Bill Freeman pretended to go crazy to survive 2 1/2 years as a North Korean prisoner of war, a complicated plan to help him return to his wife, Barbara, and small children Rickey and Ann.
Some of the Macon man’s fellow soldiers were executed just after they were captured. A three-week-long walk to a prison camp killed most of the weary Americans. More died in the cold camps, where food was scarce and warmth was nonexistent in the frigid winter.
Such lessons motivated Freeman, 81, to push for what may be Macon’s first POW/MIA monument, honoring prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. The memorial will be dedicated at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Veterans Day services at Macon Memorial Park located at 3969 Mercer University Drive.
The monument is made from several pieces of gray Georgia granite. The main piece rises about 6 feet from the ground and is flanked by the American flag on one side and the POW/MIA flag on the other.
Speakers will include Brad Bennett, superintendent of the Anderson National Historic Site, and Jo Anne Shirley, whose brother Bobby Jones of Macon was shot down over Vietnam.
Phil McGoldrick, funeral director at the cemetery, said officials were searching for more ways to honor veterans.
“We just felt like it was important because nowhere in Macon is there recognition for POW-MIAs. There’s no memorial dedicated to them,” McGoldrick said. “We wanted to place one here in the cemetery.”
Charles P. Grimes of Elberton, a childhood friend of Freeman and owner of Grimes Brothers Granite, donated the monument itself. Freeman donated the transportation. Macon Memorial Park provided the site and its preparation.
Freeman was captured Feb. 12, 1951. He was released Aug. 19, 1953. He’d been in Korea just two weeks before thousands of attackers blasted through his company, which was trying to let other units fall back.
Freeman made his Chinese captors think he was crazy, which seemed to frighten them, he said.
“It all started for me because they put me in charge of a man who lost his mind,” he said. “I kept him alive for three months, hand feeding him. He came out of it (craziness) and I went.”
Freeman an Army private first class, said he knew plenty of Americans who died in the prison camp, which was simply called No. 1, located near the city of Ch’ang-Song and not far from the Chinese border. But many more soldiers died along the roads, their remains never repatriated by the North Korean government. Freeman said he’d told a Baltimore family about the loss of their son, who died in an ox cart. The parents weren’t willing to accept that he was dead when Freeman said he hadn’t been buried.
Freeman said that on the day he was captured, his unit had fought from 3 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., when it ran out of ammunition. A machine-gun bullet that sliced through his left leg killed another man. The march to camp began soon after. Freeman credits the cold with killing many American soldiers, but it also helped stop the bleeding in his leg.
“We saw so much death, I guess. It wasn’t nothing to wake up and say, ‘Well, who we going to bury today?’ ” he recalled. “The most we buried was 35 in one day.”
At Wednesday’s Veterans Day ceremony, Freeman plans to read a poem from a prison camp friend, Robert Shamwell. The POW/MIA monument has little writing on the front. The back is engraved with Shamwell’s poem, which includes the line, “We seen them die, night and day, I wonder Lord, did they pray?”
Freeman said he kept trying to survive because of his family and his faith. For decades, he’s been trying to tell the stories.
“The American public, they don’t know about everything that happened in Korea,” he said.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.