Volunteering at the Museum of Aviation has made me realize that the museum is not just a collection of cool aircraft. There is much more behind the planes. Working in the archives has afforded me the opportunity to learn about the personal stories of servicemen and women who have donated their writings or pieces of their past to us. I come away every week inspired by what I have learned.
A story that intrigued me was the journey of a civilian and how a twist of fate changed the course of the rest of his life. It is a journey that led him into the Air Force. As a result, he made a difference in hundreds of peoples lives.
July 27 is the 60th anniversary of the Korean Armistice. The Korean War started June 25, 1950, after communist North Korea invaded South Korea.
There were many civilians on both sides and foreigners living in South Korea who were caught in the crosshairs when the conflict began. It is here that my story begins.
On June 24, 1950, Larry and Frances Zellers, Methodist missionaries to South Korea who taught in Kaesong, a town not far from the 38th parallel that divided North and South Korea, went to Seoul to be matron of honor and best man in a friends wedding. Frances got sick and needed to stay a few extra days. Larry and a friend, Kris Jensen, drove back to Kaesong with Kris just going along for the ride. The men planned to go back to Seoul the following Monday, and Larry would pick up Frances.
The next day was the 25th, and the town of Kaesong was captured by the communists. Eventually, Larry and Kris were both arrested as spies and began an incredible three years as prisoners of war. Along with them were also four other Methodist missionaries captured as spies. Three were women, and one of them was Helen Rosser, a nurse from Macon.
Frances was able to escape the invaders in Seoul and find her way back to the United States.
The life of Larry Zellers as a prisoner of war was an interesting journey of how one survives the terrors and inhumanity of belonging to the enemy. Almost 40 years later, Zellers finally told the story of those years in his book, In Enemy Hands.
Zellers found himself in a death cell in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. It is here that he finds a way to survive, if possible, by leaning on things the enemy could not take away.
He reveals that the winter of 1950-1951 was the hardest. There was little clothing, little shelter and hardly any food worth eating. He, his fellow missionaries and many other civilians from different countries and backgrounds, found themselves being taken to the northern regions of North Korea along the Yalu River. There was no hope for escape.
A tyrannical commandant called The Tiger led them on a march with no mercy for the elderly, sick or anyone else for that matter. Under The Tiger, the prisoners were forced on the Death March, which was about 120 miles and was made in about eight days. Anyone lagging behind was shot. The Tigers motto was let them march till they die.
It is hard to imagine the terrible hardships placed on each individual, whether soldier, civilian, old, young, man, woman, religious or not. The days and nights, season after season came and went. The treatment from enemy guards and commanders changed constantly; some were evil, some not so bad considering the pressure they were under to beat down the POWs. The group that Larry was with moved from place to place, and he watched the group get smaller and smaller.
Along the way, he and the others helped establish a school for the children who had been captured with their parents. They tried to help each other survive with the sharing of what little they had and with long conversations about home. Finally in March 1953, after almost three years of a nightmare, all but one of the original group of six that was arrested in Kaesong had survived. They got word that they would be released and sent back home. Of course, even that was not a quick journey. Upon release, the missionaries were transported to Moscow by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway. From there they went to Germany and finally to the United States. The former prisoners were given new clothes, plenty to eat and money to spend by the Chinese and Soviets so that they would be fattened up as to give the impression that they were not treated so badly.
After returning home, Zellers in time focused his life on helping others. He became an Air Force chaplain. Zellers helped write the Code of Conduct for other servicemen and servicewomen who might be captured by the enemy. He gave many lectures on how to survive tremendous odds when in difficult circumstances. Zellers assisted in helping the United Nations locate several sites where, during 1950 and 1951, more than 400 United Nations personnel, including Americans, were buried. Then he finally collected his thoughts about his experiences in Korea and wrote a book about it.
How did he survive being a prisoner? He was just a civilian trying to help the local people when captured. How does one overcome not just the physical strain but the mental and emotional punishment one is placed under? Of course his faith was key. I like a quote that is attributed to him. He said, In any survival situation, the best survival equipment is what you carry inside your head. Equipment gets used up, batteries run out and weapons rust, but youre always reduced to what youve got inside yourself.
Zellers died in 2007 at the age of 84. Because of him, others can make it through what looks impossible. What a difference a day makes.
Marilyn N. Windham, of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at email@example.com.