Willie Freeman, Prisoner of Korea
My name is William Dewey Freeman. Most of my friends when I was in the service called me Willie. The story I'm about to tell you is my experience when I was in the service.
I was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1928. My father was William D. Freeman Sr. and my mother was Anise Freeman. She was a Seminole Indian who died three days after my birth so I never did know my mother. I have four sisters, one of whom is my twin sister. When I was 18 months old my father moved from Jacksonville back to Atlanta, Georgia, which was his hometown. For a brief period of time before my father remarried four years later, we stayed in an orphanage.
In 1944 I was 15 years old and wanted to get away from home because I wasn't happy. I had never been to Miami, Florida in my entire life, but I ran away to that city and got a job working in a restaurant. I worked there until June 1945. I had to teach myself to read and write and drive a car because there was nobody else to teach me. When I left home, I left for good. (I later went back to visit, but not to stay.) I was only 16 at the time, but earlier that year I went down to the recruiting office and signed up for the draft on February 12, 1945. I told one small lie. I took February 12th as my birthday and that's what the army put on my records. For some reason I never did get it changed.
Although I signed up in February, I wasn't drafted until June 14, 1945. I was flown to Camp Blanding, Florida and then took my basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. I had finished basic training and was in the army hospital in Ft. Knox when the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, therefore I didn't go to that part of the world. Instead, I was sent to Europe where I spent 10 months and 23 days in the occupation of Austria.
I got to come home that year for leave at Christmas, but then I went back to Ft. Hood and I was shipped out to California. There were 17 of us in the group that left Ft. Hood for Camp Stoneman, California. We left the USA on January 23, 1951, which was the anniversary of my marriage to Barbara. We were put on an airplane and we were flown from California to Hawaii. In Hawaii we gassed up and left for Wake Island. When we landed on Wake, I thought that thing was going down in the water because the island was so small. We stayed there until they gassed the plane up and we had lunch. Then we got on the plane again and flew into Tokyo, Japan. From Tokyo we went down to the port of Sasebo. From Sasebo we were shipped out to Korea. We landed in Pusan, Korea on February 1, 1951.
We moved up to a position where we dug in around the 38th Field Artillery and the Triple Nickel-555s, which was a black outfit. The front line was up in front of us probably a good ten miles, maybe even closer. We were supposed to be in a fairly safe position serving as rear guard. I had only been in Korea twelve days when on February 12 it seemed like all hell broke loose. We began to hear bugles blowing and all kinds of racket about 2:30 in the morning. I did not really know what was going on at the time because I hadn't been there long enough to know a lot of things. Come to find out, the Chinese 44th Division and the North Korean 12th Division had broken through the Republic of Korea (ROK) position. The ROK soldiers began to fall back and we were left up there by ourselves with no orders to move. We were on the point dug-in in a foxhole when a runner came up and said, "Pull back to the CP." We pulled back, but there was nobody there.
We finally caught up with some guys down the road. We were in a roadblock. No vehicles could get in or out. All we could do was move a little bit and then stop. Move a little bit and then stop. What happened was some of the truck drivers had gotten out of their trucks and left them, causing the road to be blocked and nobody could move. We got into a terrible fight with the Chinese and North Koreans. We were in the back of a jeep and tried to get out on the trailer of a jeep, but the firepower going on around us got so hot we had to get behind something for protection. We started firing point blank into the Chinese and North Koreans.
The BAR man had already been killed earlier and his BAR was sitting there beside me. Since I had training with a BAR at Ft. Knox, I figured I could hit the machine gun nest with it. So I picked that thing up. I don't know why, but about that time I happened to think of Sergeant York. He was a sharpshooter that fought against the Germans in World War I. I remembered that in the movie about his wartime experience, Sergeant York said, "Gobble, gobble, gobble." The Germans stuck their heads up and he shot them with his rifle. For some unknown reason, all of a sudden I said, "Gobble, Gobble, Gobble." I don't know why. Two Chinese stuck their heads up and when they did, I "bang, bang, bang" with the BAR. I don't know if I killed them or not, but they never did stick their heads back up any more.
We were surrounded from approximately 3 o'clock in the morning until about 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning. There was an acting sergeant with us whose name I don't remember. He and I were fighting back to back. He was shooting in one direction and I was shooting in another. He had his steel helmet chin-strapped on and that bullet went right through his helmet into his head and exited out of the top of his head. He dropped immediately. If that bullet hadn't gone right straight up through his helmet, it would have hit me in the back of the head. But for the grace of God, I was spared. Only the angels in Heaven kept that thing going. It was terrible that the sergeant lost his life, but mine was saved. We picked him up and put him in a jeep that was parked there. He was already dead.
There were only five of us left out of the squad in the company I was in. We fought until we exhausted our ammunition. Another sergeant named Mashburn was still with us. He had been in Europe in World War II and he was old school. We kept fighting until finally Sergeant Mashburn said, "Fellas, we're out of ammunition and we'd better get out of here." We took off running. I don't know what happened to Mickey, but he wasn't with us at that time. I think he went in another direction.
Mashburn said, "This is the way we're gonna do it. We're going to go across that field one man at a time. When one man makes it, the next one will go." We had to run completely across an open area and a frozen rice paddy. The Sergeant went first. He took off running and dove into a ditch. The next fellow took off running and he made it. The next one took off running and he made it. Next to me was the guy who had been the ammo bearer for the BAR man that had already been killed. I told him, "Now you wait until I get across before you start running." I started running across the rice paddy, zigzagging across like I had been taught to do in basic training. Bullets were flying everywhere. I hit that hard ground running. All of a sudden I heard something, "Click, click, click" behind me. There that ammo bearer was right on my heels. The Chinese cut down on both of us and they killed him immediately. I got shot in the leg, but I kept running and made it across. I hit the ditch where the other three were.
Mashburn, Butterbean and I all started up, but all of a sudden the Chinese cut loose with a machine gun. I mean they were right on top of us. They weren't but ten feet away from us and the machine gun was shooting at us. I took off, but I slipped and fell. They cut snow right by the top of my head. Two Chinese got a hold of me, two had a hold of Butterbean, and two had a hold of Mashburn. We were the only three left in the squad by that time. Mashburn hollered at me, "Freeman, throw those hand grenades." But my hand grenades had evidently fallen off when I fell. If I had thrown those hand grenades, there is no telling what would have happened. We would have probably all been dead. The Chinese tied us up, tying our hands behind us.
They kept us with them all of that day and moved us along with them when they moved. In the meantime, the firing had sort of subsided a little bit. We didn't know what was going on. There was a Chinaman who stood behind us with his gun and every once in a while he came up behind us. The sun was going down and we could see his shadow behind us. He would stick that gun in our head and pull the trigger. When nothing came out, he would laugh. I think he was just doing that to scare us.
