South Africa Johannesburg (1)

>> My name is Denis Earp, Earp as in Wyatt Earp. I'm now 86 years old, but in 1950, when the Korean War broke out, I was still only 20, and I hadn't finished my flying training, but the government of South Africa asked for volunteers because for once, the United Nations was able to function as it should, by a pure accident of the Soviets having become angry at something or other, and so they didn't attend. Now at the time, the government decided that the best thing to do would be to send a fighter squadron. Having made some arrangements with the Americans so that we would pay for everything we used, all armament, fuel, aircraft, equipment, everything because all of us were volunteers, which I think makes it a little different story for many other countries. 1950, I spent in great tension following the progress of the Korean War down from the 38th Parallel down to the Pusan perimeter, the breakout at Imjin, the pursuit northwards because I was worried the war would be over before I could get there. I was a second lieutenant, as I said, still on flying training, and I didn't get my wings until December of 1950. Straight after that, Spitfire conversion and operational conversion, and then as soon as we could, we went to Korea, which I reached the end of May, 1951. Now it's a time long ago. Things are different now, but make no mistake. The Korean War was not a quarrel. It was a very big, very important, very violent war, and it made a point in stopping Soviet aggression because the manipulation of Korea was just a byproduct of the Cold War. China and Russia knew what was coming, and they were hoping to break the West's monopoly of resistance in the West. Strangely enough, I think it happened because an American foreign minister made a statement which the Chinese particularly misinterpreted. In an interview in, I think, the early '50s, he said which areas were vital for America, and he named them all over the West, but he did not mention Korea, so the Chinese and the North Koreans interpreted this as being a disengagement on the part of the United States, which it most definitely was not. But America was totally unprepared. When the Korean War broke out, South Korea was not ready for it. It was almost a miracle that the American logistics could reinforce the Pusan perimeter and mobilize allied forces quickly enough to stop having to retreat to Japan because then I think it would have been a very, very long war. In any case, as a second lieutenant, not a student of politics, just a young man, stupid as all young men are, I ended up in a very hot war. As a second lieutenant, my probability of surviving the first few combat missions were low, but you learn very quickly, or you don't survive, and quite a few of my friends were killed. Older and more experienced pilots were killed, and that's a bit of a shock to the system of a young man because you keep believing, "It cannot happen to me," but it does. And on my 65th combat mission, there was a Communist flat gunner who got lucky, and he shot me down, not immediately there, but I was able to fly for about 20 minutes, trying to get back to the lines, but I had a small fire in the cockpit. My feet were burning, and when I got to the point where I'd lost a lot of height, I knew I had to crash-land or bail out. Now the mountains in Korea are not conducive to safe forced landings, so I bailed, and I injured myself, and I had burned feet. I twisted my knee badly on landing, and 7 hours later, I was taken prisoner by the Chinese and then began a little more than 23 months of an experience which I wouldn't wish on anybody. To be a prisoner of the Communists is not a happy state of affairs, and I came very close to dying on several occasions, but by the grace of God, I didn't, and I was released after the armistice which was in July of 1953. I got out in August of '53 and was able to return home in reasonable shape, perhaps a little puzzled in my mind and a little troubled in my memories. So the war ended for me, but that war has not ended for Korea, and I think there's misery ahead for a long time. I hope it'll end peacefully, but I hope it'll still end in my lifetime, but it may not. >> Can you explain to us a little bit about your day-to-day experience at the POW camps? Because not a lot of people know what it means to be a prisoner of war. What did you eat? Were you able to wash yourself? Were you with other prisoners of war? How were the conditions like? How did you survive? >> Well, first of all, prisoners were not a common ... I beg your pardon. It's just my cell phone beeping. Prisoners were not at the moment very popular. They weren't prepared for them, neither the North Koreans nor the Chinese. Food, inadequate. No medical attention at all unless you were termed a progressive. If you offered any form of resistance or failed to cooperate, you were then classed as a reactionary, and the reactionaries didn't have a great future. So if in interrogation you resisted, remember that we'd been indoctrinated in the West to believe in the Geneva Convention. To the Chinese and the North Koreans, that was like a red flag to a bull, and immediately, if you pressed your point, you would end up in a hole in the ground, as I often did, tied with your elbows behind your back. Very little food. When it came, you ate like a dog, and your bodily functions were not catered for. You can imagine what that does to your morale after a few days but then if you're taken out and interrogation starts again or lessons. "You must study to learn the truth," was the big Communist message, and if you learn the truth, then you will have a happy daily life and we will take care