We read so much about World War II and Vietnam, but the Korean War has been largely forgotten. Indeed, it is often called “The Forgotten War.” Perhaps coming so soon after WWII, the public did not want to know much about it. It was a brutal war. According to Pentagon statistics, there were 33,651 battle deaths, 3,262 non-battle deaths, and 8,176 listed as missing.
The Korean War lasted from 1950-1953. According to various accounts, the first year saw dramatic back and forth action as North Korean forces invaded and pushed into South Korea. The South Koreans were unprepared. The South Korean capital of Seoul changed hands four times. The last two years saw a stalemate as United Nation and communist forces ground away at each other in fighting that was a reminder of World War I in that there was little territory gained for either side. In all of the tragedy of the war, a death march that became known as the Tiger Death March has been mostly forgotten.
In a death march people, usually prisoners of war, are forced to walk from one place to another under brutal circumstances. Many on such marches have been killed or died along the way.
For Americans, the most famous death march may be the Bataan Death March in the Philippines during WWII.
The Korean conflict began when North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. On June 29 the first group of American civilians was captured near Seoul. On July 5 the first American soldiers were taken prisoner. As the North Korean army moved north to secure their captives, more and more people, both civilian and military, were added to the group. Some were women and children; some were missionaries accused of being spies.
POW survivor Shorty Estabrook, founder of the Tiger Survivor group, wrote in his story, “The Tiger Survivor Story – Capture and Beyond,” that the youngest was less than 1 year old and that the oldest was 83 in one unlucky group.
Being a captive, Shorty said, was terrifying as you did not know what was going to happen to you, and every day there were incidents of brutality that you could not get out of your mind.
In September the prisoners were taken by rail to the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang. From there they went by rail to Manpo. Already some had died from starvation and lack of water. Others had been shot or severely beaten. Some were badly wounded with no medical care provided. Some prisoners had little clothing and no shoes. Shoes were commonly stolen by North Koreans, especially if the shoes were a smaller size.
As American and United Nation troops invaded North Korea, the prisoners found themselves being moved frequently further and further north. Fall was coming and winter soon behind.
At Manpo abandoned buildings offered some shelter, but according to many accounts, the Chinese Army took them over when they entered the war to help the North Koreans. The prisoners were now expected to sleep outdoors and to keep moving all the way to the Yalu River near the Chinese-North Korean border.
As bad as conditions were, the unthinkable happened on Oct. 31. A North Korean soldier, Major Chong Myong Sil, took over the command of the prisoners. The prisoners called him “The Tiger.” The “Tiger Death March” had begun. The major was sadistic. He enjoyed the killing and the suffering . He enjoyed his power.
According to survivor accounts, the march began with about 845 prisoners. Those that could not keep up were shot and left by the side of the road or put in a shallow grave. There was no mercy. Three women were shot, two of them nuns. North Korean guards removed soldiers’ dog tags so their bodies would be harder to identify.
The execution of Lt. Cordus Thornton occurred on the march when several POWs could not go any further and sat down on the side of the road. As punishment, the major executed the officer in charge of most of the men who had fallen out of line. Lt. Thornton was that officer. “The Tiger” put a bullet in the back of Thornton’s head.
The captives did their best to carry anyone who was too sick or injured to walk. Their efforts came at a heavy toll as they too were weak and unable to go far with extra weight.
Although the march ended nine days later after 120 miles, the prisoners would not be freed until 1953. During the Tiger Death March, 89 people died. By the end of the war 66 percent of the survivors also were dead.
The Tiger was eventually replaced. Better conditions came into being, but the toll of it all was more than evident.
The names of all who were lost on that awful journey may never be known. However, there was an American private by the name of Johnnie Johnson who, at great risk, recorded on very small scraps of paper the names and places of those who died while in captivity with him. He recorded more than 400 names over the course of the war. It was not until the 1990s that the list came to light. Finally closure was brought to many American families who never knew what had happened to their soldier or family member.
On this Memorial Day, let us not forget the long forgotten soldier who fell by the side of the road in an unknown place serving his country as a brave soldier should.
Marilyn N. Windham is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation and a former U. S. history teacher. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.