an angle of about 30 degrees. The can was then slid under the appropriate area with the nurses on either side to ensure that I did not cut my buttocks.
I hadn't passed a motion since being taken prisoner two weeks earlier and this was beginning to worry me. The twenty or more men and women watched every move very intently and tried to give me added assistance to achieve success, judging by their expressions of straining on their faces in sympathy with my endeavors. This pantomime went on for three days without success causing stunned looks each time I gave up with nothing to show for my efforts. They would pass the empty can around and speak excitedly to each other gesticulating and with looks of amazement on their faces.
The next day (the fourth day after my operation) the usual crowd were gathered around when I was lifted into position. It turned out to be a rattling success. The motion when it finally came, was in the form of little rounded pellets which ricocheted around the empty can. I often wonder what these basically peasant people would tell their friends and neighbours in the more remote provinces of China about western toilet habits. If they described the eyewitness account that they observed, no one would believe them.
The following night after I had managed to get to sleep, I was awakened by the sound of English voices. At first, I thought I must have been dreaming or hearing things. I was pleased beyond belief a few minutes later when five Australian private soldiers from Able Company, Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment were carried into the room where I was being held.
They were Glen Brown from South Australia, Brian Davoren from my home town of Sydney N.S.W., Jack Davis from Queensland, Jack Mackay from Western Australia. and Jim McCulloch from Brisbane Queensland. They brought me up-to-date on what had happened to the rest of my patrol and told me that I had been posted missing-in-action. I wondered how the news of my being posted as M.I.A. would affect my mother and my beloved Desma.
Brian Davoren was in bad shape. His left leg was pretty mangled from an exploding grenade which also caused a lot of damage to his right arm and chest. The others in the group had various shrapnel and bullet wounds. Jack Mackay, on his second tour of duty in Korea, was shot through his left shoulder. Because of a lack of facilities the Chinese could not locate the bullet. They had an entry point for the bullet but no exit hole. When he was released, doctors discovered that the bullet had lodged in the first layer of his heart. Jack, with his wry sense of humour and his good stories about his pre-war stint as a mental hospital nurse, was a great inspiration to us all. When things looked a bit bleak you could always depend on Jack to brighten things up.
After a few more days here, we were moved out after darkness had fallen and placed on the back of a five-ton truck for transport further north. We each had a blanket, but even so, it was bitterly cold. I felt it pretty badly because of the amount of plaster in which I was encased and the lack of clothing. Our truck was one of what appeared to be hundreds in the convoy; the line stretched up as far as the eye could see. Because of United Nations superiority in the air, the Chinese could only use the roads at night.
As we went bumping along the bomb-hole-ridden road, we tried to tell from the stars in which direction we were travelling. Jim McCulloch, who was an officer in the Royal Navy during World War II, tried to plot where we were going but he found it to be an impossible task because of the winding and twisting roads. The Chinese seemed to post a soldier on every mountaintop and as soon as he heard the sound of an aeroplane engine, he would fire a shot into the air.
This may not be as effective as radar, but it worked very well in letting you know of approaching aircraft. You can hear the rifle shots getting closer and you know that the aircraft will soon fly over your position.
On this particular night the aircraft, when it arrived over the convoy, dropped huge magnesium flares that lit up the landscape like daytime. The convoy came to an immediate stop and the Chinese drivers and passengers took off to either side of the road to get what cover was available. Because of our injuries and lack of mobility we had to stay on the truck and hope that our truck didn't end up in the cross hairs of some pilot's rocket delivery system. The American planes came into the attack with rockets firing, picking off trucks one by one. Fortunately the aircraft must have run out of rockets before they got to our position in the convoy.
About a dozen trucks were hit by the rockets and destroyed. After pushing the wrecks off the road, the convoy closed up and continued its journey north. We all breathed a sigh of relief, as the blanket we had couldn't keep out the cold, let alone a rocket.
The following morning we arrived at a vast complex of caves where we were to stay for a few days. Because of the bumping around on the back of the truck, my plaster had been cracked in five or six places so it had to be replaced with a new one. This was to be repeated on a number of occasions.
It was during our stay in the caves that Jim McCulloch and I had a very frightening experience that ended on a humorous note. We had befriended a little Chinese soldier who was suffering from shell shock or some mental problem. He used to go around to the Chinese and Korean wounded and pinch cigarettes, biscuits or anything on which he could put his hands. He would come over to where Jim and I were lying side by side and try to talk to us in Chinese. He would slip the cigarettes or lollies under our bedding with much smiling and facial contortions. We decided to teach him to say, "Wouldn't it f... you!" We were in this complex for a few days and "Wouldn't it f... you" was becoming better and better at saying this new found phrase that made Jim and me laugh.
