Day 1 in North Korea
The Barn, a big granite foreboding building. Up to the 3rd, maybe 4th floor, I lost count running the gauntlet of screaming, kicking and punching Koreans. Dark, 10’ wide by 80’ long corridor, high ceilings, many solid doors. Dirty, four or five small light bulbs, granite walls & floors. Smells like urine, hay, and feces.
The Room. 10’x15’ with a 12’ ceiling. Four low 5’ wooden bed frames, rice husk mattress & pillow, no blanket. Single 40 watt clear light bulb hanging from a ceiling cord. Filthy white walls; 3’x3’ window covered with glued newspaper. One small steam radiator, hissing more than heating.
Wooden door with 4 panel inserts & open transom above. My God, what is this. A dream, but why can’t I wake up. Who are these guys with me? I have got to wake up but I’m so tired. We should be on the trip to Japan. God, I’m cold; I’ve been cold since Pueblo left Yokosuka. 18 days with only a few hours sleep. Never seen anything like Pueblo. Crews berthing is a cruel joke. Racks four high with maybe 2’ between each one; every morning trying to find your boondockers amongst the floating, waterlogged debris; that damned constant rolling and pounding against the swells; the stink of 65 men squeezed into a cargo hold with no heat or venting; the smell of saltwater rotting the frozen meat in the forward refer. Fleet weather out of Guam says storm warning with heavy seas around eastern Japan, - no shit, really! Still in our shipboard clothes; some guys with foul weather jackets, some wearing only T shirts; still others covered in blood & flesh from the explosions. Wounded guys crying out in pain. Korcoms running through the halls, screaming, hitting & kicking. "Atsicki", what the hell does that mean! We can hear somebody in another room crying out "Benjo, Benjo." More crashing & commotion - no more Benjo cries. Constant yelling & jabbering in Korean; the sounds of heavy boots on granite; doors opening and slamming shut; are they coming here? No volunteers to step on a bed frame & look over the transom.
Three other guys in the room with me. I’ve seen them before, but who are they, why are they in my dream, why can’t I wake up? Two other CTs and a young fireman, all of us confused and disoriented. Our hands are still numb and marked from the ropes that tied our wrists for 15 hours. CT1 Jim Sheppard, CT1 Mike Barrett & FN John Mitchell - the introductions are out of the way, now who’s senior. The two First Class figure it out. Sitting on the beds the code of conduct is discussed, what do we say - say nothing is the consensus. The personnel records were on the ship, a CT worries, - they weren’t destroyed. Mine wasn’t on board, TADs only took pay records. For once the Navy screwed up in my favor. Thirsty, no liquid since the attack started 18 - 19 hours ago. The door flies open - four Koreans storm in, two officers with sidearms & two soldiers with AK-47's yelling, screaming and spitting incoherent Korean & English - "spies, you will be shot." That part we get. Bang, out they go slamming the door shut. More noise from the hall, doors crashing & banging, shouts in Korean, cries in English. "I was on the deck force" a hesitant voice in the hall says. Who was that, did anybody recognize it? "It could be ___________, I couldn’t tell" from the Fireman. Hours go by, we all have to take a leak - nobody wants to find out how. The crashing and banging in the hall gets louder - now what, are they coming for us? Finally our door flies open again, an officer & two guards parade in. "You must be truthful, you must admit your crimes" the officer literally spits in barely comprehensible English. Out they go leaving us to contemplate that one. A while later the sound of metal clanking in the hall along with more Korean voices. Chains or maybe leg irons, we can’t tell. Still nobody’s willing to look over the transom. Finally the suspense is broken - the door flies open. FOOD! --- The same officers & guards, but now leading two Korcom Army women with a tray of food & a teapot. The officer grunts at the women to leave the tray & get out. Sweat Pea & Country Cousin, looked meaner than the male guards with the AK-47's. Dressed in baggy, rumpled uniform shirts and skirts with dark berets and combat boots. Each looked at us like she knew we had just killed her first born child. The officer grunts again and motions "take, eat." We bow and say "Domo Arigato." It was all anyone could think to do. Japanese, we would soon learn, that was definitely the wrong thing to do! The entourage withdraws; again we hear the metal clanking in the hall.
