Clarence J. Sperbeck
Born in Clark Mills, NY, on November 27, 1931, Clarence Sperbeck describes “scrapping by” with his family owned farm during the height of the Great Depression while raising twelve children. His father who joined the Marines during WWII, told him while he was gone he would be the “man of the house.” He recalls the grueling, but necessary task of carrying as many as seven sacks of groceries to feed their family for over 7 miles before reaching home, as well as serving as a janitor in a one-room classroom where most of his brothers attended. After his re-enlistment and completing basics at Fort Dix, NJ, he was shipped to Pusan and took a train up to the front line which was north of the Imjin River as a Riflemen/Ammo bearer 57 recoil-less. While strangely receiving orders to pull back, not realizing General Ridgeway’s tactic was to draw the enemy into the “killing zone,” he and his platoon made the wrong turn and walked right into the Chinese army who had captured Army vehicles he thought were safe. As a POW he vividly recalls stories of his march to the POW Camp 1, soldiers who resisted the Chinese, and his affliction with illness and exhaustion during his 27 months in Camp 1. His pride and mental toughness played a large part of his survival.
Chinese Were Everywhere
Clarence Sperbeck describes when he arrived on the front lines when the Chinese were all over the place they controlled everything. When he came back to the states, counter intelligence asked him how he knew the Chinese were everywhere dominating the region, and he said, "that was easy to detect." When you entered a traditional Korean home, you were supposed to take off your shoes outside and put rubber slippers on. Clarence Sperbeck said most of the houses he saw had Chinese Army Boots at the door, so that's how he knew they were sleeping in the Korean houses.
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P.O.W. Capture: Right Into The Lion's Den
Clarence Sperbeck retails the story of being captured as a prisoner of war north of the Imjin River. He was sitting with a group of experienced "ol' timers", who told him that the Chinese were going to come around this valley, but Clarence Sperbeck told them there was no way it was going to happen. The soldiers heard the bugles blow (as a means of communicating with each other from afar) and mass firing ensues as they are given orders to pull back (which he never understood). General Ridgeway devised a trap within this valley to make the Chinese think that we were pulling back giving them the advantage, but when the Chinese made it to the center, General Ridgeway closed the gap which killed over 50,000 Chinese. However, when the original order was given, Clarence Sperbeck's platoon started to retreat and took the wrong turn. Turns out there were captured vehicles and they walked right into a group of Chinese soldiers.
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Frozen In Fear
Clarence Sperbeck recalls while on the move picking up extra men who had been displaced from their unit and abandoned weapons. He found one guy frozen (not literally), just sitting there whether fear or uncertainty, Clarence Sperbeck kicked him in the shin with his combat boot (said it hurt like hell), handed him a weapon, and told him to fall in line with the rest. The other soldier was a new replacement paralyzed again with fear who didn't speak or move even after being kicked by Clarence Sperbeck.
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Clarence Sperbeck remembered April 25, 1951 because that was the day he was captured by the Chinese. Having been warned not to walk on the ridge line since it made it easy for the Chinese to detect your movement, the US troops walked the ridge line anyway. Clarence Sperbeck made an attempt to shoot in the direction of a sound behind him when a concussion grenade landed near him knocking him to the ground damaging his back. When he came out from under a rock, a Chinese soldier screamed at him to put down his weapon; he jumped behind a pine tree to try to shoot at the enemy, but the Chinese soldier's buddy was pointing his weapon at Clarence and he wouldn't have been able to shoot both. He put his rifle down and spend the rest of his time with the Chinese after walking for 3 months to get to the POW camp.
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Treatment By the Enemy
Clarence Sperbeck said when the Chinese capture you, they don't feed you. He started on the march at 165 pounds and ended at 110 pounds. It was said that if you were captured by the NKPA (North Korean People's Army), these marches were the worst in recorded history. If you were sick or injured they put a pistol to your head and blew your brains out, rolled you in a ditch, and kept going. Chinese didn't do that; they wanted information from the prisoners.
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Do You Have Any Final Words?
While hiding out in a Japanese school house (near Pyongyang), sick with amoebic dysentery, the Chinese ordered the POWs to move at night to avoid being detected by American Airplanes. The night before, the POWs were supposed to leave from the school, but an American soldier who had made an attempt to escape the prison earlier was brought back to the camp and was put on the platform where the Chinese would usually conduct their daily exercise. They sentenced him to death and asked him if he had any final words and asked if he wished to be blindfolded before being shot by a firing squad. The US POW said, "Yes, go screw yourself you slant-eyed SOB." Clarence thought this soldier had a lot of guts.
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Hope This Never Happens to You Too
Clarence Sperbeck commented on how fast the Chinese moved compared to the US troops. It was said that the average number of steps per minute the Chinese took were 140 to Americans' 120. While unable to hear, see, or walk due to his illness (amoebic dysentery), most of the American prisoners bypassed Clarence Sperbeck when he needed help, but a few soldiers helped him up. He was often the last in line (so weak/sick) during the march which would put him at a greater risk of being shot.
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White Rice Riot
When the prisoners were marching north, they would give POWs white rice which had no nutritional value.
