Date: Thu, 11 Nov 1999 13:35:10 -0500
FOR POWs, KOREA WAS NOT AMERICA'S
Scripps Howard News Service
By MICHAEL HEDGES
Scripps Howard News Service
The Korean War is often described as
America's "forgotten war," but the
intense emotion with which many former prisoners of war
remember the misery, terror and despair they suffered
in that conflict almost a half-century ago belies that
Wilbert "Shorty" Estabrook of
Murietta, Calif., hasn't forgotten the weight of
the bodies that he and other POWs were forced to carry
during a North Korean death march in which scores of
American prisoners died.
And Gene Bleuer of Rock Island, Ill.,
has a vivid recollection of Chinese guards lining up
groups of POWs and staging mock executions with
unloaded guns,,then, about once a week, loading the
guns and killing several prisoners.
Nor have those whose family members
vanished during the war, 8,200 Americans still listed
as missing in action in Korea, forgotten.
John Zimmerlee, of Hapeville, Ga.,
hopes the government will eventually release
information providing clues to the fate of his father,
John Henry Zimmerlee, whose B-26 was lost over North
Korea in March 1952.
And Vincent Krepps of Towson, Md.,
searches the Internet for details about the death in
captivity of his twin brother Richard.
But apart from their circle of friends,
family and wartime companions, many Korean-era POWs and
MIA relatives feel they were forgotten, or, more
accurately, ignored, after the unpopular, inconclusive
"Korean POWs as a whole are more
bitter than the Vietnam group," said Alan Marsh,
cultural resources specialist at the government's
National Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, Ga.
"A big part of that is that they came back and
found that people just wanted to forget the
Marsh, who has participated in a
project to record hundreds of oral histories of
American POWs, going back to World War I, said,
"It is not that they have to be known as heroes.
They just want people to know what they went
What they went through was
The official death rate of the 7,140
Americans captured in the Korean War is roughly 40
percent. More than 2,700 POWs are known to have died in
captivity. That mortality rate is higher than for any
group this century, except perhaps Americans held by
the Japanese during World War II.
Torture and attempted brainwashing was
common among POWs in North Korea.. Even deadlier was
neglect of their dietary and medical needs.
And when they were released, the POWs
were not embraced by a grateful nation.
Estabrook, who had survived more than
37 months in captivity, enduring a brutal death march,
witnessing executions and seeing well over half those
captured with him die _ recalled that the indifferent
treatment of POWs began soon after their release in
They were segregated behind a rope
barrier from other soldiers on a troop ship returning
to San Francisco, said Estabrook, 69. "The
attitude of the guys who weren't prisoner was,
'While you guys were sunning yourself up on the
Yalu River, we did the heavy fighting,"' he
said. After one of the former POWs started "a
small riot," the rope barrier came down, Estabrook
But the sense of isolation and
alienation persisted. "There was this
'Communist thing' hanging over us,"
Estabrook said. "A lot of people were talking
about collaborating with the enemy and so on. Mostly,
people just didn't seem to care."
"The Korean war POW experience,
especially early in the war, was a
slaughterhouse," said Laurence Jolidon, whose
book, "Last Seen Alive," explored the issue
of American POWs left behind in Korea after the war.
"The cruelty was astounding. If you survived a
death march to get to a camp, there was nothing there _
no food, no medicine, no clothing."
Given the conditions, Jolidon said,
much of the criticism of Korean POWs springs from
"ignorance." He said, "Most of them did
the best they could to serve honorably and
Of the 7,140 American POWs, 21 agreed
to stay behind in North Korea or China. Others signed
statements falsely confessing to war crimes such as
using germ warfare on the Chinese. These statements,
according to experts, were usually elicited by various
forms of physical and psychological abuse, ranging from
beatings and threats of executions to denial of sleep,
food and heat.
"In those days people didn't
pay any attention to whether it was done under
duress," Estabrook said.
