Sunday, April 17, 2011

Easter, the POW and the Korean War

Last week someone sent me a book online, which I devoured. I've been pondering it off and on all week. It is the story of a young Army officer, a West Point Grad, who became a POW during the first weeks of the Korean War (the last week of July 1950). He quickly realized that this would not be an internment like any he had heard of from the World Wars. This yound man, named Tom, was the ranking officer in this group of POWs, that later became a roving camp.

Tom quickly took leadership of the situation, organizing the other officers under him and getting the men to look out for one another. He constantly advocated for better treatment, more food and medical care for his men. Almost all were wounded. And soon they would all be fighting the affects of starvation and dysentary. The POWs were inhumanely treated, often beaten and even killed by their captors.

In September of 1950 the UN Forces turned the tide and the North Korean Army began its retreat. In an effort to stay in North Korean territory, the guards began to march these POWs from Seoul to Pyongyang over 30 days. It was a death march, as many died from their wounds, starvation and dehydration, or were shot by their captors when they fell behind. Tom made sure that his officers were always in the front, middle and back of the group of some 370 POWs. They encouraged the stragglers to keep on, often carrying the men and, when in front, they worked hard to slow the pace of the march.

I was so struck that in such an inhumane circumstance how caring this group of American soldiers was of one another. Whenever possible, the POWs would bury and say words over each man who died. They were careful to bury them with a record of their name, hometown, and date of death stuck in a bottle. And Tom kept a record of each man who passed. Under his leadership, these men resisted despair and banned together as brothers in the worst of circumstances. What made him feel such a sense of devotion to them?

Of the 370 some men, only 33 survived. Many escaped, but not Tom. Although he had opportunity to do so, he refused to leave "his men". This is their story of their beloved leader, who they called "the Major". Tom was massacred along with the majority of these POWs at the Sunchon Tunnel on October 20, 1950. All 33 claimed they would never have lived had it not been for the Major. The Major was in captivity for a mere 86 hellacious days, yet he changed these men's lives forever. One of his men, when he died at the age of 81, requested to be buried as close to the Major as possible at Arlington.

I also have pondered the loss of Tom to those who loved him. For although I never met Tom, I have "known" him since my childhood. He is my great uncle, the baby brother of my grandmother, Virginia. I have played with his grandchildren and grew up under the distant, but ever watchful and loving eye of his son, John. For his family, it has been a great loss, indeed.

And as I have pondered this story, the details fleshed out of my own familial oral history, I can't help but find my thoughts drifting to the cross. After all, it is Lent. Tom's story of love, sacrifice and death have fleshed out Jesus for me yet again. Sometimes between running kids all over the Lake and doing what must be done, the story of the resurrection seems faint, stale and devoid of emotion. But as I have felt my heart broken for Tom and his men, I have found my heart broken again for my God and his disciples.

He lived an unspeakable death for me. He chose it. He endured it. For me. I hope I never get over it. I hope there will always be things that bring me back to the truth when it begins to pale. There is no greater love story than the Cross of Christ.