BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, California (AFNS) — On the Air Force’s 68th anniversary, more than 100 Airmen attended a National POW/MIA Recognition Day event to hear a Soldier’s story of sacrifice and endurance.
“I was beat, starved and humiliated,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Obie Wickersham, 90, sporting a full head of white hair and wearing a maroon and gold veteran’s vest during a breakfast meeting Sept. 18. “But I survived. I had too much to go home to — family, friends.”
Air Force Sergeants Association Chapter 1372 hosted the event at the Recce Point Club. Before Wickersham spoke, a color guard performed a discreet ritual in which its five members encircled a round dining table, placing service caps from each military branch at empty place settings to recognize GIs who remain listed as missing in action.
Wickersham, a resident of Yuba City, California, served 27 months as a prisoner in the Korean War. He was 24 years old at the time, and Korea was his second overseas conflict. He had fought through Europe as a World War II paratrooper before returning to civilian life. The military reservist was recalled to active service in Asia as a platoon sergeant with the 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division. He and several men from his unit were captured by Chinese forces the night of May 17, 1951. Wickersham was immediately concerned for his life because he had read in the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper that the Chinese had executed prisoners.
“They tied my hands behind my back, made me kneel,” he said. “I knew I was dead.”
Instead, Wickersham said his captors balked as a barrage of tank fire erupted and turned their attention to their own survival. In the ensuing months, Wickersham was among those who endured a forced 500-mile walk to a prison camp in North Korea, subsisting on ground barley with the consistency of flour.
“It’s what they fed to animals. I guess that’s what they considered us, animals.”
The men swallowed it with unclean water, leading to widespread dysentery. Of the 500 prisoners who started the trek, 200 survived. Among the dead was Sgt. 1st Class Patrick J. Arthur, who died July 31, 1951. His comrades called him “Pops” because, at 36, he was old by fighting GI standards. Wickersham and a friend buried Arthur in a shallow grave, hiding one of his dog tags on his body in hopes that his remains would be found one day.
The Americans were held with French, Turkish and British troops in a camp just across the Yalu River from China.
“I could spit into China, it was right there,” Wickersham said.
Prison leaders interrogated the men and forced them to listen to discourses on the attributes of communism. Officers were separated from enlisted men so Wickersham was the only one from his unit at the camp, making it difficult for his captors to determine whether information he gave them was true.
“You had to lie,” he said. “I became a pretty good liar.”
The prisoners largely ate plain tofu — soybean curd — and Wickersham’s weight dropped to 90 pounds.
“When we got rice, it was like eating ice cream. We didn’t get it much.”
Remaining busy helped with the men’s spirits, he said, and the Chinese enjoyment of basketball benefited the prisoners as they had access to an outdoor court and were sometimes directed to play guards.
“You had to be active,” he said. “You couldn’t sit in a corner of your mud hut and feel sorry for yourself. It wouldn’t help.”
The prisoners prided themselves in achieving small victories, Wickersham said. Sometimes, when a GI visited the latrine at night, he’d throw a rock at the guard shack and then sprint for his shelter. The startled sentries would soon appear, demanding to know who threw the stone.
“Of course we weren’t going to say so they’d have us stand at attention for an hour,” he explained. “We were doing things to harass the guards. We beat them. We survived.”
While in captivity, the men’s thoughts focused on food, cars and women — in that order. As a signed armistice neared, camp officials fed prisoners better, giving them sugar and bread sometimes to help them gain weight.
“They didn’t want us to look too bad,” he said.
The prisoners were released Aug. 23, 1953. Wickersham celebrated his freedom by asking for a milkshake. He took a few gulps before vomiting.
“It came right back up. My body wasn’t ready for that yet. I couldn’t handle it.”
In the early 1990s, North Korea gave the U.S. more than 200 boxes of remains believed to contain the remains of 200 to 400 American GIs. Patrick Arthur’s dog tag and a denture fragment bearing his name were included. Scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used mitochondrial DNA and dental comparisons to identify some of the remains as his. On May 1, 2009, the sergeant’s remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. Wickersham was present nearly 58 years after he helped cover Arthur’s body in the dirt of North Korea.
As he wrapped up his comments at Beale, Wickersham turned wistful as he acknowledged other former prisoners in attendance.
“These POWs, all of them, are survivors,” he said.
One of those former captives was Chuck Jones, 74, who was a toddler when he was taken prisoner with his parents and younger sister in the Philippines where his father was an oil executive.
“It’s an honor to be honored. In some ways I don’t feel like I deserve it (because) I’m a civilian,” said Jones, wearing a red, white and blue ribbon on his jacket and a tie covered with tiny U.S. flags. “I pay tribute to my mother and father. It must have been hell for them raising two kids in a prison camp. They are my heroes.”
Jones served eight years in the Air Force, working as an air policeman in Vietnam before becoming an agent with the service’s Office of Special Investigations, which eventually led to a long civilian career working for the Department of Justice. He was accompanied to the breakfast event by his wife, Tina, and Airman 1st Class Olyvia Lee of the 13th Intelligence Squadron, who served as the couple’s escort.
“It was a good learning experience actually being able to talk to people who were POWs,” Lee said.