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A POW Corpsman explains

Part Of  Bert '53  History

Part of the cost of South Korea's freedom

March, 1995
TO: General Robert Barrow
FROM: Billy Rivers Penn, M.D.

At your suggestion, I am writing down my experiences as a prisoner of war during the Korean conflict. Maybe it is something I should have done long ago. I don't know. I do hope that it will help the younger people in our country to appreciate the sacrifices made by so many to insure their future. The young ones I see appear to have no idea of what went on, or what is going on, in this world.

My tour of duty as a hospital corpsman attached to the Fleet Marine Force started off on a rather ominous date.

The fifty of us from Pendleton Marine Base arrived in Korea on Friday the 13th in February of 1953. Even though my tenure in Korea, North and South, was short, compared to some of the experiences of the Vietnam POW's, it seemed like a lifetime on occasion. I think maybe the Vietnam POW's were a little more prepared than we were then. As you know, the Chinese and North Koreans had never heard of the Geneva Convention.

I believe that it was the (Republican) Senator from Massachusetts - Margaret Chase Smith - who had gotten the law passed that you could not put fresh troops on the MLR until they had been in the country for several weeks. After landing in Seoul, they were transferring us at night to a rest area, which was approximately three miles behind our MLR. They gave each one of us an empty M1 to carry up there, however, I found a clip of ammunition and took it with me. On the way up with about three of us in a truck, enemy mortar fire was really getting close, and the truck driver told us to get out and get away from the truck.

I started running; I guess I ran a hundred yards or so , and after the mortar shells stopped, they started calling my name, and when the driver realized where I was, he told me not to move. It seems that I had run out into the middle of a mine field, and they had to get the engineers to come and get me. I was really starting off in good fashion.

Our main jobs for the first two or three weeks were patrols between the rest areas and our MLR's. There were a lot of artillery shells day and night. Finally, we moved up to our MLR to replace a company on the MLR when that company pulled a daylight raid on a hilltop called Ungok. They suffered a ninety-percent casualty rate.

The first casualty that I took care of was Geronimo, an American Indian. It seemed like all American Indians were nick-named either Cochise or Geronimo. Our company had to go out that night after the daylight raid to pick up dropped equipment that the Marines had left. We went out again the next night, further up the hill, and in a Chinese machine gun bunker I found the Korean dolls that I now have.

We stayed on the MLR because the other company had such a high casualty rate. We made two patrols at night, and I was the only corpsman, so therefore, I had the honor of going on both patrols.

On one patrol we were ambushed on the way back; I had one bad casualty that I was trying to drag back when I ran into some Chinese, and the casualty and I laid in a ditch that night for a long time. After the Chinese left I heard Roscoe Woodard calling for me. He had come back for us. Thank God for Woody!

Woody and I had long talks about home. He was from Lucedale, Mississippi. I was from McComb, Mississippi. We talked about home, families and the Corps. It seems that Woody already had a couple of Purple Hearts. He had been wounded twice before, was in the hospital for three months, and elected to stay in Korea rather than go stateside.

Finally, I was attached to the 5th Marines, 3rd Battalion, "H" Company. One afternoon we got word that a corpsman was needed on Vegas. I volunteered to go.

We had three outposts between our MLR and the Chinese MLR - Reno, Vegas and Carson. They were so named because they felt it was such a gamble to be out there. I knew that Woody was already out there as a machine gunner.

On the way out, a lot of incoming mortar and big stuff was hitting close. How could they see us? We were on the back side of a tall hill. Incoming was getting heavier when we got to the trenches on Vegas. I went straight to the command bunker when the artillery really intensified. I was in the bunker when I could hear somebody calling for a corpsman. I was taking care of a Marine when two Chinese jumped on me in the trench.

They were like ants all over us. One stuck a bayonet through my left leg above the ankle, and I couldn't move; he couldn't get the bayonet out, and I saw his finger on the trigger and his gun clicked. They had taught us that if you ever got a bayonet in somebody and you couldn't get out, to fire the rifle, and the recoil would help pull it out. I knew I was about to lose a foot. He started to cock his rifle with the bolt action when I got my .45 and shot him in the head, and it moved him about three feet down the trench.

I was an expert with a .45. At boot camp they kept trying to get me to stay on with the Marine pistol team. Thoughts of that have gone through my mind since that time!

The Chinese are so small, they look like ants with a 10" waist. They were all over us. They had run up the hill with their own artillery still firing. I was able to remove the bayonet and rifle still in my leg and started pulling the Marine into the command bunker. I was hit in the left knee superficially with shrapnel, took a shot by burp gun in the right shoulder, a through and through wound. I didn't really know about the shoulder until later when I saw how much blood I had lost.