of you. But if you didn't want to learn the truth and if you resisted, life was not pleasant. In the first winter at a place called [FOREIGN LANGUAGE] which was across on the Yalu River, a little way from the camp that I ended up in, about 1,500 men died, a lack of medicine, a lack of medication, a lack of food and extremely low temperatures, and the horror of that camp was that the ground was too hard to bury those who died, so they had to be laid on top of the ground and stacked until the spring came, and then they could be buried. Now that kind of environment doesn't do good for your ego. It's oppressive, and men sometimes cracked. They just couldn't take it anymore, and then they faced to the wall. Three days, they would die. We lightheartedly called it give-up-itis, but it was a serious problem. The mind definitely controls your body. If your mind says, "You've had enough. Die," you will die. If your mind says, "No. Let's stay with it. You've got a good chance of survival," and there was a lot of luck as an element. In the beginning as a prisoner, I was regularly interrogated, and we had to sit and listen to lectures every day. But later, I think particularly the Chinese realized that they were not getting anywhere, and they left us on our own. The North Koreans were particularly brutal captors. I spent a few weeks at an interrogation center outside of [FOREIGN LANGUAGE] which we called Park's Palace. Now Major Park was a very sadistic man, and he enjoyed torturing people, and torture might have been pleasant from his point of view, but it was not pleasant from the prisoner's point of view. But with a bit of luck, I survived Park's Palace. I survived a march from Pyongyang up to the Yalu River on foot and with prisoners who were not in good physical shape, and on that March, numerous prisoners died, again, bad physical condition, cold weather. The first snows came in. I was in a summer flying suit, and I got very cold, and I learned to my own horror that if I never saw snow again, pleasant as it may be to many people, I would not be sad at all. In brief, it was not a pleasant experience. I survived on the march when I got dysentery, and a friend of mine supported because if you got left behind, you knew that as soon as the group had moved along, there'd be a shot, and that would be the end. And my friend, Mikheli, physically helped me to survive the last few days until we got to [FOREIGN LANGUAGE]. Unfortunately, he did at the cost of his own health because he was then diagnosed with a very, very poor heart, and after we got back to South Africa, a few months later, he died. So I owe him a life, but he gave his willingly. So that's, in brief, the story of a long time. >> You said General Park tortured. We don't understand what kind of torture you're talking. Can you explain what kind of torture? >> Well, if, for example, he wanted immediate information, such as if a prisoner had attempted to escape, then automatically, that meant it was a capitalist plot, and now you had to tell everything. Now one of the forms which was very unpleasant, they would tie you to a chair, kick the chair over backwards, put a cloth over your face and pour water on the cloth, which then sticks to your face, and you can't get breath. And after you've struggled a while, you lose consciousness, and when you come to, you're now sitting upright, coughing out water, and you get your breath back, and now we can do it all over again until you decide that you're going to give the information which they want. That was one form. Other forms were just direct beating. Some people were hung by their thumbs from a bin, and of course, they dislocated thumbs, dislocated shoulders, so physical torture is something that is not pleasant, and prisoners required a great deal of strength of character to endure and continue to resist. It didn't always help to lie because lies, as often do [INAUDIBLE]. So let's say that being put in a hole without food and water and tied up for a few days is also torture. Then that's not pleasant either. >> Were you able to wash yourselves? >> Not when you're in the hole. You had nothing. You mess yourself, and that does bad things to your morale. When you're not being interrogated or being punished, then you're with a group of prisoners who are all classed as reactionaries. In there, you had a reasonable chance of acting normally, bearing in mind that in a Communist system, there are always informers, and you don't know who they are, and the system works in this way that they ask the one informer what happened in that room on that morning, who said what, and he gives a report. Then they've got another informer who informer one doesn't know, and they ask him the same questions so the two informers can cross inform and get the truth. So you were never free to speak, even to your friends. If you wanted to speak, you would walk onto the open ground in front of the schoolhouse, which was prison, and there you could talk, but you had to be very careful because you could be turned in easily. >> Did they speak English? How did they interrogate you? >> Well ... >> Chinese or Korean ... >> Chinese ... >> They spoke English? >> Yeah. Some of them very good English. Some had been educated in universities in England and America. >> Okay. >> The Koreans also spoke very good English, and of course, there were always Russians that you knew were there because Russians smoked a cigarette which had a cardboard for the mouthpiece, so if you saw a couple of those lying on the ground, you knew Russians were giving the Chinese or the Koreans the questions to ask. >> And what kind of questions did they ask? >> Luckily, most of them were very