The POW Experience
Eugene Inman stared out over the mountainside at Kunu-ri in shock and disbelief. Dead bodies and mangled equipment littered the roads and ditches in front of him. Smoke billowed up from destroyed armored vehicles as those blessed to be alive at all staggered around as if in a dream. It was frigid⎯one of the coldest winters in recorded history. After an overwhelming Chinese attack, Eugene’s 2nd infantry division quickly retreated south. There was no time to ensure that all men were accounted for. Tragically, Eugene and many of his comrades became stranded just fifty miles south of North Korea’s border with China. They, along with other POWs in similar predicaments like Ed Sheffield, Clifford Petrey and Salvatore Conte, became sitting ducks.
The men were barely adults. Some were as young as seventeen. Their time in captivity would be more horrific than anything their young minds could have imagined. Shortly after capture, communist troops gathered up their new prisoners and herded them into animal pens. The pens provided no shelter from the 30 degree-below-zero temperatures. Eugene remembers that Chinese troops forced him to remove his outer clothing, leaving him with only his thin field jacket, a scarf and a small cap.
Salvatore Conte was lucky⎯he had on a pair of leather boots that protected his toes from frostbite. Those wearing rubber boots weren’t so lucky. Since the rubber didn’t absorb moisture like the leather did, many of those men lost toes when sweat froze around them. Salvatore recalls that the cold was bad, but the wind was worse. The winds routinely whipped at “forty, fifty or sixty miles-an-hour… If you weren’t moving and you weren’t dressed properly, you were dead.”
The captors led their prisoners on horrific death marches. Every evening and through the night, they walked excruciatingly long distances with very little food and water. Civilians threw stones at them from the side of the road. If a prisoner collapsed or could not continue, he was shot, clubbed or bayoneted to death. Men died of starvation and dehydration each day.
The marches continued for roughly seven months until the Chinese built more permanent camps to house prisoners along the Yalu River. At the camps, the Chinese divided the officers and commanders from the rest of the POWs. They knew that there would be less chance of a POW revolt if the commanders could no longer talk to those they commanded. Then, they attempted to brainwash their captors into thinking that communism was better than capitalism. What better propaganda tool than to have United Nations soldiers themselves sing the praises of communism while blaming their own countries for what was happening to them?
Every day, the communist station Radio Beijing crackled over loudspeakers in English, denouncing the United States, the United Nations and other “aggressors” for starting the war and creating such misery. Journalists who sympathized with the communists, such as Alan Winnington of the Daily Worker and Wilfred Burchett of Ce Soir, routinely visited the camps to speak to prisoners in their own languages about how communism was the key to a brighter and more equal future for all. Capitalism, on the other hand, made life miserable for everyday workers and soldiers like themselves. Each day, prisoners spent most of their waking hours in class, learning about how the United States was not a democracy, but rather a hostile imperialist nation.
Chinese and North Korean captors removed prisoners who they thought were resisting those messages or who seemed like they might revolt. Those men endured horrific beatings, were placed in solitary confinement and denied food and water. Salvatore was one of them. His captors placed him in a 3 ½ foot-high, 2 foot-wide and 5 foot-long wooden “sweat box,” where he lived roughly twenty-two hours a day for eight months. Conversely, captors bestowed special privileges, including meat and hot drinks, upon those prisoners who expressed support for communism.
Despite enduring unimaginable psychological and physical torture, Salvatore Conte survived. He stayed alive by “teleporting” himself somewhere else. At night, he and his friends always dreamed of home. They kept each other alive by sharing their dreams with each other and by, very infrequently, writing letters home.
Faced with such strong pressure to turn against his country, Salvatore remained intensely loyal to the United States. When he was finally released, he sought out Daily Worker reporter Winston Burchett, whose pro-communist articles he had been forced to read in the camps. When asked why he wanted to talk to Burchett, Salvatore replied, “I want to slap him in the face.” He would never take his freedoms for granted again.
Salvatore, Ed, Clifford and Eugene were among the lucky ones. An astonishing 38 percent of U.S. prisoners died in captivity. In August 1953, one month after North Korea, China and the United Nations agreed to a ceasefire, most American POWs were released. Clifford Petrey returned home to his parents. When he was asked what they said upon his arrival, he replied emotionally, “Thank God.”