The end of that day they took us off the mountain. There was a young Chinese soldier that was wounded. He didn't look more than 14 years old. He was probably a new soldier. They made Butterbean pick up that little boy. The boy had on a new coat and they took it off of him and handed it to me. I put the coat on because, man, it was cold. I had already thrown away my steel helmet but I had kept my liner and pulled it down over my head to try to keep warm. Not only did they give me his coat, they also gave me the young Chinese soldier's rifle (after they took the bolt out of it). I carried it on my shoulder.
When I got down to the bottom of the mountain with the rest of them, they were lining everybody up. There was a big moon that night. We could see Chinese everywhere--or at least I assume they were Chinese. They looked like Chinese to me. Anyway, I got in the line with the Chinese. I figured I would go out with them and they wouldn't know the difference because I had on that young soldier's coat and had my hat pulled down. I figured maybe they wouldn't recognize me. The only thing was, I was at the end of the line and I was about a foot taller than everybody else. When they started to go out, I turned to go with them. One of the Chinese snatched me out of the line, took the gun off my shoulder, and kind of slapped me around a little bit.
After he took me out of the line he noticed that I had an armored insignia patch on my collar signifying that I was in the armored division. I had not taken the insignia off when I went into an infantry division. A Chinese got behind me with one of our army .45s that he had probably taken off a dead soldier. He had the hammer cocked back on it and he had that thing stuck right into my head as we started walking down the road. I had no idea where we were going. It was a moonlight night. The moon was real bright and when he spotted my wedding band on my hand in the light, he wanted it. Well, I couldn't get it off. He kept wanting to pull it off and I kept shaking my head. Finally he took my hand, tore my finger out, took that gun, and stuck it in the palm of my hand. He was going to shoot my finger off! I grabbed my hand back and jerked that ring around and spit on it real good. I got that ring off and gave it to him.
We didn't go too far before we came upon a tank that was wedged up on a big rock. He wanted me to crank the tank up. He put me down inside of it and stuck his head down through the other side where the machine gun operator would normally have been. There was a .30 caliber gun there. I reached up there to start the tank and noticed that whoever had left the tank had left the switch on. The batteries were run down and it wouldn't crank. The Chinese spotted the ammunition on that .30 caliber machine gun. He wanted me to unload that thing and give him the ammunition, but it was jammed and I couldn't get it out. All that time the Chinese had a big old bayonet in one hand and a .45 in the other. He had the .45 stuck in my head and I figured that if I so much as breathed it would probably go off. The Chinese got that bandolier of ammunition off and started wrapping it around his neck. When he did, he went over head first and almost fell into the tank. Well, he had his hand on the trigger of the .30 caliber gun while this was going on. They had left about 10 or 12 rounds in it, and he started spraying Chinese all over the hillside up there. It scared me half to death. I felt sure they were going to blame me for it, but fortunately they didn't. I heard him yelling and hollering at them.
They finally took me out of the tank and put me in another vehicle. I guess I didn't get down the road with it probably ten feet when it quit. They put me in another one and it did the same thing. Finally they found a jeep, put me in it, and about four of them jumped in it with me. Well, that jeep no more than cranked and it stopped. I think it had just enough gas left in the fuel line to get it cranked and that was the end of it. They took me out of the jeep and started beating on me. They beat me and beat me. They took the coat off of me. Finally they took me back up to where the other prisoners were. They had gathered up a whole bunch of them by then. I saw some of my friends. Mickey was with the group. Mashburn and all the others were there, too.
They put us in a village in the Hoengsong Valley. That's the area where we were captured--Hoengsong Valley in South Korea. I think they kept us in the village for around 14 days while they gathered up a whole bunch of troops. There were about 30 of us--all wounded--in one building. This building we were in happened to have some heat in it. The other buildings where they had the other prisoners didn't have any heat. One night they got ready to line up and march these guys out and we still hadn't moved out. They left us alone in the building. All of the sudden they opened the door and threw another man in there. That made 31. This guy's name was T.J. Martin. T.J. and I are very good friends still today. He lives in York, South Carolina. But at that time, I didn't know a lot about T.J. That was the first time I had ever seen him.
After we were released we started walking that night and got away from that village, which wasn't too far from where we had been captured. It was another moonlight night. As we walked on the road, we came upon a bunch of dead bodies that were frozen stiff. Hundreds of them. Untold hundreds of them laying there. We didn't know that they had been killed in a massacre, but when we saw all those bodies we knew that something terrible had happened to them. It's only recently that I have begun to find something out about it. I never thought I would ever find out. Why does our government try to cover up certain things? They covered up the Hoengsong Valley Massacre. I was there. I saw the dead bodies.
T.J. recognized his old jeep as we walked through the area, so we figured the casualties were from our company. I happened to look to my right and, just like they were spotlighted, I saw a group of bodies. They had all of their clothes taken off of them. There was one body over there that I recognized. He was a 1st Lieutenant from Barnesville, Georgia named Lt. Marvin Pierce Owen Jr. Back in the States I lived in Dekalb County, which was not too far from Lamar County where Barnesville is located. Lieutenant Owen got to Korea just a few days before I did. We were the only two in the company from Georgia. I had never met the man, but I knew instantly that it was him when I saw his body. The only reason why I knew who he was is because a few days before we got hit there had been a mail call. The guys in my platoon told me that Lieutenant Owen got a care package from home, and in that care package his mother had sent him a pair of shorts. Underclothes. They had the biggest polka dots you ever saw. They were about as big as silver dollars. I looked over there at that bunch of dead bodies and all I could see was this man. He was frozen stiff with his hands up and his feet up in the air. They were froze that way. He had no clothes on except those polka dot shorts. I knew that was Lieutenant Owen.
Lieutenant Owen was 28 years old when he died. He had served as an officer in General Patton's army in Europe during World War II, and then in 1949 he attended the University of Georgia. In 1950 his father, Marvin Pierce Owen Sr., died. When Lieutenant Owen died in Korea the next year, his only survivors were his mother, Blondine Webb Owen, and an adopted brother named Charles E. Owen who was in the Air Force. Lieutenant Owen is buried near his mother in the Greenwood Cemetery, Lamar County, Georgia.
I found out later that out of all the men in our company, only seven survived the massacre--with me being one of them. Why I was not slaughtered during that time, I have no idea. I have been asked many times, "Why do you think you made it when the rest of them didn't?" I know why I made it. It was because an angel of God had his hands upon me. I had hundreds and hundreds of people back here in Atlanta, Georgia in my church who were praying for me. I figured that if God wouldn't answer my prayers, He would answer theirs, and that's how I made it. I don't know why He spared me, but He did. I give God all the credit for me coming back alive.
After I came back from Korea I became the coach for my church's sports team. I didn't really want the job, but the man who had been the coach had to change shifts at his job and he was no longer available to work with the kids. He asked me if I would take the job over. I reluctantly did, although I had no experience teaching kids how to ball. I was the coach for about two years and we ended up with a good basketball and baseball team. Anyway, one of the boys on the team came up to me one day and said, "Mr. Bill, did you know that I've known you longer than you've known me?" When I asked him what he meant, he said, "All the time that you were a POW over there in Korea, Pastor Mayo stopped Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening worship, and mid-week worship on Thursday night so we could all pray for you in Korea." This went on for two years. Those prayers brought me safely home. I believed it then and I still believe it today.
