Robert O. Gray
Robert Gray joined the military by obtaining a false draft card at the age of seventeen. He discusses his impressions of Asian culture before visiting Asia. He describes his wounds and how he lied to avoid being moved companies. He shares his experience as a POW in Chinese prison camps.
17 and in the Army
Robert Gray explains how he fooled the recruitment office. He explains how his friend told him how to register without a birth certificate. He explains how he got a draft card from the post office in order to join the military.
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Understanding of Asian People
Robert Gray describes how John Wayne influenced his early opinion of Asian culture. He discusses how his opinions changed once he traveled overseas. He also realized that his stereotypes were wrong.
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From Hospitals to Prisons
Robert Gray discusses how he got hit and went to the hospital. He explains his motivation for lying to avoid staying in the hospital. He also describes how that decision caused him to be captured by the Chinese as a prisoner of war (POW).
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Say No to Indoctrination
Robert Gray describes his capture by the Chinese. He explains how he and others spoke out against the indoctrination. He also explains why he thinks some POWs won't talk about their imprisonment.
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A Day in a Chinese Prisoner Camp
Robert Gray describes an average day as a POW in the Chinese prison camps. He describes how days from day to dark. He explains they had study periods but how he had to work. He explains how they survived by stealing food.
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The Cake is a Lie
Robert Gray describes how people who are starving won't eat anything. He explains how some POWs who were starving to death would fixate on food items in their head. He discusses how he saw some people experience this in the POW camp.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
Robert Gray: Robert O. Gray from Roanoke, Virginia.
Interviewer: Mm-hmm. Born in Virginia.
R: From Roanoke.
R: I was born in Virginia.
R: Raised in Virginia and God, I recon I’m gonna stay there.
I: You like it.
R: I like it better than any place I’ve ever been.
I: What is your birthday?
R: July the 21st1931.
I: Tell me about your family when you were growing up, parents and your siblings.
R: Well I–I had
two brothers and a sister. Actually there was one before me further more, but died before I was born.
R: so, I was raised up with two brothers and a sister.
I: Mm-hmm. And you are the eldest or–
R: No, I’m the baby.
I: Oh okay.
R: Can’t you see that I’m a baby? [Laughing]
R: yeah, I–I was the baby of the family.
I: Oh boy. What school did you go through there?
R: Well, I went to school elementary school in Norwich for a while, Norwich School, Virginia Heights School.
I: Virginia High School?
R: Virginia Heights–Heights–hi
I: Heights School, I’m sorry.
R: hi–yeah because that was middle school.
R: Well, no, it was less than middle. Woodrow Wilson was the middle school.
R: And I left school to join the Army.
R: In–I actually joined the Army on July–January the 5th19 and 49.
I: You joined Army.
R: I joined the Army.
R: I wasn’t old enough to join.
I: Why? Why did you join the Army, why did you?
R: Ah it seemed like the thing to do at the time. [laughing]
R: it was a–but at 17 I lied and told them I was 18 and joined the Army. Paid dearly for that lie.
I: Who signed the paper?
R: Nobody signed. I will tell you the story of how I got to do this without somebody signing.
A friend told me, he said, because I went in to see the recruiting officer. He said I wasn’t old enough. I come out and the guy says just go up to the post office and get a draft card and that’ll make you old enough. I says but how do you get a draft card you gotta- he said oh no you don’t need a birth certificate for a draft card, just go up there and tell them. So, I go up I’m standing there and the lady says yeah and I said I’m here to register for the draft. And she said how old are you? And I knew I was supposed to be 18, so I said 18.
I wasn’t. She said, she threw me a curve she said whens your date of birth? Well, I didn’t even know when the day was and I–I said today. She said oh you’re 5thof January you’re right on time. She said you have 30 days. I said I know, but I figure you better go ahead and get it done if you gotta do it. Yeah that’s a good idea. So, she kindly typed me a up a draft card. I go back down to the same recruiting sergeant that had turned me down. He took it and the rest was history.
I: Where did you go to receive the basic military training?
R: Oh Camp–it was called Camp Pickett Virginia, at the time, but they later changed it to Fort Pickett. But it was Camp Pickett when I went.
