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13 Months as a POW

by Bob Festa
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Escape was not practical in the winter as no one could live off the land. Being non-Korean we would be easy to spot and had no where to go. In the spring, the Chinese built a wood sapling compound around the camp. Four prisoners did escape. They had an eight hour head start but were marched back through camp less than sixteen hours after they left. As punishment, they had to write a self-criticism on why they should not escape. We had a few laughs over that.

In December 1952, my family received word from the Air Force that my name appeared in the Russian newspaper Pravda just after Christmas. There was no change in my status -- I was still listed as MIA. The Air Force encouraged my family to write to me. In the spring of 1953, the Chinese allowed us to send a postcard home and it was received by my family in June of 1953. I also received mail from home in June 1953. I now thought we might be going home soon.

In July and August of 1953 the sick and wounded of both the Communists and United Nations were exchanged. Capt. Robert Henry and four others in our group were part of that first exchange. My status was still MIA. During this time, we were treated much better. We had more food, such as canned beef, which was something we never had before. I weighed 100 lbs. when I was released. I weighed 130 lbs. at the time of my capture and estimate I weighed 90-95 lbs during most of my captivity (strange word).

We were informed on 15 August 1953 that the Cease Fire had been signed on 27 July 1953. Shortly after that, we headed south in trucks to a holding camp. I was released on 4 September 1953. I was taken by truck to Pan Mun Jom where the Chinese turned me over to U.S. Military control. I came through "Freedom Gate" into a waiting Army ambulance and then by helicopter to a MASH unit where I had my first shower in thirteen months. What a kick -- I can still remember it! What a day for me!! Not many Americans were left up north: I was one of the last. I really felt blessed at that time because I was an American going home to America. We went to Inchon and on 10 September 1953, I left Korea by boat for San Francisco, eventually assigned TDY to Mitchell Field, Long Island, New York.

At Mitchell Field, I decided to leave the Air Force and get an education. I was due for separation in January, 1954. Before separation, I was interrogated by CIA agents for five straight days, eight hours a day. You may remember that this was the McCarthy Era, and that some ex-POW's were court-martialed for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Under the military code of conduct, the only thing you were supposed to give was your name, rank and serial number. That was not an easy code to live up to when you're being beaten. Prisoners' experiences following the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts led the military to redefine the code of conduct into what it is today.

Later I received a letter from the Air Force stating that "This is to reassure you that no official reservation exists regarding the propriety of your conduct while a prisoner." I had just spent 13 months in one of the most humanly degrading situations that you can imagine and after that, the Air Force sent me that letter ... I felt terrible -- I guess because the Air Force didn't then recognize the situation.

I turned my back on the military and tried to walk away from my POW experiences. I could not do that. I then focused on getting an education. I used the GI Bill and received a degree in electrical engineering from Indiana Institute of Technology. This degree led me to a position with the Southern New England Telephone Company from which I recently retired after 32 years of service.

What I can say for sure is that I loved my time in the U.S. Air Force and being with the people of the 13th Bomb Squadron who, night after night, were willing to put themselves in "harm's way" without hesitation, fully knowing the possible outcome.

-- Robert K. Festa, 13th Gunner
Bob Festa
"Bob Festa"
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