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Yuba City man recounts hellish POW experience in Korean War
With the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice 20 weeks away, the Appeal-Democrat is doing its part to help ensure that the "forgotten war" will be remembered. In the coming weeks, we will be sitting down with local Korean War veterans willing to tell us about their experiences. We will be profiling a local Korean War veteran at least weekly leading into the July 27 armistice anniversary date. Today, Ryan McCarthy provides an overview of the war through the words of a university expert and two local veterans. Rob Parsons tells us the story of a local veteran who was a prisoner of war in Korea.
His hands bound behind him, Yuba City's Obie Wickersham knelt in a South Korean ditch, stared at the large-caliber Chinese machine gun propped on the roadway above and waited to die.
"We knew they were killing (prisoners of war)," Wickersham recalled. "They were going to kill us all, no doubt in my mind."
At 24, Sgt. Wickersham was already a decorated combat veteran, having fought in numerous battles, including at Anzio on D-Day and the Battle of Bulge during World War II. He had also endured five months of fighting in the Korean War before he and seven others were captured by Chinese soldiers on the night of May 17, 1951.
But it was going to end right there, he thought, on his knees in the mountain ditch, about 20 miles from the 38th parallel.
"But, then all hell started going loose," Wickersham said. "Our tanks started firing into the mountain, and they figured they weren't going to fool around and kill us anymore."
Five South Korean soldiers who had also been captured were taken away and shot. Three Americans, including Wickersham, were led down the mountain into a valley.
A short time earlier, Wickersham and the others with the 2nd Infantry Division, engaged in fierce fighting with nearly half a million Chinese soldiers on a small hill in the Mug-gol area, near the Soyang River in South Korea.
"You could hear them coming. They'd start blowing those bugles, banging those cymbals. It scared the hell out of you, but you knew they were coming," Wickersham remembered.
The Chinese army sent more than 400,000 soldiers into the fray, with another 400,000 in reserve.
"There were so many soldiers, they didn't all have a rifle," Wickersham said. "They had to follow behind, wait for someone to get killed, and pick up theirs."
As fighting intensified, American troops pulled back, with Wickersham and others providing cover.
"Knowing what I know now, we should've got out of there, too," Wickersham said. "Next thing I know, I'm on my back, this tall Chinese soldier with his knees on my chest, a .45 pressed to my forehead, and he's yelling, 'Surrender, Sergeant, surrender, Sergeant.'"
After American tanks prevented Wickersham's road-side execution, his captors took him into a small valley where they met up with another group of POWs. It was the beginning of a five-month, 500-mile march through the mountains into North Korea.
"They were walking us east and west the whole time, and they only moved us at night because of the bombing," Wickersham said. "We were bombed with friendly fire during the day, so they kept us in mud huts sometimes, or in the woods or a mine shaft when the sun was up."
All summer, the POWs hiked, plagued by lice, with little water and an erratic, meager diet of maize and millet. Many men died from dysentery. Others were killed when they got too weak.
"It was terrible," Wickersham said. "You'd get so weak, and if you fell behind and couldn't catch back up, you were gone."
Eventually they came to the Suan Mining Camp near Pyongyang in North Korea, according to information from the US Defense Department.
"We called it a death camp," Wickersham said.
There, Wickersham and another man buried their friend, Sgt. Patrick "Pop" Arthur, in a shallow grave, unsure if his remains would be found.
The POWs kept moving through North Korea and arrived at POW Camp Chansong near the Yalu River in November 1951.
A torturous trek that began with 500 men ended with less than 200.
"I probably weighed all of 90 pounds," Wickersham said. "They stuck us in these tiny mud huts, 10 (POWs) to a hut."
Never Give In
Wickersham was mostly asleep the first time he was yanked out of his hut in the middle of the night by a camp guard.
"They took you to this little room with just one little light bulb," Wickersham said. "There was this little table and one officer, they called him an instructor, and an armed guard that stood behind you. You never knew if he was going to shoot you."
Then came the questions, 'How many men are in your company?' 'Who are the officers?' 'What are their names?' 'Where are they located?'
"You had to lie like hell, and I did, and I got by with it," Wickersham said. "If you said something they didn't like, the guard would club you in the head or back and shoulders. It was a bitch."
Many of the horrors endured are still too difficult to speak about, but through it all, he said, Wickersham refused to lose hope.
"I knew I would either get shot or get through it all," he explained. "I had too much back home to give up."
YC man looks back at his place in history
Prisoner of war Obie Wickersham was released in August 1953, a few weeks after the ceasefire.
"I was beaten, I was starved, I was humiliated — but, I survived," Wickersham said.
POWs focused on life back home, dreamed of good food, women, cars and anything else that could distract from life behind enemy lines. When possible, they swapped jokes and played small pranks on guards.
"Funny things can happen, even in a POW camp," Wickersham said. "There's one guy who could tell jokes, tell a new joke every night."
Looking back, it's difficult for Wickersham to evaluate his place in history and even harder to accept praise for his actions during the war.
"Being a POW, to me, doesn't make you a hero," Wickersham said. "It was something you could either take or you couldn't. I had my family, friends and the USA to get back to."
These days, the highly-decorated soldier, who turns 88 later this month, shares his experiences from both wars with young soldiers, including cadets at Beale Air Force Base.
"It wasn't a fun 28 months. I know I wasn't happy to be there, at the time," Wickersham said. "But, all my time in the service I don't regret at all. I have zero regrets."
— Rob Parsons
Wickersham fulfilled vows to 'Pop'
In 2009, nearly 58 years after Obie Wickersham and Sgt. Fred Liddell buried him in a shallow, unmarked grave in North Korean, the remains of Sgt. Patrick "Pop" Arthur were found and sent back to America.
Arthur died in July 1951 after enduring a brutal death march into North Korea. Nicknamed "Pop," because at the age of 36, Arthur was the old man in the group.
After they buried Arthur, Wickersham and Liddell vowed that, if Arthur's body ever came home, they would attend his funeral.
Between 1991 and 1994, North Korea returned 208 boxes believed to contain the remains of as many as 400 US servicemen. Among the boxes, a denture fragment and a dog tag belonging to Arthur were located, according to the US Defense Department.
His friends had secretly hidden Arthur's dog tag on his body when they were burying him.
In May 2009, Wickersham and Liddell fulfilled the vow they'd made nearly six decades earlier.
Arthur was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
— Rob Parsons