The POW (and how!) Place

All comments by MK: Fred, through Poe, says that the photo to the left is of Bob Sutter, an Able man who "slept in at the POW Camp near Pusan" and was killed in an auto accident in the 1970's. Two more photos of Bob are on the next page (linked to below).

Nobody had to tell me about the photo on the right. When I first saw it, it brought on a rush of memories - mainly of pacing back and forth in the locale of its right foreground for many an hour in 1952. The whole prison camp story, as I remember it, is told below the photos.

In late April of 1952, the 1st Bn of the 15th Inf Rgt or, at least, most of it was dispatched to the very large POW Camp near Pusan. Our transportation to the POW camp was, as usual when traveling a long distance to the rear of the MLR, provided by a fleet of trucks.

At first it seemed strange that, when we got a mile or two from our destination, the trucks stopped and we were ordered to dismount, form columns, and march into the camp and past several long barracks which were filled with Chinese POWs who somberly watched us pass.

After that, it was easy to realize that our parade (consisting of very scroungy and serious looking troops) was meant to send a message that the prisoners would now be dealing with a different ilk of guards and a very different set of rules for POW behavior. Rumor had it that they had been engaged in a lot of rioting complete with rock throwing and other examples of disrespect for their kind and benevolent guards.

I think we were at the POW camp for more than a month and had the luxury of three hots a day, cots to put our sleeping bags on, a big tent (with very few holes in it) to keep out the elements, a PX in which to purchase luxuries like ice cream, and an enlisted man's club which sold a limited selection of alcoholic beverages - cheap.

The big tent played a part in one of my many nostalgic memories of the camp. As I entered it one afternoon, someone was listening to his record player with the volume on maximum high. The music was of Kay Starr belting out her version of The Wheel of Fortune. Hearing that tune gave me much to ponder about at the time.

Another puzzlement I had while at the camp occurred when I was, without prior notice, told to go to Battalion Headquarters (or was it Regimental Headquarters?) without delay. When I got there I was ushered into the office, a real one with a real desk, of a Major who had a strange insignia on his uniform. He said that he had gone over my dossier and noticed that my year and a half of law school was mentioned.

The puzzlement came when he asked if I would like to change from my line company job as a machine gunner to a more gentlemanly assignment with the Judge Advocates. I asked him two questions back: "What will my assignment be?" and "How many rotation points will I get each month?" The answer to the latter question was of utmost importance because I already had 24 points under my belt; and, if I stayed in Able, in only three months I would have the thirty-six points required for eligibility to rotate (go home).

He said that my main job would be prosecuting deserters and I would get only two points a month instead of the four I was used to. There came a time, in less than two months, when I would regret having told the Major that I needed to get home as soon as possible and, therefore, would decline his kind offer. I didn't bother to tell him that to prosecute a poor soul for wanting to get the hell out of Korea just wasn't my cup of tea.

Now, I'll finally get back to the theme of this page - the compound and its prisoners.

There is no doubt in my mind that the photo is of the same compound I guarded. It can not be a mere coincidence that the scene in the photo is virtually identical to that which I viewed for several hours on many a day and night. The building and tent, the hills in the background, the fence, and even the clump of grass along the fence (between the building and the tent) are just as they were then.

Yes, that is (or at least was) a tent on the right in the photo. If you see, as I do, another building instead of a tent, it's because the photo was taken much later and a building had replaced the tent I remember OR your old eyes, like mine, are acting up again and it is really a tent we are seeing in the photo. The third possibility - that it was a building even then, and not the tent which I recall - should be given short shrift unless you are rude.

My duty was to march back and forth along this side of the wire mesh fence which encircled the compound. The space I trod was along the area between the two buildings or, as I remember it, between the large building and the tent on the right.

This particular compound held a mixture of Chinese and Korean prisoners and had been a medical compound until some bad-ass bullies, who wore homemade red stars on their green caps, had taken charge and evicted all but prisoners from the compound.

Thereafter, it was the only compound in the camp which had not been segregated so as to hold only those wanting to go north or those wanting to stay south after the war. We wouldn't let our prisoners out and they wouldn't let us in without a lot of rock throwing and other insurrectional activities. They would bring their dead or dying to the front gate which, in the photo, was located to the left of the building and out of your view.

