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Sixty Years of Freedom

On the eve of their last official gathering, Korean War ex-POWs reflect on their time in captivity – and the lives they built at home.


On July 27, the 61st anniversary of the armistice that ended full-scale hostilities and paved the way for their release, ex-POWs of the Korean War will gather for what’s likely to be their final reunion in Louisville, Ky.

They first met in the city in 1976.

“It began with what I guess you would call loneliness,” says Bill Norwood, the group’s founder and president. “I needed to talk to some of these guys. For one thing, there’s a lot of mysteries. The enemy would come in at night, take someone away and you’d never see him again. I needed to know some of this stuff.”

He searched for two years and found 12 former prisoners. One man knew another, that man knew somebody else, and it grew from there.

Numbers are declining as they pass away, but the Korean War Ex-POW Association has members in the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, Turkey, Canada and South Africa.

Last year, 72 men and their families traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 60th anniversary of their release. They attended ceremonies honoring the service of Korean War veterans and remembered the fallen at their national memorial.

But the most personal tributes, the most wrenching reminiscences, happened in huddled groups at dinner tables and in the hotel lobby, where the ex-POWs talked of those who didn’t survive captivity or the marches to prison camps.

“This has been a form of therapy for me,” Norwood says.

Philip O’Brien of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) has attended the group’s reunions since 1996. A senior analyst who specializes in the Korean War, his focus is to gather information on missing U.S. servicemen and, if possible, recover their remains. He’s become like family to the ex-POWs, able to tell them far more about the routes they took and where they stayed than they knew at the time.

Of the 4,500 Americans or so who returned from captivity, O’Brien and DPMO have spoken to about 700, “which is more than half the surviving population … and the bell curve is going to fall off pretty rapidly from here.”

He adds, “I know there are people here I will never see again because they will not live to the next reunion. There’s a certain sadness to it. It’s the greatest generation all over again.”

BILL NORWOOD

For Bill Norwood, enlisting was a matter of economics.

His dad died when he was 12, his mother and two siblings needed support, and the Army made an allotment for dependents. A country boy from east Tennessee, he headed to Fort Jackson, S.C., and then Fort Lewis, Wash., for basic training when he came of age.

“After I got there, I found that’s where I really belonged,” he says. “I had clothes to wear, food to eat, a place to sleep, and I was happy.”
Captivity took all that away.

Assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, Norwood arrived in Korea in September 1950. Though he had a rifleman’s MOS, he was assigned to drive trucks. “I thought, ‘This is a great job, back where there’s no danger,’” he recalls. “That didn’t work out.”

Six months later, on April 25, 1951, Norwood was caught in an ambush. He held on for most of a day, and made it across a rice paddy and into the woods with another soldier. They traveled that night, not even sure if they were headed south. They stopped to rest and woke up to a Chinese bayonet.

“I look at being captured not as an act of heroism or cowardice,” he says. “It’s just an act of ‘Do you want to live another minute? Another hour?’”

For a moment, fear left him. “All of a sudden the surroundings became very quiet. I saw a bright shining light in front of me, and as I walked along, I couldn’t feel the pain. It was so strange. I saw my mother, hanging clothes on the line, smiling and waving at me, and that calmed me. I assumed I’d be killed, and I wasn’t frightened anymore.

“Then I got back to reality, and I realized I was in a world of trouble.”

The march from the 38th Parallel to the camp at Ch’ang-Song took four months and covered hundreds of miles. Along the way, the prisoners’ ranks thinned for lack of food and water.
“If you’ve ever been thirsty – I mean really, really thirsty – it’s the most uncomfortable feeling,” he says. “Hunger kind of goes away, but thirst just keeps increasing.”

Norwood managed to stay on his feet, but once at camp, he grew so ill that guards dispatched him to a hut called the “death house.” There, he put his head between his knees and waited for the end.

Dave Dawson, a fellow Tennessean, saved his life.

“You want to sit here and die?” he told Norwood. “These people don’t care. It’s just a mouth they don’t have to feed. If you’ll help yourself, I’ll help you, but if not, I’m not going to waste my time.”

The camp cook, Dawson brought him charcoal from the bottoms of kitchen pots to help control diarrhea caused by dysentery, and in two weeks, Norwood was up and about.
Together they survived two years as POWs, and when buzz started to build that their release was near, Norwood and Dawson agreed they wouldn’t react when their captors announced the armistice. “We weren’t going to give them the pleasure of seeing us happy,” he says.

They were taken in groups to Freedom Village at the DMZ, and Norwood recalls being there three days – “the longest three days of my life.” At last, on Aug. 15, 1953, his name was called from a roster. He was turned over to U.S. officials, given a shower and sprayed with DDT. He returned to the United States on the same ship that took him to war: the Gen. M.C. Meigs.

His mother had only recently learned he was alive. Shortly after Norwood’s capture, she received a telegram stating that he was missing in action. Nearly two years passed before she learned he was in captivity, from one of the few letters he’d been allowed to write.

