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Don Edrington
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Korea - 1951

Guard Duty
The Night I Turned a POW Loose

Guard Duty?   Who, Me?

One of the advantages of being the PX Clerk of the 155 Howitzer battalion I'd been assigned to was that I never had to pull any "special" duty. So I was quite surprised when I saw my name on a Guard Duty roster one day.

Well, I reported to the Officer of the Day and was told to be at a remote location alongside a road leading into our encampment at 0200 hours. I would be armed with an M1 rifle and a walkie-talkie and would relieve the soldier who had been there for the previous four hours. He would fill me in on anything special I needed to know.

It would then be my job to challenge anyone I might see coming in our direction and to make him identify himself, etc. If a situation appeared to be dangerous I could call for help with the walkie-talkie.

Beyond that, one was expected to observe the rules for performing guard duty he had learned in basic training - not the least important of which was staying awake. (Anyone found sleeping on guard duty was subject to court-martial and severe punishment, including the possibility of death or life imprisonment if it happened in a war zone.)

I was praying that I would stay awake, because I've always had the ability to fall sleep just about any time in any place - especially if I'm bored. And, as I approached the guard post, the soft grass around it looked like a great place for a nap - especially at 2:00 in the morning.

Well, staying awake turned out to be the least of my problems.

I could see two people in the moonlight, as I got closer to the guard post. One was standing, holding a rifle, and facing me. The other was a couple of yards behind him, sitting on the ground. The one standing gave me the regulation challenge and I identified myself. "Okay," he said, as he lowered his rifle.

Even before I could ask about the person sitting on the ground, the soldier who had spoken said, "I've got a patient for you. You need to take care of him."

"A patient?" I asked. "What's the matter with him?"

"You know," he replied, "he's a gook - just keep your eye on him." With that he picked up his field pack and headed up the road.

No, I didn't know. The impression I got was that this fellow had some kind of injury or illness (a "patient") and that he had come here looking for help. And since we presumably wouldn't be able to speak each other's language, I should just keep my eye on him - probably until sunup, when I could get a better look at things.

The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't like the word "gook" (just as I've never liked any other derogatory ethnic name).

Well, it wasn't till four hours later when I found out what my predecessor should have told me. Here's what he should have said:

"I saw this Korean walking by and told him to stop. He did, but he doesn't speak much English, so I can't tell if he's friend or foe. Anyway, I searched him - and he's unarmed. I called back to camp for instructions and they told me to keep him here until an officer came to get him at dawn."

And one doesn't need to speak the language when he sees a gun pointed at his head - so the Korean sat down and stayed.

In other words, I should have been told that this guy was to be regarded as a prisoner of war - but I wasn't told that.

As for not speaking the language - well, I had picked up a little Korean and this fellow was pleasantly surprised when I said hello and asked him how he was doing (in my broken Korean). He responded that he was okay, thank you.

So now we're asking each other our names. As it turned out, he knew about as much English as I knew Korean. (This, by the way, was how I had learned a little of the language - just by talking to locals and asking questions.)

I asked him why he was here - was he hurt or something? He said he was okay, but that he had taken the wrong road in the dark. He even tried to ask me if I knew the way to a certain village. No, I didn't.

So we just spent the next three and a half hours talking, and trying to teach each other more of our respective languages. The time passed quickly. I was still under the impression he was just waiting for the sun to come up so he could better see where he was going.

When the sun did start to rise, I asked if he would be going now.

"I go now?" he asked with some surprise.

"Well, do you want to go now?" I naively asked.

"Yes, yes - I go now," he said, nodding his head enthusiastically and smiling broadly.

So we shook hands and he went.

Five minutes later a jeep pulled up carrying the Officer of the Day and two non-coms. "Where's the prisoner?" the lieutenant demanded with an agitated look on his face.

"What prisoner?" I asked, already starting to suspect what had probably happened.

"The one you're supposed to be guarding!"

"That Korean? Nobody told me he was a prisoner. The fellow I replaced said he was a 'patient' and that I should look after him. Since he didn't seem to need any help, I just sent him on his way."

"What kind of crazy talk is that? What do you mean, a 'patient?' Don't you know a prisoner when you see one?"

"Well, he didn't look like a prisoner to me, sir. He was just sitting there - and the guard didn't seem to be restraining him in any way. I mean - no handcuffs or anything. He even had his back to the fellow while he was talking to me."

"This is the damnedest thing I've ever heard," the officer said in exasperation. Then he turned to the two sergeants in the back of the jeep and said, "Have that other soldier report to me in 30 minutes. I'm going to get to the bottom of this."

Then he turned back to me and said, "You could be looking at a court-martial, you know. Turning a prisoner of war loose is a pretty serious offense."

"Yes sir," I said, "I'm sure it is. And if anyone had told me he was a prisoner, I would have acted accordingly."

Well, guess what. That was the last I ever heard of it. Apparently the other soldier acknowledged what I had said - even without my being there to confront him. (Also, I'm happy to report, that was the only time I had to perform guard duty in Korea.)

© - Donald Ray Edrington - All Rights Reserved
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