Fortunately, they got a can of Russian shredded beef and rice that they considered the beef to be the "Nectar of the Gods". With no refrigeration, prisoners were allowed to have seconds which started a riot since they were grabbing handfuls to eat. The Chinese stood back laughing at the prisoners because some of the POWs were wealthy businessmen back in the states acting like pigs trying to get as much as they could.
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Camp 1: Sustenance
When Clarence Sperbeck arrived at his first POW Camp (Camp 1-Ch'ang Song), Chinese soldiers gave each man a wash cloth and a bar of soap, but then they were instructed to go to the polluted river at the camp to take a bath. Korean civilians (women and children) stood on the bridge overlooking the river and watched the G.I.'s take a bath. Men were given little food and Clarence Sperbeck describes the pork they ate and how the Chinese would slaughter and drink the blood of the pig.
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East Is Red With The Blood of Our Dead
Daily life in prison camp began with a lecture on Chinese politics and required POWs to recite the Chinese National Anthem," The east is red with the blood of our dead.." and Clarence Sperbeck continued to recite the anthem after being released. Clarence Sperbeck would later discover that while the POWs were writing daily reports in the prison camp, Chinese officers had difficulty interpreting slang terms GI (a nickname for US soldiers) would write. When the soldiers discovered this, they taunted the Chinese with slang in their letters all the time just to mess with them. The GIs were allowed to send/receive letters from family with the Chinese overseeing what was written in the letters, but POWs would have to lie to get their letters sent home.
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You Dream Just Before You Die
Clarence Sperbeck tells the story of another camp that lost over 1600 men in a period of 2 weeks, and the Chinese brought the survivors of that "massacre" to Camp 1 to merge those survivors with his prison camp. Clarence Sperbeck was already suffering with amoebic dysentery at that time, so when he came upon his old squad leader who had survived the "massacre" (death from other camp), the squad leader demanded the Chinese to provide medical care for Clarence Sperbeck. He said he would have dreams of cooking a full meal, then going back to cook some more. Many men declared that these were the symptoms dying men.
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Performing Medical Experiments on the Prisoners
In the 3 month stay in this hospital at Camp 1, the Chinese performed medical experiments on the prisoners by implanting a gland from an animal into POW's bodies. POWs were told that if the gland stayed in their body, they would potentially run a high fever and die from an infection. Clarence Sperbeck said the soldiers wouldn't let the incision heal over and they would attempt to squeeze the gland out to keep it from infecting their body.
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Hey! Wait A Minute! That's Us!
On the date of Clarence Sperbeck's release, August 19, 1953, the first thing the US did was give him a physical examination. He said while he was there, he picked up the "Stars and Stripes" Newspaper, and saw the headlines read, "Chinese attempt to keep 400 POW's." Clarence Sperbeck said, "Hey they were talking about us!" He mentioned the Chinese kept over 800 prisoners, took them back to China, and used them for atomic experiments. There were others who refused repatriation and were not well liked by the men when they returned.
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[Beginning of Transcribed Material]
C: My name is Clarence, CLARENCE Jerald Sperbeck, SPERBECK. On the 27th of this month, November, I will be 83 years old.
I: Meaning you were born in 1931.
C: Thirty-one in Clark Mills, NY.
It’s right outside of Utica. My mother and father had 14 children.
C: No, I’m sorry. Twelve.
I: Um. They had one daughter born in ’29 and then me and six brothers in a row after that.
And then two daughters. And then twin boys. But the twin boys were premature and had lung problems and died.
I: How was life at the time? It was difficult, wasn’t it, right after the Great Depression?
C: Well, not after. That was the Great Depression.
C: And yes, it was very difficult. And of course, when the Depression ended,
We had World War II. And my father went in the Marines in 1943. And uh, being the oldest boy as he told me when he left, I was the oldest boy. I was the man of the house.
C: And he expected me to help my mother.
We lived at that time, we lived seven miles out in the country, seven miles from Taberg. Do you know where Taberg is?
C: It’s just another little town near a set of thousands of them. And like if we needed groceries, we didn’t have a telephone. We didn’t have a car. No bus transportation.
So, my mother would make out the list, send me and my sister to town, and we’d carry four sacks of groceries seven miles home.
I: How did you manage feeding all your family members? Were you farmers, or what did you work?
C: Yes. We had a little farm, and we raised pigs and chickens.
I: So, what about school?
C: Well, we had a little one-room country schoolhouse that we went to. In fact, I had my first paid job. I was 12. And I was a janitor in this one-room country schoolhouse.
I: But that one room school was still with your brothers and sisters, right?
C: Quite a few of them.
I: How many were there?
C: At that time?
I: Only five students?
C: Oh, students in the class.
C: Probably about 35.
I: And one teacher.
C: One teacher. A very good teacher.
I: Um. So, when did you graduate high school?
C: I never graduated high school.
C: When my father came back from the Marines, we moved to another little town called Oriskany. Well, see, Oriskany was a battle there that was fought in the Revolution.
C: And it was one of the turning points in the American Revolution there. We stayed there for about a year.
And then we moved to Utica. And we stayed there for about a year and a half. And I was going to trade school to be a carpenter. But my father moved down to Elmira.
I: Elmira, yeah. I know that.