Sergeant Mashburn said to me, "Freeman, go down and stop those men. They're going in the wrong direction. Don't let them go up towards the road." As I ran down the side of the mountain, I looked up over to my left and there was a North Korean or a Chinese, one or the other, pulling up his britches. He looked at me and I looked at him and I just kept running. I stopped the men. I hollered at them, telling them, "Stop. Stop. Don't go any further." I told them that we were to wait for Mashburn and that they were going in the wrong direction. They stopped.
They took us prisoners and put us in a little house up there where the bridge was. The bridge had been blown out. This was on the Han River. We had been in that area before so we knew where we were at and we knew that we were pretty close to the front lines because during the night we could hear firing across the river. We were still in South Korea, but the Chinese and North Koreans still occupied that part of Korea.
There were two civilians dressed in white in the little house. One man looked like one of his hands had been blown off. There was nothing there but his arm and some skin. It seemed like we weren't in there for more than just a few minutes when they took us out. We hadn't gone 25 feet when a whole group of planes came over. They started dropping napalm on that mountain. When it hits, napalm spreads. What was so strange was that one of the napalm bombs hit this little shack and when it exploded, for some reason this one didn't spread. It went directly straight up in the air. We all hit the ground because the explosion knocked us down. When we hit the ground, all of the flames went over the top of us. We could look up and see the flames, yet not a one of us got scorched. That had to be a miracle.
One day artillery shells started falling down right behind us. Evidently they were from our troops across the river. We happened to look up and there was a spotter plane above us. One of our guys had found a big old opened five-gallon coffee can. What that can was doing was flashing as the sunlight hit it. And, of course, the guy flying above us had a good view so he could radio ahead where those mortar shells were and what they were shooting at. I think it was T.J. who said, "Throw that thing down, guys, and fill up your pockets with coffee." So we filled our pockets and threw that can down so the plane couldn't see the flashes.
We walked with the North Koreans for 22 days. I don't think they really knew where we were because they walked us north and south, east and west. There were just 28 of us by then. That first night the North Koreans had killed two guys. They put packs on us and we carried those packs like we were mules. The guys were in such bad shape that those two weren't able to keep up and the guards went back there and killed them.
Because it was still wintertime when we were on the march, we were cold. When we stopped to rest, we had to sleep all in one room. It's unbelievable how many prisoners they could put in a 9x12 room--maybe 100 people. It was so crowded we sometimes had to stand up. If we laid down, our feet would go to sleep because there were so many other feet on top of them.
It was a cloudy day one day and we figured there wouldn't be any planes flying over because it was real overcast. I think it was T.J. who was scrounging around down there and he dug into a hill of potatoes. He started digging those potatoes out. Little Irish potatoes. T.J. said, "Well, fellas. We've got a cooking pot. We'll just start a fire." There was a bunch of straw and pieces of wood there so they started a fire. We were going to fill that pot with water and wash and boil those potatoes in that pot. I grabbed me a handful of them. I was so hungry I couldn't wait for boiled potatoes. I just pushed the dirt off of them, ran into that house, sat down, and started to eat the potatoes.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere I heard a "wheeeee". If you've ever heard the sound of a jet, you know he's already been there. But that sound made me dive to the floor. Unbeknownst to me, there were two jets. The first one didn't fire but the second one did. He fired through the hole of that wall where I was sitting and blew that whole wall out. As I dove, the bullets went over the top of my head. There was another miracle that God saved my life again. In the meantime, T.J. and the others put that fire out and they ate raw potatoes just like I did. We knew that that night they were going to move us out. I found an old A-frame. It was a wooden back pack like thing that the Korean used to carry things. I filled out that A-frame with the potatoes that we had found. I said, "Fellas, we'll have potatoes at least. I'm going to carry these potatoes." I put them on my back pack and we took off.
That night we got up on the highway and were going somewhere towards Pyongyang, I guess. Way out there in the countryside troops were moving south and we were moving north. The road was just lined with Chinese and Korean vehicles heading towards the south. All of the sudden, a bomber came over. We were right in the middle of a big old bridge and there was a ravine down below it. It was a long bridge. Here again, it was a big moonlight night. If you've seen a big moonlight night over there in Korea, it was complete darkness. On a moonlit night, the moon was just like a big spotlight shining on you.
The plane came in from the north side and as he did I guess he spotted all these vehicles and the troops on the road. There were untold thousands of them heading south, but our little group was heading north. When we saw the plane, we took off running to get to the other side of the bridge. There was an "ack ack" (anti-aircraft) gun set up in a little old hill out there all by itself. It started shooting at this bomber. When the bomber saw it, it took off, went around, and came back on the other end of the bridge. As the bomber came back on the other end, he dropped a bomb right in the middle of the bridge just as we were about to step off of it. The explosion blew us off the bridge and into a ditch. I had all of these potatoes and I lost every one of them. We didn't have anymore potatoes.
The only women I ever saw in Korea was one time when we stopped there were some girls who looked like high school kids. They were supposed to be nurses but they weren't. They just poked around on us. I just had a flesh wound. The gunshot wound I received didn't hit any main arteries so I was able to stop the bleeding. Also, it was winter and our blood congealed.
Sometime during the first week of March we wound up at a holding camp that we called the Bean Camp. It was in Suwon, North Korea. There the North Koreans turned us over to the Chinese. We stayed there until they gathered up a group of about 700-750 prisoners. We did not know it at the time, but we found out years later after we got out that not only was the Bean Camp a holding camp, it was also a military base.
We had been there for a few days when all of the sudden the Chinese made us all get in our huts one day. We couldn't get out. The Korean houses were made out of mud, but these had tin roofs on them. The hut I was in was a long building like a long barracks. I happened to look out of a crack in the wall there and I saw a parachute go down behind the mountain. I could see Chinese or Korean soldiers going up the mountain to go to the other side to get this guy that had jumped out with a parachute. I didn't know what kind of parachute it was, but later on I recognized some P51 airplanes when they came by. They began to shoot at the Chinese and they kept on shooting at them. We couldn't see it, but we could hear a helicopter come in. Evidently it landed on the other side of that mountain, got that pilot out, and out it went. Then the planes left. T.J. Martin recalls this incident and the following one that also involved an airplane.
The very next day after the parachute incident, the planes came back over again and blew up our camp. We heard the planes coming, so three of us took off and dove into that kitchen. Two rockets landed in our building. I was buried alive with two other guys in that building. When they shot the rockets, one rocket went into the top of the building and one went into the floor. They exploded and the dirt collapsed on top of us. One little guy in there (we called him Little Tex) shot up like a rocket out of there. How he did it, God only knows. But when he shot up, he left air holes so we could breathe. One young soldier beside me down there was hollering and screaming bloody murder, "Get me out. Get me out." I mean, he was carrying on. My legs were pinned down by one of the logs that generally held up the building. It had fallen across my legs and I couldn't move. The other part of the log had hit the top of a pot in the kitchen, which kept it from crushing me. We were down there for hours before they dug us out. I don't know exactly how long. When we got out, we found out that one rocket had gone off above us and killed about 25 prisoners plus some Chinese guards.
