The Barnes & Noble Review
In 1952, after United States troops had been fighting and dying in Korea for nearly two years, Newsweek magazine conducted a reader poll on current events. One of the questions was: "Korea is: (a) What you do after graduation (b) A peninsula off the North China coast (c) A brand of toothpaste." Fifty-three percent of the respondents thought Korea was a brand of toothpaste. Technically a "police action" by the United Nations, in response to a 1950 plea from the government of South Korea to repel invading troops from Communist North Korea, it was for us a three-year war -- never declared by Congress -- in which 36,940 Americans died, including 2,701 of the 7,140 U.S. military and civilian personnel taken prisoner by the North Koreans -- a nearly 40 percent death rate for POWs. Yet the first perceptions one encounters when American POWs from the Korean conflict are mentioned are "brainwashing" and "collaboration" -- not the Tiger Death March, an unjustly neglected ordeal that should rank in our collective consciousness with the Bataan Death March of World War II.
In Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War: An Oral History of Korean War POWs, Lewis H. Carlson uses the most powerful narratives: recollections of former prisoners who endured starvation, freezing temperatures, constant interrogations, and the experience of burying comrades in shallow graves. On their release, they endured more interrogations, indifferent treatment at veterans hospitals, and the unearned stigma of suspected collaboration with the enemy.
Carlson effectively counters this latter charge in the ex-POWs' own words. The author interviewed some 50 Korean War POWs; he lets their plain, direct remembrances show us why their experience should be honored, not demeaned. The shame lies with our government, not with the ex-POWs. One said: "Those Americans interviewing us after we were liberated never seemed to be that interested in our wounds or diseases. They really weren't interested in a damn thing except: did we collaborate?"
Carlson concludes: "There is no satisfactory way to end these stories, because the men themselves have seldom achieved closure." Perhaps those still surviving will find some measure of satisfaction in knowing that a new generation, untainted by McCarthyism, will read their stories now and give them the respect and honor they deserve. (Linda Goetz Holmes)
Linda Goetz Holmes, a Pacific War historian, has written two books about prisoners of the Japanese during World War II. The second, Unjust Enrichment: How Japan's Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs, was published by Stackpole Books in 2001.
Carlson's We Were Each Other's Prisoners was an oral history of WWII POWs; he returns to that form here, offering a well-researched account of the experience of American POWs and a few Western civilians captured by Communist forces during the Korean War. The many first-hand accounts here meld into a chronological narrative via Carlson's annotations and analysis that place reports of atrocities (such as death marches and mass executions) into a historical context. Typical aspects of prisoner-of-war life such as diet, mail as punishment or reward, "guard-baiting" and reprisal are offset by accounts of starvation, indoctrination, brutal executions and collaboration. The testimony's directness is potent: "When they got through shooting, they came around and stepped on everybody and pounded on them with their rifle butts." Postwar effects of incarceration on the former prisoners and their families are detailed; the wives emerge as heroes, pushing their husbands to treatment, enduring their nightmares and working to resocialize them. Carlson wrote the book, he notes, to counter popular misconceptions about Korean War POWs he feels were perpetuated by The Manchurian Candidate book and film (wherein a POW is brainwashed and sent to kill the U.S. president) and other Cold War cultural fallout. While the book is probably too weighted toward testimony to find general readers, buffs and survivors will take it to heart. (Apr. 2) Forecast: The significant percentage of African-American soldiers on the book's cover could broaden its appeal for browsers, but its description of the difficulties faced by soldiers specifically identified as black is limited. An academic marketing campaign targets what will probably be the book's largest audience. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Of the 7,140 Americans who were taken prisoner during the Korean War, about 40 percent died in captivity. Oddly, Korean War prisoners were not treated as heroes; instead, the popular press seemed to regard them at the time, and for some years afterward, as brainwashed turncoats or weaklings. Carlson (We Were Each Other's Prisoners: An Oral History of World War II) here argues that an America affected by the Red Menace and McCarthyism chose to blame the victims. He attempts to correct the misperception by demonstrating that the main causes of POW mortality were starvation, lack of medical treatment, and execution by their captors, using the voices of surviving prisoners as evidence. The narratives of the prisoners themselves are remarkable for their forthrightness and matter-of-fact tone. In many cases, the men's survival, under conditions of extreme privation, torture, and psychological pressure, is nothing short of amazing. This book will fit well into subject collections and should be buttressed with mainstream narrative histories. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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)
"Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War is an incredible book, and a gripping read. I can't recommend this highly enough because it tells us all that we've forgotten and often never knew about our fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers who served in a war that was as chilling and challenging and life-changing as any war anywhere. These men deserve to be heard and we need to hear them as we navigate in these times of our own. Lewis Carlson has done a great deed in letting these men speak for the first time for themselves."Doug Stanton, New York Times bestselling author of In Harm's Way
"Lewis Carlson gives voice to the vital human story from a pivotal American war, through men who first suffered cruelties at the enemy's hands and then abuse from their own society. Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War is a harrowing story, powerfully told, a triumph for truth in the historical fog called Korea."Charles J. Hanley, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and co-author of The Bridge at No Gun Ri
"The most vivid and thorough account of the Korean War POW ever published. An astounding journey through America's worst and most important POW experience."Lieutenant Colonel Elliott Gruner, U.S. Army, Associate Professor of English, USMA, and author of Prisoners of Culture: Representing the Vietnam POW