C: Yeah. He moved down to Elmira. And he had a job down there.
And he took me out of school to help, he was a janitor. In those days, they called it a sextant at an Episcopal church there. He had the job. I did the work, and he got the money.
C: It’s the old-fashioned way.
I: Yeah. When did you join the military?
C: July of, July 26, 1949.
And so, when I came in the Army, I
I: You enlisted, right?
I: Uh huh.
C: Although they did have the draft then. But when I came in the Army, I’d never finished the 7th grade. However, my GT score and other general intelligence was 118. You needed 115 to go to Officers Candidate School.
I: I see.
C: So, my tests were very good. And when I got out of the Army after over 20 years, I had two years of college.
I: What did you study?
C: General subjects.
C: Two days after I retired, I was at U Tex.
I: U Tex?
C: University of Texas at El Paso.
C: And so, I finished that. And then I was working on my masters’, and I was halfway through my masters’ with a GPA of 3.75.
I: We’ll talk about that.
But you enlisted to the Army, right?
I: July 26, 1944.
I: Forty-nine. And did you know anything about Korea at the time?
C: No. Nobody did. Nobody.
I: Where did you go to get the basic military training?
C: Fort Dix.
I: Where is it?
C : Fort Dix, New Jersey.
I : Um hm.
0 :07 :33
And then what happened? Tell me about it.
C: Well, I went to Leadership school at Fort Dix after basic training. And that was another eight weeks. And then I was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia.
I: Uh huh.
C: And I ended up in the Fire Department. So, I was a fireman.
C: Fort Benning, Georgia.
I: Fort Benning.
C: Outside of Columbus.
I: And then what happened?
C: I had a friend talk me into, in those days we’d call it short. In other words, I came in the Army for three years. But I’d had about a year and a half in, and this friend talked me into taking a short,
In other words, a year and a half you re-enlisted for a longer term of service. And we volunteered to go to Korea. The War had started. And the 3rd Infantry Division was stationed at Fort Benning, and they were sent over very early.
I: So, you belonged to 3rd Infantry Division, no?
C: No. When I was in the fire department, we belonged to what they would call now a garrison command.
I: Um. And then tell me about the details where you first heard that you had to go to Korea and what unit and what specialty.
C: Oh, I volunteered.
I: Why did you volunteer to go to War?
C: This friend of mine talked me into it.
So, I said why not.
I: Were you not scared?
C: Well, I was, how old was I then, 18. I was 18. You know you’re 18, you think you’re invincible anyway.
I: So, tell me about when did you first hear that you are going to go to Korea and where did you depart from?
C: When I re-enlisted, when I took my short and re-enlisted, the First Sergeant said do you want to go to Korea?
Why not. So, we went to Korea.
I: When? From where?
C: Well, we, I took leave, a 51-day leave. And then I went to Korea.
I: Do you remember when?
C: It was January of 1951.
I: From where?
C: We left from Fort Lawton, Washington, right outside of Seattle.
I: Um hm. Fort Lewis? No?
C: No, it was Fort Lawton.
I: Could you spell I t?
C: Lawton, LAWTON.
I: LAWTON, okay.
C: And all that was was the transient point for people that were shipping out to Korea.
And then we went by ship, troop ship, took two weeks to go to Japan and then two days to go to Korea, to Pusan.
I: Pusan. So, you arrived around February? How was Pusan?
Do you remember any scenes?
C: Um, well that was our introduction to Korea. One of the things that we were doing was we were throwing cigarettes to the stevedores. They wouldn’t pick them up. The cigarettes were valuable. When we left, they came and picked up all the cigarettes.
But they moved us by truck over to the train station in Pusan. Put us on those old Japanese trains, moved us to Seoul. And they put us on a truck and took us up to our units on the front lines.
I: Where? Was it west, east? Do you remember any names?
C: Well, it was, the only thing I can say it was north of the Imjin River.
I: I see.
C: Twenty-fifth Infantry Division, 35th Regiment.
I: What was your specialty?
C: Infantry. Light weapons. I was an ammo bearer for 57 recoilless rifle, if you know what recoilless rifles are.
C: Back then, they had 57s. 75s, and 105s.
Now they did away with the 57s. I think they still has 105s, damn good weapon.
I: How was the situation in Imjin River?
C: Chinese were all over that part of the country. And what people don’t realize that when the Chinese came into Korea, they controlled Korea, everything.
Uh, when I came back, and gunner intelligent people interrogated us. And I said they controlled everything, even to sleeping in the Korean houses. How do you know? I said it’s real easy because when you go to Korea and you go into a house, you take your shoes off, right?
You wore slippers, rubber slippers. And I see when you go by a Korean house and you see Chinese Army boots outside the house, what does that tell you? You got Chinese soldiers living in that house. They controlled everything. The government.
The only place that the Chinese didn’t control was Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. And they had hundreds of people there which is odd because I spent 27 months as a prisoner.
And so, they start, any Army starts right away interrogating prisoners, see what kind of information that they can get. And I lied like hell. They wanted to know when I came to Korea, and I told them no. Were there other troops? I said yeah, there was a troop ship the day before us.
We were told there was a troop ship the day after us. I wasn’t gonna tell them anything.
