by Stu Russell
The first morning in our new home began with the establishment of a routine
that would remain basically unchanged throughout our stay there. We arose
atsix to the angry sounds of the guards going from room to room to wake up
the crew. As in any prison system the guards were always angry in the
morning because they had to get up, get dressed, eat and pass muster while
the prisoners were still in the sack. In order to jump the gun on them, we were
always up and dressed at six. They knew it but still ripped the door open at six
in the hopes of finding some one still asleep.
Once dressed most of us would light up a cigarette and wait for the bathroom guard to escort us to the bathroom on the second floor. The trip downstairs started with a line in the room where we formed up by height, the tallest first. Once formed, we waited for permission to go. John, the tallest in our room was first, he always carried the bucket. He was responsible to get fresh water for cleaning the floor and hall way. Ellis was second and I was third. I have no idea who was behind me or the order, I didn't need to know that. Once in the hall way we dropped our heads, our chins on our chests. This was to show acknowledgment of our shame for our crimes. Once the command was given we proceeded to march downstairs. The trip was almost always halted by a guard who would inspect us and have us count off, in Korean. I was "som" and was always glad the two in front of me never missed muster. Those behind us who had to deal with a vacancy had to learn a new number quick or take one in the shins.
Once our potty run was over, we went back to the room for phase two of our daily lives. After a period of brief delays we were ordered down stairs and told to prepare for our morning exercise. This consisted of taking off our sandals and putting on our tennis shoes. The North Koreans liked to keep us shoeless whenever possible. It would have been difficult to escape over their mountains wearing sandals. Despite the fact that is was early March we were only allowed to wear our long sleeve undershirts and our padded pants. The pants were so well padded that combined with our weight loss, we looked like we were all suffering from various stages of elephantitis.
Although the North Koreans loved to keep us isolated from one another they never enforced any kind of structure to our morning line up so we were usually able to pass what ever meager gossip we had back and forth to other rooms. Once we assembled in front of the building Charlie Law would lead us in calisthenics. These consisted of warm up exercises we learned in high school. Some of us had learned better than others. Charlie was a first class petty officer but the North Koreans made him in charge of everyone. After all there are no class distinctions in a socialist society. Charlie seemed to enjoy his role and took special pains to point of mistakes in his exercise program to the officers.
With the conclusion of morning exercise we filed in and exchanged our tennis shoes for sandals, returned to our rooms and prepared for breakfast. Once we prepared for breakfast, the guards told us to proceed to the mess hall. The mess hall which was next to our room was not big enough for the crew to eat in one shift, so not unlike fancy cruise ships, there were two settings. This is where the North Koreans desire for compartmentalization of the crew broke down.
Upon entering the mess hall there was one large table that sat eight and about ten tables that seated four. Our room was assigned to the big table and do to a planning oversight we ate with the first shift for breakfast and supper but with the second shift for lunch. This allowed our room to serve as a conduit for information. Once seated we saw that our aluminum bowls and spoons had followed us along with our diet of turnip soup and stale bread. At the conclusion of breakfast, back to the room.
The next activity on our agenda was the ever popular wait for lunch. This consisted of napping, shooting the breeze, and during the last hour before the noon meal, talking about food. The hour before our next meal was almost always about food. Our obsession with food became so bad that some of us started carrying pictures of food that we hid in our cigarette packs. Bob Chicca, one of the two Marines, was a good artist and I was able to get him to draw a fold out picture on a long piece of paper I found. The picture was of a super long hero sandwich that I spent many an hour fantasizing over. Once-in-a-while, Doc would get upset about all the food talk and order us not to talk about food.
After lunch we returned to our room and prepared for sports. The sports period or "sportsu" was an hour of unorganized confusion. After warming up we could chose to participate in one of three sports: Kickball, basketball, volleyball. After several months the kick ball died and Jimmy Layton managed to sew it into an ersatz foot ball. The game proved to be popular with the crew and unpopular with the North Koreans who could not accept the concept of the huddle. They thought we were planning an escape or something. Since they held all the cards, football was voted out. The next victim was kickball which was played with a degree of violence not found on the playgrounds of our youth. After several broken bones this too went on the sports scrap heap. Basketball went next. It to became too violent. This left us with volley ball. That might not have been so bad, but in a socialist society all play together at once. With forty one on a side volleyball is a pretty tame game. Once our sports hour we returned to our room to sit in our chairs and wait for the evening meal.
If you've been following this at all you know by now that it was turnip soup and stale bread. There was some variety in this repasts. At every meal one of us would find a fly in the soup. Sometimes there was a hunk of pig skin, a pig's eye ball, nails and other treats, but always the fly. One fly in one of eight bowls. We carefully searched through our soup to find the duty fly. It was always there. Then one day after months, it was gone. It was like mourning a long lost friend. It was like buying Cracker Jack's and not getting a prize. Our sorrow was short lived, Shingleton found it baked into his bread. The next day the fly was back in the soup, but the fun was gone and we just went ahead and ate it, thankful for that extra nutrition.
Upon completion of this, the last meal of the day we returned to our room. This period of the day was truly different. It was known as free time. During free time we could take off our coats and sit on the beds and talk. Getting away from the table was really looked forward to you could get off on a corner and talk to someone else with a little privacy. Some did this and others amused themselves with the "culture" provided by the North Koreans. We had been told that Kim Il Sung himself had provided spot guidance to the provider of our culture. Our entertainment center was crammed with one deck of cards and a chess set. Since Hayes and Ellis were the only ones that wanted to play chess, the rest of us used it as a checker set. Nixon would have been proud of us. These festivities went on until ten at which time we had to be in the sack, so about 9:30 we started to wrap things up and make one last pit stop for the night. Safety in numbers and all that. Lights out which was a luxury after the Barn signaled then end of another day and eight happy campers went off to the land of nod. Make that seven, I was the only one on the room that didn't snore and if I didn't get to sleep tout suit, I was in for one long night.
About the only variations to all this was lectures and films which came without warning. Films weren't too bad to take, but the lectures were not looked forward to at all. They consisted of group talks or whole crew gatherings and were either about what idiots we were or what idiots our national leaders were. The code of conduct prevented us from agreeing with them on some of these comments, after all someone was responsible for sending us out on this low risk mission.
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North Korean poster depicting the valiant KPA crushing the US Imperialist Agressors!
A man and his plant.
Plant, you gonna die today!
(North Korean propaganda film)
Bob Chicca, San Diego 1969
(official USN poto)
John Shingleton, release photo at Bridge of No Return