Prisoner of war

-A A +A

    Gary M. Seay, who now lives in the Westlake area, dropped out of high school to join the Army back in the late 1940s. He was looking for adventure, and a chance to make money.

    He ended up stationed in Germany and, while in the Army, corrected the mistake of not finishing high school by completing his GED. When his enlistment was up, his commanding officer tried to get him to reenlist.
    Seay was a pretty good boxer in his day and his commanding officer wanted to keep him around for boxing team competitions with other units. Seay, however, was ready to go back home, near Buchanan.
    When he was discharged in 1950, he thought he was done with the Army, but it didn’t turn out that way. North Korea invaded South Korea at the end of June and Seay was recalled to active duty three months after being discharged.
    He was originally sent to Japan, but volunteered to go to Korea. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
    “They said if I volunteered to go to the front line I’d be back [home] in six months,” he said. “It didn’t work out that way.”
    That was because Seay’s unit was overrun by Chinese troops on Feb. 12, 1951, and he was held as a prisoner of war in North Korea. That was at a POW camp near North Korea’s border with Manchuria. He was there until the armistice that ended the fighting was signed in August, 1953.
    Seay said the Chinese attack came at 10 p.m. and what he described as a “hot fight” ensued. He was a machine gunner with .30 cal. air cooled machine gun and, at one point, he ran out of ammunition.  He and his ammo bearer went to an ammunition truck and grabbed all the ammunition they could carry. The hadn’t gotten far from the truck when it exploded.
    He ran out of ammunition a second time. By that time his ammunition bearer had been killed and “there were Chinese as far as you could see coming at you.”
    Seay surrendered.
    “They just came in on me,” he said. “They wanted to take prisoners, I guess.”
    Some men who surrendered were taken to a ditch, put in the ditch and shot. Seay was put with a group of men who they started marching in the snow and sub-zero cold.
    Seay said that the next day they were marched down a road.
    “There was nothing but bodies for miles,” he said.
    These men had apparently been killed in the fighting. There were dead United Nations soldiers as well as dead Chinese soldiers on the ground.
    “For the first six days there was snow on the ground and all I could eat was snowballs,” he said. “Then they gave me a hand full of beans and I ate those beans raw.”
    Prisoners who fell out on the march were shot or bayonetted, so the men pulled together to help guys who were struggling. One man, a fellow named Ben Evans, later credited Seay and another man for saving his life on the march. Evans related this in a story in the Herald-Leader, a newspaper in South Georgia. Evans had been wounded with shrapnel in his leg. Seay and another man, Harmon Leonard, supported him  — one in front, one in back, and kept him walking.
    In one case, the Chinese took one man’s boots. He was a black soldier named Donald Tinsley. Seay said he doesn’t know why the Chinese took the man’s boots, but the other soldiers helped out. Several gave him an extra pair of socks and Tinsley ended up wearing eight pair of socks. Because they were marching in snow and extreme cold the snow packed onto, and froze the outer layers of socks. The inner layers stayed dry and keep Tinsley’s feet from freezing.
    “I guess it was good we were marching in snow,” Seay said.
    They stopped for some time at one place the men called “Camp Bean.” This is because they were fed bean balls.
    Once, while being moved into a building, Seay apparently wasn’t moving fast enough and one Chinese guard struck him in the back and back of the neck with his rifle butt.
    “I got even with him three or four days later,” Seay said. “Me and a boy from West Virginia threw him over a cliff.”
    The marches were generally at night and this happened during one of those night marches.
    Seay said they were bombed and strafed by American aircraft on a few occasions. This was because POW camps weren’t marked as such and American aviators attacked what appeared to be a concentration of Chinese troops.
    “I tried to escape four times,” Seay said. “The last time I escaped, they lined us up, shot three and told me to tell the rest what would happen if they escaped.”
    The Americans starved during most of the march. They were fed small quantities of sorghum seed and millet. Seay said night blindness was common due to their inadequate diet. There were other health problems too, including dysentery, which killed a number of men. He said that of the 700 men who left “Camp Bean,” only 200 made it to their final destination.
    At their final camp, the men were placed in mud huts, 10 to 12 in each room. Greens were added to their diet and that ended the night blindness problems. The diet remained mostly sorghum and the men were fed twice a day.
    The huts were heated. Seay said wood fires under the floors spread heat through channels. This heated the floor which, in turn heated the hut. In the summer, they could bathe in a creek. In the winter,  they washed with water they brought back to the huts. Toilets were just holes in the ground, outside, with boards across them.
    When men got sick, other guys took care of them. The Chinese had a clinic for the POWs in the camp, but the POWs dubbed it the Death House because most of the guys who went there died.
    “Most of them who went up there were almost dead before they went,” Seay commented. “Very few of them made it.”
    The POWs had to bury their dead. Seay said that when the ground was frozen it was difficult to get enough soil to cover the bodies. Everybody was so weak that sometimes the men on the burial detail died.
    They were issued clothes. The summer uniforms were dark blue and similar to what the Chinese soldiers wore. In the winter they got insulated quilted uniforms and winter hats. He doesn’t remember having gloves or coats but he does remember that the only shoes they got were canvas, something like tennis shoes. That’s what they wore summer and winter.
    During the first 18 months that he was a POW, his family had no idea where he was. He was listed as missing in action. Seay said that during that time, his mother was sure he was still alive.
    “She said she never gave up,” he said. “She said she always had a feeling I was still living.”
    They were finally allowed to write home although Seay said they had to say something nice about their captors in order for the letter to be allowed out. Later, as armistice talks started, the Chinese started treating them better, and feeding them better. By that time Seay weighed only 97 pounds — he weighed 178 when he was captured. He said he could put one hand completely around his upper arm.
    Seay said that the armistice talks went up and down and the POWs could tell how things were going by how the Chinese treated them.
    When an armistice agreement was finally reached, Seay was among a group of 500 men who almost weren’t released. The Chinese had intended to haul them to China to work as slave laborers but some British Red Cross inspectors came to the camp before the Chinese had a chance to move them. Seay said that he heard that some POWs did get hauled off to the Soviet Union, never to be heard from again.
    Seay said that the men were trucked south to Panmunjon where they were turned over to American forces on Aug. 19, 1953.
    After staying in a hospital for a few days to be checked out, Seay and others were sent to California by ship. He recalled the ship’s accommodations as being comfortable, but noted that anything would have seemed comfortable at that point.
    Seay periodically goes blank when talking about what happened to him. He said he was awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars after he was released, but goes blank, staring into the distance, when asked about the details. Most of his memorabilia is gone, lost during moves over the years. He currently has little other than his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, which he treasures.