Tribute given to POWs during Memorial Day celebration
Korean War prisoner tells story of Tiger Death March
By BOB WHITE
May 26, 2008
|While there was a Memorial Day celebration at Veterans Cemetery in Radcliff Monday, it was a Korean War POW whose story stole the show.|
RADCLIFF — It was on a hot day, July 20, 1950, soon after the Korean War began, when PFC. Charles Frost and 853 soldiers from two Army divisions were surrounded by Communist Korean soldiers in Taejon and taken prisoner.
North Korean soldiers had taken prisoners since the war began a month earlier. Civilians, missionaries and U.S. military were all herded together, placed in box cars and hauled away to prison camps.
"They treated us all the same," Frost recalled. "They packed us into those cars so tight we couldn't even sit."
Months spent in deplorable conditions of captivity went by, but on Halloween night 1950, just as the Korean winter crept in, the horror of being a prisoner of war grew exponentially. It was then that Frost and hundreds of other POWs came under the command of a Korean army major known only by the nickname he'd gotten for his meanness and brutality — The Tiger.
The Tiger forced 54-men groups to file into formation, four abreast, and begin what later became known as the Tiger Death March — a 120 mile march over steep North Korean terrain toward the Siberian border.
The Tiger warned prisoners early on that anyone falling from formation would be dealt with severely, with officers being held accountable for actions of their troops, even with men who'd fallen behind while carrying the sick and injured.
Thirty minutes into the march, The Tiger made good on his warning, Frost recalled.
"They were making the hardest decisions" to drop sick and injured buddies in order to stay in their ranks and keep alive, Frost said. With men falling behind, The Tiger called for the officer in charge to step up to take punishment for his men falling behind.
"But all the officers fell out," Frost said. "The night before the march, they'd all agreed to stick together."
Noble as it was, their efforts didn't sway The Tiger from using swift force.
"I'll kill you all," The Tiger told the officers.
"Then a lieutenant named Thaddeus Thornton stepped up and said 'I was the one,'" Frost said.
Frost was several yards behind as a brave lieutenant declined a blindfold before taking an executioner's bullet.
"He just tipped his hat down low over his eyes," Frost said. "There are a lot of memories I have, but that's one that's buried deep (in my mind)."
Wrestling with the memories of the one soldier's execution, Frost regrouped his composure and painted a much broader picture of the nine-day Tiger Death March.
"They died all around me... from starvation, from freezing, and murder," Frost said. "One-hundred and 20 men died in 120 days."
Frost, now 77, told his story of the Tiger Death March after rolling into Kentucky Veterans Cemetery-Central in Radcliff Monday as a rock star among POWs and war veterans.
He rode in on a Korean War–era combat Jeep equipped with the same .30 caliber machine gun he manned in Korea mounted between the front seats. A rocket launcher was strapped to the back, an M-1 sheathed in a leather pouch under the dash, and a half-dozen grenades were clipped onto to the windshield, side-rails and other spots within an arm's reach of the driver. Frost was the center of attention in the hour leading up to Monday's Memorial Day ceremony and dedication of a new monument.
The crowd that flocked to his Jeep included members of the Viet Nam Vets motorcycle club, their wives and girlfriends, and two men instrumental in having the impressive new POW-MIA monument dedicated at the cemetery Monday — military veterans C.T. Christie and Joe Uhlig.
"We've worked our asses off on this for the past three months," Christie told a large gathering of leather-clad vets who rode in on motorcycles. "But this is all about you."
Lee Eggleston, president of the Viet Nam Vets motorcycle club, said Monday's ceremony was more than just a Memorial Day dedication. It was an official welcome home for Vietnam veterans and an important time to remember all the soldiers who never made it home to the United States.
"We ride for those that can't be here to ride with us," Eggleston said. "We can't forget the POWs and MIAs — even if there's only one out there, that's one too many."
A formal ceremony also was conducted on a hilltop away from the new POW-MIA memorial, but it was the veterans, the motorcyclists who ride to remember the missing and dead, and people like Frost who made Monday's ceremony memorable for those in attendance.
"These Vietnam vets mean just as much as anyone else," Frost said. "It's not about me. I respect all POWs. I know what they've been through."
Frost said memories of "the good-old U.S.A." are what helped him survive the 1,126 days he spent in captivity until the Korean War ended. The war ended at the same line in the Korean dirt where it began — a loss for Americans determined to deter the spread of Communism and a loss for many families and friends of the more than 54,000 servicemen and women who lost loved ones during fighting and in capture.
Another 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam during the conflict there, and an estimated 405,000 casualties were incurred during World War II.
September 11, 2001 Pentagon attack survivor Sgt. Major Tony Rose said many who died fighting with the American Armed Forces fought to preserve or instill hope to people in places around the world where freedom was nothing more than an ideal, or a treasure stolen by a tyrant.
The hope so many Americans fought and died for was, according to Rose, as valuable to the basic needs of life.
"You can live 40 days without food and days without water, but you can't live seconds without hope," Rose said. "Today is a day to shed a tear, say a prayer, hug a friend and tell someone that you're proud to be an American."
Frost described Monday's ceremony as "outstanding."
"This is unbelievable."
Bob White can be reached at (270) 505-1750, or at email@example.com.
This story, written by Bob White, was provided to One Knox courtesy of The News Enterprise. Read more stories from The News Enterprise at www.thenewsenterprise.com.