For 12 hours, James Nielsen escaped detection by Chinese soldiers by pretending to be dead after his jeep exploded from under him and he was thrown onto a snowy battlefield in North Korea.
He trained his mind and body not to react to the sub-freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions. He remained still as Chinese soldiers, who had entered the Korean War on the side of the North Koreans, searched his body and measured his boots to see if they could be of use to their smaller-sized feet.
The Chinese thought Nielsen was dead, just one body among the many of Nielsen’s comrades who were killed on the battlefield, the falling snow turning their corpses into white mounds during the hours Nielsen lay among them.
But despite the arctic conditions, Nielsen’s body was still warm and the 12 hours exposed to the falling snow did not cover his body with enough to avoid detection.
In the morning light, a Chinese soldier noticed Nielsen was still exposed. A searing pain in his leg as a bayonet plunged into his flesh convinced Nielsen he was about to die.
James Nielsen and J.C. Gallaher were barely beyond boyhood when they joined the Army. Nielsen, a 17-year-old from Houghton Lake, Mich., joined in July 1949, Gallaher, an 18-year-old from Collinwood, Tenn., in April 1950.
They had no idea North Korea would cross the invisible line called the 38th parallel, which separated North and South Korea in June 1950, setting in motion a war that involved America and its allies.
Both men were soldiers in the 7th Infantry Division, Gallaher in B Company, Nielsen in D Company.
Gallaher’s first taste of Korea was when he and his fellow soldiers landed at Inchon.
“We didn’t see much action until we got back north,” he recalled. “I landed in the third wave, so there was not much action going on.”
His unit traveled south from there and eventually boarded ships for a journey that ultimately landed him in North Korea.
“We were pretty close to China, near the Yalu River,” he said.
From there, Gallaher wasn’t certain where he was. And things were about to get much, much worse: on Oct. 14, 1950, China entered the war.
“We moved from place to place,” Gallaher said. “That’s when the Chinese came in. There was a whole lot of fighting going on. There weren’t many North Korean troops at the time, but there were millions of Chinese.”
As winter drew near, the brutally cold North Korea climate bore down on the soldiers, with a temperature that didn’t blink when it passed zero as it dug deep into negative double digits.
Though Gallaher and Nielsen had not yet met, on Dec. 1, 1950, in a blizzard and temperature at 35 below zero, their division was spaced along a valley near the Chosin Reservoir when they were swarmed by Chinese troops.
They were outnumbered. The region would later be called Hell’s Fire Valley because of the continuous fighting that took place there.
Gallaher, surrounded by Chinese soldiers wielding bayonets, was captured with others from his unit.
In a separate area of the battle, Nielsen was lying in the snow, playing dead. Mortar shells hit his jeep, killing his driver and catapulting him into the snow. For 12 hours he lay motionless, hoping the Chinese soldiers raiding the bodies of his comrades wouldn’t notice he was still alive.
He survived through the night.
“It was the next morning, and one of (the Chinese soldiers) came down,” he said.
While the dead bodies of his fellow soldiers had become white snow-covered mounds on the battlefield, Nielsen was still visible. Ironically, the warmth of his body prevented the snow from covering him completely.
His survival instincts had helped him to remain still all those hours. He kept his mind neutral for the most part so he wouldn’t have to think about the arctic cold, the dead bodies around him buried under the snow, or his self-inflicted guilt at surviving.
When he did think, his mind winged back to home, where it was deer hunting season. It helped to visualize somewhere familiar, somewhere safe.
He was jolted from his concentration by the searing pain in his leg.
“One poked me in the leg with his bayonet and I moved,” Nielsen said. “He motioned for me to get up.”
Instead of killing him, as Nielsen anticipated, his captors motioned for him to start walking. Soon, he had joined other captives, and, like Gallaher, was forced to begin a long march in 8 inches or more of snow. They noticed that someone else had forged a path; they walked along in the imprints, wondering who had traveled before them.