I: You were a good liar.
I: Tell me about how you were captured and when.
C: When we were sitting up on this side of this mountain,
I: Around the north of Imjin River, right?
C: North of the Imjin River.
C: And the, I was with guys that had been there. They had been in occupation duty in Japan and then sent to Korea. So, they already had 10 months of combat. And we were sitting up there, and I was talking to these old timers, and there was a valley there. And the Chinese were on the next mountain.
And the guys are telling me, they said the Chinese are gonna come across that valley. I said nonsense. They can’t do that. Oh yeah? Wait. And so, the Chinese, you hear the bugles blow, that’s how they communicated, bugles. And they started across this valley.
And you could see an artillery shell land out there. It was like a big drop of rain falling in the dust. You see a little plop, then plop, plop. And the artillery registering their guns. Here come the Chinese. Here come our bombers and fighters.
And the artillery. Pretty soon, all you could see was dust. And we got orders to pull back. Well, I never could see why we pulled back. But it seemed that General Ridgeway pulled the center of where we were, pulled the center of the American lines back.
And the Chinese thought they had split the lines like they did in the winter of ’50. And in the process, they poured into what they considered the hole that they had made. And then General Ridgeway closed it. And they killed and captured over 50,000 Chinese there.
Pretty smart thinking.
I: Um hm.
C: And uh, but in that mix-up, we, my section, and our platoon Sergeant, we got lost. When we were retreating, there weren’t any guards, I mean guides. And so, we were supposed to turn left, and we turned right.
And we could hear the Chinese on the ridges above us running cause we could hear their canteens hitting the bushes. And so, we set down there and just, now, the day before, we didn’t have any rest. We marched all that night, didn’t have any rest.
The next morning, we were, we saw some Army vehicles. So, we figured we got back to our lines, and we came off the hill, and they were captured vehicles. So, we walked right in on these Chinese. They didn’t expect us there either.
And uh, but coming down this trail, see in the Infantry, Infantry formation like that is five yards between each guy. And so, our platoon Sergeant was the number one man. He walked right in on them. But what saved us, we had a BAR man. Do you know what a BAR is? It’s Browning Automatic Rifle.
C: It’s got a 20-round clip.
I: Um hm.
C: It’s a very, very good light weapons, Infantry weapon.
And we had a BAR man that we had picked up. We picked up three guys that were wandering around. And the first guy, I had picked up two extra weapons that guys had thrown away.
And the first man, we came, he was frozen like. He was just frozen. And I told him, I said fall in with us. He didn’t say, he didn’t move. So, I walked up to him, and I kicked him in the shins with my combat boots. That hurt like hell. And it was like I broke the ice off him.
I gave him a weapon, and he fell in with us. We went in a little further, and here’s another one. They were new replacements. And he was just paralyzed. And I told him, I said fall in with us. He didn’t say, he couldn’t move. So, I kicked him in the shins.
C: I didn’t do, he didn’t do anything. So, I actually physically picked him up and threw him on the ground.
And when I did that, again it was like I broke the ice off him. He, I gave him the last weapon and he fell in with us. So, they, we all got captured together. Well, I was the first one that was captured.
I: Do you remember the day?
C: Oh yeah. The 25th of April 1951.
I: Around Imjin River.
C: North. See, in the Infantry, they don’t, unless you have somebody with a compass, you don’t know where you are anyway. When I got captured,
I: Uh huh.
C: And we pulled back from this first encounter with the Chinese. See, the Chinese have so many soldiers. Americans are brought up cowboys and Indians.
I: Um hm.
C: You know, they chase each other. The Chinese don’t do that. They figure hey, let the next guy worry about him. So, in the Infantry, they teach you stay off the ridgeline because you can be seen for miles up on the ridgeline. And where are you gonna walk? We were walking on this trial. It was on top of the ridgeline.
And for some reason, our platoon Sergeant decided he went down the side of this mountain, crossed this little valley, up the side of the next mountain. And I was the last man. And I heard this funny sound, swish, swish, swish. And I turned around and looked, and the Chinese were running. I think they were a little further down the ridgeline waiting for us. When we stopped, they ran back to catch up with us.
We were that close. And the noise I heard. The Chinese had tennis shoes then. And it was a dry season. And I could hear the swish, swish through the dirt. So, I turned around, and I started shooting. And fortunately for me, they threw a concussion grenade at me.
Now a concussion grenade in here would do a lot of damage like blow out your eyeballs, rupture your eardrums. But out in the open, it doesn’t do as much damage. But what it did do, it was close enough it knocked me down right on my tailbone.
C: And this little cane I walk around with right now, I just had back surgery. Part of it was from this damn hand grenade.
My doctor told me, he said I had a ragged tailbone. One part of it was up, and one part of it was normal down. And the part what was up caused me a lot of grief for 64 years. Anyway, I took off running down this mountainside, across this little valley, and halfway up the side of the next mountain.
And uh, I couldn’t breathe. I was just running on adrenaline, like a shot deer, you know. And I crawled underneath this rock and I’m going (BREATHING HARD) trying to get air in my lungs. And I could hear the other guys shooting. And they got away till the next day. And I crawled out from underneath this rock.