R: Blacksburg, Virginia.
R: I’m sorry not–Black– Blackstone, Virginia.
I: Okay. What–what was your specialty and what was your unit?
R: I, of course, had taken basic training was all the same and everything, but the first outfit I was in was 17thAirborne.
And, you know, taking training and that, and when I was sent overseas I was put into a–a– an infantry battalion that–of the 19thregiment and I was assigned to dog company, which was heavy weapons company. And I was a machine gunner on–on a water cooled 30 caliber machine gun.
I: What division is this?
R: 24thdivision, 19thregiment.
I: When did you leave for Japan?
R: When did I leave for Japan? I don’t recall the exact date that I left for japan, but it was around April Fool’s day that I got to Japan. Around the first of April.
I: Did you know anything about Asia, at the time?
R: I don’t know whether you want to hear of I knew about them–the Asians, at that time
all I knew was what John Wayne let me learn out of the movies that they were all slant eyed, very rough, mean, terrible people.
I: Wow. That’s what you knew.
R: That’s what all I knew about them. I was–what–what the hell does a 17 year-old know about our old world. But when I got there, I found it to be much different.
R: Well, they were just like me, they weren’t any different.
R: You say something funny or tickle them, they laugh.
R: You stomped on their toes, and they’d bitch. Same thing I’d do. So, they wasn’t really any different–more different than I was.
I: How did you like the life in Japan?
R: Oh I loved it in Japan. Man, how did I like it? If that damn war hadn’t started, I’d probably still be in Japan. That was the best kept secret the Army had, was the occupation of Japan.
I: I mean, what did you like most in Japan? Food?
Or people? Or the culture?
R: Now ain’t that a dumb question, neighbor? I liked the good looking women. [laughing]
R: What do you think I liked most? You can eat food anywhere, but–
I: And you have your daughter and granddaughter here, what is your name?
Female Voice: Oh, I’m Robin.
F: And this is Jessica.
I: Jessica. Okay.
R: So, you see, no, I liked the same thing every other teenaged boy liked.
It–its universal, it don’t make any difference whether you’re Chinese, Korean, French or whatever, you all like the same.
I: Thank you for being honest. So, what kind of training did you go through in Japan?
R: Well, I was–like I said, I was second gunner on a water cooled machine gun. And the first gunner carries the tripod down, the second gunner carries the gun, sets it down, but I had a–
a good man to learn under because he was at Schofield Barracks when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. So, he went through the Second World War and then–and when I went to Japan I was sent to the same platoon he was in, which made it good and bad for me. He knew all the tricks and I was ready to learn some of them. But–I–after that, I was sent to regular school in Etajima and I come back to my outfit
after six months schooling and they put me in headquarters company in communications to repair radio equipment. It turned out to be favorable for me.
I: How much did you receive at the time, monthly?
R: $72 a month.
I: What did you do with that money?
R: Well, some of it I sent home.
I: Ah nice.
R: Some of it–
of course a little bit was wasted because I didn’t smoke and we could buy a carton of cigarettes a week,
R: When I first went down there we got, oh we could buy some candy bars and we could buy soap and the Japanese liked those very much, so I started me a little business. Legally or illegally, but it worked out fine. I bought my rations and sold them. That I didn’t need. I didn’t need cigarettes.
R: Waste of good beer money. And therefore,
I didn’t have to worry about money because I had my–enough money to live by. I could sell cigarettes and things and live off it, and did.
R: Now did it–was it legal? No, but a hell of a lot of things we do aren’t legal. Our politicians do a lot of things aren’t le– legal.
I: Had you imaged that you’d involved in Korean War?
R: No. most of us didn’t even know where Korea was.
R: Now I did know, I was smart enough to know [unintelligible]
and I knew not having to do with my teaching in school, but when I was on the island of Etajima,
R: going to school, I went to school at what had formerly been the Japanese Naval Academy
R: prior to the Second World War. And when we were in occupation, we took it over there our government took it over and made a school command out of it. Well, there was a lot of information out there. And I learned that Korea was called
Chosin by the Japanese.
