Haunting memories relieved by the telling
07/05/2013 12:13 AM
07/05/2013 12:19 AM
On this day 63 years ago, Lt. Bill Funchess landed on the coast of South Korea with one of the first waves of American soldiers after the outbreak of war 10 days earlier.
It was the beginning of an episode that haunted him for decades.
Throughout those years after the Korean War, the former Clemson cadet held it all inside: the memories of being captured at gunpoint by Chinese soldiers, of being imprisoned in a cramped mud hut with a dozen soldiers in sub-zero temperatures, of being tried as a political criminal.
In his recurring nightmares, he would find himself surrounded by hundreds of armed men, jabbing at him with bayonets. Or searching in vain for food and water or anything that could make life more bearable as a prisoner of war.
He tried to hide the battle that was still going on inside of him when he returned home to South Carolina after his service and took a job with the Clemson University Extension Service.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, though, after writing his story for his family — a story that grew into a book and eventually was published by the state Adjutant General’s Office, that the pain subsided.
“A funny thing happened,” Funchess says. “The minute I got it written up and got it typed on the computer and I turned it over to be printed into book form, the nightmares stopped. I have not had a nightmare since.”
Now, it doesn’t bother him to talk about his Korean War experiences, or his “thousand days of torment” in a Chinese POW camp, as he refers to it in his book.
What does bother him, though, is the way the war came to be viewed in later years.
“I have great resentment whenever I hear the Korean War referred to as either the Korean conflict or the forgotten war,” he says. “The Korean War was a large, full-fledged war. It was a bloody war.”
He saw his share of that.
After graduating in 1948 from Clemson, which was then a military school, he went into the Army as a lieutenant. He was in Japan in June 1950 when war broke out in Korea. His 24th Infantry Division landed on the shores of South Korea on July 5. By November, his unit had fought its way to Pyongyang and beyond, before getting orders to set up defensive positions near the Chongchon River, in the city of Anju.
On the morning of Nov. 4, Funchess gave a startling report to his battalion headquarters. He and his men had seen hundreds of Chinese soldiers at the opposite riverbank, wading across with their weapons held high.
Headquarters didn’t believe him, Funchess says. Up until then, as far as they knew, the Chinese hadn’t been involved in the conflict. He was ordered, “Under no conditions will you fire upon a Chinese national.”
“Before the day ended, I had been hit in the foot by machine gun fire. They shattered all the bones in the forward part of my foot,” he says.
Funchess pulls off his shoe and sock during an interview to show the scars where the bullet entered and left his foot, splintering bones along the way. It’s a daily reminder of what he endured.
Funchess disregarded his orders.
“I shot back, and I shot back plenty,” he says.
In the end, the situation was hopeless. It was half a platoon, about 25 men, against several thousand Chinese. All but three Americans eventually were killed.
“We had a long extensive battle, but we were greatly outnumbered,” Funchess says.
The capture “was the most terrifying, horrible experience that a person could imagine,” he recalls.
In the end it was him and one other soldier surrounded by about 50 Chinese.
“The Chinese soldiers were angry. They were jabbing at us with their bayonets. They were yelling things at us which I could not understand. And I knew the situation was not good.”
“It was either be killed or surrender,” he says.
He’s convinced he would have been killed on the spot had not an English-speaking Chinese officer intervened.
He still remembers the officer’s words: “We’re not mad at you. We’re mad at Wall Street,” he said.
Funchess was taken to a prison camp, where he was put in a 9- by 9-foot thatched roof mud shack with a dirt floor with 11 seriously wounded enlisted men.
At night, temperatures dipped as low as 25 degrees below zero, he says. The prisoners had no blankets and no heat. Soldiers were losing fingers and toes to frostbite. “The only way to keep even remotely warm was to cling to somebody,” Funchess says.
He pauses during an interview in his Clemson living room as if searching for words to describe the depth of the anguish he and his comrades lived through. Finding none, he moves on with his story.
Their only source of water was snow. They had no toilet and had to use snow as toilet paper.
In early February 1951, he was allowed out for a walk, and went hobbling around the bombed out city looking for something to eat or drink.
“And I saw a man who had built a fire. Fires were strictly forbidden,” Funchess says. “This man had taken a piece of tin off one of the bombed out buildings and turned the edges up. He built a fire, he placed the pan on some stones and he piled snow in the pan. He was melting snow.
“As I approached, he said, ‘Would you care for a drink of water?’ I said ‘Yes, I certainly would. I haven’t had a drink of water since I was captured three months ago.’
“And he gave me about a half a cup of water. And I’ve never tasted anything so good.”
The man was Father Emil Kapaun, a Catholic chaplain who earlier this year was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
Kapaun was later thrown into the same hut as Funchess. Kapaun was ailing with a blood clot in his leg. Funchess, still suffering from his foot injury, gave the priest his sleeping spot on the floor next to the wall so he would be protected from anyone stepping on him.
“I took it upon myself to do what I could for Father Kapaun because there was nobody else helping him,” Funchess says.
One day the Chinese came to take Kapaun to the camp hospital, Funchess recalls.
“Everybody who went to the hospital stayed. They never came out,” he says. “The Chinese called it the hospital. We called it the death house.”
Funchess and several other soldiers “raised a ruckus” to try to keep the Chinese from taking the priest, but their efforts were in vain.
“They removed Father Kapaun and took him to the death house,” he says. “Then it was not a matter of two or three days before we got word that Father Kapaun had died.” Funchess remained in the POW camp long after the war ended 60 years ago this month. All the prisoners were scheduled to have been released by Sept. 5, 1953. Each day the names of prisoners to be exchanged were called, and each day, his name was absent.
Finally, on the last day, all the prisoners were gone but him, he says.
When he asked about it, Funchess was told that he was not a POW. He was a war criminal.
When he asked what his crime was, the only words the officer said was, “Remember Anak.”
That was a reference to an incident that had happened months earlier, after his surrender, when during an indoctrination session, the Chinese held up photos of mass graves in the city of Anak and said, it was “proof positive of the atrocities committed in Anak by the United States Army.”
Funchess knew that wasn’t the truth. He had been in Anak and witnessed North Korean dissidents gunning down unarmed North Koreans and tossing them into a mass grave. The U.S. Army had passed through the city but had nothing to do with the mass murders, he says.
“I listened to that for a few minutes and the more I listened the madder I got,” Funchess recalls. “And foolishly, I stood up, which was strictly forbidden to interrupt their sessions, and I shouted out ‘it is a damn lie. The atrocities committed in Anak were committed by North Koreans against North Koreans.’ I said the United States Army did not fire a shot in Anak.
“Then the Chinese officer who spoke English said ‘how do you know?’ I said, ‘I was there, I saw what happened.’ And the minute I said it, I realized I had said the wrong thing.”
Chinese soldiers wrestled him to the ground and led him to a compound where they forced him to strip down to his underwear and stand at attention.
Three VIP vehicles with Chinese and North Korean officers in full military dress arrived and went inside the compound for three or four hours.
“I suddenly realized they were having some type of a trial,” he says. And he was the defendant.
Eventually, the Americans and North Koreans agreed to exchange war criminals and Funchess was released to walk down a path that was mined on both sides. He walked until finally he saw a U.S. Army ambulance, its doors open and waiting for him. His long ordeal was over.
“Lt. Funchess,” said the American officer waiting for him, “you don’t know how lucky you are.”
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