One morning two Korean Officers came into the complex and came over to where we were and started talking in Korean and looking down at us. The one nearest Jim undid his pistol holster and pulled a Luger and held it down near Jim's ear against his skull. Jim whispered, "Hey, Blue, look what this bastard's doing to me!" I replied to Jim that he was just trying to scare him. Jim said, "Well he's succeeding Blue." The Korean standing in front of me then took out his pistol, which looked very much like a Mauser and held it to my head. I now understood very clearly how Jim felt.
The two Officers took it in turns to fire their pistols which produced clicks. They thought it was a great game and were laughing at our discomfort. Just as things were looking decidedly tricky for both of us, our little mate looked across and saw what was happening. He jumped up and in doing so, he bumped his head against the roof of the cave and let out a cry of "Wouldn't it f... you", and came charging across to where Jim and I were lying and started berating the two Koreans. They quickly put their pistols back in their holsters and took off with "Wiffey" in hot pursuit.
They had had their fun at our expense but Jim and I had the last laugh. When I think back now on this incident, I realise how crass we were to teach the Chinese soldier such an obscene phrase, especially when he was trying to be so helpful to us. The only thing I can think of in our defence is that at 23 years of age, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
As we travelled further north, we stopped at a variety of field hospitals that were nothing more than old Korean farmhouses. The Chinese were fond of telling us that we were getting the same treatment as their own men. This was true to a certain degree. The real difference was that the Chinese and Koreans only had to suffer the lack of facilities for a short time before they were moved across the border to the regular hospital system. United Nations troops had to persevere with spartan treatment until they were cured or died.
In our group's case, we were kept in these caves or Korean farmhouses for the full duration of our incarceration with the Communists. English speaking Chinese were very scarce on the ground after leaving the interrogation centre. When you did find one, they wouldn't tell you where you were or where you were going. They usually told you that you would be going to school when you got to the P.O.W. Camp but would elaborate no further.
It became a bit of a joke with us that whenever I got a new plaster put on my leg, we would start moving on again. We finally arrived at our last location, which was a long shed, about 30-feet long and 10-feet wide. At one end was a little charcoal stove and at the other end was the entry door. There were elevated platforms on either side of a central earthen passageway that ran the length of the room.
When we arrived at this shed, there were two Americans, one Colombian and one Puerto Rican, already in residence. One of the Americans was a Negro named Wilbur Waring and the other was a Polish American, Paul Klozik. The Puerto Rican who had his left knee cap shot off was called "Angel". I can't remember the name of the Colombian who could not speak or understand English.
The shed was located on a hill on its own and very close to a railway junction. It had a thatched roof that I could reach with my hand while lying on my back. Every now and again the U. N. Forces would put in an air strike against the railway junction.
The Doctor in Charge, Dr. Whong, spoke excellent but halting English. He told me that he once taught at the University of Hong Kong. He was a dedicated Doctor who won our utmost respect. The only other Doctor with whom we came into contact was a Dr. Shu who was in charge of the Infectious Diseases Ward. He was promptly nicknamed, "The Germ". He would burst into our shed in the early hours of the morning with two or three gun-toting goons and accuse us of signalling the aircraft that were bombing the rail junction.
Because of our exposed position we would have needed to be as crazy as Dr. Shu to have even attempted signalling as we would have been the first building to be taken out. He would continually try to cheer us up by telling us that Korea was the start of a 100 years war and that we would never see our loved ones again. After putting up with his accusations over a number of weeks I finally told Dr. Whong what he was doing and asked could he do something to stop him terrorizing us in the early hours of the morning.
Dr. Whong said he had no right to be in our shed and that he was a very political Doctor. He said he would take steps to see that he didn't come back again. Dr. Whong must have carried a lot of weight, because we didn't see Dr. Shu again until the day we were leaving for Kaesong prior to our release.
Towards the end of March we were given a demonstration of how cheap human life was valued. Jack 'Donkey' Davis from Maryborough Queensland was standing near the front door of our hut getting a breath of fresh air. An old Korean woman came up to him and she was carrying a basket full of apples. Jack tried to get her to give him one but she shook her head. She then saw that Jack was wearing a ring that Jack's Japanese girl friend had given him when he embarked from Japan to Korea. She indicated to Jack that she would exchange her apples for Jack's ring. Jack invited her inside the hut and started to bargain with her to get the best deal. The food at this time was mainly boiled rice, which was pretty tasteless and stuck to your mouth. We used to wish that we had a little sugar, salt, curry or any 'bloody thing at all' that would give a bit of taste.
