Korean War POW addresses university students, faculty

By KEVEN GILBERT | Americus Times-Recorder, Ga. | Published: September 23, 2013

AMERICUS, Ga. — In observance of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which is observed the third Friday of September, Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) held the 8th Annual POW Convocation program in Jackson Hall Wednesday. The convocation’s featured speaker was Bill Norwood. Held as a POW between 1951-53, Norwood founded the Korean War Ex-POW Association in 1976.

Norwood’s reverent and patriotic address was preceded by an introduction from the Superintendent of Andersonville National Historic Site, Brad Bennett, who provided background information on the decorated former POW.  

Norwood, a native of Tennessee, enlisted in the U.S. the Army at age 17. In 1950, he was deployed to Korea where he was embattled for six months in the military conflict before he was taken prisoner. His family only knew he was missing in action until his mother received a letter from her son, who was being held in a POW camp in North Korea.

Norwood’s military honors include the POW medal, good conduct medal, national defense medal, Korean service medal with 10 battle stars, United Nations service medal, South Korean Government service medal, South Korean Government Presidential Medallion.

Norwood began by reminding the audience that the Korean War is often referred to as The Forgotten War, although there are many who will never forget.

“It’s my hope that what I have to say may be of interest to someone and enlighten their day in some manner,” Norwood began, adding that he appreciated the occasion to speak to college students. He told the capacity crowd that the next U.S. president could be among them because “anything is possible in our great land we call America.”

He warned the audience against those who look down on demonstrations of patriotism, and notions of political correctness that encroach on American freedoms.

“You can call me a flag waver if you wish,” Norwood said. “I don’t mind; I’m not ashamed to stand up and say I get goose bumps when I stand up and hear The Star Spangled Banner play.”

Being held captive as a prisoner of war, Norwood describes “a soldier’s greatest fear even greater than death.”

He said his luck had run out, surviving six months of combat. Being captured, Norwood said he began to prepare himself for his fate, until he had an unexpected experience. Peace came over him as he felt the sensation of weightlessness, hovering over the ground, and there was a bright shining light.

As he approached the light, Norwood saw his mother smiling, hanging clothes on the clothesline.

“What a peaceful state of mind,” Norwood exclaimed. “I did not want to return to reality and face what was in store for me.”

Reality returned to focus and Norwood soon realized the trouble he was in. He was kicked and shoved and put with a group of other imprisoned soldiers. They were forced to march to the extreme northern portion of North Korean to a prison camp.

Norwood said the march was long and difficult, spanning four months. They experienced narrow mountain trails, fatigue, darkness and even bombs from U.S. aerial forces that had no way of knowing their fellow soldiers were in the marching caravan.

Norwood and the other prisoners had to carry wounded buddies on makeshift stretchers.

“To leave one behind would be certain death,” Norwood said, explaining the grim reality of the situation. But in the worst case, Norwood said, often soldiers would carry their comrades all night, only to realize in the morning they had died.

Eventually, as the soldiers weakened, there was no other choice than to leave the wounded behind. They prayed for their captors’ compassion, but that was a rare sentiment. Rifle shots were the norm, putting an already dying man to death.

Norwood described the situation as hopeless. The prisoners’ fears were depressing them and accentuating their already weakened state. He said they were forced to face the reality that they wouldn’t be rescued and they would be forgotten. Now in the capital city of Pyongyang the soldiers were set in front of a dirty screen where they were forced to watch a propaganda film. Norwood said the film depicted the end of World War II and Russia’s military prowess as it rolled throughout Germany.

Nearing the end of the communist-made film, Norwood said there was a profound image.

“All of the sudden there appeared on that screen the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” he said.

It was toward the end of the film and there was footage of all the Allied forces and the American flag appeared on the screen. The sight stirred the men. They shouted and raised to their feet and saluted. Those that were sick and wounded were helped to their feet to take part in a “joyous occasion.”

“We realized we were still American soldiers and we would not be forgotten again regardless of the circumstances,” Norwood recalled,

Norwood said seeing the flag gave him and others the strength to hold on and survive in captivity for two and one-half more grueling years. The men who could still walk were forced further north. Those who remained were never seen again. For food they were given a meager diet of grain and cracked corn that was also given to the livestock.

James Ray Emerson, another American POW in Norwood’s group, managed to escape from the enemy. As Norwood tells it, the soldier didn’t get far and was brought back but not before he killed two of his captors. Emerson, tried before a kangaroo court, was sentenced to death and forced to dig his own grave. Defiant in the face of the enemy, Norwood said the soldier refused to face the firing squad, shouting “shoot me in the back like the cowards you are.”

Norwood said he will never forget that display of bravery. Emerson remains in that shallow grave in North Korea, “forgotten by most,” Norwood said.

After living for all that time those deplorable conditions subsisting on unfit food and stagnant water and having no sanitation or medical treatment, not to mention getting no rest and enduring beatings, Norwood survived and was finally rescued. It is estimated that at that camp in North Korea that 1,600 men died of various causes. Norwood closed with a poem that the survivors of that camp dedicated to the 1,600 that did not return home.

An excerpt from “The Sixteen Hundred” reads:

“Six foot by two foot by just a few inches deep
there on that lonely hill they sleep.
And when we go home we will still wonder why
That 1,600 had to die.
There was no casket to enclose their breast,
just old GI clothing for their last breath.
All colors of men: Brown, Black and White,
Now ‘Sixteen Hundred’ faded lights.”


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