On the tray were four small bowls & one small plate. The odor was definitely not appealing so we just sat and stared at the tray. Turnip water soup, four - 1" square sections of an unidentifiable fish and a torn piece of hard bread. Yesterday’s lunch on board ship was turkey with all the fixings - today its bread, water and the source of the obnoxious odor - sewer trout! Black skin, off white meat & horns like a catfish, but this is no catfish. The teapot held about a quart of what appeared to be warm water, except for the stuff floating in it. The smell was close to that of the sewer trout and had pieces of bread floating on top. Along with this, a darker assortment of debris sat at the bottom. This was a one heat source meal; use a fire to boil the sewer trout & heat the turnip soup; the water’s heat to bake the bread and finally, use the hot water for drinking. We sat looking at the tray, fighting the thirst and hunger; no one dared move. "There’s still 300 pounds of frozen meat on the ship" the fireman volunteered. "This sure doesn’t look like Rigby’s bread" from a CT. "How many calories do you think this is?" "Look, this may be our last meal, at least for awhile, we better eat it." Everybody decides to approach the soup! With the appetizer out of the way, the sewer trout takes center stage. "Fish is full of protein, we gotta eat it." "I can’t eat that" from one man. " I have to eat something other than turnip water - gimme one." Sewer trout, we discovered, was definitely a 2 handed meal. With one hand delicately hold the trout by one of it’s horns. Use your other hand to hold your nose closed. After a period of trial and error the technique we developed involved:
1. Take a big breath of fresh air, hold it and squeeze your nose shut with one hand.
2. By holding a horn, place the sewer trout close to your mouth with the other hand.
3. Choose a target area between the "trout’s" horns.
4. Close your eyes then lunge forward biting the "trout."
5. SWALLOW IMMEDIATELY! DO NOT CHEW!
6. When you are sure the "trout" has reached your stomach, exhale then take in two quick deep breaths of fresh air. Exhale again!
7. Then and only then, open your eyes & release the grasp on your nose.
8. Lastly, make a neat pile of the 3 trout horns on your plate.
"I can not eat that" from that same CT. "We have to have protein, if you’re not going to eat it, can I have it?" Silence. I repeated the approved sewer trout procedure and down went number two! Now for the water….. Warm, dirty and the same smell - more deep breaths. Other than stale, the bread wasn’t bad!
With the meal dispensed with, the talk turned back to our predicament. Where is the Skipper, what about the XO, Mr. Harris and all the wounded. As CT's we were told we would be the first evacuated in case of trouble; after all we were the intelligence collectors, we were logical targets. How much of the classified pubs were destroyed or thrown overboard? Did all our messages get to Kamiseya? What about the jets that were supposed to be coming? That Korcom officer kept screaming "shot as spies." The young fireman sat with a look of total bewilderment at the CT's. All this talk had him totally confused. If these guys start asking questions, what do we tell them? During this whole time the noise, bedlam and broken voices coming from the hall had us sweating bullets, and we still had to piss. A visual survey of the room revealed nothing obvious. The building had to be old, but being built of granite stone it was sure sturdy. The newspaper glued to the window was in Korean and contained no pictures, so that didn’t help in our quest for information. So far the only information we could glean was by interpreting the noises and voices from the hall, and that wasn’t good. The small radiator continued its hissing and banging. Occasionally it actually gave off heat, but the temperature in the room was still close to 50 degrees, kind of like Pueblo’s forward berthing space, but without seawater sloshing on the deck. Pueblo was the only ship I had been on that required wearing my working jacket, two shirts, a wool cap, pants and two pairs of socks when I went to bed.
