By Dr. Mark DePue
“Freedom is not free,” writes William W. (Bill) Smith of Quincy, Ill., whenever he signs his book, A Moment in Time. Bill speaks with considerable authority on the subject of freedom, having two-and-a-half years in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. He survived the ordeal, but nearly half of those who were captured with him in the early months of the Korean War did not.
Smith was captured on Nov. 2, 1950, near Unsan, North Korea, when Chinese forces sprang a surprise attack on the lead elements of advancing United Nations troops. It heralded a dramatic change in the war. The brass had long insisted that the Chinese would not intervene despite their threats to the contrary. Douglas MacArthur, fresh off his triumph at Inchon, boasted that the troops would be home by Christmas. The action at Unsan proved MacArthur and his intelligence experts to be tragically wrong.
Over the next two years, Smith endured the worst of what man can inflict on his fellow man: A forced march north where stragglers were summarily executed; severe beatings; being hung by his wrists from a rafter; Russian roulette; water torture; sleep deprivation; standing on ice for hours on end; long stretches of solitary confinement; and “the hole.” Scores of POWs died of malnutrition and disease during their first winter on the Yalu River. When a prisoner died, the living kept the body for several days–it meant another handful of cracked corn for those still alive–then when the stench became too much, they dragged their dead comrade across the ice of the Yalu River into Manchuria and buried him in a shallow grave.
Daily indoctrination sessions, conducted by Chinese officers speaking impeccable English, started in 1951. Day after day, all day long, the prisoners gathered for these lectures and learned about the evils of capitalism and American imperialism. The message was incessant, with endless variations on one simple theme—the superiority of Communism as a political and economic system. Group confessions and self-criticism sessions were part of the regimen, with extra food for those who collaborated. Smith’s captors sought to exploit every weakness they could find. “If God is so good,” they once taunted Smith, “why is he leaving you here?” “He’s watching you!” Smith heard himself answer. “God knows, they would go berserk.” After another incident, he was court-martialed and sentenced to “life at hard labor.”
In the summer of 1952, Smith was labeled a “reactionary” (an especially uncooperative prisoner) and moved to a new camp with other reactionaries. A year later, he was exchanged with other sick and wounded prisoners in Operation Little Switch, weighing only 82 pounds. He spent the next two years in a series of military hospitals, slowing regaining his strength while battling a host of physical and psychological afflictions.
Perhaps the real measure of Bill’s character was revealed after being released from the hospital in 1955. It happened while he visited a fellow POW buddy in Bluefield, West Virginia. That’s where he met 19-year-old Charlotte Yost. She had just experienced a painful breakup from her fiancé of two years. “On Sunday night I went to bed, and I prayed that God would send me somebody to love, and someone who would love me,” recalls Charlotte. “On Monday morning, Bill knocked on the front door lost, looking for his friend.” She had no doubt that this handsome young man was the answer to her prayers, and Bill, for his part, was equally smitten. The relationship moved quickly, but something troubled Bill. He finally decided to lay it all on the line–actually laying a thick folder containing his medical records on Charlotte’s lap. “Read these,” he told her, “and if you feel like you can go on from here with me after what you read, we’ll go on, and if you don’t, then I’ll walk away.” She scoured the documents, then made her decision. “I took him on faith, and I took him on love, and I love him just the way he was, and I love him just the way he is.” The two were married within weeks.
Some 53 years later, Charlotte helped Bill write about his years as a POW, motivated by their desire to explain to their granddaughters why they couldn’t jump on Grandpa’s bed to wake him up.
Bill Smith spent his time in hell and understands freedom in a way that most of us can never comprehend. He credits Charlotte with saving his life. “Freedom is not free,” he tells anyone who will listen. “Be watchful of those who would take it.”
Mark DePue is the director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. You can listen to Bill and Charlotte Smith’s entire story, and those of many other veterans, at the program’s Web site, http://www.alplm.org/oral_history/project.html.
From the May 26-June 1, 2010 issue