stupid questions. Initially, they wanted to know, what squadron were you? Who was the squadron commander? Who was the second-in-command? How many men in your flight? How many airplanes? What kind of airplanes? How fast? How high? How many guns? How many bombs? How many rockets? Which are of no value except tactically, and after a few days, that interrogation has no further value except it builds up a pattern that the person being interrogated is going to answer, and I didn't realize that until right in the beginning. I had never been briefed [INAUDIBLE]. "What is your father's name?" I said, "That's got nothing to do with you." "Oh, you are not cooperating." "No, I'm not cooperating." "I'm sticking to the Geneva Convention." Then we get a long lecture on the lenient policy in which you not be killed, you will not be maltreated, provided you cooperate. Now on the question of my father's name, the guy was very polite about it. He said, "All right. If you won't answer, we will give you a little time to think about it," and they put me in a hole in the ground, and they tied me up, and they let me stay there for 2 days, and when I came out, the interrogator said, "Have you thought?" I said, "Yes, I've thought." He said, "And what is the answer? What is your father's name?" And I said, "I'm not going to tell you. It's got nothing to do with you." He said, "Come." He marched me up a hill with a squad of soldiers, stood me up against a tree. He didn't have the soldiers point a gun at me. He took out his pistol, and he cocked it, and he said, "Would you like a blindfold?" And I said, "No, thank you," and he aimed the pistol between my eyes, and he pulled the trigger, and it went click. I'll tell you, that's an incredible psychological letdown when you think you're going to die and you don't. So along that pattern, I realized, if there's a question, you've got to have an answer. Whether it's a lie or not is immaterial, but you will answer, and that's how interrogation builds up. Always the small questions first and then later the political questions, and that's what they were interested in, but we were not politicians. We were professional soldiers, second lieutenants who knew very little about a lot of things, but we survived. >> So did you eventually give your father's name? >> I gave my father's name. >> I think I heard that some of your worst torturers were women. Tell me about that. >> No, I never had women torturers. There were women nurses that we saw in the hospitals, but we never got to a hospital because we were reactionaries. >> And about lice. >> Lice? >> Dealing with lice because you weren't showering. >> Well, lice is something I'd never had in my life, but after being along on a march and stop at a village, they put you in a room. The next morning, you itch, and the itch gets worse, and then somebody says, "The reason you're itching is you've got lice," so if you've got a spare minute, get into your clothes, find the lice and kill them. It makes you feel better, and you can imagine if you're tied up, the torture of having lice all over you. For somebody who's not used to it, maybe for the locals it didn't matter, but for me, it meant a lot. >> And some prisoners had to eat lice to survive, I heard. >> Well, you ate whatever you could. If you could take something clean off the side of the road in the summer, eat it because your food was essentially two bowls, small bowls, of rice per day, but on that you actually suffering from avitaminosis, beriberi, eye night blindness, illness for which you could be given medicine if you were not a reactionary. >> And in the camp, were you mixed with other nationalities? >> Yes, mainly Americans, but in the camp I was in, there were some Turks. There were Filipinos, the South Africans, and I'm trying to think who else. My memory is not as good as it should be, possibly because I don't think back to those days with any great pleasure. >> Were you mixed? >> Yes. >> Or were you segregated? >> Mixed. >> Mixed. >> Interrogation, solitary, only by yourself. >> I hope many survived like you did. >> South Africans, eight. >> Out of how many prisoners of war? >> Eight. >> There were eight prisoners of war, but they all survived? >> South Africans, yes. >> [INAUDIBLE]. >> The last man was shot down 3 days before armistice, and he was perhaps the luckiest guy ever because he lost 40 pounds in weight in 40 days, and he was never seriously interrogated. >> On armistice, which was July 27th, 1953, you were released? >> Not then. We got released much later. I had made a mistake early on when I was a prisoner. They said, "You are an officer." I said, "Yeah, second lieutenant, very senior." They said, "You must know many things about what bombs do." I said, "I suppose so." They said, "Well, we are subject to unwarranted attacks by the Americans and the Wall Street warmongers, so you will now show us how to build a bombproof bomb shelter." I said, "Okay." So I explained to them how I thought a bomb shelter should be built quite incorrectly, but I then was the foreman, and the Chinese built according to my directions, and we'd almost finished when we were attacked by fighters from my wing, and the bomb shelters collapsed, as I knew they would, but when I was in the bomb shelter, I stuck close to the wall. The guard went in deep and when the shelter collapsed broke his back and killed him. So then I spent a very unpleasant few days being beaten up, and after that, I built the bomb shelters, and our whole platoon of Chinese, they were the supervisors. And because of that, I was tried by a Chinese court. I was given a defense lawyer who pleaded for the death penalty, and he got it. They sentenced me