Before we were taken off the ship we were all bound, blindfolded and shoved down a gangplank into a kicking, hitting crowd then onto buses. With a crowd of people screaming, some Korean was tapping M-E-G-U-K-D-I-E in Morse code on a bus horn. Where are we; is this the capitol of North Korea? How many of the crew is here, where were the officers? What about the place they threw us into that smelled like a stable after we were taken off the buses? How many hours were we on that train? On and on we discussed, hash and rehashed, theorized, hypothesized and guessed ---------what happened? As CT's, we decided we had to remember what pubs and documents we each had destroyed or seen bagged and thrown overboard. Numbers and titles, we had to remember them. The Navy would need this info as soon as we got back. I could picture the NSA & NSG going crazy trying to figure out what was compromised. I saw my friends in my duty section at Kamiseya taking dibs on my barracks space! We really had to pee, now! Hours had gone by and we hadn’t noticed any particularly startling noises from the hall. Periodically the door would open and a couple of the enlisted guards with drawn AK's would enter. Looking at us they would mutter and spit "Atsicki", check the glued window paper, check the beds, again spit out "Atsicki" and leave. Whatever this "Atsicki" was, it couldn’t be good. But now a definite increase in hall noise was detected. It seemed, with all the door openings, closings and marching we heard - something was up! Were they removing men, were they after the CT's? The only voices were Korean but with all the noise our fears took over.
Eventually our door sprang open. An officer with the two AK toting guards marched in. He grunted, again in broken English, for us to come out into the hall. Once there, with a guard on each end, we proceeded in single file down the darkened granite passageway at a slow march. Other officers and guards were visible in the hall, all looking at us with a loathing that could kill. The leader finally stopped in front of another door. Opening it he said in a low voice "you must not talk, you must make fast." At least he didn’t say "you are spies, you will be shot." In a row, with guards on either end we entered this new really dark and smelly cavern. "SMELLY", it was the HEAD, a two holer too! Built-up about two feet above the floor with a large door on each, the stalls were even darker than the room. Once you entered a stall, the reason for the ever-darkening scene became apparent. Nobody ever cleaned out the pile that was collecting at the bottom of each hole. It must have been there since the building was built! Nobody, American or Korean could stand to look at that; smelling it was bad enough. One at a time we each in turn entered a stall. The guards would not permit closing the doors. Being crafty US Imperialist spies, we might just figure out how to get down through that hole and escape. Anyone who paused to dawdle while diddling was prodded with a karate kick to an appropriate place on his anatomy. It became a choice, empty your bladder and take the bruises or piss quickly and pray you got away with minimal punishment. Karate kicks to the back or side is not conducive to releasing the prostate gland! After we all completed our business we were again marched back to the room. With the guards being so friendly, I was not going to bother complaining about not getting a chance to wash my hands. Thankfully, the door was slammed shut, we had made it! Now it became a fact, no one was going to drink the water. It was better to avoid that toilet punishment, if at all possible.
Back in the room, it was more talking about our predicament. Some time during this discussion the door sprang open, a Korcom officer shot in and demanded that we all stand by our beds. After a few minutes wait, in strode a tall, dark and stately man in a finely tailored uniform. We stood at attention facing forward as this man slowly meandered through the room inspecting the beds, window; the sewer trout horns on the food tray. He spoke in a low and authoritative but stately voice with no spitting. Looking us over, he spoke in Korean with the duty officer, looked around again and slowly withdrew out the door. The door slammed shut. Two weeks later we would discover; we had just met Super C. The KPA Senior Colonel who would be our jailer for the next 334 days. (During de-brief at San Diego in January 1969 I was told our jailer was the "infamous Major Pak" who had been in charge of all UN POWs during the Korean War.) We would come to loath this man, especially 9 months later on the day he appeared in a Persian lamb great coat, with the single, exaggerated silver star of a General on each shoulder. Finally the duty officer appeared again at the door. This time he said in passable English "Bed time, sleep." The clear dangling light would remain on, there would be no blankets against the cold, but finally this day had come to an end. I am going to get to end this dream, this is my chance; I will wake up. Dear God, I have to wake up. Little did I know, I would be awakened some time latter by a series of jabs to my back from an AK-47 gun barrel. I would be the first taken out; day 1 was not over yet.
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Day 1: the Sewer Trout
By Ralph McClintock CT3