By Lewis H. Carlson and Robert Coury
Col. Bob Coury retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1974 after being one of the very few pilots to fly in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He also flew the Berlin Airlift. Coury was a twenty-nine-year old captain flying an F-86 in Korea when he was shot down and captured on June 10, 1953, just a couple of hundred yards short of his own lines. As a prisoner, Coury was not overtly mistreated, although he tried to escape at his first opportunity. Coury, who was extensively interrogated, readily admits that every man had his breaking point. In spite of the passage of more than fifty years, Coury, who tells his story with a detached objectivity, has almost total recall of the events surrounding his incarceration.
Between early May and June 10, 1953, I flew thirty-eight sorties in Korea. I had just flown a mission on the morning of June 10 when my squadron commander met me at the airplane and told me I was to fly another mission that afternoon. Photo reconnaissance had picked up a buildup about ten miles behind lines. The photos determined the target was going to be difficult and that we should use a two-ship “pathfinder” to acquire the target followed by a twelve-ship flight. We were to dive-bomb the target, and I was to lead the twelve-ship gaggle. We found the target, I rolled into a dive, released the bombs, and was immediately hit by antiaircraft fire.
I pulled out of the dive and saw two fire warning lights glaring at me on the dash panel. The other guys in the flight began hollering at me to punch out because I had a good fire going. With the situation I, the book says you have ten seconds to get out. I figured if the bird would hold together for two minutes I could make it back across the lines, and I was going to take that chance. I headed south, but within a few seconds I lost thrust. I continues gliding south and losing altitude rapidly. I then lost flight controls and went into an inverted spin. I ejected and hit the ground immediately after my chute opened. I landed in a barren, battle-scarred area about fifty meters from enemy lines and some three hundred to four hundred meters from our lines. I had enough time to get out my emergency radio and talk to the deputy flight leader. He told me to head into the sun and that they had already launched a helicopter to pick me up. If I had succeeded in moving in that direction, I would have crawled right into their trench lines. I was crawling along on my stomach and all of a sudden I felt a poke in my back. I rolled over and there were two soldiers armed with rifles. They hurriedly took me into one of the bunkers. At first I thought they might be South Koreans, but when I looked around the bunker and saw a Red Star on a canteen, I knew where I was.
I was shot down about four o’clock in the afternoon of June 10, 1953. The soldiers on the frontline were very friendly and curious about the garb I was wearing. As soon as it began getting dark, they started moving me to the rear. I walked through their lines for about a mile and then out on a road. Two soldiers would take me a mile or so, and then two more would come up and continue the trek. I covered about ten miles that night, back to the area that we had bombed. I got so exhausted that I couldn’t walk anymore, so for the last couple of miles they were practically dragging me.
They took me to a prisoner collecting point that was a compound of caves dug into the side of a hill. These caves were lined with timber, roofed and covered with soil. They left one corner above ground and used it as a window and put small three-inch timbers in as bars. The first thing that came into my mind was to escape. I was not in any kind of shock. I just had a numb spot on top of my head where the canopy had hit me during ejection. I started twisting these timbers to see if I could get them loose. I finally got them to where I could take them out and put them in at will. This left me enough room to crawl out. I still had my billfold with me with some photos and a pack of cigarettes. I took the tinfoil out of the cigarettes and put it on one of the plastic picture holders, which made a pretty good reflector. I practiced with it when I got some sunshine, and it worked pretty well. I thought if I escaped from the cave, I might be able to signal one of our airplanes, or I might be able to make my own way across the lines at night.
On the eighth night of my captivity, I very carefully removed the timbers and started crawling out. The guard was pacing back and forth just a few yards from me. I was watching him and slowly making my way out when I heard people coming up the pathway to the compound. I quickly squirmed back into the cave. I didn’t even have time to put the timbers back in place before they came directly into my cave, but a blinfold on me, and put me in a truck with a bunch of South Korean prisoners, and off we went.
From the collecting point we traveled all night. We were seated in the bed of a rather large pickup truck with a couple of guards standing over us. Every time I got up to myself a guard would jab his rifle butt into my shoulder. The next morning we were unloaded and put into a room in a Korean hut. All of us tried to get some rest, but within an hour they came in with a huge bowl of rice and put it in the middle of the room. The Korean prisoners all had eating utensils with them, either chopsticks or spoons, and the rice vanished quickly. I reached in with my hand to get some, and the guard made us all stop. He left for a minute or so and came back with a spoon and handed it to me.
