To the Bath
By Stu Russell
On February 2, the officer that came to be known as "Fetch" came to the door around 7:00 PM
and asked if Lee and I had been to the bathroom. We answered in the affirmative, he checked
the list on his clipboard, shook his head and departed. Leaving us to wonder if he had slipped
from grace and was once again on bathroom duty. The evening passed without event until
about 9:30 PM, when "Bloke" came in and asked if we had been to the bathroom. "Bloke" had
been" "given this sobriquet for his thick English accent, he had learned the language in part by
listening to the BBC while in Egypt. This behavior on the part of the duty personnel was rather
strange, normally they weren't this solicitous about our bath room activities. Again we told him
that we had been to the bath room. At 10:00 PM, we were informed by the guard that it was
time to sleep, we neatly folded our one set of clothes and we slipped into bed.
Another day in the DPRK completed.
At approximately 10:30 PM, a triumphant "Fetch" bounded into our room and had the guards roust us from our bunks. We had lied, we had not been to the bath room. We had not been sincere. Now, we must prepare! This was now becoming odd. The bathroom was down the hall, what then did prepare mean? Hayes and I formed a line of two and felt we were prepared. "Fetch" looked at us as if we had lost our minds and said we must get dressed for the showers. Thoughts of, "So this is how the Jews felt" flashed through my mind. We were told to put on all our clothes, get our towels and our soap, we were going to the showers. Granted we had not bathed in about 11 days, but who gets dressed in the middle of the night to take a shower? This did not look good. We gathered up our stuff and walked into the hall. With our heads down in shame, we could not see much, but there were several other tennis shoed feet in the hall with blue pant legs, so what was happening, we were not going alone.
We were escorted out of the building and onto a bus. Fear permeated the bus. There were about 10 of us and lucky me, I was in the front row, right seat. One of the guards stood in the entrance well of the bus, his AK-47 was on a sling over his shoulder and held horizontal. It was pointed at me. It was so close that looking down, I could see the muzzle. The bus started and we were soon on a dirt road with all the ruts one finds on a poorly maintained dirt road in winter. The muzzle passed back and forth as the guard tried to steady himself with his free hand. I realized that if it went off I would not get a shower. The guard could feel my discomfort and started playing click - click with the safety. After 15 to 20 minutes the bus stopped. The windows were covered so we had no idea where we were. The order to stand was issued and we filed of the bus. And as I stood, I looked down into the guards eyes, he was smiling as he gave the safety a final click and made a quizzical expression on his face like is it on or off? He swung the barrel up and squeezed the trigger. The safety was on. We climbed off the bus and lined up in the snow.
We were told not to look up and to follow the man in front of us. We started walking through the snow. I followed the person in front of me knowing that I was a dead man. This was it. We were going to be shot. I wondered if we would have to dig our own graves. I knew this frozen ground would be hard to dig in figured that they would have had to use a back hoe or something, obviously I had not been in the People's Paradise long enough to know there was no back hoe north of the 38th. At that point I had a conversation with my self inquiring into what kind of an idiot was I, here I was about to be killed and I was sweating having to dig a hole, maybe I had best get my house in order. I said a few quick prayers and then I just mellowed out, they were going to kill me. I had my ticket out of Korea, I was going home. I could smell the pines and actually taste the cold night air, being alive was great. I looked up to see the stars for one last time, that's when I saw our destination. Ahead of us, in the middle of the forest was a small building.
One of the guards opened the door and we filed in. The room was about 20 by 15 feet, Along one wall was a series of doorless lockers. A duty officer I did not know, told us in broken English to sit against the wall opposite the lockers and wait. Since we had never been told to keep our heads down when sitting, we all took advantage of the situation to see who else was there. I spotted Bob Hill and Steve Ellis. Along with Hayes and the others we looked to be in pretty sorry shape. My eyes met Bob's and he gave me a what the hell is going on look. I drew my thumb across my throat, he nodded in agreement. I simply could not believe that they would gas us. It did not seem economical to gas us in such small numbers. Perhaps my visit to Dachau three years before was coloring my judgment, but looking around the room, I saw that I was not alone with my imagination. At last the North Koreans got their act together. Fetch arrived and told us to undress and neatly fold our cloths and place them in a cubicle. Once undressed, we would be permitted a shower. We undressed, formed a line at the door. A guard opened it and motioned us forward with his rifle. We walked into a bath house! Out in the middle of east North Korea. Who the hell would put something like this out in the woods?
Fetch was in hog heaven. Between the expression on our faces and finding out that Hayes had red pubic hair, he was one happy boy. We weren't permitted to linger over our bath. There was one wash basin full of water for the wash and one for the rinse and back into our clothes. Between the end of the cheap dramatics that went with the bath and the chance to be clean, I felt like a million bucks. We got back on the bus and resumed the heads down shame bit, but the ride into town was a lot more relaxed than the trip out. Also Hayes and I could get to sleep without any more inquiries about our bathing.
Copyright © 2010 USS PUEBLO Veteran's Association. All rights reserved.
(Frame from North Korean propaganda film)