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An Oral History of Korean War POWs

by Lewis H. Carlson

Pub Date: April 18th, 2002
ISBN: 0-312-28684-8
Publisher: St. Martin's

From the author of an oral history of POWs in WWII (We Were Each Other’s Prisoners, 1997), a similar volume about American soldiers who endured and survived captivity in Korea, only to return to an unforgiving country obsessed with Communism and its sympathizers.

Carlson interviewed about 50 former prisoners for this informative and moving account of men who a half-century ago raised their hands in surrender and thereby began a nightmarish existence in the hands of their enemies followed by 50 years of opprobrium from the media and an uninformed public. Neither the author nor his subjects can fathom why Korean War POWs have had to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations, the most serious declaring that they cooperated with the enemy at a rate far beyond that of WWII’s “greatest generation.” Carlson dismisses this assertion, blaming its spread on the media, particularly Hollywood and particularly John Frankenheimer’s artistic but misleading film The Manchurian Candidate, which helped popularize the concept of “brainwashing.” Carlson’s narrative begins early in the war with the harrowing story of the Tiger Death March, a 9-day, 100-mile forced march in late October 1950 during which nearly two-thirds of the 845 prisoners died; stragglers were shot, as were the sick and the uncooperative. Carlson chronicles mass murder, torture, unspeakable sanitary and medical conditions. (“To be sent to the camp hospital,” he writes, “was tantamount to a death sentence.”) In general, he lets the veterans speak for themselves, a decision that has mixed results. It is certainly engaging to hear these men defend their actions, but such testimony should be the beginning of historical research, not the end. The result is an incomplete story no less biased than the egregious brainwashing films and news stories the vets justly abhor.

Haunting stories of hell on earth, but more celebrative and admiring than analytical. (15 b&w photos and 2 maps, not seen)