A few hours later, they blindfolded me and put me in the back end of a truck myself. It was a cloudy day and I guess they felt they could travel without being attacked by our planes. We traveled until early the next morning when we stopped at a small command post. We work up the soldier inside, and he proceeded to try to interrogate me. I gave him only my name, rank, and serial number, and he instructed the guards to take me away. We were in very mountainous terrain near what looked like a vacated POW camp. The guards took me down the road a couple of miles, where we stopped at a three-room family hut occupied by an old man, his daughter, and an infant child. They were moved out of the room that was then used as a cell for me. There were eight or ten Chinese guards who guarded me around the clock. It was a bare room with a dirt floor, and they insisted that I sit on the floor. They kept the door closed most of the time, and when they opened it, and I was caught standing or lying down, they raised hell with me. After about the fourth day, they began leaving the door open, and I could observe what was going on outside.
Initially they tried to interrogate me a couple of times a day. After about twelve days, there were only interrogating me once a day, but there were also cutting down on my food. During the last few days I was being fed one small bowl of rice and a can of water per day. I used the same slit-trench latrine the Korean family used. I was allowed to go down to the stream once a day and bathe and brush my teeth. They provided e with a toothbrush and toothpaste. How the Korean peasants lived really amazed me. They were hardly civilized. The daughter carried her baby on her back wrapped in a piece of cloth she tied around her waist. She also did most of the work around the house. I watched her take some kind of grain, put it in this hollow stump, and grind it with a piece of wood. She would spend a couple of hours doing this. Then she would take this meal, make a kind of dough out of it, and put it in a little tin box that had holes in the bottom. By pressing the dough through the holes she made noodles. One time the baby did its business while on his mother’s back. The mother untied the sash, and held the baby out to let a small dog lick it clean. Without even cleaning the sash she put the baby back on her back. A few days later they butchered and ate the dog.
It was during this time that I was most concerned about what the future held for me. There were no sounds of ground fighting or air activity. I often thought the war could have ended, particularly since just before taking off I was told that a cease-fire was expected momentarily.
Once again I was blindfolded and hauled off in a truck. We arrived at our destination about ten o’clock at night. I was forced up a ladder, still blindfolded, into a very small room. As soon as I heard the door slam shut, I removed the blindfold and began feeling around the darkened room. It turned out to be an attic room about six feet square with a four-foot ceiling that slanted to the floor. I stayed there the rest of the night and all the next day. After dark they removed me from the attic, walked me across a courtyard into a room where several interrogators were seated. The Chinese head honcho told me, ”We are very displeased with your interrogation thus far. If we don’t get better cooperation, we’re going to take you behind the building and put a bullet through your head. We’ve done it before and we will do it again.” I believed him, but at that point I just didn’t care.
I was then taken back across the courtyard to a cell. I could tell by feeling around the interior that this had been a horse stall. It had small double doors leading to the courtyard, and an individual entrance going to the outside. The entire room was sealed with cardboard to prevent seeing outside. There was a small opening at the ceiling. I went to the individual entrance and gave it a good kick, and it flew open. I walked outside into a bright, moonlit night, and for the first time since my capture knew exactly where I was. I could see the city of Sinuiju and the mouth of the Yalu River.
This had to be their top interrogation center. Both to my right and left there were individuals squatting and watching me. I immediately figured that trying to escape would be fruitless, so I walked back into the cell and went to sleep. They raised hell with me again the next morning.
The interrogation process was pretty routine. Once or twice a day they would try to interrogate me. As best I could tell, there were eight Chinese and two North Korean interrogators. Once of the North Koreans tried to befriend me by telling me that he was originally from South Korea, but that he had political differences with government officials. Both he and his wife were imprisoned in South Korea. His wife died in prison during childbirth, but he was able to escape, and there was only one place for him to go, and that was to the North. I don’t know whether he was sincere or just trying to get me to talk to him.
When I first arrived at this interrogation center, there were three other American POWs, all pilots. One of them had been injured and was allowed to walk the interior of the courtyard with a guard. I was able to observe this by peeling back some of the cardboard covering the cracks. Once when he passed my cell, I began humming the “Air Force Song,” hoping to get some response out of him. No luck! This prisoner was moved out after a couple of days. Later I learned there were two more American prisoners there.
While at this interrogation center, it was easy to tell the war was still on because all the big air battles were taking place overhead. Finally there came a time when there was no air activity despite the good weather. I had gone out to the toilet, and one of the Chinese interrogators came out at the same time. I asked him about the status of the war, and all I got was a grin. Later, a North Korean interrogator came out, and I mentioned there had been no air activity. He said “We expect a cease-fire momentarily. You should be going home very soon.” My morale skyrocketed.
