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Saturday, November 12, 2011

My Dad the Veteran

Last year I had the opportunity to sit with my dad and learn more about when he was a Korean War MIA-POW, on the internet. My dad doesn't use computers, but he was very interested when I offered to look up things about his POW experience online. "See if you can find out anything about my Master Sgt. Francis Mcdonnell," he asked. We found an article in the Larchmont Gazette titled: Rediscovering a Larchmont Hero: What Happened to Master Sgt. Francis J. MacDonnell In Korea 50 Years Ago?

Because of the article I learned so much more about his imprisonment experience from his moment of capture near Uijonbu. Their arrival at the prison camp, and release from Pyoktong which spanned January 1, 1951 - August 6, 1953 are documented in the article. For three months his family didn't know what had become of him. Finally they received what can only be described as a propaganda letter assuring them he was being well cared for by his Chinese captors when in reality his fellow soldiers were dying of malnutrition, lack of heat and no medical treatment for their injuries and illnesses.

His unit, Company C of the 19th Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, was abandoned by Companies A and B when 10,000 Chinese soldiers arrived leaving approximately 100 American soldiers in Company C (some wounded) to protect the retreat of Companies A and B by facing the enemy soldiers on their own.

After surrendering, those who were injured and couldn't walk were executed and those who could walk were forced to march for weeks in the dead of winter. This would be a hardship in the best of circumstances. Making it worse was theirs was one of several infantry divisions that had not yet received their winter gear.

During my dad's imprisonment as an MIA POW he said 1500 soldiers died in Camp 5. Some from starvation, others from illness and injury. The Larchmont Gazette article says that "We lived in mud huts ... 10 to 12 in an 8 by 10 foot room."  And "temperatures averaged well below zero."

Throughout my entire childhood my dad never spoke about his POW experience. It wasn't until decades later after attending a POW reunion that he began to open up about what he'd experienced. I have to say I wish he'd told us sooner. I wish I'd known the sacrifices he had endured because it would have made me appreciate him more when I was growing up. It also would have made me admire him all the more because despite having plenty of reasons to become racist by disliking North Korean or Chinese people, he raised me to believe that to discriminate is wrong and that everyone deserves your friendship and respect simply because they are fellow human beings.

Upon his return to the U.S. he faced discrimination because he looked "Asian" and we (the U.S.) had been fighting the North Koreans and Chinese. He once told me the story about how after his release he wasn't able to find an apartment to live in. He would walk by a building on his way to work each day and there was always a vacancy sign up. But when he'd knock on the door and inquire he was always told the room had been rented. He tried reaching out for help at the VA but he was pretty much on his own, forced to live in a cheap motel until, eventually, he was able to rent a place of his own.

My dad last year laughing at my mom trying to avoid having her picture taken. LOL

I look back and realize that I have so much to appreciate on Veterans Day. That my dad survived his war experience is one. That he didn't become cynical or racist are two more. And that despite the hardships of re-assimilation he persevered. I think my tenacity comes from him.

For those who died in combat and those who lived to tell their stories I feel I owe them an immense amount of gratitude that I can only express through appreciation because their physical and emotional sacrifices can never, truly, be repaid.

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