WMU News

New book chronicles POWS of 'forgotten war'

Aug. 19, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- As North and South Korea engage in reconciliation talks, the Korean War, a conflict many would just as soon forget, has taken center stage again nearly 50 years after it ended.

But for the 4,000 surviving U.S. prisoners of that war, the inhumane treatment and torture they suffered at the hands of the enemy and the continued mistreatment by their own country once they returned has never left the forefront of their consciousness.

Dr. Lewis Carlson, oral historian and retired Western Michigan history professor, chronicles those prisoners' experiences in his new book "Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War: An Oral History of Korean War POWs." Published by St. Martin's Press, the book tells the stories of Americans held as prisoners during the Korean War--tales that have largely gone untold for more than half a century.

"The Korean War is the forgotten war--American history books rarely mention it at all," Carlson says of the conflict that occurred from 1950 to 1953. "Despite the fact that more than 40 percent of the 7,140 Americans taken prisoner during the Korean War died in captivity, the survivors remain the most maligned victims of all American wars.

"These memoirs should help Americans understand what these prisoners had to endure and will also help dispel many of the myths that have long surrounded these men."

This is Carlson's second book on prisoners of war. His first, "We Were Each Other's Prisoners: An Oral History of World War II and German Prisoners of War," was published in 1997 and explores the POW experience as culled from interviews with more than 150 World War II POWS from the United States and Germany.

Carlson says unlike research conducted for the book on World War II prisoners, interviewing Korean War POWs was more difficult. Using the same method to contact Korean POWS as he did for his earlier book, Carlson sent letters to POWs asking them to respond if they were willing to be interviewed. Fifty percent of the World War II prisoners responded, but only a quarter of the Korean POWs replied. Carlson found that Korean POW survivors don't openly discuss their experiences and are very protective of themselves and other POWs. One prisoner he talked with "grilled me for an hour to see if I could be trusted," Carlson recalls.

In all, Carlson talked to 50 men, including officers and enlisted personnel, and the tapes of those sessions are now housed at the National Prisoner of War Museum at Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia.

Prisoners taken during the first year of the Korean War had the hardest time, with a fatality rate estimated at around 65 percent. Starved, forced to endure "death marches" over hundreds of miles, witnessing roadside executions of those who couldn't keep up, and coping with frostbite, insect infections and chronic dysentery, the POWs who survived "did what they had to do" to make it, says Carlson. After repatriation, many were accused by the U.S. government of collaborating with the enemy and succumbing to brainwashing by the Chinese and North Koreans. This perception was reinforced by accounts in the media and popular culture that painted Korean POWs as coddled and weak-willed.

"Americans didn't understand the war and why we didn't win it," Carlson explains, "so they scapegoated the soldiers and said they were weak and lacked the 'right stuff.' We have to remember that this was during the Cold War and at the height of the McCarthy era."

While there were a few POWS guilty of misconduct and collaboration and 21 prisoners refused repatriation, brainwashing, or "reeducation," efforts by the enemy were a miserable failure.

"One POW told me that you can't starve people and then tell them you have better system and expect them to believe it," Carlson recalls.

In the book, Carlson also explores the experiences of the wives of POWs.

"These women struggled, living with these guys," he says. "The men didn't talk about their experiences at all, and they tended to be very hard on their children. They didn't seek help, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which most suffer from, wasn't even popularized until the 1980s. In addition, the malnutrition and mistreatment they endured as POWs caused many physical problems and illnesses."

After Carlson conducted his first interview for the book, the man's wife asked him if he got what he wanted. When Carlson replied, yes, it had been a good interview, the wife said, "Good, because I will have to cope with the nightmares he is sure to experience in his sleep tonight."

Writing "Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War" was important to Carlson not only for the opportunity to document Korean War POWs' experiences, but also to answer a fundamental question.

"No one can work with former prisoners of war without wondering how he would fare as a POW," says Carlson. "How would one survive the ravages of malnutrition, lack of sufficient clothing in zero temperatures, insect infections, chronic dysentery and the psychological damage that inevitably occurs when losing one's sense of freedom? What allows all of us to be survivors, to cope with indignities and disappointments that too often seem insurmountable?

"There are lessons here for anyone facing unavoidable challenges."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 269 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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