Arrival in Wonsan
By Stu Russell
One of the problems which our military causes us to suffer, is that it did not inform us as to whom the enemy was or anything about him. So we go through our service time thinking about some kind of a generic enemy with no face or name other than "them". The ship was now entering the Korean port of Wonsan and THEM were about to greet us. We had no idea who these people were or how they felt about us and Americans in general. They answered that one right away. This was not the welcome wagon waiting for us. I learned later that the Wonsanians last experience with American service personnel was when several of our battleships sat in their harbor lobbing 16 inch shells into town to slow down the Chinese while the Marines evacuated. It seemed like they were still a little hot about that.
Before taking us topside, someone had gotten hold of some line and one by one our hands were tied in front of us. The line must have been in short supply because they were tying us very tightly to save line. It began to cut off circulation to our hands. We then had a pistol, or a steel pipe, pushed against our heads as we were asked to surrender any weapons that we carried. They took my Case knife and shoved me up the ladder. As we came out onto the well deck on the starboard side, we could tell through our blindfolds that is was dark. As we passed forward and to port we came into the glare of many spot lights. As each of us made this transition from dark to light, the crowd that had gathered to meet us roared out their approval on seeing another American. This answered for us about how these people felt about us.
Interspersed with their unintelligible cries, to us anyhow, cries were shouts of "Death to the American Bastards" and an occasional "Gotdam, Gotdam." I guess this was from folks who had hung out with the occupation troops during the Korean War. Our arrival was so unexpected that the only thing they had on hand to get us ashore was a wooden plank about a foot wide that stretched from the ship to a cement pier.
Once across we were, it seemed, being guided to the crowd. I was amazed that only a few minutes before, I thought I was a scarred as much as I could possibly be. I was beyond scarred. No, now I was beyond that feeling and entering into emotional arenas that I didn't know existed. My feet and legs were no longer part of my body, they were part of a mechanical system over which I had no control.
My escorts lead me toward the glare of some high intensity lights and then turned and took me to a small vehicle. I could see from the bottom of my blindfold that I was near the end of a van of some type and the rear door was opened. Someone lifted a leg and pushed me into the vehicle. With the help of their boots I was shoved toward the front. I could feel several other bodies and assumed that they were going to stack us in like so much cord wood. I started to settle on who ever was there. This earned me a few quick kicks about the head and shoulders and I was yanked up and slammed into a seat. I could feel that I was on a rearward facing bench type seat behind the driver's seat.
There were people in the driver's compartment. I think it was a man and a woman. The woman kept making remarks to her companion and laughing. He didn't say much more than and occasional grunt in response. Most of the time, it just sounded like he was spitting tobacco out from an unfiltered cigarette, probably on us. At least he had a date. I was surrounded by shipmates, but we were all going through this alone. What ever was going to happen, I was going to have to face it by myself and my preparations for this were slim indeed.
After the van was loaded, the door was shut, at least those lights weren't in our eyes any more. The engine started and with our driver's assistant still talking, we drove off into darkness. As long as the van bounced and jolted through rutted streets, we felt a little safe, other than an occasional wad of spit flying our way, we only felt like being in the devil's waiting room. It only took a few minutes to get to our next destination, the Devil's playpen. From the sound of bells, whistles and escaping steam, I guessed we were at a train yard. The driver abruptly stopped the van. The back was thrown open. Surprise, surprise, the lights and hostile crowd were still with us. I assumed that behind those bright lights were cameras recording these events for the world to see. As the door swung open, the crowd yelled its approval once again.
I seemed to be operating at two levels. On one hand I was so filled with terror, that I just couldn't imagine why I didn't go into shock and die. On the other hand one part of my mind wanted to record each little detail. It was as if one part of me had become detached from me and watching. God, I felt like terrible. Why couldn't I just die and be done with this bullshit. Jesus, who were these people? I was beginning to take this personal. They didn't know me well enough to hate me that much. Welcome to the land of unreasoning hatred and racial discrimination.
The guards started pulling people out of the back of the van. Since we had left the ship, we could sense an urgency on the North Koreans part to do what ever was being done with as much haste as possible. Each sailor that was pulled off the van fell to the ground. We sounded like sacks of potatoes being unloaded, except you don't kick sacks of potatoes. The guards took their time so the crowd could savor each beating. They sounded like the crowd on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena each New Years Day when another float pulls into view. Ahhhhh! Ohhhhhhh!