And they had seen my go under that rock. So, when I came out, this one Chinese soldier was shouting at me, and he was telling me put down my weapon. And there was a little pine tree there about six inches around. And I jumped behind this pine tree, and I shoot a pistol right-handed,
And I shoot a rifle left-handed. So, I was on the right side of the tree. And I had my carbine on automatic. Now, it’s a 30-round magazine he pulled the trigger, automatic before the first casing comes out and hits the ground, the 30th one’s out., and it just goes (NOISE).
And I figure, I say I could take this guy. And then I look, saw something out of the corner of my eye and I looked over there, and there his buddy was pointing his rifle at me.
C: See, that meant I would have had to shoot the first one. And because I was in the right-hand side of the tree, I’d have to turn, pivot, raise my rifle and shoot the other guy. And what are your chances of doing that?
Not good. So, I put my rifle down and spent all that time with the Chinese. It took us three months marching up in the mountains to get to our POW camp.
I: How did the Chinese treat you when you were captured?
C: Well, when the Chinese captured you, one of the first things that they would do, you didn’t get much food. And when I was captured, I probably weighed 165 pounds. One time, I was in this so-called hospital.
Old Buddhist temple, that’s another story. I probably weighed 110.
I: So, you’re marching to North Korea, right?
C: Oh yes.
I: And tell me about those marches. I heard that must have been the most difficult.
The initial prisoners were marched by the Koreans. And if you couldn’t march, let’s say you were sick, or you were exhausted you couldn’t march.
I: Or wounded.
C: Or wounded, they put a pistol to your head and blew your brains out and rolled you in a ditch and kept going.
And the Chinese didn’t do that. They wanted, of course, prisoners have information. The Chinese were after the information. The Koreans are sadistic. For instance, in World War II,
Many of the guards in the POW camps, like in the Philippines, were Koreans. And they were sadistic, too.
I: What was the route, into where? Where did you go? Did you go to Pyoktong or Changsong?
C: We went to Pyongyang first. And there’s a very interesting story there.
We lived in a Japanese schoolhouse for two weeks. And I had amoebic dysentery. And when we were getting ready, the night before we were leaving, and we did all this marching at night.
C: To hide from American airplanes. And they had a prisoner that they had captured.
And the Chinese had what they called lenient bereavement policy. In other words, they treated their prisoners very well. If you believe that, I’ll sell you the Golden Gate Bridge.
C: But anyway, they called us out in the schoolyard, and we were surrounded by Chinese Infantry Company.
With their machine guns and
I: In Pyongyang you mean.
C: Yes. And they got up on the platform that they use for exercise and called one of the prisoners out, read them a sentence in Chinese, then they interpreted it into English.
And this guy had been one of three that had been captured. And the Chinese had turned the three loose. And the Americans were on the other side of this river. And so, they were trying to get across the river.
And so, the Chinese that had turned them loose left. Another Chinese unit came along and recaptured them. And they went someplace, and they left one guy there to guard them. So, they jumped the guard and killed him and made a break for the river. But this one prisoner had frostbitten feet.
In the winter of ’51, ’50, ’51 was terrible cold. And the cold hurt his feet. He hesitated. So, this Chinese unit came back and grabbed him. The other two got away. So anyway, he ended up with us, and I always remember very vividly because when they called him out, they read him his sentence.
They put him up against the stone wall with a firing squad. And they were going to put a blindfold on him. He said he didn’t need a blindfold. And they said do you have any last words you’d like to say? He said yes. Go screw yourself you slant-eyed son of a bitches.
I thought this guy had a lot of guts. And they shot him. But they didn’t shoot a coward. But anyway, we started marching. So, me with dysentery. In a Chinese Army, you march for an hour and a half. And you take a 15-minute break.
The Chinese marching step is about 100, ours is 120 steps a minute. Chinese probably is 140, must faster. And so, when we took our first break, I went, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t hear. I could, but it was tinny way off in the distance. And I was blind,
I couldn’t walk. I mean, I couldn’t see. So, you had squads of 10 men. And five of the guys wouldn’t help me. Four did. So, the next day, I was very, very weak, but I could hear, and I could see again.
And I told the other five that wouldn’t help me, I said I hoped that if they got sick, nobody would help them and they’d die like a dog. That’s what I thought about it. So, when you’re marching, I couldn’t keep up. I’d fall a lot to the side.
And many times, I ended up with the last guard. If you went past the last guard, you stood a good chance of being shot.
I: Um hm.
C: But I survived. I had a great deal of pride. One time when we were marching north, Chinese, the Chinese were so stupid,
They would give you white rice. There’s no nutritional value in white rice. It’s in brown rice, in the husk. And so, we got a can of Russian shredded beef. It was like the nectar of the Gods. I mean, we hadn’t had any meat. And we got a little bowl of rice. So, we ate that.
They had some rice left over. Well, Chinese Army, they don’t have refrigeration. Then they didn’t. So, they said you can have seconds. So, what they had, they had a riot. Guys were grabbing a handful of rice, and the Chinese were standing back there looking at these wealthy Americans acting like pigs.
And I looked at the Chinese, and I looked at those American soldiers, and I turned around and walked away. I wouldn’t give them cause to laugh at me because I was acting like an animal.