to death for sabotage, but then they said they would not execute the sentence yet, but every time I went for interrogation after that, they'd remind me, and that's why I didn't get released too quickly after armistice, and I didn't know if they would release me until the very end. So I got released in the end of August. >> One month later. >> Mm-hmm. >> But did you know that there was an armistice signed? >> I knew there was an armistice. >> How were you informed about it? >> Well, first of all, we notice stoppage of air flights, the first thing. Then we noticed the Chinese were not quite so hostile. Within 2 days, they formed us up on the playground, and we knew they were going to announce armistice, and we as prisoners said, "Don't show any emotion." So the Chinese commander got up and spoke in Chinese, and then it gets translated into English, and nobody moved. The Chinese commander got very angry and yelled at the interpreter and said, "Did you tell them?" And he said, "Yes," and he told us again, and nobody moved, and this puzzled the Chinese no end. They couldn't understand it, and it gave us a great deal of satisfaction. >> So you all planned this. >> We planned it. >> Wow. All different nationalities, you all just remained calm. >> And that included the people we knew were informers and traitors because they knew we'd tear them to pieces if they didn't. >> Did they come back? Did they return? >> I believe quite a few of them faced court marshals in the States, at any rate. Sad, but that's how people are. You look after yourself. >> [INAUDIBLE]. >> When you're starving, you can bribe a man very easily with a bowl of very inferior food or maybe some medicine for serious illnesses. >> Oh, show your hands. It breaks my heart. >> We're not sure what caused that, but it damaged the skin, and I think that was because at one stage in the winter when it was very, very cold, they would stand me outside and tie me to a pole with no cover for my hands, and they'd wait just until the frostbite started, and then they would take me into a warm room. Now I don't know if you've ever had frostbite, but when it thaws, it is extremely painful, and this was a very easy way that didn't threaten my life but softened me. You tend to become less resistant when you're treated that way. In any case, I survived those days, and I came back, and I managed to survive another war which lasted 20 years, and in the end, I ended up as the chief of the Air Force, so I couldn't really complain about my career. >> A general. >> From second lieutenant to a general. >> But most of all, that's just so fascinating because most people ... You didn't just go fight and return, but you suffered for almost 2 years as a prisoner, like you said, with your morale, usurping the dignity out of the human being. Most people would want nothing to do with any war, period, so why did you decide to stay in the military in the force? >> Well, I found that I'd enjoyed my part of the war. I didn't like the part being a prisoner, but by accident of circumstances, I had several flight commanders shut down, and there were no replacements, so they made me as a second lieutenant an acting flight commander, and I found I had an aptitude for leading a flight in combat and achieving great success in attacks on ground targets. So when I came back, I had a choice. I could leave, or I could stay, but at that stage, things were reasonably peaceful, and my option would have been to go to airways and fly as an airline pilot, but my nature was not of that ilk. It wouldn't have worked for me, so I stayed, and it wasn't long in this troubled country that we were in conflict again. So I found I had a natural aptitude for military operations, and that's why I stayed. >> And you said you went back to Korea. Could you just briefly explain your first impression? >> 1986, I in fact went on an official visit to Taiwan, and while we were there, we contacted Mr. [INAUDIBLE] who was the then Korean minister of, I think, prisoner affairs, and he said, "Well, why don't you come and visit? Officially, we cannot admit you." They had just at that time refused entry to our minister of defense and our minister of foreign affairs, but in my case, they decided I should go. They treated me like a king. We'd be riding in an elevator up to that very tall building in Seoul 65 floors high, and Mr. [INAUDIBLE] would say to the people, "This man here is a veteran of the Korean War," and they would all smile and come and want to shake my hand, and then he said, "And he was shot down and was a prisoner for 2 years," and then they all wanted to hug me. That's how they were. They were just grateful to see a veteran of the Korean War. They treated me like royalty. The Air Force invited me to a dinner. I was able to lay a wreath at a memorial for the Cluster Regiment on the Imjin River, and as I said, it was a wonderful experience to see the Korea which was devastated rebuilt. And it's interesting. People ask me, "You go to a Korean War, and you didn't even win. What did you achieve?" I say, "Well, let's look at this way. North Korea is the most repressive Stalinist country in the world where there is no freedom, great human rights violations and terrible abuses of people. South Korea is the most progressive open society that you can imagine, and you say we didn't win? I think we did." >> I think so too. >> Good. >> Actually, I know so because I'm here. >> All right. But remember, I was talking then in 1986. I know things have changed a bit now, but South Korea is still prospering. I think your economy is about third or fourth in the world, and I'm glad. >> Well, I hope you're very proud. >> Thank you. >> Thank you.