Eight men are left to tell the story. Research is still being conducted. The Pentagon recently found out about a mass grave at the site. Facts are still being assembled fifty-six years later for these eight survivors. They thought the death march was 400 miles long. Researchers now say it was about 600 miles as they criss-crossed through the countryside to avoid detection.
In 1950, in the early days of the Korean War, our troops were totally outnumbered. The North Koreans, with enough men to blanket the countryside surrounded the Allied Forces and took captives. As the men were captured, they were marched north. Zigzagged across the country, they were used by the North Koreans for propaganda opportunities.
As they marched, new prisoners were added. Many old prisoners began dying of disease, wounds and abuse. Bodies littered the march’s path. They marched through Taejon and prisoners were picked up following the defeat of Major General Dean’s troops. Taejon had been held for twenty-five days before the troops were forced to retreat. One of the survivors, Valdor John, participated in that battle, and was captured there.
Bayonets, rice balls, lice, thirst, lack of bathing, the smells, decaying bodies and buddies dying – these are the memories of the march. Most were wounded when they were captured. They may or may not have received any medical treatment. If they did, it was minimal. They talked about the maggots in their wounds. It was so gross, but they later learned the maggots kept the wounds clean. Many had their boots taken by the guards, and they wrapped their feet in anything they could find to give them some covering. They all suffered from malnutrition, beri-beri and other diseases.
If someone fell behind, he was shot or bayoneted. As in many other death marches, they helped each other, keeping the wounded on foot as long as possible.
They arrived in Seoul just before General MacArthur landed the Marines at Inchon. Estimates of the numbers vary, but by the time they reached Seoul there were over three hundred prisoners still alive. As they huddled in their quarters, they could hear distant gunfire. They would later learn that it was the American troops.
As the troops headed toward Seoul, the North Koreans marched the prisoners to Pyongyang where they were paraded through the streets. By day, they huddled in an old building. It was bitterly cold.
From Pyongyang, they marched to a train depot where they were loaded into boxcars. By this time the American planes were closing in. After a few days the train entered the Sunchon Tunnel and stopped. The prisoners were told they couldn’t leave in the daylight because of the Americans. The guards said they would take one car at a time, and feed the prisoners. Among the first group to leave was Major William Tom McDaniel. He had been the group’s leader and they all felt that he had kept them alive. They never saw him again.
Car by car, they were unloaded, shot, bayoneted and finally left for dead. From this massacre, twenty men survived. The eight who are still living share many memories, but there are some differences in the details of the final two days.
Five of the survivors were in the massacre the first day, the other three were shot the second day. Jim Yeager, Bill Henninger, Bob Sharpe and Valdor John were in the first group. Ed Slater, Walt Whitcomb and Sherman Jones were in the last group. Ed left the site and made it back to the train depot. American troops rescued all of the survivors.
After fifty-five years, as they reunited for the first time, they talked of these differences. They realized why they thought some of the others were dead. They had been loaded into different cars, and shot at different times. They each believed the only survivors were the ones from their boxcars. In the last few years, a couple of them talked to each other, but they were still unaware of the number living. A year ago, Walt Whitcomb, ran across Ed Slater’s name. They got in touch and met in Kansas City. Then in January of this year, Sherman Jones called Ed. As they talked, they knew they needed to gather everybody who was still living, and have a reunion.
This reunion took place in Branson, MO, over Memorial Day weekend. Hugs, smiles, tears and memories were shared. Seven of the eight survivors attended. Allen Gifford was unable to attend because of ill health. But he was never forgotten. Stories and memories made more sense as they learned the details of the massacre. Tom McDaniel, Major McDaniel’s son, attended the reunion to learn more about his father and the events leading up to his death.
Bill Henninger, Valdor John, Sherman Jones, Bob Sharpe, Ed Slater, Walt Whitcomb and Jim Yeager have lived with this experience for over fifty years. They are each, in their own way, still trying to come to terms with the cruelty and uselessness of it all. They’ve spent a lifetime trying to overcome both their physical and emotional wounds. Sherman has had 67 surgeries to repair the damage after being shot in the face and in the foot. Valdor and Bob stayed in the service. Valdor served another tour of duty in Korea and three in Vietnam. Bob served a tour in Vietnam. Bill Henninger is the only one in the group who had also seen action in WWII. Walt, Jim and Ed are still struggling with the memories. Ed has spent the last eleven years as a National Service Officer with the VA, working with other POWs. All of them are now active in POW organizations.
A book telling the story of the massacre, the intervening years and the reunion will be published in 2007. They Came Home: Sunchon Tunnel Massacre is being co-authored by Joyce Faulkner and Pat McGrath Avery.
Pat McGrath Avery, author of They Came Home: Korean War POWs Tell Their Stories