Korean War ex-POW Reunion – Louisville, KY

by Abigail Pfeiffer on August 5, 2014

Former POW Elliott Sortillo

Last week I was in Louisville, Kentucky at the historic Brown Hotel, at the reunion for the ex-POWs of the Korean War. In 1976, the Korean War ex-POW Association was created by Bill Norwood, a former POW from 1951-1953. The Association was formed to provide a means of support for the ex-POWs, as well as to provide friendship, assist with veteran issues, and to honor the Korean War POWs. Each year, the association holds the reunion in a different city at the end of July and early August. This time of year coincides with the July 27, 1953 armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War, as well as the time when the majority of the ex-POWs were repatriated. Sadly, this year is the association’s last reunion as the former POWs are in advanced age and many are dealing with health issues.

I became involved with the subject of the Korean War POWs when I was a graduate student at Norwich University. In 2012 I was working on my master’s thesis about the stunningly high death rate of the Korean War POWs and several of the men graciously granted me interviews. After I graduated I was invited to their reunion in Omaha, Nebraska in the summer of 2012. There I met many more of the men and their families and several more of the men granted me interviews. Last year I was unable to attend, however, I did not want to miss this year’s reunion since it is their final organized reunion.

I did my best to soak in this experience and I am so grateful to the all ex-POWs and their spouses who allowed me to ask questions (sometimes personal and difficult questions) and inquire about their experience as POWs. These men are living history and as time passes we are losing more and more of them.

Time for a short history lesson about the Korean War. The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 when communist North Korea invaded capitalist South Korea (Korea was split into north and south with the end of WWII). The North Korean army pushed the

Former POW Sal Conte.

South Korean army south and took the capital of Seoul. The United Nations authorized the defense of South Korea and the United States, under General Douglas MacArthur, led the military action into Korea. In September, 1950 the UN forces landed at Inchon and pushed the North Korean forces back north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ, also known as the 38th Parallel). The war may have ended at this time if it had not been for Chinese involvement on the side of North Korea. China had recently become a communist country after a revolution in 1949 and they were happy to assist their communist neighbor. The Chinese entered the war in the fall of 1950 and overwhelmed many of the UN defenses. Many Americans were taken prisoner during the fighting in the fall of 1950. Officially, 7,190 Americans were taken prisoner during the Korean War, with 93% of the POWs coming from Army units. Of this 7,190, only 4,428 returned home at the end of hostilities, which figures out to an official death rate of 38%. Note that I indicated this is an “official” death rate, since there are thousands of men unaccounted for from Korea, and certainly some of the MIA (missing in action) from Korea had died as POWs and their deaths were not recorded. Many ex-POWs and historians believe the death rate of the POWs could have been as high as 50%.

What makes the Korean War POWs unique is that they were the first set of American POWs who were used as bargaining chips and propaganda purposes. Cease fire negotiations stalled over the issue of voluntary repatriation. Remember that when the POWs returned home in 1953, they returned to an America rife with anti-Communist sentiment. Unfortunately many of the repatriated POWs were accused of collaboration with the Chinese Communists and rumors persisted regarding the conduct of the POWs while they were interred. The U.S. military debriefed all the returning POWs and investigated charges of collaboration. Wild speculation and outrageous claims that were not based on fact stated that approximately thirty percent of POWs collaborated with the enemy. However, after the military concluded their own investigations, they reported that only 4.3 percent of POWs were found to be guilty of any wrongdoing. Quite a difference between 4.3 percent and thirty percent!

ex-POW Cecil Phipps, post interview photograph

Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities. The veterans of the Korean War are in their early eighties and every year we lose more and more of them. It is crucial that historians strive to get their stories recorded before this entire generation is lost, and give future generations the opportunity to learn about the Korean War and not just as a side note in a high school textbook.

My interviews from the Korean War ex-POW reunion will be used for a book I am writing about the Korean War POWs. Throughout this post you will see pictures of me with the men I interviewed. The book will be finished this fall and I hope younger generations of Americans find their experiences as fascinating as I do.

Former POW Bill Borer

Former POW John Toth

Helen Hewitt, widow of a former POW Roy Hewitt.

Former POW Robert Batdorff

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Shirley Tracey August 5, 2014 at 5:24 pm

You’re awesome!

Cindy Chapman August 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Abby,

Thank you so much for capturing their stories. We are so glad to have you as part of our POW family!

theresa rogers August 6, 2014 at 8:51 am

please let met know when book is published so that I can get one thanks

Tammy Hunt August 6, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Abby,
I didn’t get to meet you since I was unable to attend the reunion this year. :( However, your blog is wonderful. I truly enjoyed reading about your experience. You should join us again, if you can, in September with the Long Ride Home. There you would meet families of POW and MIA’s from not only Korea but also WWII, Vietnam and even Desert Storm. If you don’t already have the info, please contact me or Monica Vetula Cash and we can fill you in on the event.

My step-father, Kenneth Badke was a POW in Korea. He died in 2005 but my mother has not missed any of the reunions since then. Her name is Phyllis H. Badke. I don’t know if you got to meet her or not, but I am going to send her a link to your page now.

Thank you so much for caring!

Tammy Holland Hunt

Abigail Pfeiffer August 6, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Hi Tammy,

Thanks for your comment. I sent you an email in response.

Abigail Pfeiffer August 6, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Hi Theresa,

I will keep you posted!

Abigail Pfeiffer August 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Thanks Cindy! I had a wonderful time and I’m so honored to be a part of the POW family!

Abigail Pfeiffer August 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Well thank you! You might be a bit biased though :)

Luke Sprague September 2, 2014 at 10:48 am

Abigail,

Well, today I’ve got a “four-fer.” First, as a veteran of Korea (95-96), a member of the American Legion, a military historian, and a graduate of Norwich, I salute you for recognizing these Korean POWs. I think few people realize the sacrifices made to keep the Republic of Korea free (I know I made one). During my time on the DMZ, the South Koreans were still setting off claymore mines at the North Koreans. This conflict certainly did not end in 1953; most of America has no clue of the sacrifice made by these veterans to men and women right up to today. I’ve got video footage of me walking thru minefields back in 1995 and 1996…this place is no joke…ever. In terms of the North Korean treatment of POWs, one only has to look across the DMZ (I’ve got a short video on my website) to see why eating grasshoppers and tree bark slims anyone down.

Luke Sprague

Amanda Debler October 1, 2014 at 11:26 am

Glad that you came over with Mike for the PowerShell Summit and that I therefore got to meet you! Can’t wait for your book!

Norman L Weiss October 15, 2014 at 6:24 am

I became aware that nine men and one women POW were known to be Jewish. Tibor Rubin received the Medal of Honor from George W Bush during his term as President.

Do you know anything about other POWs that might have been Jewish?

Norman

Abigail Pfeiffer October 21, 2014 at 5:13 am

Hi Luke,
Thanks so much for your comment! I see you graduate from Norwich about one year ahead of me! Did you like the program there? I also saw your website, nice videos!

Abigail Pfeiffer October 21, 2014 at 5:14 am

Off the top of my head, I am not aware. However, it would be relatively easy to access the military records of the POWs and look up their recorded religion.

korean tour organization May 22, 2016 at 11:27 am

I love reading a post that will make people think. Also, thank
you for permitting me to comment!

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