I: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
R: So, I learned. I knew that Korea was a peninsula out there called Chosin. And–and that other things that–that the Japanese did gave me some insight to what–and I learned that in this building up there. There was so much information. Not that I was trying to get smarter, it just interested me.
I: So, you were very knowledgeable about Korea.
R: I knew–I knew a whole lot about Korea. I knew that Koreans had been oc–
been occupied by the Japanese for so many years. And that the Koreans had to live by what the Japanese mandated or not live. They had it narrowed down to that. When I was maybe–maybe getting a little ahead. When I was captured by the Chinese, I knew they weren’t Korean.
I: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
R: And some people say well,
how did you know they were Korean? I told them, [unintelligible] I said because they don’t understand Japanese. And I said all Koreans my age understands Japanese.
R: And at the time, they did. Maybe not at your age, but you’re parents, grandparents, something before you, all understood some Japanese because that was what they had to do.
I: When did you came to know of the breakout of the Korean War?
R: When did I know
that the breakout of the Korean War? I was at Camp McGill, cavalry base up near Tokyo
R: Near [unintelligible] taking amphib training when it actually started. And we were pulled out and sent back to Beppu to go to Korea.
R: That–and the first person that told me that there was–that I was going to Korea or my outfit
R: Because she looked at my patch and she said you’re no horse cavalry soldier
I said no, infantry. Oh she said soon you’ll go to Chosin. I said no. Japanese girl. And I said no, I’m not going to no damn Chosin they’re starting a fight over there they got a war. Yes, she said soon you go to Chosin.
R: Well, she was right. The next morning, they were pulling us out sending us down
R: to ship us to Korea. That’s how I found out that we were going.
R: And of course we got a pep talk that don’t worry about it there’s a few high spirited young kids got some old obsolete weapons,
but as soon as they see us Americans, they’re gonna run. Well, they did right over top of us. But I believe that our higher authority thought, no I didn’t at the time, but I later come to believe that they felt that all they had to do was put American troops ashore in Korea, and North Koreans are going to run right back to North Korea.
R: And, you know, sensibly,
you would have though that that’d be true because with less than five years prior to that, the United States and their allies had defeated the strongest armies the world had ever known.
R: And here we were going against a little rag tail army of North Koreans, so they said. Well, I found out that the army wasn’t very large, compared to the armies of today, but the one they had was very well trained. You hold a canteen cup out and
give them three rounds of mortars they’d put one in the cup for you. They was that good. But they were well trained. They knew where they was going they knew what they were doing and we were just a massed group of people–young, very young like myself. We weren’t very well trained,
R: we weren’t very well equipped, and we weren’t very well led. But the authorities thought all we’ve got to do is they see us, that’ll save South Korea because they’ll just go back. Didn’t work that way.
And so we were pushed–I was with the troops that I was with we were pushed all the way to the Pusan perimeter.
I: So, when –do you remember the date that you left for Korea from Japan?
R: I left Korea from Japan it was about–and I–I may miss this a day or something but it was around the Fourth of July. Because I knew I was supposed to be off for the Fourth of July it might have been the third, but it was probably then.
I: So, you arrived in Pusan, right?
R: Right. Arrived in Pusan by LST, we were got off at–they put us on trains and sent us North to
R: Well, I went all the way North to Daejeon and that’s just North of Daejeon the Colonel Smith–Task Force Smith had been hit.
R: Yeah Osan they’d been–and we were put into line there right below them and we were supposed to hold the Kum River.
R: They had hoped that we would hold it for–until the 20th, well the book upstairs said that we lost it on the 12th, 14th, that’s not correct, we lost it on the 16thwhen we were all finally moved out. Even though these people are so smart are writing these books have it down differently. But it could be the time gap that message or something. But on the 16thof July, the
Battalion the 19thregiment was virtually wiped out. We lost a lot of–and then, of course, they felt if they lost the–at the Kum River they would lose Daejeon,
R: and they did. And that was on about the 20th, that they lost Daejeon–
R: about the 20thof July because I had a birthday coming up
That I didn’t think I’d ever live to see. And but I–I got out at Daejeon and or Dean got captured. I got out and we moved on south until finally we stopped and somewhere around in–well at Pusan perimeter, Taegu and around down the Masan Front.
