Charlie Kukla arrived in Korea in June 1950 as a 19-year-old “grunt” in the 1st Marine Division.
Within a week he was a prisoner of war.
During the 27 months the young Marine was a captive of the North Koreans, Kukla spent most of his time trying to stay alive. More than two years later, when he walked across the “Freedom Bridge” at Panmunjom into the arms of U.S. Army troops, he weighed 110 pounds — 70 pounds less than when captured.
The Korean War — known as “The Forgotten War” — was fought from 1950 to 1953 between North Korea, supported by communist China, and South Korea, aided by the United Nations with mainly U.S. troops. North Korean forces, having attempted to topple the government of the South by indirect means, invaded the South June 25, 1950, and the Security Council of the UN voted to oppose them. The North Koreans held most of the South when U.S. reinforcements arrived in September 1950 and forced their way through to the North Korean border. The Chinese retaliated, pushing them back to the original boundary in October 1950. Two years of negotiations, begun in July 1951, achieved only an armistice signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. By then the communists had suffered about 2 million casualties and the UN nearly 1.5 million. A peace treaty has never been signed.
Kukla, who now lives in Rotonda, near Englewood, Fla., had signed up as a Marine six months before the war broke out on June 25, 1950. He had completed basic training and was attached to Marine Air Group 33 stationed in Japan when hostilities began.
“Two hours after war was declared … I was airlifted to the Po-Hang Dong air base, located along the east coast of Korea near the middle of the peninsula,” he said. “I’d been there a week guarding the perimeter of the base.
“It was about 2 p.m. and we could hear the North Koreans’ bugles. We were outnumbered big time, about five to one. So we all started running,” Kukla said. “I had my Thompson submachine gun and I buried myself behind a bunch of sandbags.
“We were holding ’em off trying to stay alive. They knew we were behind the sandbags, but they didn’t know how many people we had. After two hours of skirmishing, they took off.
“Two or three hours later they made another pass at us. We were better prepared by this time and aggressively returned the enemy’s fire, but they overran our position and captured all of us,” he explained.
It was Aug. 11, 1950, when Kukla became a POW.
“They marched us all night, to a little town about 50 miles away,” he said. “The next day they interviewed me. I was a 19-year-old buck sergeant who they must of thought was a colonel.
“They kept asking me, ‘What kind of weapons do you have at the air base?’ Hell, I was a kid. What did I know about what kind of weapons we had?
“The guy that was interviewing me was an 18-year-old North Korean captain who went to school in Berkley, Calif. He spoke English better than I could.
“He wanted to know about our weapons. I told him I didn’t know. ‘OK,’ he said. ‘We’ll see you in about a week.'”
Kukla was marched to a straw hut that housed 40 POWs. Possibly a thousand American soldiers were confined inside a chicken-wire enclosure watched over by numerous armed North Korean guards.
“When I came back for a second interview with the captain, he asked me again about the type of armament we had at the air base. Again, I told him I didn’t know.
“‘Well, we’re going to get it out of you one way or another,’ the captain said.
“‘Put your hand on that block,’ he told me.
“There was a wooden chopping block on the table in front of me. He had a big knife. I thought he was going to cut my hand off.
“When I put my hand on the block, he hit my right wrist with a bamboo swagger-stick he was holding. It broke my wrist.
“Then he sent me back to my hut. But before he dismissed me, the captain said, ‘I’ll see you in a week.’ ”
The other POWs put a wooden splint on Kukla’s right wrist.
“A week later I was back standing before the North Korean officer again. He brought the same question up, ‘What about the armament at the base?’ For the third time I told him, ‘I didn’t know.'”
Then the teen-age Marine sergeant said to his captor that he couldn’t break his wrist because it was already broken.
“‘Yeah, but we’re going to do the other one today,’ the captain told me. ‘Put your left hand on the block.’
“When I did, he struck it once with his swagger-stick. It broke, too.
“Again he sent me back to my hut. The guys I was with put another wooden splint on my broken left wrist. They did what they could, but they had nothing to work with. There was no medication. We had nothing.”
For Kukla, the tedium of a POW camp began to set in. There was a daily routine the prisoners in the camp followed.
In the morning they were given rice water and rotten bread to eat. Much of their day was spent playing cards prisoners made from cardboard.
“At night we got dried squid. It was like shoe leather. The longer you kept it in your mouth the softer it got and the easier it was to digest. I got where I started liking it,” Kukla recalled.
There was never enough to eat. People died from starvation, exposure, sickness and war wounds.
“The North Koreans would take the dead POWs out in a field. They’d make the GIs dig holes. They’d throw our dead in the holes and cover them up. Then they’d put a little soda ash on the graves. And that was the end of it,” he said.
Of the 1,000 prisoners in his camp, possibly 10 percent of them died before they were released.
“Some of the POWs couldn’t handle it. Others were wounded. They got no care and died of their wounds,” he said.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I’m going to make it. I’m going to come out of this alive.’
“That was the main thing I thought about every night. I would tell myself, ‘Well, there’s one more day down. Will I make it through the next day?'”
To help ensure he survived the ordeal, Kukla hedged his bets. He ate sparrows.
“In the straw huts we lived in there were little dampers at the end of each one (to control the breeze),” he said. “Sparrows would fly in the damper. I’d close it and have a bird.
“I’d kill the sparrow, dip him in boiling water in a cup, pull the feathers off and eat boiled bird. I quickly learned you either ate boiled sparrow or maybe you didn’t make it.
“I ate lots of birds. I think that is what kept me alive,” he added.
Today Kukla doesn’t eat anything that flies. He won’t eat chicken, turkey or pheasant.
“I use to hunt pheasant when I was a kid. To this day, I can’t eat it,” he explained.
Month after month the days slowly clicked by for Kukla and his fellow POWs. From time to time his captors picked on him some more. At other times they took it out on one of his buddies.
“If someone wasn’t doing well and need a little extra attention, we tried to help them out,” he said. “It worked real good.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I’m going to get out of this alive. I’m going to survive.'”
They never knew what was going on in the world outside their stockade. The new prisoners weren’t kept with the old ones; they were segregated. So Kukla and his fellow POWs knew little about the war and what was happening.
Finally, in November 1953, word filtered down to him that they might be released.
“We found out that 1,500 American troops were going to be released for a like number of North Koreans. They had a lottery and I drew 1111 — four aces,” he said with a smile. “When I walked across the bridge at Panmunjom, American Army troops were waiting for me.
“They took me to a medical station for a physical. Then they asked me, ‘What do you want to eat?’ ‘Give me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise,’ I told ’em.”
Eventually Kukla was returned to the United States. He spent six months recuperating at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital and then he was returned to Camp Lejuene, N.C.
“As I was about to be discharged from the Marines, there was a major sitting behind a desk that was covered with $100 bills.
“‘Did you ever think about re-upping?’ he asked me. Then he looked at the money before him on his desk and added, ‘Did you ever see so much money in your life? There’s $2,000 here, and it’s all yours if you just sign your name on the dotted line for four more years.’
“It was tempting. Then I thought about the 27 months, 812 days and 19,525 hours I spent as a POW.
“‘It’s tempting as hell,’ I said. ‘But I don ‘t think so.'”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Saturday, June 24, 2000 and is republished with permission.
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