On May 1, 1952, they put on a great show for our benefit. There was much dancing, singing, and marching with propaganda signs all meant, I suppose, to impress on us the beauties of a communistic society. On one later occasion, they set up some bleachers between the fence and the building. As a group of about twenty sat in the bleachers, a red star guy would lecture me on the reasons why our army should not be in Korea and messing in its affairs. When he asked me, rhetorically, what we doing there, I couldn't help telling him that I was there for the purpose of killing Chinese before they killed me.

As I was standing (walking) my post one afternoon, a Chinese prisoner (at that time, the difference in appearance of Chinese and Koreans was usually apparent) sat on the bench on the other side of the fence.

He watched me pace back and forth for about twenty minutes. He did that by moving his head back and forth as if I were the ball in a tennis match but remained completely silent - as did I. Then, without warning, he started singing, in pretty good English, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray ...... ."

My admirer and I struck up a guarded (no pun intended) conversation but, despite the fact that he didn't sport a red star, he was as wary of me as I was of him so nothing came of that. As I will soon tell you about, my interaction with other prisoners did come to something.

In Poe's mark-up of these two photos, he said he remembers hearing " ..... that the South Korean Army caught a female spy trying to communicate with the prisoners and they took her up on that mountain and executed her without trial." Well, I'm very glad that the ROKs didn't learn of my dealings with the prisoners. I wasn't a spy but I damn sure consorted with the enemy.

I know you think it odd that I claim to remember a particular clump of grass. Well, one of my minor treacheries happened one night by conspiracy with a Chinese inmate who, as it would appear, was a cook. During the night, the kitchen in the near end of the main building was busy as food was being prepared for the prisoner's next day meals. I assumed, and still do, that the cooks prepared the meals with rice and maybe other raw foods which were left by the main gate as the dead and ill were retrieved.

This particular cook came out of the kitchen and started to frantically gesture at the clump of grass which, at the time, was much smaller than it appears in the photo. When he finally made a couple of gestures at his mouth, it dawned on me that he wanted me to gather some grass for him to add to his culinary preparations. This I did and was well rewarded for my kind help. About thirty minutes later, he again emerged from the kitchen and, this time, presented me with a tin can filled with steaming cooked rice. It didn't have a grass flavor so I wondered what he had cooked with the grass.

On future nights, I found out the purpose of the grass. It was a key flavoring ingredient for the Chef's Special - kimchi, a korean rice, meat, veggie, and (mostly) hot chili pepper melange which, like good soy sauce, is properly fermented. Without benefit of a common language, we struck a deal which cheered me up on many a cold night; yes, sometimes it was pretty cold on a May night in southern Korea. He would pass me a helping of kimchi and a small bucket of hot coals. My end of the deal was to bring him, from time to time, some non-explosive goodies from the PX.

From there on, my spooky activities became more sophisticated. A very astute, but young Korean prisoner kept engaging me in conversation. His English was so good that I believed his tale of having been an American Army "houseboy" until the North Korean Army "catchy-catchy". He said he was from Yongdongpo (in South Korea) and wanted the war to be over soon so he could go home.

It wasn't long before my sympathy for him grew to the point that I would throw him my dirty clothes over the fence. Of course, they weren't given to him for wearing. He would do a first class job of washing them and, the very next day, throw them back to me. It wasn't an all oneway deal - once in a while, I would bring him a pint of ice cream from the PX.

We kept conversing and becoming closer, even though he wore a cap with a red star. He insisted on knowing my name and my knowing his. Is it strange that I still remember the name "Seuk Im Soo" when I can't recall the names of some close buddies I was with on the MLR and its hills?

Finally, Im Soo told me his plan.

He was afraid of the guards INSIDE the fence. They did seem to be mean bastards and would sometimes patrol on the other side of the fence and cast hard glares at me. He wanted to "escape" to a compound for prisoners who did not want to go north after the war and he wanted me to help him.