Norwood married Elizabeth, the neighbor of a fellow prisoner, and they had a son and daughter. Neither child knew of his POW experience until they were in high school.
For a long time, he didn’t talk much about Korea to anyone. Occasionally it came up during a hunting or fishing trip with Dawson, but the memories were raw even 20 years later.

Once again, Norwood finds himself in thinning ranks. He tells his story now for those who didn’t come home.

“One of my main concerns is keeping alive the memory of those we left behind,” he says. “I fly the POW/MIA flag. I’m often asked, ‘Is Bill flying a pirate flag?’ That really hurts. These were my closest friends and my buddies, and I can’t ignore them. I’ve got to keep their memory alive.”

FRANKLIN "JACK" CHAPMAN

After his release from captivity, Jack Chapman started jotting down names and anything else he could remember about the men at his POW camps. Like so many others, he says he survived because of his fellow prisoners.

“I didn’t want to forget these guys because they helped take care of me,” he says. “I’m really thankful for what
they did.”

After landings at Inchon and Iwon, Chapman’s platoon was assigned to Task Force Drysdale, sent to reinforce the garrison at Hagaru-ri at the southern tip of the Chosin Reservoir. In two days of fighting, he was wounded seven times. A shot to the head knocked him out.

On the evening of Nov. 30, 1950, Chapman regained consciousness. He was in a Korean hut with other troops. They’d been captured by the Chinese.  

A U.S. Marine and British Royal Marine half-carried, half-dragged Chapman on a 19-day march to a temporary camp. On the way, he met Charlie Harrison, a Marine who had been a prisoner of the Japanese for 45 months during World War II.

Harrison asked Chapman how many pairs of socks he was wearing. “Two,” he replied. Harrison told him to keep one pair under his arms, switching every time they stopped.
In a frigid Korean winter, “that saved my feet,” he says.

Chapman paid these kindnesses forward. One man lost his sight, and Chapman led him to the latrine and on work details. Another lost his feet to frostbite, and Chapman helped make wooden carts so he could get around.

Postwar life was rough. The Army offered no help, Chapman failed a re-enlistment exam, and he struggled to keep up with his job.
He felt ashamed. He went to a bar with his uncle and a couple of friends, and the bartender asked where Chapman had been lately. “My uncle says, ‘He was a POW in Korea.’ The bartender says, ‘Oh, he was one of those cowards.’

I thought my uncle was going to go across that bar. We had to get him out of there.”

The Air Force took Chapman, and he served 15 years. He was nearly kicked out for fighting, but a doctor persuaded him to turn his life around. He got an education and worked 21 years as a college police chief in Washington state.

In 1964, Chapman finally asked a doctor about his persistent headaches. An X-ray revealed a bullet in his head. Once it was removed, he felt like a new man.

FRED LIDDELL

When Fred Liddell was young, he dreamed of a long line of people marching and, off to the side, a man watching them from atop a gray horse.

The day Liddell marched into Ch’ang-Song, that’s exactly what he saw. The man on the horse was the commander of all the POW camps.

The journey had been miserable, and Liddell had seen too much death. At the Suan mining camp, he and another sergeant, Obie Wickersham, had buried 36-year-old Pat Arthur, who earned the Silver Star for gallantry at Guadalcanal and was affectionately known as “Pop.” Malaria and malnutrition took Arthur’s life.

Liddell also saw abuse. For trivial offenses, POWs might be put in wooden cages, forced to sit with their legs straight.

On one occasion, Liddell was punished and made to stand against a wall with his arms out. Suddenly, his friend Clarence Young – a U.S. soldier of Chinese descent – was thrown through a door down the hall.

“They stick him right next to me,” Liddell says. “Now I’ve got somebody where I can put my arm down on his head. Finally the guard goes to sleep and I ask Clarence what he got all mad about. He says, ‘I told them the only smart thing my grandma ever did was get the hell out of China.’ They were trying to recruit him to join their army, but he wouldn’t do it.”

Liddell left the Army on Oct. 28, 1953, and returned to his wife and 2-year-old daughter. He went to work for the telephone company in Eugene, Ore., on Nov. 5. When the company offered him stock shares, he recalled how his Chinese captors had lectured POWs on how capitalism was cheating the American people.

“I thought if the Chinese hated Wall Street so much, it must be good,” he says. “Now I’ve got all kinds of shares in AT&T that built up and split and all that. In a lot of ways, the Chinese did me some good.”

In 2009, Liddell and Wickersham were notified that Arthur’s remains had been recovered and identified, thanks in part to a dog tag Liddell hid on the body. Five years ago this month, they traveled to Arlington to finally lay their friend to rest in U.S. soil.

MORE KOREAN WAR POW STORIES

Throughout the month of May, watch the Honor and Remembrance section of the website for more of the Korean War POW stories.

 

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