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13 Months as a POW


by Bob Festa
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Al Andre' and Bob Festa' On 10 August 1952, my parents received the standard telegram from the U.S. Air Force stating that "It is with deep regret that I officially inform you that your son A/2C R. K. Festa, AF 11217133 has been missing since 10 August, 1952, etc. Further details will follow, etc." The follow-up letter arrived the next day. (I still have the original telegram and letter.) The fact that I was alive and my family thought I was dead was constantly on my mind during captivity.

"Al Andre' (L) and Bob Festa (R)"

One escape attempt was made from Pok's Palace toward the end of September. John DeMasters (USN), and James Witt (USAF) attempted escape but were quickly recaptured. The North Koreans kept them apart from our group and treated them very badly by beating them and keeping them tied up. During that time, heavy interrogation began on all prisoners.

During my interrogations, I was constantly threatened, beaten and made to stand in a cold stream. During one session, a North Korean officer, along with two guards, asked me for my unit's T-O-N-E. I told him I didn't know. Eventually, the officer gave me a pencil and piece of paper and told me he would return in fifteen minutes and would do much "physical harm" to me if I didn't give him the T-O-N-E. I printed the word TONE at the top of the page and waited. He came back, hit me until he was winded, sat down, caught his breath, and very seriously said, "I have spoken to many B-26 gunners and you are the dumbest." I was upset. I later found out what he wanted was my T 0 & E (Table of Organization and Equipment) which, by the way, I didn't know! It taught me a lesson, though. I could say "I don't know" and they would accept it.

In October, we were transferred to the Chinese. There were about fifteen prisoners in all, including DeMasters and Witt, representing all branches of U.S. military service. We were somewhere north of Pyongyang about twenty miles south of the Yalu River at what the Chinese called Camp No. 2, Annex. During the next eleven months, we eventually grew to approximately forty prisoners -- mostly officers -- including those from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

The Chinese treated us more humanely. We had boiled white rice with a cabbage or potato soup twice a day and we did not have to work every day. We were required to provide volunteers and, because I was healthy, I always volunteered. It was a relief to go somewhere else. Sometimes we went to the Yalu River to unload wood barges, or we had to dig a local cold cellar. The Chinese also gave us a toothbrush, once in a while toothpaste, a sugar and tobacco ration once a month (it didn't ever last a month), and in November they gave each prisoner a padded cotton suit, hat and sneakers (no underwear). I put that suit on in November and didn't take it off until the following June. I always had lice. In June the suit was replaced with a summer suit -- this time with underwear!

We had no lights, running water, heat or inside toilets. They did give us playing cards which greatly improved our morale. Capt. Ronald Chester Harry, USAF, was a bridge master and he taught us how to play. We wore out every deck of cards they gave us. They also gave us books -- The Three Musketeers, Man in the Iron Mask. These were books involving violent revolutions. We also received the Daily Worker (two months late) and I learned about Gus Hall, at that time, President of the American Communist Party. The Worker also had much to say about Chairman Mao and Premier Kim Lee Sung. We slept on straw mats, head to foot very close and very cold in the winter. Some nights it was so cold you couldn't sleep.

The Chinese tried to indoctrinate us into the "Good Life" that communism had brought to Russia, China, North Korea, etc. All we did was look around and compare. Periodically, the Chinese would separate each of us and we would live from five to eight days in isolation, subjected to interrogation at odd hours, at night by candlelight. They were much more subtle than the North Koreans. I still remembered that "I don't know" would be my best answer.

We watched the F-86 Sabre and MIG-15 dog fights right over us all winter. We saw a MIG go down on one of our volunteer trips to the Yalu. By the way, the Sabre had a kill ratio of 14 to I over the MIG-15 during the Korean War. We provided ourselves with as much self-entertainment as the Chinese would allow, such as an amateur hour or variety shows, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I read as much as I could. Some of us studied math, including basic algebra, algebra, basic trig, and rudimentary calculus with Phillip Greville, an Australian officer who wanted to author a mathematics textbook.

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