To get an apple to eat would be a real coup if Jack could pull it off. Neither jack nor the old woman could understand each other's language but this presented no problems as the age-old barter system went into action. Jack held up both hands and indicated by flicking his hands three times that thirty apples would do the trick and the ring she coveted would be hers.
The old woman shook her head vigorously from side to side and held up her hands showing three fingers on one hand and five on the other. By facial expressions Jack indicated to her that eight apples had no chance of succeeding but immediately dropped his ante to both hands flicked twice for twenty apples.
To reinforce this offer, he took the ring off his finger and gave it to her to try on. Even from the sidelines you could see that here were two good traders in action. She tried on the ring and gave us a toothless grin. You could see that she dearly wanted that ring which looked like gold but in reality, was only brass. The other prisoners, including myself, were also holding our hands up telling Jack to try and get more, as there were ten of us that would dearly love an apple to eat.
Even though she wanted that ring real bad, and the odds were ten to one against her in the bargaining stakes, she stood her ground and indicated that fifteen apples was her best offer. Jack tried to get her to accept that twenty was all he would take for such a beautiful ring. By this time we were all salivating at the thought of sinking our teeth, or in my case, gums, into these lovely red apples. We started advising Jack that fifteen was a reasonable price to pay for a brass ring and to accept her offer; this he did, and the ring changed hands at 15 apples.
The last we ever saw of this lovely old lady was as she walked out the door of our hut holding the ring in front of her eyes with a big toothless grin on her face. 'Donkey', Jack's nickname, shared the apples around and we each got one and a half apples to eat. I don't think I have ever tasted a nicer apple. It was the measure of the man that 'Donkey' Davis shared his apples equally so that we all got the same amount.
Two days later Dr. Whong came into our hut and asked us who had sold this ring, holding it up for us to see. Jack admitted that he was the culprit and asked the Doctor if he had done anything wrong. Dr. Whong said that the Korean peasants were not allowed to fraternize with the prisoners of war and the old woman had been shot as an example to others not to have contact with us. Dr. Whong handed back the brass ring to Jack Davis and warned him not to do this again, as he could not stop the army from carrying out these executions. Thus the People's Liberation Army put a value of fifteen apples as the price for this poor old Korean lady's life. Whenever I eat an apple now, I think of her toothless smile and her face.
This embargo on coming into the hut did not extend to military personnel who would frequently walk in to have a look at us. You could hear them squelching through the snow outside our hut and then they would burst in through the door with looks of eager anticipation on their faces. The captured 'capitalist pigs' were always a good attraction if you had nothing better to do, or so they thought.
The looks of eager anticipation quickly changed to facial contortions as they tried to come to terms with the odour that pervaded our hut. This is because the stench from my own opened weeping wound with its putrefying pus was enough to make strong men blanch and their eyes water.
Of course being exposed to it 24 hours a day, you more or less became immune to its potent effects. You could only begin to guess at its potency by the startling effects it had on visitors to our Prisoner of War hut who ventured in to have a close look at their captured enemy, us. They would come in with excited eager looks on their faces, not knowing what wonders they were about to see.
At a given signal, the American and the Aussies would quietly and discreetly start moving our blankets up and down much in the manner of the American Indian when sending a smoke signal.
The horrible smell coming from Angel Carcia's missing right knee mixed with the gas gangrene from Brian Davoren's left leg and the abominable essence emanating from the amputated feet of the American flyer, Bob Weinbrandt, plus the putrefying mixture of foul smells from the rest of the group, could truly be classified as diabolical germ warfare. It was the only weapon we had and we used it with telling effect. The looks of eager excitement and anticipation would suddenly undergo a complete transformation as the full force of our secret weapon began to wreak its deadly effect.
Those not wearing masks over their nose and mouth would start holding their hands over their noses in a futile attempt to thwart our sinister assault on their smelling senses. As they fought to stop our evil infiltrating putrescence from reaching their noses, they suddenly realised that all our smells combined was an unassailable and all pervading force from which there was no escape. This then caused them to adopt desperate defensive measures such as holding their breath and speeding up their tour of inspection.
We would watch them with an air of innocence on such occasions pretending to be oblivious to their attention. Sometimes curiosity would get the better of you and you would turn your head only to find a face inches away from your own with hands clamped desperately over its nose and mouth, eyes wildly dilated and looking extremely agitated in a frenzied sort of manner.
