J.C. Gallaher awoke on April 14, 1953, to the same grim reality of the previous 863 mornings: He was a prisoner of war.
Half a world from his Collinwood, Tenn., home, Gallaher and his fellow Korean War POWs braced for another day encompassed by hunger, dysentery, captivity, disinformation and fear that the camp would become their graveyard.
Among them was Houghton Lake, Mich., resident James Nielsen, a man who Gallaher would spend the rest of his lifetime referring to simply as his brother.
This particular day, however, would be blissfully different from the previous ones in the desolate, disease-infested hell known as Camp 1. A message blared over the loudspeaker ordering everyone to gather.
It wasn’t uncommon for the communist China soldiers who were holding them in the camp near the Chinese-North Korean border to have announcements.
The parade grounds were about a half mile walk from the POW quarters. The only POWs who were told to remain behind during the announcements were the cooks.
Gallaher was among the cooks that day, so he stayed back, wondering what his fellow soldiers were being told.
Suddenly, the quiet spring air erupted into boisterous jubilation so loud that its sound waves catapulted half a mile into the cooks’ ears. Gallaher hoped he knew what that meant. A truce was called in the Korean War. They were going to be freed.
“When they said it was over, you never heard such commotion,” he said. “We knew something good had happened but didn’t know what.”
They weren’t in suspense long. Their fellow soldiers returned with ear-to-ear grins, eyes wide with joy, some spilling tears. Arms thinned from months of not enough food were slung over each other’s shoulders, while others held their thin arms in the air, fisted in victory.
An incredible warmth filled Gallaher’s heart as he recognized the meaning of the scene that was unfolding in front of him. “Going home. It’s over with. Going home. It’s over with.” Those two thoughts continually traded spaces in the forefront of his mind.
They had been prisoners for more than two years. They watched fellow soldiers die from disease, hunger and broken spirits. The thought that soon, they would again see home was almost too much to comprehend.
They were going home.
Gallaher and Nielsen were captured in December 1950, a day of subfreezing temperature and blizzard conditions. They were outnumbered in their final battle near the Chosin Reservoir and soon were surrounded by the Chinese soldiers who had joined the attempt by North Korea to conquer South Korea.
Since that bitter December day, the men had endured a long wait while a war trudged on between North and South Korea. The communist North Koreans spawned the war when they crossed the 38th parallel that separated the two nations. The United States led a United Nations coalition assisting South Korea’s efforts to push North Korea back.
The U.S. assistance sent North Koreans scurrying north, but China joined the North Korean effort and the two sides dug in for a long, bloody war.
When the truce was declared, a new boundary near the 38th parallel was drawn that gave South Korea an extra 1,500 square miles of territory. In addition, a 2-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” that still exists today was created.
For Gallaher and Nielsen, who were members of the U.S. Army’s 7th Division, 31st Infantry, the agreement meant they were free again. Almost. There still was the matter of a two-day ride to Pyongyang in a Chinese military truck. Gallaher had to wait a couple of days before his turn to climb aboard the truck, ride two days and hop out into freedom.
Both men recall a sort of muted joy in the trucks. After all, the POW exchange hadn’t been made.
“We were happy, but weren’t sure until we walked out of that truck into American hands,” Nielsen says.
Finally, they arrived at the exchange point and were handed over to American troops. It was official. Even when telling the story today, Gallaher smiles at this point. “I can’t tell you the feeling. It was beyond words.”
From that point, they knew they were in good hands. Nielsen says the Americans immediately began taking care of them. “They deloused us, cleaned us, fed us and got us new clothes. They put us on a real light diet because we weren’t used to eating American food.”
A helicopter flew Gallaher to the port city of Incheon, South Korea, where they caught a bus that took them to a ship. The next time he stepped on land, it was at a country across the Pacific Ocean — the United States.
It was a long boat ride, though, taking about two weeks. Nielsen got the impression there was a purpose to that deliberateness. “They were in no hurry to get us back to the States because they wanted to fatten us up a bit. But it was the best boat ride I ever took.”
Gallaher arrived in San Francisco. “When we arrived, they had boats in the bay with water spraying up to welcome us.”
When Gallaher and his fellow troops finally stepped foot on American soil, a band played “Dixieland” to welcome them. “It made the hair stand straight up on my back.”
