WASHINGTON — For Norman Hale, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War marks 60 years of freedom.
For most of Hale’s three-year stint in the Army, he was a prisoner of war, spending 32 months and 11 days in a prison camp near Pyoktong, North Korea, near the Chinese border.
“It was like hell here on Earth,” said Hale, the chaplain for the Korean War Ex-POW Association. “We didn’t know from one day to the next whether they were going to kill us or let us live.”
Hale, now 83, was among the many Korean War veterans who made the pilgrimage to the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the armistice that took effect on July 27, 1953.
Cloice Dotson, who served with the 937th Field Artillery Battalion, was a little luckier. He was never captured, although he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for years after he returned home, and wasn’t able to open up about his time in the war until five years ago. Every day at lunch, the enemy would shell his base, he said.
Dotson, 84, was determined to make the journey from Indianapolis to the nation’s capital to visit the memorial on the anniversary while he still could.
“I know this will probably be the last occasion that I’ll be celebrating what happened 60 years ago,” Dotson, said. “It’s something that I’ll always remember. I have made a contribution and been blessed to come back to this country … and continue living.”
Hale, meanwhile, was reflecting on the men still missing in action. More than 8,100 are still MIA, according to the Korean War Ex-POW Association. (The Pentagon’s office for tracking missing personnel says there are roughly 7,900.)
Hale was captured Nov. 29, 1950, after 20,000 Chinese and North Korean troops surrounded a few thousand soldiers with the 2nd Infantry Division. Upon capture, he was buried in a foxhole up to his neck, not knowing if he would be stoned to death. Later he was pulled out, and from December to February, Hale and the other U.S. POWs were forced on a death march, occasionally stopping in villages when the ice or snow prevented travel. He estimates they marched at least 200 miles.
At camp, they survived on a diet of cracked corn and prayer. Hale had gone into the military weighing 150 pounds. He was just 70 pounds when he was liberated on Aug. 10, 1953.
“You could almost say it was the happiest day of my life,” he said. “You can’t express what we felt, really. It was happiness, then grief for the men we lost.”
“People say the Korean War did no good,” he said. “But ask the South Koreans if we did good. They are flourishing, they’re independent and they’ve got plenty. But North Korea is just like it always was, and they’re poor.
“Freedom is not free, and somebody’s got to pay the price,” Hale said. “And I’m more than happy to say that I loved America and the people in it that I would have given my life for it.”