Some of the visitors were not as tough as they made out and were physically vomiting as they rushed headlong down the walkway to the entrance to our prison quarters. It must have been a great relief for them to regain the sanctuary of the conventional war going on outside our hut.
Hygiene was pretty poor at this "hospital" and we all had dysentery at one time or another. Hundreds of body lice set up a colony behind my right kneecap, which was encased in plaster. I used to pull a twig out of the roof and poke it down behind the plaster when they became unbearable but that would only stir them up and you could feel them running around inside. Each day a small hand basin with warm water was given to us to wash our face, hands and body. Unfortunately, the ten men in the hut had to share this basin of water. After the first man had washed, the water looked decidedly dirty. If you were last in line, it was putrid. Effectively, this meant you could get a clean wash every ten days, as we had a system where you would rotate the start.
Brian Davoren's left leg had developed Gas gangrene. Dr. Whong tried everything to save Brian's leg but it was too far gone and despite massive injections of drugs, Dr Whong had to amputate his leg a couple of inches above the knee. We didn't think "Day" would pull through, but with tremendous courage and willpower, he fought his way back. He used to say he had to pull through because he had a wife and kids he loved and they needed a father. It made me realise how lucky I was to only have the injuries I did.
One day, Dr Whong came in and examined Jim McCulloch and Wilbur Waring. He decided that they were fit enough to he moved to the P.O.W. Camp. We said our farewells and asked Jim to give a message to a mate of mine called Tom Hollis whom I had known in "Civvie Street". I was a press photographer and Tom was a Detective in the N.S.W. Police Force.
A couple of nights later an American airman called Bob Weinbrandt was put in the space vacated by Jim McCulloch. Bob was a Tail Gunner in a B29 that had been shot down. Bob managed to bail out when his aircraft caught fire but the rest of the crew got caught in the burning aircraft. Bob eluded the search patrols for five days but when his feet became frozen, he had no alternative but to give up. The guards assigned to bring Bob to our shed for medical treatment forced him to walk the thirty odd miles on his frozen feet. We could hear his screams of pain echoing across the countryside long before he came into our shed. Dr. Whong did his best to save Bob's feet but in the end, he had to amputate both. Bob Weinbrandt's name will always be synonymous with courage in my book.
Early in April, Dr, Whong told us that there was to be an exchange of wounded and sick prisoners and he thought that we would be among the prisoners to be released, as we all had serious injuries. This proved to be an accurate forecast and we were all loaded aboard a truck and taken to Kaesong. Before leaving for our journey south, we said our good-byes to Dr. Whong who did so much for us with the limited facilities he had at his disposal. He was a true humanitarian and I salute him for the efforts he made on our behalf.
When we arrived at Kaesong, the Chinese shaved me for the first time since my patrol and took off the rest of my army clothing that I had been wearing since my capture on January 14th. It stunk to high heaven and I was pleased to be rid of it. I was issued with a blue P.O.W. pair of pyjamas. They washed and sprayed us with a misting powder. I had my hair cut and my fingernails were cleaned on at least four occasions. We were given toothpaste, soap, cigarettes, chocolates, a small mirror and a packet of blues. We had seen none of these things previously while we were prisoners.
That night, we went to a concert in what had been named "Freedom Hall" where all the soldiers who were wounded or sick and going to be released on operation "Little Switch" were congregated. Two western men in military style clothing approached our group and introduced themselves to us as journalists who were covering the Korean War. The small rotund voluble one of the pair said his name was Wilfred Burchett and that he came from Melbourne. The leaner man said his name was Alan Winnington and he was English.
Winnington moved over to the more mobile members of our group, Jack Davis, Glen Brown and Jack McKay and struck up a conversation with them about their treatment at the hands of the People's Liberation Army. Burchett remained behind with Brian Davoren and myself telling us he was a war correspondent from Australia covering the Korean conflict. I asked Burchett directly, "Would he tell the other Australian correspondents at Panmunjon that there were five Australians to be released and would he give them our names just in case something went wrong and we were not released".
The great fear that we all had was that the Chinese had constantly told us that we were listed by our side as missing in action and that they would not have to account for any of our group when the war was over. The inferred threat was that they could eliminate us at any time if we did not co-operate with the People's Liberation Army. I expressed this fear to Burchett, but he just laughed and said he wouldn't be telling them because they would find out when we were released. He was most adamant in his attitude to this request. I couldn't understand why he would not convey my message and relieve our worry about being shot if something went wrong before we were released.