They had just gotten me out of the hole where I was buried and I was sitting there when all of the sudden one of the Koreans dressed in white came and grabbed me. I don't know why he chose me, but for some reason unknown to me, he wanted me to go with him. We went to another building where there was a lieutenant who had joined our group. I can't think of his name at this particular time. Both of his legs were hanging on by the skin, but he was still alive. They wanted me to hold him down while they tried to cut that skin away from him. The poor man died right there in my arms. He died while they were trying to saw his legs off. It was the most horrible thing I ever saw in my entire life. To this day it's an image that I can never forget.
They left us in there all night long with no food and no water. The next day, lo and behold, the airplanes came over again and blew up the railroad yard. Cars were burning everywhere around us, but there was not a scratch on the railroad car that we were in. Evidently they had repaired the train tracks overnight because they had them ready to go by the next day.
That night they moved us out. This was sometime toward the end of April 1951. We kept moving, stopping, moving, stopping, moving, stopping. After a few hours we stopped, but we were still in the railroad cars. Not moving. No water. No food. No nothing. All of a sudden a guy came hollering, "Get out. We're in a tunnel. We're in a tunnel." Well, I pried the doors. The doors were unlocked. We went to the front and someone started shooting at us. The whole group of us got that guy out of the way, then we said, "Wait a minute. This isn't all of us." We found out later that there were two tunnels and they had split us up. They left the engine hooked to the box cars in the tunnel. We ran to the back of that tunnel, but it was all boarded up. There was no way to get out. We sat there in that tunnel all day long. The train engine stayed running all that time, but nobody was in it.
I don't know where I got the thing, but I had an old tin can. It was just an old can that maybe beans had come in or something. I had that thing in my hand and I was sitting there when I happened to see water dripping off the train engine. I started catching the water (actually, it was sweat) that was coming off that engine. When I got enough to drink I continued to catch it and then I gave water to somebody else. Later I finally saw a spigot, opened it, and we got all the water we wanted. It was warm, but at least it was water. I gave water to everybody who came by.
I noticed that I was getting awful sleepy. All of a sudden, a guy came running and said, "Get out of here. They're killing us. They're killing us. They're gassing us. Get out of here." I jumped up, but I passed out. When I passed out, somebody pulled me out. I was later told that I was pulled out by some British soldiers who were with us. They pulled us out and the Chinese got us all out of there. There were 18 to 20 prisoners who died because carbon monoxide backed up in there. They went to sleep and it killed them. I don't know if that was intentional or an accident because that train stayed in the tunnel. There was no way for that engine to emit that smoke. It snaked back through that tunnel. It wasn't a long tunnel so it didn't have all the cars. We found out that night that they didn't use that engine because they used another one.
A lot of guys were so weak they just dropped down on the floor of the car and couldn't move. We were packed in worse than sardines. T.J. and I happened to look in the car behind us and saw that nobody was in it. We could see guards sitting way up there in the moonlight and it looked like they were facing in the other direction. T.J. and I wanted to get out of the car we were in and crawl into the other flat car so we wouldn't be crushed by so many prisoners. But there was no way. We were so weak we didn't know where we were at at the time. We didn't have any way of knowing if we should escape that way. It was such a moonlight night the Chinese probably would have seen us anyway and shot us as we were trying to get off the moving train, so we stayed on that train until it stopped.
It didn't seem like it went too far when it stopped because it was getting to be daylight. They didn't stop in town. Instead, they stopped and marched us through Pyongyang. I think it took us 23 days from that time to get to Camp 1. The original march that I started on began on February 12 and we didn't get to Camp 1 in Chongsong, North Korea until May 17. From February 12 to May 17, I was on a march somewhere in that country. Out of the prisoners that were recaptured after being released (not counting the two that stayed in the shack), only two of us had survived--T.J. Martin and me.
I only know of one time that they brought a group of prisoners in on trucks. That was right at the end of the war. Some of the prisoners were transferred to Camp 1 from different camps. Camp 1 was actually called Camp 3 at the time I was there, but then they changed it to Camp 1. In this same area, Camp 3 was where they had all the British soldiers. They separated the British soldiers from the American soldiers.
The camps were never marked at that time. (They finally marked the camp as a POW camp about a year later.) Planes came over at night and we didn't know if we were going to get bombed or not. They had search lights all around the camps and they turned them on so anti-aircraft could shoot at the planes. One night a plane came over and we knew there was something wrong with it because we heard it as it went north. There happened to be a crack in the wall of our hut and we could look out over the mountains over there. We could tell it was a bomber by its roar. It was so low we could see the wing lights. The red lights and green lights were still flashing. All of the sudden that thing exploded. I don't know whether it was because it was damaged or because they shot it out of the air. They never did tell us anything about it.
Don West was a strong, husky fella. When he came upon us, we were a raggedy, worn out bunch of prisoners on a death march. He was such a good Christian man. He talked about the Lord all the time. He worked himself to death. By that I mean that while we were on the death march and it looked like someone was going to stumble and fall, Don would go up to him, picked him up, and carry him. When that person died in his arms, Don would lay him down and then pick up another one. He didn't have to do that--he could have just gone on, but Don West wasn't thinking about himself. He was thinking of how he could help the others. Those who weren't there to see what he did cannot understand the conditions that we prisoners had to endure, but I personally think he deserves the Medal of Honor.
His body got weak and he died, but his death wasn't from wounds. I think he died of a broken heart from all the suffering that he saw. I remember that while he was lying there dying, he begged for water. A guy named Pat Quinn from Chicago tried to get one of the prisoners who had a supply of water to give some to Don, but that POW wouldn't do it. He was saving the water for himself. Don's tonsils swelled from lack of water and he died.
Years later at a POW reunion, I talked to a government worker from Washington named Phil. I told him that I wanted to know what had happened to my friend Don West who was buried in Camp 1. Phil always comes to the POW reunions. He has a brilliant mind. Anyway, two weeks later Phil contacted me and said, "Your friend is buried in a family plot in Hammond, Indiana." Corporal Donald Lewis West is buried in Greenlawn Cemetery, Steuben County, Indiana. I found out later that T.J. Martin was going to go to Don West's funeral when they brought his body back, but his mother said she didn't want any POWs to attend. At all of our POW reunions we recognize those who died. I always honor Don West because he gave his life to help others. He made me want to do better in my life.
I was put in charge of one of the fellows that was in our outfit. He was a guy named Michael G. "Mickey" Verinakis. Mickey lost his memory for about four months while in Camp 1. He never spoke a word to anybody. He also never moved. The Chinese put me in charge of him and told me that I had to take care of him. Well, I did take care of him. As long as I fed Mickey he would eat. But if I gave him a spoon to eat with, he wouldn't feed himself. I fed him like a baby and he ate. I fed him all of his meals. I also figured when it was time to take him to the bathroom. I took him down to the latrine and took him back. I took care of him for four months. Finally Mickey came out of it just like he went into it. All of a sudden he started talking. He had no memory of what was going on. The Chinese put him back in a squad different than the squad I was in.