The Chinese soldier pushed on Nielsen’s leg with the bayonet, puncturing it, but not causing a deep wound. He was able to walk, although “it was rough.” He felt fortunate to have avoided major frostbite, although he had a bit of it.
As they marched, each man wondered where they were being taken and whether they would survive the journey.
Occasionally, they heard the loud crack of a shot from a Chinese rifle and the snow-muffled sound of a thump as the body of one of their fellow POWs hit the ground.
“You’d wonder who was going to be next,” Gallaher says. “You think it’s the end of the road.”
For both men, survival on that long cold march meant using the same strategy Nielsen used as he lay in the snow. Gallaher’s mind was blank, his responses to commands automatic.
“You just did whatever you’re told to do,” he said.
They lost track of time. Nielsen was led up a hill where he saw a wounded South Korean soldier. The soldier raised his hand toward Nielsen in hopes of help. Nielsen reached toward him, but a Chinese soldier shook his head no. They continued to march.
He was among about 30 Americans in his group of prisoners who were taken to a building. About half of them died that night from their wounds and from the harsh conditions. Conditions didn’t improve the next morning when they were forced to continue moving. Some prisoners froze to death. Others lost body parts to frostbite.
The Chinese had taken boots from as many soldiers whose boot sizes were small enough to accommodate their needs. In turn, they tore blankets and wrapped the strips around the prisoners’ feet, tying the blankets at the top as a replacement for the boots. The snow almost immediately soaked the cloth and, for many, froze around their feet.
Even some soldiers who had kept their boots didn’t fare well, losing half a foot when they removed a boot.
“It would stay in their boots when they would take them off,” Nielsen said.
The Chinese marched their prisoners under the dark of night so American pilots couldn’t see them. The marching continued for many nights, so many Gallaher and Nielsen lost track of time. Soon, they suspected their captors also were disoriented. One day they marched north, the next day they marched south.
The Chinese didn’t have an established POW system. They set up a temporary camp called the “Valley” about 10 miles south of Pyoktong, North Korea, near the Yalu River.
The disorganization took its toll. Lack of food, shelter and medicine depleted the strength of prisoners who were already weak from battle. Those who could not keep up with the march were often left to die or were executed. The prisoners’ protective instinct for each other was immediate. They carried or dragged one another through the march to keep from leaving someone behind.
“They (marched) us to a big warehouse shortly before Christmas and we stayed there until March,” Gallaher said.
Through most of 1951, the death rate of American POWs approached 40 percent during the war. Then, conditions improved. The Chinese provided better food and medical supplies. Death still wasn’t far away for many prisoners who suffered from unchecked disease, untended wounds, malnutrition and the unrelenting cold.
It was May before Gallaher and his fellow soldiers finally arrived at their permanent quarters. It was a tiny village the Chinese had overtaken and cleared of all inhabitants. The prisoners were divided into Camp 1 through Camp 10.
Camp 1 was where Gallaher and Nielsen joined up. Nielsen arrived, looking around at this new prison, gazing over the deserted road that spanned the center of the village.
“They vacated a whole town,” he said. “They were regular homes like they have in Korea.”
Walls were built out of little slats and poles, mud and straw. Each shelter was about 12-by-12 feet. The POWs stayed in them. Gallaher was in No. 9 room. Neilsen in No. 8 room. Eight soldiers were in each room and shared a bowl of food that sometimes amounted to dried fish but usually was some type of broth.
All totaled, the camp held about 125 POWs. Toward the end of the war, it also held English POWs. Some POWs died from dysentery. Others succumbed to untreated wounds.
The camp was engulfed with odor from a trench with slats thrown over it to serve as toilets. Gallaher and his fellow prisoners soon had fleas and lice. When summer came, flies overran the camp.
Nielsen soon learned he couldn’t lean against any wall when he was shirtless, the pests were so bad. At night he was repeatedly bitten by bed bugs.
The food may have been infrequent and old during their winter march, but here, the food was mostly sour. Boxed fish arrived, salted in an attempt to hide its odor and lousy flavor.
The camp’s location was so isolated there were no fences to keep the soldiers from breaking out. They knew if they made a break for it, they’d eventually get captured or die, lost somewhere in Asia.
