A Lost Friend
Wilbert (Shorty) Estabrook, now 73, lived 37 months in a prison along the scenic Yalu River during the Korean War. Over all, the most devastating facts about his captivity, including the 110-mile long “Death March” in 30 degree below freezing temperature on a snow-covered mountain road, was losing his buddy, Jack Samms. Actually, to Shorty, every soldier left beside the road during the march is Jack. His poem says it all.
I lost my friend along the way
To this place I recall now
I didn’t want to lose him
But I did and don’t know how.
I remember the way he looked at me
As I laid him down to rest
He said to me, “I can’t go on Old Pal,
You’ve seen my very best.
So leave me now and go your way
And when your journey ends
Remember me beside this road
Your buddy, your friend.”
Shorty met Jack at the prisoners’ camp in Pyongyang. They both had been captured in mid-July, 1950, near Taejon--a town 70 miles south of Seoul--a few days apart from one another. They had been beaten at the time of capture, too, and lost their army boots, watches, rings, and wallets to the enemy soldiers. Jack was a “country boy” from Ashland Kentucky, and Shorty was from a potato farm near Oakland, Maine. They both had been in Japan for nearly two years in the U.S. Occupation Army, doing easy duties, before they arrived in Korea, and knew nothing about killing people with real rifles.
Life took a quick turn for them, and now they were prisoners in a school building on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where 735 soldiers and 79 civilians consisting of Catholic religious leaders, diplomats, engineers, businessmen, and families with children all lived in the same building. The communists fed them thin cabbage soup and millet, maize, and a very small amount of rice mixed together. Everyone was hungry even right after a meal, but Jack craved sweets. He’d say, "If I were back in Japan now I would go to the snack bar and get me 2 chocolate Eclaires with the cream on the top and some ice cream to boot.” In Shorty’s account, you could almost taste the Eclaire melting in your mouth just by listening to him. Jack also talked about his home in Kentucky with longing, including his mother’s cooking, until everyone was “crazy with homesickness.”
The injured prisoners suffered the most. Without medical doctors or supplies, their wounds became infected in the sweltering heat and attracted maggots and flies. The un-wounded soldiers helped them walk, but the severely wounded ones had to be carried on makeshift stretchers.
On the train to Pyongyang, the guards wearing red stars on their uniforms had been brutal. Like many other prisoners, Shorty had received a heavy blow on the back of his head, which fractured his skull and knocked him unconscious. Even after a half century, Shorty says, it still gives him a severe migraine headache from time to time. For this wound, he received a Purple Heart Medal at the war’s end.
Through the windows of the school building in Pyongyang, Shorty and Jack watched the U.S. planes dropping bombs nearby. They hoped that their American colleagues would soon find and liberate them from the enemy, but at the same time, they knew what those bombs could do to them.
On September 5th, they boarded a train again, not knowing their destination. They traveled at night to avoid the American bombers, and during the day, the prisoners were forced to leave the train and hide in wooded areas on a hillside until dark, while the severely wounded soldiers remained in the cars.
A week later they arrived in the frontier town Manpo-jin along the Yalu River. An old Japanese army barracks became their home for the following six weeks, where they cooked their own food with the grain, vegetables, and occasional meat provided for them. While here, the guards weren’t as brutal as before. Compared to what they had been accustomed to, their stay in Manpo was most endurable.
But in early October, they were on the move again. By now the UN troops had a successful amphibious landing on Inchon, a port city near the 38th parallel on the west coast, trapping the enemy between two UN Forces-—one group pushing up from the Nakdong river area and the other pressing down from the newly captured Inchon and other cities. The South Korean army and the UN troops had already crossed the 38th parallel weeks earlier and were advancing farther north, and the communists were frantic about hiding the prisoners. After moving twice more, each time farther away from the approaching UN troops, on the last day of October, a new People’s army major took over.
The Lieutenant was tall for a Korean, and with a Genghis-Kahn frown, he displayed much cruelty. “The Tiger” became his nickname. During a nine-day “Death March” along a 110-mile snow-covered mountain terrain, the Tiger destroyed 98 lives, including two elderly women--a Catholic nun and the wife of a Russian diplomat--for not walking fast enough for him. The prisoners who couldn’t walk any more would drop on the side of the road, and with The Tiger’s instructions, the guards would shoot them and shove the lifeless bodies over the hill.
Shorty and Jack both survived the Death March, but another surprise awaited, which separated them permanently. One bitterly cold evening in mid-November, the prisoners were on foot again. Shivering and skidding on the snow-covered path, they reached a cluster of low buildings huddling together near the road. The guards packed them in, but the buildings were too small for all 700 soldiers. Shorty was shoved into one of the rooms with a hundred or more, squeezed like bean sprouts in a pan, but the guards kept pushing more men into the room. Seeing Jack still standing outside, Shorty and others tried to pull him in, but Jack couldn’t fit in the already packed room.
Swearing something in Korean, one of the guards began hitting Jack with his rifle-butt, and when Jack screamed, he pulled him outside, knocked him onto the ground, and pounded his head repeatedly. As Jack lay motionless, the guard walked away without any emotion, as if he had destroyed a fly. Three other prisoners died that night by the blows of the rifles.
“There was nothing we could do, except cry,” Shorty says. “We all knew what could happen to us if we tried to help our friends.”
Shorty lived in captivity another 33 months, during which time he witnessed 485 soldiers and 45 civilians deteriorating and dying, including elderly Catholic bishops, priests, and nuns. Most of them perished from complications of exhaustion, pneumonia, and dysentery, due to the Death March. In an effort to save the remaining sick and wounded, Shorty established a “Hospital” where he and others cleaned the patients, killed lice for them, kept the place warm, and cooked and fed them, too, whatever was necessary to make them comfortable. Of all Shorty cared for, only one survived and is still living.
Shorty was recognized for his selfless service toward his “Brothers” and received a Bronze Star Medal at the war’s end. When asked how he made it through such a long and horrid ordeal that claimed so many lives, Shorty ponders a moment and replies, “That question will haunt me until I lay in my grave.”
[Wilbert “Shorty” Estabrook is the founder and the leader of the Tiger Survivors. www.tigersurvivors.org]