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EX-POWs RECALL KOREAN HELL

Bill Norwood crawled into the corner of the Korean mud hut, tucked his head between his legs and waited for death.

He was surrendering for the second time. The first time came in the early hours of April 26, 1951, when his company was cut off by thousands of Chinese soldiers just north of Seoul. He fought off bands of Chinese infiltrators all night until his ammunition gave out. Then he gave himself up.

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After several months as a prisoner, Mr. Norwood was wracked with dysentery and beriberi and weakened by malnutrition. His captors moved him into a large hut reserved for the dying. This time, he was ready to give up without a fight.

But he didn't. And last week, he was one of more than 300 ex-Korean War POWs from around the country who gathered at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn for their annual reunion, which winds up today. The Association of Ex-POWs of the Korean War, with 2,000 members, has been meeting every year since 1976.

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The reunions are planned around the week of July 27 -- the anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War. This year, they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the peace that freed them from captivity.

More than 5 million U.S. servicemen fought in the Korean War. More than 33,000 were killed and 103,000 were wounded. More than 7,000 were captured. Of those, fewer than 3,500 came home alive.

At this year's reunion, the survivors visited Arlington National Cemetery, played golf and traveled to Camden Yards for a baseball game.

But mostly they talked, sometimes in quiet one-on-one conversations, sometimes in groups of gray heads huddled in little knots.

They shared the tears, the laughter, the trauma and the horror of their memories. They talked about Death Valley, Camp 5, Boot Hill, the Bridge of No Return and The Big Switch. And they remembered those who never returned.

Saved by the cook

Bill Norwood, a retired warehouse supervisor from Cleveland, Tenn., thought he would be one of those.

"After I had waited for death a couple of days, I heard a voice in this familiar Tennessee twang one morning telling me I was a quitter, that I would be helping the enemy if I died because it would just mean one more mouth they didn't have to feed," Mr. Norwood recalled.

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Dave Dawson, a fellow Tennessean he had met on the long march to the POW camp, had learned of Mr. Norwood's move to the death hut. He delivered a tongue lashing and persuaded Mr. Norwood to keep fighting, this time for survival.

Mr. Dawson also was the camp cook. He brought Mr. Norwood charcoal from the cooking fires to eat to control his diarrhea.

Then he brought him small extra helpings of rice. Within a few weeks, Mr. Norwood left the death hut on his feet -- rather than on a makeshift litter carried by the burial detail.

The capture

The Chinese entered the Korean War in full force in November 1950. On the 8th Army front south of the Yalu River in N. Korea, an onslaught by hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops surprised the 2nd Infantry Division.

Bill Zollenhoffer is a retired Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employee of the first block of North Curley St., Baltimore. He was a medic in Korea with the 82nd Anti-aircraft Battalion, 2nd Division. During the night of Nov. 30, 1950, Chinese troops overran the battery's little convoy on the road south of Kuniri.

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The men scattered. Mr. Zollenhoffer and three others dove into a freshly dug Korean burial hole 300 feet from the road.

The attack was so sudden that wounded men still in trucks and ambulances were left behind.

"As I lay in the hole I could hear the Chinese going up and down the convoy vehicles firing their burp guns," Mr. Zollenhoffer said. "I could hear our wounded begging for mercy. I heard them scream as they died. After about a half-hour, the shooting stopped. So did the screaming."

Near dusk on Dec. 1, while he was still trying to make his way south to the new United Nations line, Mr. Zollenhoffer was captured by the Chinese. "They marched a group of us into this long ditch, which came up to our chest," he said. "The Chinese set up two machine guns pointing toward us. I thought about the screams and cries of mercy I had heard the night before."

For 45 minutes the prisoners stood in the ditch and stared at the machine guns. No one said a word. No one moved. Then an English-speaking Chinese officer appeared and ordered them out of the ditch.

"It seems strange now, but when I stood in that ditch thinking for sure I was going to die, I wasn't scared anymore," Mr. Zollenhoffer said. "Instead, I felt at peace. It was the most peaceful feeling I had in my 37 months in Korea."

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The march

The first test for prisoners of war was the long march across the inhospitable North Korean terrain to POW camps near the Yalu River. For Nicholas Tosques of Dagsboro, Del., that march began on April 25, 1951. He was captured days before he was to be rotated home. They marched only at night to avoid U.N. aircraft. There were no breaks and no food. The men scooped water up from puddles or from the rice paddies that lined the road. Dysentery swept through the ranks.

"Nobody wanted to mess their pants, so initially men would stop by the side of the road and drop their pants to relieve themselves," Mr. Tosques said. "The Chinese shot them. You quickly learned to throw dignity and hygiene aside."

Those who no could longer walk were shot, too. The men still strong enough to stand carried or supported weaker comrades.