I noticed how the Chinese treated Mickey. They did not mess with him. The Chinese were very superstitious and I found out that they were very superstitious of anybody that looked like they might be insane. They didn't ask them questions. They didn't do anything to them.
Around that time they organized what they called a disciplinary committee and they put a G.I. from each company as one of the committee members to sit in as judge against our own guys who maybe did something wrong in the camp. They wanted us to punish them by making them "criticize" themselves. That was a common way of doing things among the Chinese. I served on this committee a couple of times and then I thought, "This isn't right." I wasn't going to convict any GI's of stealing because they almost had to steal to get anything good to eat.
I got down to 90 pounds, but I never got sick. I had a mild case of dysentery that didn't last long like it did with some people. The Chinese gave us no medical care. If someone had a bad tooth, he just pulled it out himself. The Chinese didn't care if someone had a bad tooth or not. In fact, they told us that we didn't deserve any medical care. Some POWs had anemia dysentery, which meant that only puss and blood passed when they had diarrhea because they had nothing else inside of them to pass. Beriberi was a painful disease that many prisoners got because of vitamin deficiency, but I never did get it.
They wouldn't allow us to have church. If we did, we had to do it secretly. If more than four or five people got together the Chinese broke it up. But God was present in my life in Korea. If it wasn't for God, I wouldn't even be here today.
One day I was beaten pretty badly by a captain. I thought I was dying. But all of a sudden, I felt like I was in my home in the bedroom. I was outside in a Korean War POW camp and it was pitch black, but I had a vision. I could see my bedroom at home in Georgia. I was in a blue room putting on my slippers, and then I walked over to look at the baby in her crib. This was my vision. I heard, "Son, don't give up. You'll make it." I never gave up hope after that. A lot of miracles happened to me in Korea, but that was the greatest. I was determined I would make it. So many didn't. I knew that hundreds and hundreds of people in Georgia were praying for my safety. I felt that even if he didn't answer mine, God was honoring those people's prayers. I'm thankful that I got back.
I had a civilian insurance policy back home. I found out later that just before my wife got that letter, she was contacted by the insurance company to tell her that if she hadn't heard from me by February 1952, they were going to go ahead and process claim papers listing me as dead. She told them, "No. I won't believe that he's dead until I see it." The very next day she got that first letter from me. She had to send it to Washington DC to verify that it was my handwriting because my name had never appeared on any list as being a POW at that time. It did later on.
Another prisoner, Robert Cater from Georgia, was captured on May 18 and wound up in Camp 1. Two letters written by him in August 1951 made it back to the States. According to my wife's diary, a letter that Robert sent home to his father before he was captured said that he was on a troop truck when the communists threw gasoline on the trucks and set them on fire. All that weren't killed were captured.
After my wife received my letter and Robert Cater's family received his, an article appeared in an Atlanta paper stating that our letters said we were being treated well, had a warm place to stay, and were being fed well. None of that was true. The only reason we put that in our letters was because we knew it was the only way to get a letter out to our families so they would know we were still alive. We knew that if we put something bad in our letters the Chinese wouldn't send them on to the States. I didn't tell my family that I was wounded and I didn't tell them about anything bad that the Chinese did to me.
All told, my family got about 16 or 18 letters from me after I got to Camp 1. I wrote a lot more than that, but the Chinese didn't forward all of them to the States. Family wrote to me from all over the country, but I didn't always get their letters. Each of my sisters wrote to me, but I only got one letter from one of my sisters. My wife wrote to me once or twice a day. I didn't get all of her letters either, but I got about 105 of them. There was no guarantee that we would get all the mail that was being sent to us from back home. If the Chinese wanted us to have it, we got it. If there was something in it that they didn't like, they censored it. Unfortunately, they didn't censor by marking things out. They just didn't give us the letter or mail it out. When they did give us mail, it was usually four to five months old. The Chinese didn't care if we got mail or not. When we complained that we weren't getting any mail, they just told us that the US Air Force had bombed the mail truck.
My wife kept a diary during my absence and her writings show how she suffered because she didn't know what had happened to me. She wrote about the day that she received the telegram bearing the words, "Sorry to inform you... missing in action." In her diary she said, "For awhile I thought the end of the world had come to me." But Barbara was a strong woman. She said that after relatives, friends and our church family came to visit her, she recovered from the shock and was thankful that I was only "missing" and not "dead". She wrote, "I committed him to God and no one was ever able to convince me he wouldn't come home." She sought all kinds of information about my whereabouts. She wrote and wrote and wrote. She even wrote to the Chinese government. When she did that, our US government contacted her and told her that she couldn't do that because we were at war with China.
We had small children and, because I was a POW in Korea, I really lost out on the early years of watching them grow up--learning how to walk, etc. Barbara kept my memory alive by showing them my picture, talking about me, and what have you. In 1952, my wife saw a picture in the paper of four POWs of the Korean War. I was one of them. A copy of the picture is in my memoir photo album, but the original is in the National POW Museum at Andersonville, Georgia.
Now when I go to speak to groups about the Korean War, I not only speak a little bit about the treatment we received as prisoners of war, I also talk about what our loved ones back home went through while waiting for news about us. They didn't know where we were at.
Years after I came back from Korea I was talking with a fellow former POW named Donald L. Denny. He recalled that one time we were off on wood detail (this was before I went "crazy"), and we were so weak it took two of us to carry a little limb no bigger than our arm. Donald and I were sitting down by a creek resting when a Chinaman came up and poked us with his bayonet to get us to move. Donald told me, "Willie, I never will forget when that Chinaman poked you with his bayonet. Your teeth fell out and that Chinaman took off running!"
I threw that log down on the wood pile, and then I went into my little old hut and I laid down. I was so sick I couldn't hardly stand up. The rest of the day I could hardly eat. I figured that the Chinese were going to discipline me because I didn't come back with the rest of them. So I laid down like I was crazy. I started doing some crazy things. I had an old grass rope so I started to tie myself up. Every time they wanted me I would be tied up. After I got over being sick I ate, but I took my false teeth out before eating. (I've had false teeth ever since I was 21 years old.) I had to convince all the other GIs that I was crazy in order to make the Chinese think I was crazy, so I started chopping at my food with my teeth in my hand. The Chinese sent a doctor out to look at me. He shook his head and said, "Lomoping." I found out "Lomoping" in Chinese meant "insane". From then on they left me alone.