A bayonet in the right lower back glanced off my flak jacket. It barely scratch my skin, but it scared the devil out of me. As I turned, my elbow caught him in the throat, he fell, and I jumped on him. The adrenaline was flowing so I'm not sure about him, but I hit him so many times he did not move after I got up.

This is very difficult to write. They were all over us. I picked up an entrenching tool and started swinging. and hit one in the neck, and the way his body was shaking on the ground I thought I had decapitated him. I had a flash back of wringing a chicken's neck at home. Dead Chinese were all over.

Our machine gunners and Marines had really done a job on the first wave of Chinese. I had been told that the first wave of Chinese had the weapons and that most of the second wave did not have weapons. They were supposed to get their weapons from the fallen first wave. Everyone was in hand-to-hand combat. I saw Woody standing outside his machine gun bunker - swinging his M2 like a baseball bat. Trying to get another Marine back to the command bunker, I was jumped again by a Chinese and I beat him unconscious with a rock.

When I started out of the command bunker again (the door was only about four feet tall), as I stooped to get out I was hit by a rifle butt on my helmet. Reflectively, I raised my .45 and when it went off it was on the tip of his nose. I'll never forget the expression on his face as the .45 went off, or the feeling I had seeing what power the .45 had at point blank range. I backed into the command bunker seeing what looked like a thousand Chinese over Vegas, however, the whole outpost probably wouldn't hold that many. Just as I squatted behind a 12 X 12 support, a sachel charge came in the door and all I remember is a big flash of white light. I had put all my eggs in one basket and they blew up my basket.

I don't know how long we were buried. It was dusk when we were hit, and dark, I think when the Chinese dug us out. I was blinded at the time and could only see blurs of light. I could not move. The 12 X 12 was across my chest, and one was across my helmet. I was probably an hour after I woke up that the Chinese started digging us out. When they did get me out of the bunker - what was left of it - they put a bandage around my eyes. I don't know if it was a blindfold or a bandage, and they started pushing and shoving me. There was still lots of artillery all around. We went approximately 300 yards and went into a tunnel; then I realized they had probably tunneled up through our out-wire. The tunnel was about four feet tall and three feet wide. I was tripping all over bodies in the tunnel; I don't know if they were Chinese or Americans. The tunnel was probably 100 yards long.

When we came out we were in a large trench. As I was sitting there resting, I could feel tank tracks in the trench. That was a big trench! They put me in a truck with four or five wounded Marines or GI's and we were driven for a long way to a small area with several huts. We were put in this place for two or three days. No food or water. Cold as it could be. One Marine, Sammy Armstrong, probably 18 years old, had a bad arm wound. I thought he was really bleeding one night; I couldn't see. It was dark. I still had my bandage on. When I checked him I could smell gangrene. I tried to rouse the guards and they hit me, but they took Sammy off, and when I saw him during the exchange of prisoners of war, he was absent an arm but otherwise in good shape.

We were walked for approximately one day and came across a wounded Army man from west Virginia. He could not walk, I could not see, so we made a good pair. I carried him on my back and he told me where to walk. We came to what was later found to be an old abandoned mine; I think they called it camp #10, way up in the mountains. Another Geronimo gave me a bath and washed my clothes in a stream. About ten of us were in a small room.

My presence really confused the Chinese. I was in Marine clothes with Navy insignias on my shirt. I think they thought that I was a forward observer for the artillery of the big ships sitting out there shelling them all the time. So I was in isolation for a long time. Name, rank and serial number didn't seem to impress them. They had never heard of the Geneva Convention. For me the brain washing really started then.

After a few rifle butts to the head and body, I told them I was from Mississippi, had a mother, father and two brothers. I was accused of germ warfare. I didn't know what on earth they were talking about. Then the bad/good cop routine started. After about four days of no sleep, being kicked and hit with rifles. and so forth, you learn to fake unconsciousness after the first rifle butt to your head or ribs. . . . like Pavlav's dogs. Food was a very small handful of rice daily. Then, I had 15 to 16 days of fake firing squads.

They would go through "ready", "aim", "fire", then "click". At that time I was hoping that they would kill me. That takes a lot out of you. Once or twice they would send a live round close to my head into the rock wall behind me to get my attention. We had an interrogator, Chinese, who graduated form the University of Illinois, or Chicago, and had a masters in Sociology. Wow! We named him "blood on hands" because he kept reminding us we had Chinese blood on our hands. He informed us that we had killed 5,000 Chinese. . . .the first indication that we had done well.