A day or two later, they blindfolded the three of us who were left and put us in a weapons carrier. They told us not to talk to each other—which lasted for about three minutes. We were heading up the Yalu River. We spent one night on the road, and the next day we went by a couple of POW camps that had already been vacated. A bit later we went by an active camp, and we could see the guys walking around and playing volleyball. We went beyond the camp about a mile, and were taken into a small command post. There someone told us the war had ended and gave us each a bottle of beer and a carton of cigarettes. We thought they would put us into this camp with the rest of the guys. Instead, they put the three of us in a little compound and left us there for a couple of hours. An interrogator showed up with some questionnaires he wanted filled out. We put down our name, rank, and serial number and handed them back. He became angry and started raising hell with us. One of our guys, Steve Bettinger, started giving the interrogator a bad time. The interrogator called a couple of guards and they moved Steve into solitary confinement. They took Don Hodges and me back to the regular camp and left us there.
We went into the compound, parked our meager belongings, and went out to watch the guys playing volleyball. Nobody made any effort to come and greet us for quite some time. The reason for this was they were divided into two groups: the good guys and the bad guys, those whoe had confessed to germ warfare and other evil deeds and those who had not. Finally, one guy came over and asked us some pointed questions. We both gave him a full account of what had happened to us. He reported back to the group and they accpeted us as friends. Most of them were pilots, but there were also some enlisted men there as well.
Bettinger showed up the following day. Steve was quite a character, and the last “ace” of the Korean War. He had shot down his fifth MIG and then was shot down himself. He told us they had put him in a thatched-roof hut the previous night and as he was about to go to sleep on the floor, something dropped on his chest. He let out a yell, and the guard opened the door. A big snake had fallen out of the thatched roof.
After a couple of days at that camp, we were put on a train headed south. We went into another compound for a few days, and each day they would take a few guys out to be repatriated. I came out the next to the last day of the repatriation cycle. The thing that impressed me the most as we entered Freedom Village were two husky Military Police who were spit-and-polish from head to toe. The folks running the place questioned us a bit, fed us, and let us make phone calls home.
I was put on a hospital ship to come home. I weighed 145 pounds when I was shot down and about 105 before repatriation. On the hospital ship, the head Air Force guy was Bud Mahurin, a World War II ace and a full colonel. At our first evening mess about ship he called al the Air Force guys together and said, “Okay, we’ve been through the business of being captured and tortured and all that, and there are supposed to be good guys and bad guys, but let’s try to forget about that and have a good trip home.”
One of my fellow prisoners onboard was a Marine colonel who was actually a staff officer. He was one of the guys who had confessed, and he told me why. He was flying up to Seoul for a meeting and had some top-secret documents with him. He was in a little twin-engine C-45 and decided to fly up to the frontlines to observe some Marines. He was shot down and captured. He told me his interrogators had all kinds of information on his family, and they threatened to harm his family members. They had the names of his children, where they went to school, and all sorts of other information. He told me, “Rather than do harm to my family, I was willing to confess to anything they wanted me to say.”
My personal belief is that you can break anybody down if you really want to, given the time and the right environment. I was very lucky for a couple of reasons. I was a prisoner during the summer months when it was warm, and I knew what had happened to the guys who had already returned during the exchange of wounded prisoners in Operation Little Switch.
All of us went through a counter-interrogation on the boat. I was hospitalized after reaching the States and went through another interrogation. When I got to my next base, I went through a third one. Several months after I got home, I received a letter from the Air Force stating that my conduct as a POW was considered commendable and wishing me future success in the Air Force.
Excerpted from Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War: An Oral History of Korean War POWs by Lewis H. Carlson.
Copyright © 2002 by the author.
Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
LEWIS H. CARLSON is a prolific author and scholar whose books include Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War and We Were Each Other’s Prisoners: An Oral History of World War II American and German Prisoners of War.
COL. ROBERT COURY’s story of being shot down, held as a POW and then repatriated, is told in the book Remembered Prisoners of a Forgotten War. His biographical sketch in the book notes that he “retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1974 after being one of the very few pilot to fly in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He also flew the Berlin Airlift. Coury was a twenty-nine-year old captain flying an F-86 in Korea when he was shot down and captured on June 10, 1953, just a couple of hundred yards short of his own lines. As a prisoner, Coury was not overtly mistreated, although he tried to escape at his first opportunity. Coury, who was extensively interrogated, readily admits that every man had his breaking point. In spite of the passage of more than fifty years, Coury, who tells his story with a detached objectivity, has almost total recall of the events surrounding his incarceration.”