R: I stayed there until I was–
until we decided or our authorities decided that we were gonna break out. The Marines had been pulled around. They landed at Incheon. we broke out across the Nakdong River and head North. Well, I didn’t quite make that. I got hit that day and they sent me to the hospital. Which I– again I lied. I-the rumors were that the war was over after broke out the Marines up there it’s all over,
we’re going back to Japan, our outfit and if you are sent back to the hospital you’ll end up in a different outfit. Well everyone wanted to–there was a lot wanted to go back to Beppu, as they had left. And so I and a couple others got on vehicle back to duty.
R: And my wounds weren’t healed at the time and neither were any of the other guys,
But we got on a–they tell you that those trucks going back to duty was easy to get on and the ones being evacuated by ambulance it wasn’t so easy to get in them. Well we were–I got back up to my outfit, I found out that
R: I don’t know where it was, at the time, when I caught up with it. I don’t know but I know that the next day,
I: Which is–
R: we was–well, which is
I don’t know probably in October
R: sometime or [unintelligible] but we caught up with them and I–I went into Seoul, with our troops, but I didn’t know much about where we was at, at the time. And continued on because it’s so easy going at the time, you know, and I continued on up to north of Pyong–Pyongyang.
R: and a little town of Anju. A-N-J-I or E-N-J-U.
And it was–and I was taken there–the–the Chinese and I was read an order just before. And the o– guy that read me the order, Lieutennant [Offman] was captured with us. And it stated that we were not supposed to gather, when we reached the Yalu River, we were not supposed to gather on the river in groups of three–of more than three or four. We were not to bathe, wash clothes in or whatever in the Yalu River there
across from China. And if fired on– I forgot to say this, Lieutenant [Offman] said just before he read this part of it he says, I’ll tell you one damn thing I gotta read this to you but if either one of you shoot at me I’m gonna shoot back at you. The letter stated if fired on by Chinese troops not to return fire. Well, the next day we were just sure that we were prisoners of war of the Chinese.
I: What day was it?
R: Well, I was captured on November the 4th1950.
I: Where? Around Pyongyang?
R: Oh, no I was captured North of Pyongyang–Pyongyang at this little town of Anji or Anju. A-N-J-U.
R: Yeah that’s–that’s where I was
R: Taken and then we were marched back up to Pyoktong up through the mountains first not directly back to this little town along the Yalu River,
but up through the mountains and back down. And we were marching to Pyoktong finally and that was in November. I don’t know what date, but we got in there and after the first night, the Air Force bombed and strafed the town and they moved us out back into the mountains for about a month. And then they brought us back to Pyoktong and that’s where the first camp was and I was in there for a while and later on they
took a small group of us and transferred us from there to what they call the reactionary camp.
I: Which is Apex?
I: Reactionary camp?
R: Yeah rea–
R: They call– they called us–they listed us as reactionaries–trouble makers for the good students.
R: Now, it wasn’t that we were like somebody like Rambo the movie, you know, we weren’t real, real trouble makers we just didn’t agree with what they were trying–
the so called brain washing.
R: You’re familiar with the term brainwashing.
R: Yeah, well we just didn’t go along with that tongue.
R: And if they come up with something we would counter with we disagree whatever it was. It didn’t make any difference what they told us, we still disagreed with them.
I: Right. Have you talked to your family about this things?
R: Oh I’ve talked to several of them several times.
I: So, you are exceptional man.
R: Probably–probably not in–hm?
I: Many of the Korean War
Veterans they never talk about their stories to their family.
R: And that was the problem. That was their problem. Not talking about it and not discussing things.
I: Why do you think that they didn’t talk about–they didn’t want to talk about it?
R: Well, I can tell you why many of them didn’t talk about it.
I: Why? Tell me.
R: In my opinion now,
R: Everything I state is my opinion–
R: not necessarily–
I: Yeah, yep–yep.
R: Many of them were not happy with how they conducted themselves as prisoners of war.
R: and they wanted to leave it
R: there. Well, I can say that I was satisfied with the way that I tried to conduct myself, and some others lie, and I was not ashamed to discuss
R: my–. But I–I–I firmly believe that that’s why many of them that did not want to talk because they done things that they really didn’t approve of.