The plot was laid. I told him that, if he scaled the fence at exactly five minutes before midnight of the next day, I would turn him over to the MP's who, as part of the normal procedure for a changing of the guard, would be showing up at the stroke of twelve with my relief. This plot was between the two of us only. I didn't bother to notify any superiors for fear the plot would be nixed or that I would suffer much embarrassment if Im Soo failed to show at the appointed hour.

But show he did and exactly on schedule. He came shooting out of the tent and headed directly at me. The only problem was that there appeared, about ten steps behind him, two of the meanest red star guys who were chasing him full blast. Just as Im Soo hit the fence and started scaling it, the red stars caught up with him and started to grab at his feet. Luckily, I had mounted a bayonet on my M1 rifle and was able to discourage them from holding on to Im Soo, who made it over the fence without being slowed down even by the roll of barbed wire at the top.

Being of a wary disposition, I had the bayonet pointed in Im Soo's direction as he started to approach me. But, I knew somehow that he meant me no harm and it was easy for him to sort of brush my weapon aside and clutch me as if I were his protector against any evils that might threaten. He was shaking like a leaf and only then did I realize what he had just risked.

In the two or three minutes before the jeep with my relief arrived, he presented me with his red star cap. I think he was glad to get rid of it, but it was a treasured souvenir of mine for many years until it was lost in a way I don't remember. Maybe it was gathered by the claws of the tropics.

One reason this tale got so lengthy is that I wanted you to read long enough to hear Arirang performed by a real chorus. When Arirang has loaded and you have heard all you want to hear of it, you can listen (without any interference with your reading) to You Are My Sunshine for a while. MK.

James McGlew (Entry #5) email add-on:

Hi, Merv. I enjoyed your comments about the POW camp, and of course the background music. What sticks in my memory about the time at the camp is the times when we entered the first compound and the second compound to separate the prisoners. I remember at the first one the officer with the loudspeaker ordering a tank to go through the double barbed wire fence so we could rush in. I also remember being the first one to open the door of the first barracks in the second compound. It was empty. Jim.

J. C. Poe (Entry #2) email add-on:

Well Merv, this is the story I promised you about our entry into the POW camp. The trucks pulled over to the side of the road and we pitched pup tents. Then, we were told that our Bn was known, even in the PW compound, to be a top combat unit straight from the front and would not put up with any hard time like the prisoners were giving the unit presently guarding the compound. Many of the prisoners were in fact taken by the 15th so we were known to them.

We were directed to shine our bayonets so the effect on the prisoners would get maximum psychological effect as we marched in to the compound with fixed bayonets and loud cadence, sharp in step marching. We worked the rest of the day shining cold steel and preparing for the entrance on the following day. I don't recall the Sfc's name but we had an older heavy WW2 type with one hell of a voice and command of all the Jodie counts in the book. He would make present day DI's look like 'cruits when it came to marching troops.

Well Merv, we did not know it at the time but we were camped very close to one of the largest ammo dumps in Korea. Everything from Bombs to Bullets was stored there and I estimate the dump was a half mile wide and two miles long. (I'm only guessing as to size). We knew it was there and big. It was just about dawn the following morning, before we got up, when enemy infiltrators were successful in blowing the damned thing end to end. I felt like I bounced off the top of my pup tent in the rudest wakeup I can remember before or since.

We postponed our march into the POW camp for a couple days while we pulled guard around the dump to keep the locals out of the area while the engineers cleaned up all the duds scattered all over the place. A number of us were from farm and ranch country back home so when we encountered several head of cattle, to include a couple of good sized bulls, we couldn't pass up the chance for a little fun. We had a go at riding two or three head and getting the bulls to fighting. Suddenly a very small, pissed off Korean farmer approached us using profanity we are glad we couldn't understand, but we knew we were wrong so we did everything we could do to convince him we were sorry. We even went against rules and let him go into one of the huts, maybe his house. Just as things seemed to smooth out, a jeep came along with two officers and, as per my conversation with Oscar Jones recently, he remembers talking fast to get us out of that one.

When we finally did march into the POW camp, I recall that we were sharp and making a lot of noise as we counted cadence and that, on halting, made a very snappy port arms and a right face toward the closest prisoners. The rest you have covered well except the singing crazy prisoner on my beat - we nicknamed him Frank Not So Hotra.  J.C. Poe.

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