I knew that one of those sacks was soon going to be me. I had heard one time in a situation like this it's best to get nailed in the head first, so you are out of it for the rest of the beating. Swell thought. So I began praying for a head shot when the time came. Please, God, let me go out and not feel it. Then a side door on the van opened, I could tell from the absence of glare, that the truck was parked at an angle from the lights. A hand took my arm and I was swiveled to my left and then someone guided my foot to the ground. I thought that since I wasn't in the light, the crowed couldn't see me and that a lot of what was going on was a form of crowd control. They were beating us to keep the crowd under control. My suspicions were quickly confirmed as I passed from darkness to light again. A rifle butt struck my left arm, I received several quick kicks to the legs and then someone left an impression of their knuckles on my chin. The beatings continued as we passed through our "protective" gauntlet guards to the train. Jesus, if these guys were our protection, skip the new neighbors.
The door to the train was out of the glare, so once aboard we escaped to some extent the North Korean's version of crowd control. On the train, we were placed on bench seats. From what we could see from the bottoms of our blind folds, the train was very old. The floor was made of wood, which was well worn and very dirty. The seats were of soiled brown cloth and from the smells inside the train I could tell a lot of fish and cabbage and been eaten on board over the years.
Once we were all seated someone told us not to talk. I was on an isle seat and therefore more accessible to the guards, who didn't want to have to reach to get to the guys at the windows. After the train had started, I turned slightly to the person on my right and with a half yawn said, "This is Russell who am I sitting next to?" Who ever it was must have thought I was a North Korean with a speech defect and didn't respond. That was the end of any attempts to communicate with anyone for the next twelve hours. At least anyone from the crew.
During that night on the train from Wonsan to Pyongyang, we learned many things about life and ourselves. One thing that I discovered was that going to the bathroom could be an adventure all by itself. We had been on the train for some time when someone started going from row to row saying "bathroom". Later I would realize that the bathroom in Korea was not unlike an entertainment center. At last the bath room fairy came to the row I was seated in, tapped me on the shoulder and pulled me up. Acclimation to the Korean culture was many weeks away. I was visualizing that I would be taken by my invisible benefactor to a real bathroom. This was not to be. With my hands still secured with line and my blindfold tightly in place, I was taken to an open area between cars. Now mind you were talking about a "speeding" train in the mountains of North Korea in the dead of winter and the middle of the night. I do not know how far below freezing it was, but with the wind chill factor it was really cold. My escort grabbed my collar and pushed me out into the slip stream of the train. He yelled something that I believe meant that this was it and I had better go.
My fingers fumbled with my fly. Between the lack of circulation and the fact that my fingers were being quickly frozen, I had real problems with that fly. At last my zipper was down and I could go. Except for one small problem, my dick was gone. I couldn't find it, with the brisk chill in the air and fear, it must have gone into hibernation until spring. I must have just pissed in the wind and on myself. At least the bladder pressure was gone when I returned my seat. I used the time sitting on the train to think back on my past life and try to determine what I had done to deserve this. I came up with a few ideas, but even combined, this couldn't be pay back. I tried to accept what was going on as best I could and managed to escape the situation by taking a couple of short naps. That didn't help much because each time I woke up, I had to deal with where I was all over again. My thoughts kept returning to Sharon and my family, what would they go through when they found out about all this, and would they find out?
Eventually they passed out what only in the strangest of circumstances could be called bread. In fact I just held it and wondered why they had given me a rock. One of their English speaking people came by and asked several of us why we were not eating? I then sniffed my rock and noticed a bread like smell and tried to eat it. The thing was so hard that I had to spit on it to get part of it soft enough to lick off. And you can well imagine how much saliva I was producing at that time. My mouth tasted like a tin can and I knew my breath must have been pretty bad.
Later they took us to the back of the car and asked us our name, rank, serial number and birthday. This was our first run in with the CODE OF CONDUCT. One of the first guys back there was Chuck Ayling. Chuck told them that according to the Geneva Convention that he only had to give them name, rank, serial number and age. This was followed with the sounds of Chuck's head being used as a punching bag for a few minutes, after which they explained a few details to him that he had seemed to have forgotten. The Geneva Convention only applied in times of war, our countries are not at war, therefore we were spies and the Convention didn't apply to spies and last but not least, they never signed it to begin with.
When my turn came, I gave them name, rank, serial number and birthday. I knew that this was a deviation from the CODE. But what difference did it make? The North Koreans had captured our personnel files intact. Why get your melon munched for something they already had? I returned to my seat intellectually secure in what I had done and in my heart knowing that I had screwed up. Or had I? Weren't people who might end up in these kinds of situations supposed to receive some kind of training or something?
Copyright © 2010 USS PUEBLO Veteran's Association. All rights reserved.
the PUEBLO Incident