The next morning he came over to our group again and said he had been down to Panmunjon to see the early hand-over of prisoners. He was making wild claims that a great percentage of prisoners being handed over by the United Nations forces were amputees. This proved that the Americans would rather amputate the limbs of Chinese and Korean prisoners, rather than give them medical treatment to save their limbs. I told him an arm or leg blown off had very little chance of surviving if they were taken prisoner because of the lack of facilities on the Chinese side.
I had seen myself, when I was first captured, Chinese soldiers dying because they simply did not have the helicopters of M.A.S.H. forward aid posts that the United Nations Forces were blessed with. Another aspect that could bear investigation is whether the order went out not to release a lot of UN amputees at operation "Little Switch" to demonstrate what wonderful treatment the P.L.A. had meted out to their prisoners. Another method of not having to treat soldiers' serious injuries was to simply leave them where they fell on the battlefield.
Burchett didn't like being contradicted and repeated his wild claims and then took off to peddle his rumour to anyone who would listen to him. An American on a stretcher nearby leaned over and whispered that he knew Burchett in the camp and he could make things really difficult for me if I upset him. He said I should be very careful what I said to Burchett as he had caused a lot of hardship in the P.O.W. Camp with prisoners who did not co-operate with him. It gave me quite a shock to hear that Burchett wasn't what he had told us he was, i.e. an Australian War Correspondent. He was a communist apologist at best or a traitor to his country. Many who served in Korea would opt for the latter classification. I do.
The night before I was to be released, a Chinese Officer came around and asked me if I had lost any possessions while I had been a prisoner of the People's Liberation Army. I told him that I had lost a Ronson cigarette lighter, a silver ring and my army belt. The soldiers in the front line had taken these items off me shortly after my capture. The Officer noted down what I had told him and said he would go and look for these items. He came back later in the night and told me that he had been unable to locate my Ronson lighter or my silver ring. He said that the army belt was a prize of war and I would not he getting that back. He also said that he would have to take me off the Exchange List until they had been able to locate my possessions.
This alarmed me, as I thought it might be a Burchett plan to have me taken off the Exchange List. I told the officer that the lighter and ring didn't matter to me and not to worry about trying to trace them. The Chinese Officer said that it was very important that I get back my possessions as the People's Liberation Army were not thieves. He left me to continue his search for the missing items and I wished that I had never mentioned them to him. I was absolutely convinced I would be taken off the list and be left behind.
The Possessions Officer came back about two hours later and said he had a proposition to put to me. By this time I kept breaking out in a cold sweat trying to think of plausible reasons for not wanting my gear back. I managed to ask him what his proposition was, without seeming too eager. He held out this beautiful silver lighter with dragons embossed all over its surface and asked me if I would accept it in place of my Ronson. He said a Chinese Officer had donated his lighter to show how honest the P.L.A. were in their dealings with the prisoners-of-war.
I didn't hesitate in accepting his offer and I told him that when my Ronson lighter was found, as I had no doubt it would be, it was to be given to the Officer who had given me his dragon lighter. The only thing that stood in the way of my release now was the damned ring I had reported missing.
I didn't see Burchett again before we were taken from Freedom Hall and put into the biggest and shiniest ambulances that were a lot easier to ride in than the steel floor of a five-ton truck. No more breakages for my plaster cast in this conveyance. The Communists left our side for dead in the show they put on for the World's Press waiting at Panmunjon to record the changeover of the wounded and sick exchange. To see us freshly shaven, manicured hands, and fresh clean pyjamas and wearing little blue caps, you would be excused for thinking that we were being released from a rest camp. The big ambulances and all the goodies such as cigarettes, chocolates, soap, toothpaste and a little mirror all piled on top of the blankets that covered us, added to the great illusion that was recorded by the World's Press covering this historic event.
From Panmunjon I was flown encased in a plastic bubble attached to the landing skid of an army helicopter to Seoul where American Doctors gave us a thorough going over. My plaster was cut off and the colony of body lice, which had eaten their way into the flesh above my right knee, seemed to number in the thousands. An American nurse who had helped take off the plaster cast became quite ill when she saw the lice and the damage they had done. They were quickly dealt with and the terrible creepy crawly feeling that I had put up with for the last couple of months became a memory.
I was wounded and taken Prisoner-of-War on the 14th January 1953 and released three months later on the 23rd April 1953. I had lost five stone in weight during this period of imprisonment.
First Published in The Voice, August and October 2003