When did–when were you released?
R: I was released August the 30th19 and 53 and I left Korean September the 2nd1953 and they sent me back by ship and that was alright. Didn’t bother me too much.
I: Tell me about the typical day in the camp.
R: Well, typical day. Well, you were aroused
early in the morning.
I: Mm-hmm. What time?
R: Well I have no way of telling.
I: [laughing] six, seven?
R: usually–usually–usually they consisted of form daylight til dark.
R: Because there was no artificial light.
I: No lights, right.
R: Usually [unintelligible] now, in the camp where the not in the reactionary camp, but in the other camp, they had what they called study periods a lot.
R: and we didn’t–
We actually didn’t study too well so that’s one reason got it–but with us in this so called reactionary camp, they worked us a lot. We–but inadvertently they did us a favor by not–working us, give us a chance to steal food.
R: Because we’d go out in the– the countryside and were–might carry wood or carry logs or–
I: If you joined the study group?
I: If you joined the study group, they give
That give kind of breaks.
R: well, if they–if you belong–if you actually were in one of the study groups, they–their treatment was much different. You might got–you might have gotten better food I don’t know
R: But you got better treatment. If you were in the work, r if you were in the so-called reactionary group you didn’t get fed as well.
R: They really, really weren’t abusive to you by this late in the game, they just took these so called–
and they put you in this group so they didn’t have to deal much with you.
R: They–they didn’t
I: They wanted to isolate them.
R: Yeah, they–they just isolated you from other POWs and they didn’t waste their time of trying to
R: indoctrinate you with their philosophy because they knew it was a waste of time. You either was smart enough not to accept it or you was so damn dumb you couldn’t accept it. I think I felt in the–fell in the latter category, but that was–that’s was alright. But that was much the way it was.
I: Mm-hmm. What do they–what did they actually trying to teach?
I: What was their main propaganda?
R: They tried to–they would take certain things and they would–such as the discrimination, the difference between the white and the black.
R: And would say that the capitalists would do this or that for them and they try to always keep
the blacks down. Which would create a little friction between the blacks and whites and even the blacks who didn’t go along with it that were sent to the reactionary camp they did the–they try to teach you all the–
I: Bad things about America.
R: Yeah, of course what they would do, they would usually start with the truth that there was discrimination in the United States.
And to deny it would be lying so there was such a thing.
R: But they would start with the truth, but slowly they would bend it to suit their purposes. And bef–and it is true if you start to agree with somebody,
R: you really think well they–they’re the–a politician for instance, you start to agree man that–he’s a really good politician and that it starts to turn out
that he does a lot of bad things, it’s hard for you to erase the fact that you did like them. So, if they could get you thinking their way just a little with something they would work on it more. And being virtually–literally as most infantry soldiers were–because you didn’t have to be real smart to learn how to pull a trigger,
I mean, it’ll take a while to teach which direction to point it in, but you know, so you didn’t understand and you had very little leadership. Your officers had been separated from you. In many cases they wouldn’t give you–so when you–you’re a noncom didn’t know much more about how to handle the situation than you did. So you got very little. And the enlisted man, the corporal, the private had very little to go on. He had to learn by trial and error.
It took a while for you to learn how to manipulate them when they were trying to manipulate you. But you could learn it after a while. And then you also learned just how far you could push your disagreement with them before they got rough.
R: So, you pushed it up to the limit. Exactly as you did, and don’t tell me you didn’t, because I know you did, as all of us children do to our parents. We know most–we know just how long
or how far we can push our parents into some–something that they didn’t really want to agree with but they’ll allow it for a certain leng–length of time and then the–the hammer comes down on it and mama and daddy gets–they’ll let you know where the [unintelligible]
I: Yeah, yeah.
R: Well, the same way with them.
I: Yeah. Were there any tension between those who were in the study group and kind of collaboration and those who refused to do so.
R: Yes. Yes.
I: Were there tension?
I: Tell me about it.
R: Well, you–you knew who some of them was.
R: I mean, you knew of them, and you didn’t care to associate with them.
