A few years ago, Pat McGrath Avery and I wrote a book about the Sunchon Tunnel Massacre Survivors. The story behind this book was horrific. In 1950, 250 American POWs were shot in North Korea in and near Sunchon Tunnel. Roughly 30 were still alive when they were found the next day. At the time we wrote the book, we worked with nine.
If you have ever written a book about real people, you know how close to them you feel at the end of the process. They have shared their darkest times with you...in our case, we felt honored by their trust and heartbroken that anyone had to go through what these guys did. While we came to love all of them in different ways...Pat and I had especially tender feelings for two -- Walt Whitcomb and Ed Slater. They had found each other because of a book that Pat had written, "They Came Home:Korean War POWs Tell their Stories" so we were invested in their growing friendship. We each spent many hours with them...trying to understand what made them tick.
Although it's a very long story, here is a summary of Walt and Ed's experience. They didn't know each other as soldiers...only as prisoners. They were captured in the earliest days of the war in South Korea. Stripped of every possession, they were marched for almost 600 miles. They were starved, tortured—and ultimately, after the Inchon Invasion when US Forces were attempting a rescue, they were shot.
Ed was a brawny fellow in his twenties, Walt a tiny teenaged boy. Ed was shot first and thrown out of the train they were in, then Walt. Then another man, who had had his arm blown off, ended up on top of them. In horrible pain, the man on top screamed, "Just kill me, just kill me." The guard bayonetted him. The blade went through his body (killing him), just missed Walt's nose, and scraped Ed's head.
It was October and it was cold. The North Koreans had taken their clothes and shoes. Ed and Walt had both been wounded previously as well. They were exhausted and malnourished. They had been prisoners almost four months at this point. All around them, the guards set the bodies of their friends and comrades on fire.
For an unknown reason, they didn't set fire to the pile of bodies that included Ed and Walt. As the bodies burned around them and lying under the dead one-armed man, Ed and Walt stayed quiet and still.
What they must have been feeling has always been the stuff of my own nightmares. Yet in the morning, finding themselves alive...they got up...rescued Sherman Jones who was critically wounded...and went for help. To me, that has always represented the inexplicable courage it takes to choose life over death in some situations.
Both Walt and Ed have left us now. I cried for them both as if they were my own family. Despite their suffering, they survived to have children and to grow beyond what war did to them.
I made the following recording during a long telephone conversation when Ed was trying to explain to me how it felt to be a POW. I think its important for you all to hear on this Memorial Day...when our thoughts turn to all of those who didn't survive...perhaps some of whom died that night when Ed and Walt lived...