He kept trying to get me to sign the germ warfare papers, inform him of our battle strength and so forth, plus tell him which division we were from. Once again, I think they thought I was an FO for the artillery strikes. One time after a firing squad, he told me that the International Red Cross had informed him that my mother, father and brother were killed in a car wreck. I was wondering how the IRC knew I was there. I asked him about my sister. He said that she was also killed. I had no sister. By that time I was pretty mad. I informed him that he was lying. . . . I had no sister. He hit me and called in some guards. They held me down and pulled my fingernail from my ring finger with pliers. It had been injured earlier. It never grew back. It was a constant, daily, reminder of my captivity. Nothing can be done to correct the nail bed.

On what I supposed was Easter, they gave all of us a dyed egg. Later on, we learned from one of the cooks, an Australian, that Stalin had died. I guess we thought it was like the old wild west. If the Indian Chief were killed, the Indians would stop fighting. We were so happy in a quiet way. We found out there were some Cuban POW's there also. We had two Australians in our hut; one was a cook. By the grace of God, I had a tube of ophthalmic ointment in my top pocket which I kept putting in my right eye. Finally, the eyesight on the left returned.

The wounds on my leg, knee and shoulder were healing. The Australian cook kept me with some boiled water. I kept pouring the boiled water on all my wounds to remove the exudate. Thank God for the 23rd Psalm in my Bible. . . .my mother had given me one with a steel case cover, inscribed with "May this keep you safe from harm".

One day they loaded us on a truck and we headed out. There were no bombing runs by allied planes or artillery. We noticed in the morning that the sun was on our left, which meant we were headed south. Still no noise of war going on. We were really headed south? We arrived in Kaesong, and were held in an old Buddhist temple, full of artillery and machine gun holes. I met other POW's. We were given clean bandages, Chinese clothing and tennis shoes, none of which fit. We were told we were part of Operation Little Switch, an exchange of sick and wounded POW's.

Most were very dumbfounded, depressed, and there was not much talking. Most had very hollow looking faces. This is where I ran across Sammy Armstrong again. Glad he made it, but sorry he lost his arm - he was so young. Of course, I was an "old 20 year old" myself. My name was finally called. I was loaded on the truck and headed for Panmunjom. The first Americans we saw in uniform, we all cheered and cried. We were taken to Freedom Village. The first nurse I saw was a Lieutenant in the Army. I can't remember her name, but boy, was she beautiful. She took the bandage from my right eye and she almost passed out. I realized then that it must be pretty bad.

A lot of pictures were taken. I ran into a corpsman, Bobby from Tennessee. I can't remember his name, but we were in Corps School together. He told me about the high casualty rate on Reno, Vegas and Carson. Woody and most others were killed. They had already had a memorial service for me.

From that day until now, I still wonder, "why me?" The same question you had, General, when you, your Lieutenant, and radioman were standing together and a mortar round dropped in and they were killed and you were not injured.

You know, three weeks after reaching home, I was back at work in a Navy Hospital in Pensacola. I had three surgeries on my right eye and a lot of "sand papering" done on my face trying to remove some of the superficial shrapnel. Nobody talked about their experiences then. My family never did. They were told not to bring it up, and maybe I would forget it. Other than my wife, Nancy, the only two people that I have ever discussed it with are you and Frank McLavy, combat men. I have all the symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome. Especially nightmares - I still have some every night. It's worse this time of year because 42 years ago this month, in March, is when my tour of duty in North Korea started.

Recently a "D-Day" TV program convinced me that people should know about this. Like the holocaust, people, especially the young generation, should not forget what people have done to give us a world to live on and a country to live in.

A lot of people have given parts of their hearts, souls, and bodies all over the world for us to have the freedom and privileges we have. Except for my wife, Nancy, I have never told my family anything Walter Cronkite said that when he went over on the QE2 with all the veterans for the D-Day ceremonies that they discovered something together. The reason they never talked is that they all have guilty consciences. They came home and the others did not. I don't know if all of this will be therapeutic or not. I hope so, but mainly I owe a piece of my heart to all the men who left it in Korea. They are, not were, but are, a great group of men who don't want to be forgotten.

Korean police action has been called a forgotten war. It's time for remembrance and respect. God is good, and has a sense of humor. I promised myself I would never eat rice again and would never treat a Chinese patient. So what happens? After my B.S. at L.S.U., Medical School in Mississippi, internship and OB-GYN residency at Tennessee, I move to Louisiana, where they put rice in, and on, everything. And during my first year of practice, I delivered 10 Chinese babies.