I: So, what camp did you go to from Pyongyang?
C: To Camp One.
I: Camp One is?
I: That’s the first camp that you first arrived, right?
C: Yes. It had 1,945 prisoners there.
I: How did you remember that so well?
C: Well, when you got there
I: Uh huh.
C: See, now these, the Chinese that spoke English had been educated in British schools.
C: So, they did things, they numbered the British way, like we had one company, two company, three company, you see. The Americans would say first company, second, third. Anyway, when we got there, we were three company. And it was kind of funny because they gave us like a washcloth and a little bar of soap like you get in motels, you know,
Just that little bar of soap.
I: Did they actually give you soap?
I: Wow. I never heard about that.
C: Yeah. And they took us to a river. Of course, all the water in Korea is polluted. And they said you want to take a bath? Here’s your soap. Here’s your washcloth. There’s the river. So, we all ran down to this river.
And there was a bridge over the river, and the bridge was lined with Korean women and girls watching these naked GIs. We said the hell with it. If they want to watch us take a bath, that’s it. And we took it.
I: Tell me about the life there.
C: First of all, they didn’t give you much food to start with. And meat,
They’d give you a piece of Korean pork. American pigs have lean and fat. But Korean pigs have mostly fat. And so, they would,
When the Chinese would butcher a pig, see like your city, right, you lived in Seoul. The Chinese would get a pig, and they’d throw it on the back of a truck, and then they’d grab the legs, and pigs are pretty smart animals. They rank seventh on the IQ scale for animals.
And they’d grab the snout where he couldn’t bite, grab his legs, and then they’d take a knife that they used for a butcher knife that was more like a truck axel, and they’d sit there and saw across, you know, the pig’s neck till they got down to the jugular vein.
And so, his blood squirting out, and then they’d take a cup, and they’d fill it up with blood and drink it. And then they would butcher it.
I: How was living conditions? How many men were in the room?
C: We were 10-men squads and for a long time, we lived in a room that was 10‘wide and 15’ long.
I: How many? Ten?
C: Ten. And six across one end and four across the other. So, you could get out the door to go to the latrine at night.
I: Oh. How was the situation? (INAUDIBLE)
C: Well, one of the things, you’d have to go to political lectures.
The glories of Communism. We even had to learn the Chinese National Anthem in Chinese. The East is red with the blood of our dead. The people of China are consciously led by their great leader (INAUDIBLE). That was the start of the Chinese National Anthem.
I: Um hm.
C: Anyway, you had to stay in your room.
And you had to write a report. And so, it would be like you and I, one day you’d write the report, and the next day I would write the report. And we found out that the English that they had learned was English. And they couldn’t understand American English.
And one of the things they couldn’t understand was slang. And Americans used that all the time.
I: Um hm.
C: And so, we would put slang in the report. And then that meant that the interpreter would have to run all around and ask people what this phrase meant or that word. And we knew that. We just did it to make them miserable.
So, one day, I was a Communist. And I was going on and on about a classless society that can’t put war, and they can’t put peace and all of this nonsense. And we saw a shadow on the door. And we thought it was somebody that had come to see us, and he wasn’t supposed to be there.
And so, I was sitting right next to the door, and zip, I opened the door, and there was one of the interpreters with his ear like this listening to me.
C: So right after that, we started getting mail from home. We had 10 men in a squad. We got 10 letters. I got seven out of the 10.
I: Hm. Who wrote you?
C: Oh, my big, big family, aunts, uncles, grandparents. But see, they were, I wrote home. And when I wrote home, I didn’t want my mother worrying. She knew I alive then. And she showed it to a reporter.
And the reporter said well, he’s doing pretty well. Look. He’s getting chicken and beef and pork and rice. And my mother was smarter than this reporter and she said not really. You notice, he doesn’t say how much.
C: But if I told her how much, they’d have never sent that letter.
So, you wanted the letter to go, you lied.
I: Do you still have the letters?
C: Most of them I sold to a guy in France because the postmark, all letters went from that POW camp to Beijing. And they were stamped with a particular, one-of-a-kind stamp.
C: And sent to the States.
I: Do you still have some of those?
C: I might have. When we got there, we were all screwed up. But the guys that had been in one and two company, one company had started out with, they had 1,600 people die in two weeks in a PW camp.
Sixteen hundred in two weeks. And
I: In Camp One?
C: Yes, no. They were in a different camp. They closed, they had seven people die there. They closed it down and moved them to one. So, what they did with us when we got there was, they took some of our guys, and I was one of them,
And put them in there to build them up to strength. And I was very lucky because the squad leader I had had been one of the guys that had survived that massacre, that’s really what it was. And I had amoebic dysentery. Well, when you really get sick, you live in a dream world for a while. Then you die.
And he told me go on sick call. And he came back and he said what’d they tell you in sick call? And the Peace talks had just started. I said I didn’t go on sick call. They couldn’t do anything for me.
I: What is sick call?
C: You go see the medics.
C: And we didn’t even have a blanket.