They put me in a squad whose leader was a guy out of New Jersey with the first name Vincent. The Chinese called him the squad leader. He had no choice in the matter. Vincent was a likeable guy. He read anything he could read. He read the communist manifesto a lot, but he only read it just to pass the time of day. He knew that I wasn't crazy. The ten guys in that squad knew I wasn't. Sometimes the Chinese called Vincent up and when he came back he would say, "The Chinese wanted to find out about you, Freeman. They wanted to know how you're doing." I told him that I had read some of that Communist manifesto, and that I didn't believe in that crap. He asked me, "You didn't tell them that, did you?" I told him that I did because I knew they wouldn't do anything to me. They still thought I was crazy and were still afraid of me.
During the time I was there--over a period of a year and a half, I was able to con the Chinese out of 42 dozen eggs. They gave me about six eggs every day and I shared them with the ten men that were in Vincent's squad. All ten men came out alive. They survived the POW camps I think those eggs had something to do with it.
I was having so much fun messing with the Chinese minds that one day I decided, "I'm going to climb this tree." There happened to be one little old tree hanging over the river. I said, "I'm going to go hang myself." I wasn't really going to hang myself, I just wanted to hang on it. I carried a grass rope on my waist all the time. That day I tied it around my neck and pulled it thin. I climbed up into that little old tree and tied my rope on the branch up there. I figured if I fell out, it would break before I choked anyway and I would fall into the water because it hung right over the river. The guards were trying to get me out of the tree but there were some other guys standing at the bottom of the tree hollering, "Jump Willie, jump Willie, jump Willie!" Of course, they didn't know if I was or wasn't going to jump. Finally I came down out of the tree and the guards chased everybody off but me. They left me alone.
Another time I decided I would have some fun with the Chinese by campaigning to be the mayor of Chongsong. There was a prisoner who had been a tailor. He was a black soldier. (This was before they moved the blacks out.) He decided that he was going to make me a "jut suit", he called it. Our winter uniforms were one solid piece but our summer uniforms were sky blue, two-piece pajama-type outfits. There were no markings on them. The top part had a Civil War uniform style with a button up collar. That tailor took one of the uniforms and cut the bottoms of it real thin so I could just get my feet through it. He then took a winter coat and cut it off to make a short coat out of it to add to the "jut suit" look. He made me a bowtie, and hooked enough GI dog tag chains together to reach from my pocket clear down to my ankle. Once I got dressed up, I started walking around campaigning for mayor of Chongsong. The Chinese didn't like the idea that I was drawing such a crowd so they would run the guys all off that were gathering around me. The Chinese got upset when the winter coat got cut up because they said we were destroying their property. I was just messing with their minds.
The Chinese decided that they would hold an "Olympics" among the prisoners from the various camps. They did this for propaganda purposes. Although it wasn't held in our camp, I decided I was going to run in the Olympics. I said, "I've got to exercise" and I started running. The Chinese had a compound on the inside, which was where we were at. We were in a town at one end of it. The Chinese just moved the people out of that end of town and moved us in. It wasn't fenced in. There were mountains on one side, a river on one side, and mountains on the other side. We were only five miles from China and that wasn't fenced in, but they kept guards on all corners of the road. When I decided that I was going to run, I started running around that compound. I ran around a guard who was evidently a new guard. He didn't know I was "lomoping". I started running around, stopped all of a sudden, and then I ran up to him. I had my hands out and grabbed his gun when I stopped. When I did that, the other guards hollered at him, "lomoping." He took off. Suddenly I realized that I was holding his gun and all of those guards over there had pistols strapped to them. I dropped the gun and just kept on running. The Chinese started throwing their thumbs up and down. When they put them down, that meant no good. They would say, "Freeman no good. Freeman no good." But they didn't do anything to me because they thought I was nuts. They must have transferred that guard because I never did see him any more. Those were just some of the crazy things that I did that helped me survive.
That Chinese guard knew exactly how many chickens were not there in the bomb shelter anymore. He got mad so we didn't get any more chickens. I had run most of those chickens out of the bomb shelter. Some of the guys caught the chickens and skinned them. They hid them all over the camp. The Chinese knew that the chickens were missing and they tried to find them. There was a little old hut out in the back of the main hut and that's where I slept in the summertime. I had made a little swinging hammock out of some rice bags and in the summertime I would crawl up there and sleep out there I couldn't sleep in there in the wintertime because it was too cold. Some of the guys said, "Well, we'll just put those chickens in the bed with old William. They won't find them in his bed." They put six chickens in my bed between my legs. They had already skinned them except the feathers. They didn't pull them off. They had all them chickens in my bed. Lo and behold, those Chinese found those six chickens in my bed and they got them all.
The Chinese found and killed every chicken that was loose except one. That one was in the woodpile with a broken leg. It was the only chicken left. There were probably 15-20 chickens left in the pin. The next day the Chinese put out an order that we could not build any more fires--not for anything. One of the guys said, "I've got an idea. Let's go up there and see if they'll let us build a fire to boil our clothes." They let us boil our clothes to kill the lice. The body lice were bad. The guys went up there and got permission to have one fire. Then those guys wrapped the remaining chickens up in clean clothes and put them in a big old pot. It was a huge pot that must have been three feet around. They filled that thing full of water and started cooking those chickens and the clothes. We could smell those chickens cooking everywhere. The Chinese came, picked the wooden lid up off the pot, and punched down in it. Nothing came up but clothes because those chickens were tied up inside of them. It never did dawn on the Chinese that we had chickens tied up in the clothes, so we got away with it. Nobody got caught with the chickens except me, and they didn't do anything to me since they thought I was nuts. They didn't mess with a crazy man. That was one of the funniest things that we got away with.
There were two repatriations--Operation Little Switch for the wounded and sick and Operation Big Switch for the remaining prisoners of war. I was released in Operation Big Switch. Most of the POWs were sent down to Panmunjom, but 100 prisoners--including me, were held back. We didn't know why, but they put us in a different building--an old school building. There were prisoners in there with us from camps all over. We thought surely they weren't going to let us go. Years later a POW named Lloyd Pate wrote a book about being a prisoner in Korea and he wrote about that day. He lives around a hundred miles from me. He was in that group but I did not know it until I read his book.
Finally the next day we were put on trucks to be taken to Panmunjom. I still remember the song that was being played on the camp intercom when we left. It was, "You've been away too long." Once on the trucks, we were taken to a railroad station in a city with rails. We rode on the trucks for a long time to get there. We were put in box cars and went to Panmunjom by train. It took us a couple of days to get there. The box cars had a bunch of hay in them and we slept on it. At Panmunjom we were put in covered trucks to cross Freedom Bridge, where they released us to our own forces. My records show where I was released, but the dates are different in three places--the 15th, 18th, and 19th. I think it was actually on the 18th that I was released.
While the other prisoners and I were in the hospital there, nobody was allowed to talk to us except the medical personnel and the CIA intelligence people. The first guy that came to me was so insulting to me that I wouldn't talk to him. He talked to me like I was the enemy. I called him everything but a gentleman and I refused to talk to him. I wouldn't tell him anything, so they sent me back up to my room.