After many nights on the road, Mr. Tosques and the hundreds of other POWs in his group came to a bauxite mining camp in a mountainous draw the prisoners would call Death Valley.

"We thought we would get some rest, but our guards herded us together near one of the mining huts," said Mr. Tosques. "We were there to witness another execution."

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Another prisoner, bound, had been made to stand against a hut. He was crying. He had been caught stealing food from a village they had passed through.

"We were all crying, too. He had stolen the food not for himself, but to keep a sick buddy going so he wouldn't be left behind and shot." The next night, the march continued. So did the dying.

The camps

The winter of 1950-51 was the worst time for the POWs then in captivity. The treatment and weather were harsh. Minor infractions brought beatings with rifle butts.

The Chinese had little enough food and medicine for their own troops, let alone for prisoners. A half bowl of rice or millet every other day often led to slow starvation.

Harley Coon of Beaver Creek, Ohio, was a sergeant with the 25th Infantry Division in Korea. He was a prisoner at Camp 5 along the Yalu during that terrible winter.

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"From January 1951 until May, we buried 50 to 100 men a day," he recalled. "At first we carried them up to the top of [the] hill we called Boot Hill, scooped a shallow depression in the snow and covered them up."

As the survivors grew weaker, the burial details didn't have the strength to carry the dead up the hill, Mr. Coon said. So they began a cemetery at the base of the hill. When the spring thaw came, the Yalu rose and carried away the bodies. They were never recovered.

The men used to say their huts had central heating at night. That meant each man kept warm from the body heat of the guys sleeping on each side of him. Mr. Coon recalled the morning he awoke shivering. Looking around, he found out why. The men on each side -- he knew them only as Bruno and Carr -- had died during the night.

The armistice

On July 27, 1953, Steve Barczykowski, now of Wilmington, Del., assembled on the parade ground with 600 other prisoners in Camp 1. He expected nothing more than the daily indoctrination speeches.

But the camp commandant solemnly announced that an armistice had been signed. The war was over. They were going home.

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"Nobody said a word at first," Mr. Barczykowski said. "I think we were afraid to believe it was true. Then the men broke into cheers, shouts, laughter. Everybody had tears in their eyes." It was Operation Big Switch, the swap of prisoners of war between the U.N. forces and the Communists.

For most American POWs, Big Switch came at Panmunjom.

The truck bearing Nick Tosques pulled up in the village of Panmunjom. Mr. Tosques didn't wait for the tailgate to drop. He jumped off the back of the truck, ripping the pants of his already tattered POW uniform.

"I decided to hell with it and started tearing off the rest of the pants," said Mr. Tosques, a retired federal government worker.

As he approached Freedom Bridge, which spanned a small ravine and the negotiated peace line, he saluted the American officers on the other side and requested permission to cross "as is." The officers laughed and motioned him on.

Before crossing the parallel, he turned and in one last act of defiance, threw his stinking, torn pants at his former Chinese captors.

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The feast

On the other side of the 38th Parallel, an American officer approached Harley Coon and asked him what he wanted to eat. He could have anything he wanted.

"I said I wanted three hamburgers, three hot dogs, three glasses of milk and three cups of coffee," Mr. Coon said.

It was something he had dreamed of during 33 months of captivity. But when the meal came, Mr. Coon could only sit and stare. Minutes passed.

"I had this feeling of being totally alienated from my surroundings," said Mr. Coon, today the owner of a tool-manufacturing plant.

"I had adjusted to one kind of world, now I suddenly had to adjust to a different world." From the feast of his dreams, he could only swallow three sips of coffee.

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Aftermath

Years after the war, ex-POW Ralph Butler and his wife, Lorene, were on the floor of a local dance hall. Mr. Butler crumpled to the floor in a seizure. Mrs. Butler, and others, got him into the back of their car, and she drove him home.

She struggled to get him into bed. In a semiconscious rage, he thought she was a Chinese soldier and tried to strangle her.

"I woke up the next morning and Lorene was sitting across the bedroom in a chair looking frightened," Mr. Butler recalled. "I asked her what she was doing over there. She said, 'You tried to kill me last night.' "

Until then, Mr. Butler had been unable to tell his wife much of what had happened to him in Korea.

"I knew then I had to open up, I had to tell her everything," said Mr. Butler, a retired gas station attendant who lives in Wood River, Ill.

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He lost several jobs because of shattered nerves and other problems related to his POW experiences.

"He wasn't easy to live with at first," Mrs. Butler said. "If it weren't for our daughter, . . . I don't know if I could have made it through those times."

Epitaph

A scrap of paper on a bulletin board in the lobby of the Hunt Valley Inn bore this plea:

Did you know?

Sfc. Joseph Blissenbach, 2nd Division, 38th FA Battalion. Captured Nov. 25, 1950. Died in captivity Feb. 1951.

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Please see his wife.

Ellen.


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