A Caucasian or African-American in Asia would stand out, so even if they found civilization, they’d just be captured again.
Nielsen’s eyes scanned the mountains surrounding the former village and thought if he ran, there would be no way to get back to his outfit.
There was no escape.
Since there was no way out, Nielsen and the other prisoners turned their attention to surviving as best they could. They soon discovered their captors weren’t as diligent about watching them when they went to the trench.
One day Nielsen heard the cackle of chickens nearby. He immediately asked to go to the trench. He knew enough about chickens to know that cackle meant the chicken had laid an egg.
When his guard’s back was turned, he grabbed the egg, sneaking it back to his quarters and sharing it in their bowl of food. The goal was survival. The goal was to get back home.
The men weren’t tortured, but anyone who got out of line served time in a darkened “black box” as punishment. That was an experience Gallaher and Nielsen are thankful to say they never had.
“There were men who’d disappear from camp, and there were some the Chinese would call ‘reactionaries’ who had given them trouble,” Nielsen said. Those soldiers sometimes would be taken to a barbed-wire-enclosed area the Chinese called Camp 5.
Neilsen and Gallaher took strength from the men who were taken away to solitary confinement and returned, emotionally more or less as they were when they were taken away. The worst was the day they looked on as the North Koreans brought a group of American POWs into camp, each with a rope around his neck, connected to the rope encircling the neck of the man behind him.
They were so malnourished, Nielsen could count their ribs. He tried to count each man. Twenty-eight, maybe 30 were joined with the rope. The POWs near these new prisoners shared their food, the little servings of dried fish they had been holding onto if ever they found a way to make a break from the camp.
“They just tore into them, they were so hungry,” Nielsen said. “They were just skin and bones.” It was a sight he would never forget.
Gallaher and Nielsen’s life in the camp was monotonous. They talked to their house mates to pass the time and in an effort to help each other forget about their empty, growling stomachs. It didn’t work. Hunger was a constant companion.
Their captors didn’t like the prisoners to mill about the camp, but they were allowed to forage for wood to feed the cooking stove in each house that sat in mud. They slept on straw mats and with a blanket or quilt for cover. By day that covering was rolled up and used for sitting.
They tried to write home, knowing the Chinese censored letters. They were reduced to writing things like “we’re being treated well” in order for the letter to get out. Nielsen said they wrote these letters “just to let our families know we’re still alive.”
They received mail, but the Chinese went through it first. Gallaher once received a letter with a photo of a 1955 Chevrolet from a brochure. It was passed from soldier to soldier. “Nobody had seen a car in three years.”
The POWs maintained hope that they would be rescued but had no idea how the war was going, although Gallaher came to discover no news was good news.
“They had a P.A. system set up, and if there was news and it was going their way they’d let us know. If it wasn’t, they didn’t.”
Gallaher came to scorn the way the Chinese started every announcement: “My friends,” they would say. He listened with disdain. Everyone knew there wasn’t a prisoner there who had a friend in North Korea. If they did, they wouldn’t have to wonder if they would someday die in that camp.
The Chinese made up stories about American soldiers killing a pregnant woman with a bayonet and taking out the baby. They also tried to convince the POWs that American soldiers were using germ warfare. The American POWs knew better. Sometimes, Chinese soldiers who spoke English went room to room, preaching communism over capitalism.
The POWs sat quietly and listened every time. Finally, the Chinese soldiers left for the next room.
“We’d make fun of them when they were gone,” Gallaher says. “That was the preaching they tried for a long time, but finally they just let it fade away.”
Months turned to years. It was difficult to avoid thoughts of dying. The prisoners continued trying to talk about positive things, anything to keep up morale. It was a losing battle to those in ill health. They thought the sick men were listening. They thought they could keep the sick with them — they were in this together. Getting home, somehow, must come to every man.
But it didn’t. For some of the sick, they would just turn away, go sit in a corner and die.
Each man feared the day would come when they, too, would just give up and die.
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com