R: You’d get in arguments with them. And there was one of them and he was one of them that stayed over there, Claude Bach– Elmerts–Albert C. [Belhomi]. He was from Belgium but he was an American. He had been a prisoner
of the Germans as a kid, liberated by the Russians. But he come to this country and Albert C. [Belhomi] there was–as we call him one of the comrades and–good student though–he and I got in an argument one day over this political philosophy.
R: And we come to blows, we fist fight. Well, I gotta say this, even though Albert C. [Belhomi] was one
of the commies and stayed over there, the bastard, he probably saved my life that day.
R: Because when the Chinese wanted to know if it was some political something
R: He said no it just–we just got into an argument. He said we Americans do that sometimes. Hell, it’s a–a disagreement.
R: It’s all settled now. Well, I never did like the way he was or what he was doing, but I had to–I thought that was pretty
damn decent of him.
R: In handling it the way he did. So, even today I have to say that good come. But it was a lot of times people had friction of thinking this guy was treated so much better, he probably was, than one and there was this business of not knowing who was. And you very seldom hear a Korean from the POW use the
R: You very seldom use–you may call him a friend, you may call him a –but you won’t call him a–and whenever we hear the word,
R: even if with The American Legion, I go there in somebody saying Comrade Gray, I say don’t call me no damn comrade. I don’t want to hear it.
R: Well, that’s the way we was. And we refer to comrades as being one of the good students as they called them. The Chinese called them the good students.
Good students that they went along with whatever. Now, did all of them believe it? No.
R: But they wanted the advantages that they gave them.
R: But then, the–the difficult part of that was, you didn’t know– if you did that you didn’t know when you could stop.
R: You didn’t know when–when can I erase that and I no longer–
I: That’s a good question.
R: Because you’re there long enough you become believing of it.
R: So, with us in the so called reactionary room we just never agreed with anything. If they told us that–boy ice cream sure is good. Ah hell, I never did like ice cream.
R: But that’s the way we–that’s the degree we were.
I: in caption did they cook the food for you or did you have to cook for yourself?
R: Both ways, at one time they allowed us to cook for ourselves, but that didn’t work out very well,
because of facilities.
R: So, they cooked for us. Now, at one time, they had GI’s doing the cooking.
R: But they were supervising them. But they also had just the–the–you know, now when we were in this so called reactionary camp, our guys did all the cooking but for us, who was much smaller, and they issue the–
the communists, they issued the whatever it was and not rice.
I: How many meals a day?
R: Morning and evening.
I: And I heard from other POW that there was somebody who refused to eat because they were thinking about dessert or something better and is that–is that true?
R: No, I–I can say this, that I–I–I–I was with a lot
of different ones and I guess maybe we was reactionary we was a little harder. But no I can say that when people are actually dying of starvation,
R: I mean when they’ve reached the last stages,
R: I don’t know what the medical would say about it, but I can tell you what really some guys they reach a point that they won’t eat anything, they’re starving to death but they may reach a point where they won’t eat anything they may be thinking I want chocolate cake.
I’d eat chocolate cake. Chances are, if you had chocolate cake they wouldn’t eat it either, or couldn’t. But they reach a point where in the last few days, they have something on their minds and they’re totally dedicated to–that’s the only thing I’ve ever seen like that.
I: What made you go through those unbelievable ordeals? What made you through?
I: Was it faith or was it–what was it?
R: I–I don’t–I–I can’t answer that and I don’t think anybody
really truthfully can answer it. It–I’ve been asked was it the country boys that survived better than the city boy? Or was it the educated better than the uneducated? Or the other way around? No. some of the very well educated died first of all, and some lived. Some of the–some country boys didn’t survive any better than some of the city boys. The little scrawny character may
survive better than the big husky guy. You seen a guy just a month after he was prisoner of war and he’s just a little skinny scrawny up thing and you’d say hell, he’d be dead next month and three years later, he’s still living. And many times I didn’t know a straight answer about things. You know, you don’t–you don’t know what you’re going to do–I know you can say what you’re gonna do and you can believe what you’re gonna do but it done necessarily mean thats
the way you’re going to react at a given moment at a given time and you don’t know–you just don’t. You always gotta figure that life is like a baseball game.