And he jerked me up off that rice mat and said you stupid SOB. What did I tell you to do? And he took me down to the Chinese, dragged me down to this Chinese company commander’s hooch and screamed and hollered at him that I had to go in sick call. If I didn’t go in sick call, I was gonna die cause in this dream world, what I would do, I would concoct menus like roast beef and mashed potatoes
And green beans and you know, biscuits and apple pie ala mode. Then I’d go make another one. And they sent me on sick call. And they gave me a shot of something. Hurt like hell. First time in my life I passed out. And I was sitting at like a picnic bench.
I: So, that was in Changsong, Camp One.
And so, they threw me in the hospital. The hospital was an old Buddhist temple. It didn’t have any beds. It didn’t have any chairs. And it didn’t have any medicine. One day, what Samantha was talking about, they came in. They took 45 Americans and five British soldiers,
And they operated, and they put a gland of an animal in our chest.
C: A gland of an animal.
I: What is that?
C: I don’t know. They wouldn’t tell us.
I: They injected it?
C: No, they cut it, you know, little gland. They cut it and put it in there and sewed it up.
I was the first one, and this political commissar and I used to argue politics. And he said ah, you are an American soldier. I said yes, I am. And I’m Goddamn proud of it, too. Took care of that conversation. So, afterwards, we’re out in this courtyard feeling sorry for ourselves cause we knew you can’t do that.
Your body’s gonna reject it. The only way your body could reject it is run a real high fever. That high fever’s gonna kill you as weak as we were. But somebody smarter than me came up with a brilliant idea. Don’t let the incision heal over. Squeeze it out.
Took his, it was right here. We could get at it. I had a doctor; I was telling the doctor about that scar one time. I said you look back here at six or seven inches; you’ll see a little scar. And he said yeah. I said that’s how skinny I was. Anyway, it took us three days to squeeze it out. So, the third day, we’re getting this green, slimy pus out.
So, you can imagine what would have happened if it had stayed there.
I: You stayed in that hospital quite long.
C: Three months.
I: Three months. And not many people. Actually, that wasn’t a hospital. Actually, people go to hospital and die coming out of it.
C: Oh yeah. We had.
I: But, you survived it.
I: You’re lucky.
C: Yes. I have angels that fly around and protect me.
I: Are you Christian?
C: Yes. And I think that I really, I could tell you all kinds of stories about, you know, Heavenly protection.
I: Tell me one.
C: Well, there was that, when the biggest and best one is when I got out of the hospital.
I got put into a different company, two company. They had started out the year before with 850 guys. They could account a year later for 150. And so, when I got out, my squad leader beat the hell out of me that night.
Him and another guy. The other guy was holding my feet. And they used to have a poster, and it showed this mouse, this eagle’s coming in to grab the mouse for lunch, and the mouse is giving the eagle the finger. And the title to the poster was the last great defiant act. Anyway, this guy is sitting on my chest, my diaphragm.
I couldn’t breathe. And he had his knees on my elbow so I couldn’t grab anything. And I got way down in my throat, and I got a great big gob of spit and I spit in his face. He didn’t think I should do that. He jumped up, and he was wiping the spit off his face, and I could see that he was gonna jump on me, and I instinctively turned over on my stomach and put my arms over my head to protect my head.
And so, he beat on me some more. And finally, the guys got him off. So, the next morning, I’m walking around this area because I didn’t know where anything was. And this guy came up to me and asked me, he said did you lose your pistol belt? You know what a pistol belt is?
Pistol belt, it’s a web
C: Belt, you could make it bigger or smaller. On it, you put your canteen
C: Pistol, a first aid pouch and stuff like that. I said yes, I did. And I hope the dirty SOB that has it rots in hell. He said, well I found it. I brought it back to you.
And I felt about so big. From that good deed on his part, we ended up like brothers. I’m serious. Like he, I would have amoebic dysentery attacks, he would give me his food to eat. You know what a rice bowl is?
You might have a rice bowl with some greens or whatever. He’d give me his food to eat. If I didn’t eat it, he’d take it down and throw it in the latrine. Now, what do you say about a friend that would give you his food to eat?
I: In the prison camp?
I: Two meals a day.
C: Yes. And he
I: What’s his name?
C: His name was Tom Binum. He’s from East Texas.
And I just loved him so. I mean, he did so much for me. One of the things that he did for me, when he was starving to death, he probably weighed 140 pounds, a big guy. They called him Big Tex. My squad leader was afraid of him. He never laid a hand on me again.
He told me one time cause Tom would come over and get me. We’d walk around the area and talk to each other.
I: Looking back those years, what made you get going?
C: You put one foot in front of the other one. Literally. And many times, I didn’t think I could do it.
But, in my family, we’re basically German and Scottish. And the Germans and the Scotts are noted to be very persevering people, stubborn.
C: Yes, tenacious is another word.
But one of the people that helped me so much was Big Tex. I mean, like one time, I woke up in the morning, and my knees were swollen. I mean, just really swollen. And we probably did the worst possible thing. We went and got an ammo basin,
The same one we got out food in, same one we’d take baths in. And he got boiling water and put rags in and put hot rags on my knees.
I: Um. He was an angel to you.
C: Yeah. I can in my mind’s eye, can see him wringing, his hands would be red. But did he stop? No.