Nielsen remembers the first sign of America when he returned: the Golden Gate Bridge. “It looked just beautiful,” he said, stretching out the word “beautiful” while gazing in the distance as he relived the moment. Even in the midst of his own joy, Nielsen took time to take in the scenery, to savor the moment as he stepped from the boat. “Some guys got off the boat and kissed the ground.”
Gallaher was flown to Fort Knox, then to Fort Campbell. He submitted to physical examinations, including a battery of X-rays before he was allowed to step into a hall.
“And there they were,” he says. His family. “Wow, that felt good.”
Nielsen’s parents had close friends in California who greeted him when he arrived. The friends dispensed with any long greeting, instead hustling him to a nearby phone booth, where they handed Nielsen the receiver. “Your mom and dad want to talk to you,” they told him.
The next voices he heard were his parents. As sweet as that sound was for the former POW, the relieved joy in those voices made it seem the parents enjoyed hearing his voice more.
From there, he flew to Saginaw, Mich., where his family drove him to his hometown of Houghton Lake, where he still lives. A hero’s welcome and a terrific surprise met him. “The town bought me a new DeSoto car and had a big parade, They gave me a book with the names of all who donated.”
Gallaher and Nielsen were among 7,140 Korean War soldiers who were captured during the war, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Only 4,418 returned to the United States.
For Nielsen and Gallaher, the thrill of being home never went away, even to this day. Still, they faced a new obstacle: adjusting. As Nielsen puts it, “We lost three years of time.”
It was as though they had to re-enter life. “We had a heck of an adjustment, so everything was like starting over. We were kids when we left. When we returned we were adults. For a while I was avoiding people because I was afraid they would ask about the war. When someone would ask, I’d get teary-eyed.”
Nielsen settled on a policy to help cope with the questions. “When they’d ask I’d answer questions, but didn’t really care to.”
Slowly they settled back into their hometowns. Gallaher initially had trouble finding work, but eventually was hired by Murray Ohio Manufacturing, where he stayed for 32 years until retirement.
Nielsen opened a Houghton Lake service station that he ran until he retired.
Retirement ushered in another challenge for Nielsen, who suffered from survivor’s guilt. Some 40 years after the war, post-traumatic stress disorder hit him. Nielsen suddenly was left sad and agitated and didn’t understand why. He never considered that it could be related to being a POW. “I didn’t really know what the problem was, so I went to a psychologist.”
He went through the entire session without mentioning the war, never stopping to realize the association since it was so long ago. The session ended and Nielsen stood up to walk from the room. Then it dawned on him that he at least should mention his war experience. “On my way out the door after the session, I said, ‘Oh, I was a prisoner of war.’”
With that, the psychologist scheduled an additional session. Two days later, they met again, and Nielsen said the sessions have worked well for him.
Researchers are learning post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes doesn’t manifest itself until retirement for veterans, because that’s the first opportunity their experiences have to catch up to them. After a lifetime of work, family and other activities, retirement often heralds a less frenetic lifestyle. Veteran advocates say the post-traumatic stress disorder frequently shields itself inside a busy lifestyle.
Nielsen is among a group of veterans who shared their story in a documentary produced this year by Delta College, in Saginaw, Mich.
Gallaher believes, to his knowledge, he has never experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, he is saddened by another matter: the reactions of some people when they ask him about his experience in Korea and he describes it to them.
“People would think you were lying,” he said. “You could tell from the looks in their eyes.”
In 1992, a group of ex-POWs from the camp decided to get together for a reunion. Gallaher and Nielsen were among those who attended, and that’s when they rekindled their bond and started visiting each other. They say it’s easy to talk with each other and other fellow former POWs because they know each other understands the experience.
Nielsen said there is a kinship nobody else understands. “Actually, we’re like brothers. We went through it together and can relate to it.”
An American flag stands proudly atop a pole at a front corner of Gallaher’s house. When asked about what it means to see it, Gallaher simply responds, “I’m just glad it’s there.”
Nielsen believes the flag represents democracy and freedom of choice. “We can choose and voice our opinions without being thrown in jail.”
His advice to his fellow citizens: “Be an American and trust in God. There was a lot of praying that took place at that camp.”
He also hopes their story gets heard. “It’s good for the American people to know what our troops go through and the possibilities that can happen to them. A soldier goes through a lot; leaves his family to do so. But the purpose is democracy and freedom.”
With that, Nielsen looks to his right at Gallaher. They nod to each other.
“Yes it is,” Gallaher tells his brother. “It is.”
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.