R: You step up to the plate. You take three healthy swings, you may strike out, but unless you swing that bat, you’re not gonna get a hit.
R: That’s the only chance you got to getting a hit is swinging. Or you could say life is like a poker game.
R: You get dealt,
each person gets dealt so many cards. Some people get good hands and play them poorly, and they lose. Some people get bad hands, but they play them very wisely
R: and they win. So, no, its just what you–
I: So, its not fair. Is it fair?
R: Who–what the hell is fair?
R: What’s fair? Ain’t nothing fair.
I: Mm-hmm. It’s just happening.
R: It happened. There ain’t no damn thing fair.
I: It’s just happening.
R: No, hell no. Look, as good looking and
smart and I am, I should’ve been in Hollywood, you’re right. But hell, life ain’t fair,
R: but it’s real.
R: No, you just–
I: That’s how you understand you–your experience as POW?
R: Oh yeah, life ain’t fair hell, who the hell–I ain’t never said it was fair. Why am I here? Well, who the hell knows?
R: But no, life’s not fair.
I: I like this interview, we can keep going, huh?
R: Life is not just. And there’s no such things as comparing
Truth and justice.
R: Truth is one thing, justice can be terribly unfair, but it’s still truth. Truth is that, things that are unjust and are done its truth that they–its truth that they were done unjustly, but you can’t compare.
I: When did your parents come to know that you are in
North Korea as a —
R: Prisoner of war camp?
R: Oh, when I got back, I guess. Because they never really had any official notice that I was a prisoner until just shortly before. Well, when I was ready to be released or ready–was released to come back did they know that I was still alive. They had no official. They had some–they had a letter from someplace, some communist organizations, and states and wrote that I was a prisoner of war, but as far as the United States Government was concerned, they
never got a–an official notice that I was alive.
I: No, no–yeah but I think it was only 1952 that North Korean authority released all the names of the prisoner of war.
R: Oh well see, that’s well, but the letters my folks got, okay
R: was that it was a possibility that I was a prisoner of war.
R: But, they could not be–
I: Can be somebody else.
R: sure, because there was no official report of it. so, no, they didn’t know until I got back.
I: What did they say to you when you returned to them?
R: Well, its–
I: Do you remember the day?
R: Yeah, I remember it very, very well. My dad was working, had worked for the railroad company,
R: when I come home. I didn’t come home with any fanfare or bands or anything. I come home, I got off the train. I walked over to where the bus would go
to take me– city bus–I asked the guy I said when does the next bus run going to Norwood? And he said oh you just missed one go there he says it’ll be 30 minutes I said okay. So, I go home, you know. I go up to Fink’s Store and I’m gonna go home, this place I’d worked as a kid, and Mr. Fink, farewell to the man, wanted to know how long I’d been home and I said I hadn’t been home yet. I said I just got off the train. He said what you are doing in here to see me before you go see your mother? So he has one of the girls call
my mom, had another one to call me a cab and he said you go home, see your parents and then you come back. So I go home, I get out of the cab. Nobody around. It’s just family and them. I go in, well, my dad had been told since I’d called or–that I was there in town and them so my mother called the–the shops over there and they were sending him home. Well,
I’m standing in the yard with my back to him when he come in. I didn’t turn around. He walked on in because my dad didn’t want to say anything he says, what the hell are you doing here, boy? And he goes on by into the house and he asks my mother–
I: Go by you?
R: Well, he walks on by. He goes in, well there’s a reason behind it, he goes inside and he asks my mother, where’s Robert? She says you just passed him in the yard. He says aw hell, I thought that was Jim. See, I had a brother named James, and we did look a lot alike and–
Well, he hadn’t seen me for five years so I could look like anything. And that’s how I got home. No big to do about it, nothing about it. Just there.
I: Have you been back to Korea?
R: Went back to Korea in 19 and 98.
I: Many of the prisoner of war didn’t want to go back to Korea. Why did you want to go?
R: Aw hell. I don’t know. What a man, something’s… when something’s over, it’s over.