Because I was his buddy, and he was gonna take care of me. Right or wrong, he was trying to do the best he could.
I: Did you stay through the Camp One, or did you move to another camp?
C: Camp One.
I: Okay. When did you know that you were going to be released?
C: I don’t remember the, we knew,
We looked, we looked up one day, and over this dusty Korean road down this hill come three or four ¾ ton trucks. And they had whip antennas on them. The tallest whip antennas I’d ever seen. And they needed the height to get over the mountains to Panmunjom to report in.
And that’s when we knew we were gonna be repatriated. But then, the rumor went around that they were gonna keep 400. And the way we knew that was they had taken 400 of us. And usually the companies were about 225.
And all of a sudden, we were in a different group. We were in a different group. And it was much bigger. And rumor was going around that they were gonna keep us. And the reason we said that we weren’t making any cookies. Everybody else was making cookies.
Not us. And we thought oh, that’s a bunch of bull. But when we got repatriated, now I was in the next to the last group that was repatriated. Nineteenth of August, 1953.
I: That’s the day that you were released? That’s not that late.
Many were released, when did you cross Panmunjom?
C: That day.
I: Oh. So, what did you do the first? What was it?
C: Well, first thing we did was holler and shout at the Army guys are out there on patrol.
I: They sprayed DDT to you, too?
I: Spread DDT, lice?
C: I don’t remember that. I wouldn’t have cared.
But when, the first thing they did with us was give us a physical. And so, we were going through the physical, and we picked up the Stars and Stripes, you know what the Stars and Stripes are?
C: And big headlines, I mean big black headlines, Chinese Attempt to Keep 400 PWs.
Jesus Christ, I know who they’re talking about. They’re talking about us. We said what in the hell, now they did keep 800. And they sent them to China I supposedly. They had used them for atomic experiments, I don’t know. You know, one of the things that a lot of people are,
I don’t know if you are aware, you could refuse repatriation. And we had 21 guys that had refused it.
I: Yeah. Went to China.
C: Yeah. And we were so stupid. You know, the Army court martialed them and gave them a dishonorable discharge. They all came back. I’d have passed a law if I’d been President Eisenhower that they could never come back.
But he didn’t do that. The Army has a code of conduct. Are you familiar with it?
I: Yeah, some.
C: That was Eisenhower’s response to the 21 guys that had stayed. And I knew some of them. One of them was in my company. And when he was there, they had tried to kill him one night.
We had heard, we were all young and dumb. But we were all young guys. They’d heard that if you put a bar of soap in a sock and you hit a guy, you’d knock him out. So, that’s what, this guy was in the latrine one night, and three guys jumped him, and he hit them with his bar of soap. All they did was stun him. So, they were trying to strangle him.
And he’s hollering and hollering and here come the guards, you know. So, the other guys, they took off. But this is all new to the American Army. When they got repatriated, they put them on a troop ship. They had him down there and, so they had probably about 300 or 400 guys down in this compartment that normally would hold like 1,2000.
And they had a kangaroo court martial, put a guard on the door, had a kangaroo court martial, and what was the sense, kill him. Now what the smartest thing they could have done would have been to grab him, tie him up, put a gag in his mouth, go out in the middle of the night, drop him overboard.
Nobody would miss him for two weeks. But they wanted him to suffer.
C: So, they were beating him. And I knew the guy. He wasn’t a coward, you know. So, he’s fighting. But you can’t. So, the guy that’s beating him gets tired. He drops on the guy jumps in. You can’t keep that up. But they got this head mob mentality. And they’ve got screaming and hollering.
And here comes the captain of the ship. Well, when you’re out at sea, the captain of the ship’s God. Now, this was not a Navy ship, so in other words, he didn’t have a Marine guard. He probably had a 45 in his stateroom. So anyway, here comes the captain of the ship, and he says what the hell’s going on here? And they’re holding this beat up, bloody guy, you know. Nothing, nothing.
What’s the story with him? Oh nothing. Well, I’m leaving, and he’s going with me. Screw you, Captain. He’s not going anywhere. We’re gonna kill him. But the captain was smart. He said you know, if he isn’t with me when I leave, then I’m gonna batten down the hatch. You know what the hatches are?
He said I’m gonna batten down the hatches. And you won’t get anything to eat or drink till we get to San Francisco. And that’s two weeks away. So, they very reluctantly parted with the guy. The captain saved his life.
I: What was the most difficult thing during your POW in Camp One?
I: Clarence, thank you very much for sharing your stories with this interview.
C: I’m afraid it’s a little disjointed. But I’ll tell you what we’ll do. What I’d like to do is I know we’re running late. But that book that I gave you.,
I: Um hm.
C: I had a friend that was gonna write a story about me. I said that’s fine.
But you can’t say I’m a hero.
I: Um hm.
C: But you could say people like Big Tex were heroes.
I: Um hm.
C: And anyway, he was, that was some of the notes that he had taken, and I think that you’ll find them to be very interesting.
I: Um hm. So
C: Have you ever seen a map like that one?
I: Not this kind. But I want to end this officially. Thank you very much for your time and especially with your daughter, Samantha here.
C: Well, she’s hearing things that she’s never heard before, right Samantha?
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