The making of Korea: Forgotten War, Remembered Heros
Preparing for the documentary
Profiles of those interviewed:
Richard Bassett, Korean War Veteran
The Ordeal of a Prisoner of War in Korea
Richard Bassett served in the 8th Army 25th infantry division. One of his first assignments in Korea was to Outpost duties. Outpost personnel were placed out front of the main line of resistance (MLR) for one-week shifts. Their purpose was to draw hostile fire so that their enemies would expose their own positions. While on outpost duty his squad was ambushed and he and his three surviving comrades were captured. They were forced to march an estimated 200 to 500 miles in the freezing cold North Korean winter to a POW (prisoner of war) camp. He and his fellow soldiers had not yet been issued winter of 1951 uniforms, and all experienced the bitter cold. Bassett spent the rest of the war, 1 year, 10 months, and 6 days imprisoned in “Camp Five” in Pyoktong, North Korea. The camp was near the Chinese border, so remote that there was no real possibility of escape.
At Camp Five his daily routine was one of difficult labor - digging turnip holes, hauling rice and barley to a supply house, unloading wood from barges, and cleaning the shack he and his fellow prisoners were housed in. The conditions at POW Camp Five were very poor; in the winter of 1950-51 over 1,600 soldiers died at the camp. Soldiers died of disease, infection from battle wounds, starvation, or hypothermia. When he arrived there in the winter of 1951-52 prisoners were suffering from malnutrition, exposure, and sickness caused by poor sanitation. Bassett remembers that they endured “friendly fire” (attacks from US and allied forces) four times on the way north; some prisoners were wounded from this “friendly fire”. No words can describe the physical and mental suffering that went on in Camp Five. Bassett lost 70 lbs while he was incarcerated. He has lifelong health issues related to his experiences while in prison.
Hoping that they would renounce their country and convert to communism, North Korean and Chinese commanders continually tried to “educate” POWs on the virtues of their countries’ political system. Those prisoners who cooperated were given better accommodations, and some gave in to the temptation of obtaining more humane living conditions. Bassett believed that few prisoners really had much respect for their captors or their politics, but that they just couldn’t take the physical hardship - they pretended to go along with their captors for the sake of better food and warmer clothing. Bassett credits his religious convictions for helping him resist giving in to despair and providing him with a sense of purpose that kept him alive.
A Bitter Return
On August 12, 1953, Richard Bassett was released from Camp Five. He was escorted to Freedom Village where the Red Cross provided him and the other repatriated POWs with good food and ministered to their health issues. While his physical needs were addressed, the reception they gave him was decidedly cool. During his trip home he was repeatedly questioned by Army officials about the behavior of his fellow prisoners. Bassett had known one prisoner who chose to stay in Communist China, and the Defense Department was worried that this defector had “planted the seeds” of subversion in his fellow POWs.
Bassett made it home and was honorably discharged from the US Army on October 16, 1953. However, the Department of Defense continued to interrogate him to determine his “essential loyalty”. He was investigated for at least two years before being exhonerated. In 1978, twenty-five years after he was repatriated, Bassett suffered a mental breakdown caused by the hardship of POW life and his subsequent treatment by the FBI and CIA. He wrote a book, And the Wind Blew Cold: The Story of an American POW in Korea (2002, The Kent State University Press) about his POW experiences and his ongoing healing from the ordeal. See his biography at the Library of Congress, Veterans History Project.
Richard Bassett on location at the Marine St. Barracks in St. Augustine, FL for the filming of Korea: Forgotten War, Remembered Heroes