A couple of days later, they called for me again and I went down there for interrogation. There was a 2nd Lieutenant sitting there. I looked at him and said, "Are you Sergeant Mashburn?" We started laughing. It was Mashburn, my old sergeant. Backing up a little, Mashburn and two other men were the guys who were left in that hut on the day the North Koreans captured me and Butterbean. This was the first time in two and a half years that I knew what had happened to them.
Mashburn gave me the story on how he and the other two men got out. He said that when they came back over and started bombing the mountain, he took the two men and started down to the river. At that time the water was full of big chunks of melting ice because the river had begun to thaw out a little bit. This was close to the end of February. He told me, "I got the men one at a time and took them across the river. We crawled up through the rice paddies and came upon the 1st Marines. That's how we got out." I asked him how in the world he got to be a 2nd Lieutenant. I said, "If my memory serves me right, you didn't even like officers. That's what got you in trouble to start with." (Early on he had cussed out a company commander and lost his rank before we were taken prisoner.) He said his legs had gotten frozen while they had him there those few weeks as a prisoner. He had fallen into a river, his clothes were wet, and so his legs froze while he was running across a field. He lost circulation in his legs and was sent to a hospital at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. He said that the doctors there were going to amputate his legs. He said, "I got up, put on my first class uniform, and went to town. I've been walking ever since."
Then when they finally signed the truce in Korea, they asked for volunteers to go back over there to interview the prisoners coming back. He said, "I volunteered, but they weren't taking anybody but officers. I kept on and kept on to try to get orders for Korea." They finally gave him a field commission and made him a 2nd Lieutenant. That's how he ended up in Japan as an interrogator. When he saw my name, he knew exactly who I was and he insisted on talking to me.
I have a declassified copy of the interview that he made with me on August 29, 1953 while I was in the 8167 AU Army Hospital. The interview refers to me as the "subject" and to Sergeant Mashburn as the "interrogator." The last paragraph in the four-page interview states, "This subject was not given a formal interrogation on this topic. The information as listed in this report developed as the result of a personal conversation, since the subject was captured with the interrogator."
From Tokyo I was flown to Hawaii. I remember the plane trip well because once we were about 30,000 feet in the air I got up and started to walk around. I went to the cockpit and when the pilot got up to get a cup of coffee, the co-pilot asked me to sit down in his vacant seat. I got to look inside of the oscilloscope and talk to the co-pilot. Imagine my surprise when a few minutes later the co-pilot also got up to get a cup of coffee. The plane was on automatic pilot. He told me not to touch anything and then left me in the cockpit by myself!
We gassed up on Midway Island and then we went on to Hawaii, where I stayed in the Tripoli Hospital for a couple of days. I got to call my wife on the telephone and tell her that I was coming home. She knew I was coming home, but didn't know when. I was flown home on a troop transport plane that carried lots of litters with wounded soldiers they were bringing back. I was the only prisoner of war on the plane. We landed in California, where I was immediately transferred to another plane to be flown into Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. I stayed in a hospital there for a couple of days and then was flown into the Atlanta airport.
My wife, two children and I immediately traveled to Ft. McPherson outside of Atlanta, where I was admitted to the hospital there. Ft. McPherson, named after Maj. Gen. James Birdseye McPherson, opened in 1885 and closed last year in 2011. During World War II they examined troops there before sending them out to their other duty stations. McPherson wasn't a very big post. The biggest thing there was the golf course. In 1953 it was the 3rd Army headquarters. The doctors at the hospital gave me another physical and then sent me home on a 30-day convalescent leave. My wife and I went to Florida on the honeymoon we had never had. Unfortunately, on the trip to Florida I got sick and had to go back to Atlanta and check myself into the hospital at Ft. McPherson. My feet had swollen like someone had been beating them and they were broken open.
General Bowling and Brigadier General Truman (one of Truman's nephews) visited with me in the hospital. General Bowling said to me, "How are you doing? Anything I can do for you?" I told him that I had been there since 8 a.m. and it was 4 o'clock in the afternoon by that time. I needed someone to check me over. He looked at my feet and said, "My god! You've got trench foot." But I didn't have that. I had sun poisoning. They treated me and it went down in two or three days.
That's when my problems with the army really started. The two generals came back to visit me. They wanted me to sign a waiver to keep me in the army, but I thought I'd been in this army long enough and I wanted to go home. The General said, "Get this man a uniform and let him go anywhere he wants to on the base, including the officer's area." There was a sergeant--a medical officer in the hospital, who didn't like me. He didn't like the fact that a three-star general was coming up to see me. He thought I had gone over his head to the General, but I hadn't. They just came to visit me on their own. Anyway, when the medical officer got mad at me, I got mad at him and we got into an argument. When I hit him with a cola bottle, they thought my nerves had snapped and they decided to put me in a nut house.
I went over to have a talk with the warrant officer. He said to me, "Freeman, I'm looking at your records. Man, they're in such bad shape. You're a former prisoner of war and we don't know how long it's going to take to get these things straightened out before we can get started getting you out of here." I told him that they wanted to put me on KP and I didn't want to be on it. I told him that I needed to be home with my family. He said, "I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to give you a 10-day furlough. When you're done with that, come back and we'll check to see where you're at." I went back to the separation center and signed out. When the Sergeant asked me where I was going, I told him that I had a ten-day furlough and that I was going to Atlanta, and out the door I went. I got in my car and I went home. I stayed for ten days and I behaved myself. After my furlough was up I went back to Ft. Bragg where I ran into that sergeant again. He said, "You're on KP." I said, "No way, Jose." I went to talk to the warrant officer and he said, "We can start you today." That kept me out of KP.
We former POWs finally got paid 38 years later. (I think it was in 1988.) Ronald Reagan was President of the United States and he got a bill put into the defense department that ordered back pay to be given to the ones who had pay coming. We were paid in 1950 prices. They paid no interest. About that time an article came out in a paper up in Pennsylvania. Back during the Korean War there was a standing order to the Korean civilians that if they brought back an American to safety, they would pay that civilian $100. The soldier could be wounded, but he had to be alive. Now, $100 in 1950 in South Korea was a lot of money. According to the article in the Pennsylvania newspaper, there was a Korean farmer that didn't get paid. He was finally paid on the same date that they cut my check, but the Korean got compound interest for all those years. There I was--an American soldier and former POW, yet the rest of the POWs and I got no interest at all. It shows you how well our military treated us. It is one of those things that I can't understand.
I then went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 33 years as a federal meat inspector. I traveled all over the United States in that job, retiring on December 3, 1998. My time in service added ten years to my retirement benefits. I found out later that government employees can work for as many as 50 years, but they can only draw a pension on 40 of those years. At the time, I didn't realize that I could have retired three years earlier and got the same retirement that I did after 43 years of work.
I lived away from Georgia for many years while I was a federal meat inspector, but I eventually returned to Georgia because I have always considered it my home. The State of Georgia gives veterans lots of benefits. I get a free driver's license, don't have to pay taxes on my vehicles, and I get free hunting and fishing licenses.