Meeting and talking to you, General, was an enlightening and gratifying experience. Maybe when we get to heaven it will be written on the big blackboard the answer "why me?" My experience with the Corps makes me very proud - proud to wear the pogey rope that the 5th Marines gave us in World War I, and proud to be part of the Semper Fi Society. I have rambled and this is not in exactly chronological order, but I hope that this will help the youth of our country to love, respect and honor the legacy we have left them.

When I see the problem in North Korea today, and the way the modern Americans believe in honoring the North Korean officials, it scares me. Those people speak with forked tongues and do not tell the truth. Life is still the cheapest commodity on the market over there. Even today, if they called me, I'd go back to serve.

In your memoirs, report, or papers that you are preparing, please feel free to use any portion of my story that you wish. I thank you for encouraging me to do this. Maybe my feelings have been selfish in the past for not wanting to talk about what happened to me, but now I feel I can't let my fallen comrades down.

I know God has forgiven me. I only wish that I could forgive myself. I have been close to death several times in my life, but my faith in God has always brought me through. Thank God for children and grandchildren. It is God's indication that he wants us and this world to continue. It is as though the circle of life is complete. I have answered a lot of letters from all over the country asking if I knew anything about their sons, husbands, or brothers that were still listed as MIA's at the time of my return home. I pray fro them all, and hold them in my heart.

Thank you again, Billy Penn


General Robert Barrow USMC, retired past commandant of USMC encouraged me to write the manuscript. He wanted to include some of it in his writings or memoires. General Barrow is one of the greatest Americans I have ever met. During World War II he parachuted into North China to teach gorilla warfare to the Chinese versus Japan. In Korea he helped lead the invasion into Inchon and in the "Frozen Chosin" he received the Navy Cross. In Vietnam he distinguished himself so many times; he was made Commandant of the CORPS. He was a "MUSTANG"-(He came up through the ranks). In Marine history books, half of the indices include his name. The manuscript is now in the Archives of Marine History in Washington, D.C. This addendum is not part of the manuscript. I cleaned it up some because of my children, but they are older now, and I think all of you as physicians and friends can handle this addendum.

About 1/2 down Page 4:

"In hand-to-hand combat"-- (A Chinese and I were "involved". He had me on the ground with a bayonet over his head driving it toward me. I reached up and gouged out both of his eyes as we rolled over. I remember seeing him running around screaming.

When I got back to the command bunker with another wounded Marine, one of the Chinaman' s eyes was still in my hand.

That is probably the reason in all of "daily" nightmares I always see eyes. Like the portrait on the wall of a museum, the eyes seem to follow you around the room. From 1955-1957 at LSU I scrubbed and assisted Dr. Paul Marks, an ophthalmologist, every Wednesday. Even with a steel cup over an enucleated eye, it seemed to be looking at me.

This is "stuff" that will never be in textbooks, history books, etc., but I feel all of our younger people should know that "FREEDOM IS NOT FREE".

This is not for sympathy--maybe prayers won't hurt. I just want to share a part of my life with you--a part that will not go away nor get better.

The logo from the EXPOW and MIA Organization is so apropos:

"For those returned, thank you, God
For those killed, glory forever,God
For those still missing, please God."

Thanks, Billy Penn


Page 6, Line 6 "So, I was in isolation for a long time." My isolation domain was a hole in the ground 5-1/2' long, 3' wide and 4' deep with several 2"x12" boards about 1" apart covering the opening. This turned out to be the camp's latrine. My uniform at that time was a T -shirt, fatigue pants, no shoes nor socks. This is where they retrieved me for the firing squads. It was cold. My feet, toes and fingers were black, but I never lost any toes, fingers, nose or ears. Even today, when my feet get cold, everything tingles and hurts.

The song "Hand on my Shoulder" was so evident and alive then, long before it was written. The camp was high in the mountains, so no barbed wire could be used. They would hit our ankles with rifle butts, which caused so much swelling we could not walk very far . There was a young Marine with a bad wound in our camp, who had a tattoo of an American Flag over his right deltoid muscle. There was a tear on his shirt over the tattoo. He would unveil that flag to everyone-a beautiful site -we even said the Pledge of Allegiance to our Flag.

The Chinese beat us every time they caught us with our flag. Finally, they took him with me to the firing squad routine, tied his hands behind him, put him on his knees, put a gun to the base of his skull and killed him 3 feet from me. God, rest his soul!

B.R. Penn

(The original and the addendum quoted, with verbal permission, in its entirety April 3, 2001)

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