Korean POW experts noted that, as a
group, those taken captive in the war were much younger
and, in most cases, less well trained than Vietnam War
POWs. The North Koreans and, later, Chinese often
segregated officers from enlisted men, a tactic that
broke down cohesion and discipline among the
One of the enduring mysteries of the
war that still haunts many of the ex-POWs as well as
the families of the missing revolves around whether
some POWs were left behind after the war to be taken
involuntarily to China or Russia.
Bleuer, 70, said that when he and 13
companions were released by the Chinese in the spring
of 1951, scores of men in his outfit, B Company, 5th
Regimental Combat Team, attached to the 24th Infantry,
were still in Chinese hands and in relatively good
"No one else (from his unit) ever
got out, as far as I know," he said. "They
have not been heard of again."
Retired Sgt. 1st Class George Matta, a
veteran of three wars, told his son George Jr. about
POWs being loaded in Russian trucks which he believed
took them against their will to the USSR or China.
"He definitely knew of people who were alive and
in good shape when he was released who never came
out," Matta Jr. said.
"My best estimate is that at the
end of hostilities, at least 2,000 of the 8,200 MIAs
were still alive and in enemy hands," said
Jolidon, the author. "Their fate we don't
Larry Greer, a spokesman for the
Pentagon's Department of Prisoner of War and
Missing Personnel Office, said, "What we have are
tantalizing reports (of POWs still alive). But so far
these reports are not supported by tangible evidence.
It doesn't mean they are not true ... but we cannot
corroborate with evidence that there were Americans
alive in Russia after the war."
Zimmerlee, who was not quite 3 years
old in March 1952 when his father disappeared while on
a reconnaissance mission, is reconciled to his
father's death, though "I always had the
hope" of a miraculous return.
But he isn't satisfied with the
government's insistence on still holding many
records about the war secret.
"We know it is going to be
embarrassing when the records are opened. Some of the
decisions made by our leaders were asinine," he
said. "But it is time to release everything they
have. Get it over with."
Many Korean War-era veterans are
increasingly turning to the Internet in an effort to
answer questions that have dogged them for nearly half
One such site is the Korean War
Project, run by Hal and Ted Barker of Dallas, brothers
whose father Edward was awarded the Silver Star as a
Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Korea. The Web site
(www.Koreanwar.org ) serves as a meeting place for
Korean-era POWs, relatives of MIAs and others.
Ted Barker said the project was
designed to give Korean vets a place to feel at home.
"The fellows were shunned after the war, and many
of them have been very quiet about their experiences
ever since," he said.
He said that since the opening of the
Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1995,
"more and more of the guys from Korea have been
coming out, looking for their buddies."
Among those who made a connection with
the past through the Internet was Vincent Krepps of
Towson, Md. The editor of a newsletter for former
Korean POWs called "The Graybeards," Krepps
has written movingly of his experiences as a
19-year-old in Korea in 1950.
Now 67, Krepps won a Silver Star for
his actions during fighting near the Naktong River. But
shortly after that, his twin brother Richard, who had
joined the Army with him, was listed as missing,
presumably a prisoner of the Chinese. For months, the
family agonized over Richard's fate. Then, in early
1951, a relative spotted him in a photo of POWs that
the Chinese released as propaganda.
When the Korean POWs were released,
however, Richard Krepps was not among them. All the
family ever heard from the U.S. government was a note
that the Chinese had "unofficially" listed
him as having died in captivity in June 1951.
In 1998, the daughter of a Nevada man,
Ronald Lovejoy, came across Krepps' Internet
postings searching for news of his brother. Lovejoy had
been with Richard Krepps as he wasted away and died and
had held on to a photo from his wallet that he gave to
Vincent during an emotional meeting in July.
Questions were answered, but the pain
remained. "I think of my brother every day,"
Krepps has written. "Sometimes late at night
Richard visits me in a dream, the two of us playing
baseball as kids, or driving together with the wind
whipping our hair, or sitting on sandbags in Korea,
talking long into the night."
(Michael Hedges is a reporter for
Scripps Howard News Service) AP-NY-11-04-99 1749EST
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