Korean War Battle of Kunu-ri remembered

Retired Maj. Arden Rowley wears a vintage uniform in honor of his former unit as he speaks at the ceremony. Rowley was captured at the Battle Kunu-ri and was a prisoner of war for 33 months.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2004

CAMP CASEY, South Korea — It took years of searching through Army surplus stores to assemble the uniform retired 2nd Engineer Battalion Maj. Arden Rowley, 74, wore to his old unit’s Burning of the Colors ceremony Wednesday.

Rowley’s original uniform wore out during the 33 months he spent in North Korean prisoner of war camps after he was captured at the Korean War Battle of Kunu-ri — the event commemorated at the ceremony.

The annual Burning of the Colors is a re-enactment of the actions of 2nd Engineer Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Alarich Zacherle at Kunu-ri, north of Pyongyang, on Nov. 30, 1950.

On that day the engineers were guarding the rear of the 2nd Infantry Division as it retreated in the face of overwhelming odds, under attack from five Chinese divisions.

According to the program for the ceremony, “Zacherle realized the 2nd Engineer Battalion would soon be overrun and unable to withdraw. In an effort to deny the enemy the Battalion colors as a war trophy, he ordered the colors to be burned.”

All but one officer from the 2nd Engineer Battalion was killed or captured in the battles around Kunu-ri. More than 5,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Many of those taken prisoner did not survive the harsh conditions of the North Korean POW camps.

Rowley wore his Korean War era uniform as he recalled his own POW experience for members of today’s 2nd Engineer Battalion, veterans and other 2nd ID soldiers at the ceremony.

He bought the uniform, which included a long pile jacket and cap with earflaps to provide extra warmth in Korea’s extreme winter cold, piece by piece at Army surplus stores after the war, he said.

“In May 1994, I returned to the area of Panmunjom where on August 18, 1953, I gained my freedom after 33 months being held in North Korea. We crossed the Freedom Bridge. It was an experience I will never forget. Three thousand, five hundred American soldiers returned over that bridge of freedom. I thought of those 3,500 American soldiers and many soldiers of other nations who did not return with us — those men who died of the extreme cold, malnutrition or abuse at the hands of their captors,” he said.

Rowley, who was an enlisted soldier during the Korean War, recalled the first time he saw a U.S. flag after 2½ years as a POW.

“Some of us enlisted had a chance to visit the officers at a POW camp. We had not seen our officers in 2 years. On the second evening an officer approached several enlisted men and we made our way into the completely darkened camp kitchen,” he said.

The officer turned on a light in the kitchen to reveal a cake decorated with a U.S. flag, he said.

“It had been 2½ years since we had had the privilege of looking upon that symbol of freedom. The cake became to us the real flag of our nation. We held our hands over our hearts and recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag and remembered the many who had given their lives. I remember thinking about what would happen if the guards discovered us, but I didn’t have to worry for long because we quickly devoured the evidence,” Rowley said.

The old soldier also read an account of a comrade who died in the Korean War with a frozen tear on his cheek.

“What were his last thoughts as he lay dying? Was he thinking about his girlfriend back home … his mother … his child … was he having a conversation with God? He did not have a nurse in a crisp clean uniform wrap a blanket around him. His cries of ‘medic’ went unanswered,” Rowley said.

Some of the men who suffered during the Korean War might have wondered if their sacrifices would be worth it, he said.

“(On a previous trip to South Korea) I retraced the steps of the 2nd ID as we stopped the North Korean advance at the Pusan perimeter. By retracing those steps and along the way to see the Korean people so happy and prosperous whereas at that time (during the war) they were such a pitiful and abused people I received a confirmation in my mind that our sacrifices were worth it,” he said.

Another veteran’s reasons for attending this year’s flag burning ceremony were less complicated.

Jim Ditton, 77, of Surprise, Ariz., said he came to see the pride had by the battalion and the engineers have and “the camaraderie and enthusiasm of the present soldiers.”

Soldiers from the 2nd Engineer Battalion burn the colors at Camp Casey, South Korea, on Wednesday. The annual ceremony is a re-enactment of the actions of 2nd Engineer Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Alarich Zacherle at the Korean War battle at Kunu-ri on Nov. 30, 1950.