I was once at a symposium with the–at the VMI with the about the Civil–or–or the Korean War and there was five people from communist China there, one of them had been in the Chinese Army. Well, not that I ever knew him or anything, cause I just–but he and I had lunch one day together while we were there for this thing. And the others there– and this young girl, from the–she asked me, telling me, she said,
could I–for this bigger we had there for showing off everybody, she said could I sit at your table? And I said well, they’re not my tables, they belong to VMI so you can sit where you want to. She wanted– so, after a while she said, you really don’t have any animosity toward us, do you? I said honey, you wasn’t even born when I was there. Why in the hell should I have anything against you? And I said I learned a long time ago that hate only hurts
those who do the hating.
R: And hell, I had no ha–ha for them people. They were doing a job just like I was doing. They didn’t want to be there any more than I wanted to be there.
I: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
R: and I–and now maybe there’s a few fanatics on our side that wanted to be there and maybe there was a few fanatics on their side, but they were the exception, not the rule. I was so surprised at the progress they had made over the years. And I spoke several times on their television, national television there,
their whatever, I was [unintelligible], and I spoke to a number of very successful business persons there and things. And I told them that I was surprised to see the progress that they’d made over the few years. Oh hell, when I was here the first time, you couldn’t get a clean cup of water, no matter how hard you tried.
R: I said, and now it’s everywhere but–and I also told them this too in
speaking to them. All of you people, and again I was speaking through an interpreter I said all of you people here are very successful in lif, and that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with it, that’s a lot of work, but you can never forget that it was a lot of young people that never got a change to know whether they would be successful or failures. They died too young giving you this chance to become successful,
wealthy, whatever, but these young people, they died never having given birth or having fathers or children. They don’t know whether they would’ve raised good children or bad children or what it would be like to raise children. They died for your opportunity in today’s world. And I tell you, by the time I finished my speech, and it wasn’t written and, I didn’t have a
dry eye in the house. And I meant it to be that way. I God they did they owed those–not they owed them dollars and cents they owed them that honor that those people earned in providing this security,
R: or opportunity or chance for them.
R: And the people, as I walked down the street there, there was several people that recognized me from
seeing this–seeing me on the TV there. Of course, I couldn’t speak their language, they couldn’t speak mine, but we knew each other or they knew me, you know, and they were very nice. I–I really enjoyed my time. The only thing that I regretted about it was I was up there around Seoul and that there and when we went out to see some of things in the mountains there and some of the shrines and that. But I would have loved to have gone back to Taegu.
R: Why Taegu? Tagon Taegu?
But I would like–because that’s where the whole thing changed where we pushed out and went back north and–and–but Taegu was my turning point there.
R: But I was real proud of the fact that they was–I was pleased.
F: I’m Robin Layman.
Robin:and I am Robert Gray’s daughter.
I: Daughter. And…
F: I’m Jessica Dent and I’m Robert Gray’s granddaughter.
I: Why are you here?
Robin: Because we didn’t trust him to come by himself.
Jessica: Oh lets see…
Robin: I think there was like 9
R: There was 9.
Jessica: Right, mm-hmm.
Robin: Yeah, 9.
I: What were you thinking when you’re hearing from him about his life at the camp 5 Pyoktong?
I: What were you thinking?
Jessica: Well, are you talking about today?
I: Yeah, today.
J: Oh, well, honestly, I love him. He said he tells these stories. These are all stories I’ve heard.
J: And usually, he’s telling them to us there’s some sort of a context
It’s a lesson learned
J: None of it–none of it was really new today.
J: So I don’t think I have any.
I: What do you expect out of this last reunion?
Robin: The only–I didn’t really expect anything.
Robin:I just knew I wanted him to have this opportunity.
Robin: And if we didn’t come with him, he wouldn’t have been able to come alone
Robin:because just traveling getting on airplanes, it’s very difficult
Robin:and I thought, you know, we owed it to him.
R: I –I’ve really appreciate the opportunity to sit down and talk to anybody who is genuinely interested in what I’m– They call it the forgotten war
R: but it may be forgotten by a lot of people, but it certainly is not forgotten to those who have participated in it.
I: Thank you so much, again.
R: Thank you.
[End of Recorded Material]