When I retired I was 70 yrs old. For two years I didn't apply for Medicare. When I went up to the Social Security office to apply, I got fined because I hadn't used it for those two years. I got no benefits for being a POW other than disability, and it took years for me to get all of that. In 1957 I spent four months in the VA hospital with stomach problems. I had lost a lot of weight and couldn't seem to gain any. When they put me in the hospital in Dublin, Georgia, I weighed in at 120 pounds. They fed me good and fattened me up. When I came out of the hospital, I weighed 190 pounds. I haven't gotten below 210 since.
When I went into the hospital I was only drawing 30 percent disability. When I came out of the hospital, I could only draw 10 percent. At the time, I didn't know that I had to appeal within a limit of one year. I was a member of the Disabled Veterans, and one of their service representatives--a veteran of World War II who only had one arm, read my records. He said that legally they were right, but he also said there was good news. He told me, "If you can get a congressman or senator on your side, you're halfway home." He then said, "Don't tell anybody I said that because I'll deny it." I drafted a letter to Herman Tallmadge who at that time was on a bandwagon about not spending too much money in Yugoslavia. I got a letter back from him saying he would look into it. A few weeks later, the VA in Atlanta told me to come down for a physical. I went to the same doctors I had seen before, but I went before a board of doctors this time and there was testimony from my wife. They found out that I had a heart condition.
The DAV man was my representative and he was very good. My VA records stated that I had a service-connected disability that was "zero". Evidently the army had decided that I had no problem. But the DAV representative asked them, "How you can have a service-connected disability that is zero??" A few weeks later a letter came from the Veterans Affairs office in DC. I remember the words. They said, "We have found that the VA in Atlanta, Georgia has been in error for the past nine years." They decided to not only pay me 50 percent disability, but they also gave me nine years back pay at 50 percent. It was nice to get the money. It arrived just in time for Christmas and for the first time I did not go in debt over the holidays. After that I drew 50 percent for many years, then 80 percent, and now 100 percent disability. It's nice to have friends in high places.
I tried to apply for disability when I got my diabetes, but they wouldn't give it to me. Do you know that if you went to Vietnam and you have diabetes, you can file for disability? Korean War vets can't unless they were at the DMZ when they sprayed the foliage, weeds and grass in No Man's Land with chemicals. It's strange how they come up with that crazy stuff and how they treat veterans.
I wear a bracelet on my arm for a MIA in Afghanistan. His parents still have hope. I spoke to them to give them courage. I told them, "Have faith he will come out alive. If you've got hope, you can live through this. If you give up, you're gone." I saw too many give up in the POW camps in Korea.
I am also a lifetime member of the VFW, and am a member of the Korean War Veterans Association and the Korean War Ex-POW Association. I try to go to as many of the POW reunions as I can, but for the last four years of my wife's life we couldn't go.
Within the last ten years I became a 100 percent disabled veteran. I am a life member of the Disabled Veterans organization. I have heart problems, diabetes, problems with my leg where I was shot, and PTSD--all because of being a POW. For years I had terrible nightmares about the war. The fighting. Life in the POW camp. Dead prisoners. Still today I have dreams every night, but they are not as bad as they were before. I credit that to my former pastor, Rev. Jimmy Mayo, who years ago got me to talking about Korea. He said, "If you keep it all bottled up inside you, you'll soon explode." He helped me more than anything. Reverend Mayo was pastor at the Assembly of God Church. My wife Barbara was his personal secretary. He was a great man. He was a great help to me over the years.
What they didn't know was that my boyhood friend, Charles P. Grimes, owned a granite company in Elberton, Georgia, about 110 miles from Macon. Charles is like a brother to me. He and I are the same age. When I told him about the monument, he offered to make one for free. On the front of the monument he engraved the POW-MIA symbol and on the back he put the words to "A P.O.W.'s Prayer" written by Robert Shamwell, who was in the prison camp with me. The monument is over six feet tall--one foot taller than I am. I don't know how many tons it weighs. The cemetery furnished the ground, Charles furnished the stone, and I paid for the shipping charges. It is the only monument in Macon dedicated solely to POW/MIAs. When I first saw it, I found out that on the bottom of the memorial Charles had put the words, "In honor of William D. Freeman, former POW in Korea." When I called and told him that I had not expected him to do that, he said that he had paid for it, so he could put what he wanted to on it. Nowadays such a large monument would probably cost over $50,000.
I am to be buried behind that monument when I die and the cemetery people said they would put up a memorial stone for me. Although I am now 84 years old, I don't plan on using the plot anytime soon. I asked the Lord to let me live to be 100 years old. If I eat right and take care of myself, I think I can make it.
Koreans here in Georgia honor Korean War veterans. They look at us as their great heroes who saved them from communism. This past Christmas I was asked to participate in one of their celebrations. It was a huge thing with the mayor, city councilmen, the Korean consul, dignitaries, congressman, etc. in attendance. When they started introducing people, they introduced me as a former Korean War POW. I thought the roof would come down with applause. The Koreans bowed to me and were so happy that a former POW was there to celebrate with them.
I have a lot of good feelings about South Koreans, but three times I have turned down a free trip to Korea. I have no desire to go back. Thanks, but no thanks. My health won't let me do it. Since I am diabetic, have heart problems, and would have to stay on a plane from California to Korea for 17 hours, I don't think I could do it. I need the good medical care that I get around here. It is best that I stay at home. I don't like to fly today anyway. I don't like to be patted down and all that because I had that as a POW. If I can't drive, I'm not going.
I absolutely decided in that prison camp that I would not ever--not EVER have anything to do with segregation because of someone's color. I thought it was wrong then and I think it is wrong today. When I hear people talk disrespectful about blacks I say, "Those people have a soul just like we do. They need good transportation and good care just like we do." I think that down here in Georgia we are actually more tolerant than some of the Northerners about the blacks. I've got a lot of good black neighbors here.
Several years ago I went to a POW reunion and ran into a couple of black fellows. I asked them if they knew a guy named Gidrey. They said, "Yes, he's with the post office at New Orleans." I told them, "Tell him Willie took his advice. I went back and got my GED and I want to give him thanks." I now have a certificate from the University of Ohio in food technology. They took students from all over the USA and sent us to Ohio for training in food technology. We did a year's course in six weeks. Kids only go to school one hour a day these days. No wonder it takes them so long to get out of college! Gidrey has since died.
I haven't talked too much about Korea with my kids, but one time my grandchildren and I went to the museum to see the stuff that I had on display there. One of my grandsons asked me, "Big Granddaddy, did you ever try to escape?" He was only seven years old at the time and I was amazed that he even knew what the word "escape" meant. Kids are so smart nowadays.
The Andersonville POW Museum has created a new traveling exhibit that will be in operation in Spring of 2013. They plan to travel all over the USA with it and have a former POW at each stop. The first stop is to be in Statesboro, Georgia, and I am honored that they have chosen me to be their speaker.
I have no regrets that I went to Korea. At the time I went over there I didn't think I should go because I had a family, but if I was young enough, I would go back again.
© 2012 William D. Freeman all rights reserved
Courtesy of Fred P. Frankville
Page published Sept. 23, 2012