On Feb. 13, 1951, Oscar Cortez had become a POW. The North Koreans took Cortez after the Chinese went through. He had Korean guards all along until he and the rest of the prisoners were turned over to the Chinese in Sept. 1951.
“The North Korean guards were brutal; they would hit you with their rifle butts and starve you to death,” said Cortez. “My weight went down to around 85 pounds.”
One of those guards hit Cortez in the ear with his rifle butt and punctured Cortez’s eardrum. Cortez suffered not only permanent hearing loss from this incident, but also other ailments from his imprisonment during the war.
To be sure, life in the POW camps was severe and harsh. Under the North Koreans, they had hardly anything to eat. They would eat fish heads, millet (they called it bird seed), and sorghum. If they were lucky, they could hunt for frogs to eat the legs. On the other hand, the Chinese gave them rice, pork, bean curd, bread, all cooked by other GIs. They even had tobacco and sugar rations, but when the talks went bad, the Chinese would cut those rations off.
“We knew when things were not going good at the armistice talks,” said Cortez. “The Chinese would be in a bad mood and our rations were cut. If things were going well, they would treat us better.”
They didn’t get any Red Cross packages. When they asked the Chinese about them, the Chinese answered that they didn’t belong to the Geneva Convention and wouldn’t allow those packages. On the other hand, when it was to their advantage the Chinese would always tell us about the Geneva Convention.
“We were told that we could write home but we refused because of the return address, which was our name c/o The Chinese People Volunteer Army and Against American Aggression Peking, China,” Cortez pointed out. “They relented after awhile and removed the `and against’. We were allowed to write I believe one letter a month. I wrote every month but only a few came through.”
The lowest point of the war for Cortez was when he was at Kangdong, few miles east of Pyongyang, often referred to as the ‘death camp.’ Cortez recalled that GIs were dying right and left. He contracted beriberi while he was there. His body from the waist down was all swollen.
“I was about to give up. I didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” said Cortez. “I guess the Good Lord sent an Angel in the form of a doctor. He gave me an injection. I didn’t know what it was, but in a week or so, the beriberi went away.”
The second lowest point of the war for Cortez was Christmas 1952, who still gets choked up when he remembers it.
“Our airplanes had come by and dropped some tinsel-like stuff to jam the Chinese radar. The Chinese tried to burn it, but that stuff wouldn’t burn. So, we picked this stuff up and decorated the little tree that we had.
“It was at night, Christmas Eve and someone started singing ‘Silent Night.’ Soon everyone had joined in. You could hear the whole camp singing. Every time I hear that song, it gets to me,” Cortez said, as his eyes filled up with tears.
Cortez and his Mexican-American friends spoke Spanish to each other, but when the Chinese spoke to them, they spoke in English. However, there was one incident when Cortez didn’t speak English.
“We had this little dog,” recalled Cortez. “We gave him scraps of food. He would follow us when we went on a march for exercise. That little puppy would run between us as we marched.
“One day, on the way back to camp, I saw that puppy on the road and picked him up. A Chinese guard came up to me and tried to take him away from me. I told him in English that he couldn’t have him. Then the interpreter came over and told me that the dog had killed a little baby chicken. He told us that this guard liked chicken and if the chicken had lived, he would have had eggs. You know the story.
“Well, I said, no you can’t have the dog, but the guard ordered me to give up the dog. I said ‘no you s*n of a b*tch you can’t have him.’ And he said, ‘what did you say?’ And I told him again. Then the guard took my dog, swung him against the rocky side of a mountain and killed him.
“When we got back to the camp I was called in by the Political Commissar, he started to interrogate me. I told him to ‘go to hell’ in Spanish. They told me to talk in English to them. I told them again to ‘go to hell’. I thought for sure they were going to put me in the hole.
“They took me around the back near the backwaters of the Yalu River and I was supposed to be standing there at attention. I was picking up rocks and throwing them at the water. Finally, they told me to go back to my room.”
Chinese camp administrators rigorously controlled the prisoners, forced them to participate in constant “re-education” and self-criticism sessions, and subjected them to severe living conditions. The Chinese also subjected the prisoners to grueling interrogation sessions and attempted to get signed confessions from them.
“The Chinese tried to brainwash us and indoctrinate us in the beginning, but they didn’t get anywhere with us, especially the Mexican-Americans. They put us into little groups and designated one person as the monitor. We were supposed to criticize ourselves,” said Cortez. “We had to write down whatever we discussed. They were five of us Hispanics. And we sat there and talked in Spanish. We didn’t know what to talk about, so we talked about anything to just keep on talking. The interpreter came by and listened. He didn’t know what we were talking about. He didn’t know if we were criticizing ourselves or what.”
After the war, Cortez learned that the Chinese had been afraid of the Mexican-Americans because they had always been united and the Chinese couldn’t do anything about it. Cortez and his fellow POWs found other ways to fight back. One time, when they were being moved to another camp and had to go to the bathroom, they had to holler “benjo” to get permission to go. Then the guard watching them would tell them “OK.”
“Well, some started hollering ‘s*n of a b*tch’ and the guard still said, ‘OK.’ Others used other derogatory words and the guard still said, ‘OK,’” laughed Cortez. “Everyone started laughing. He finally figured out what was going on. He started hollering at us in Chinese, put a round in his rifle and that stopped our fun.”
Once prisoners had settled into a POW camp, their lives became more of a routine. Prisoners would get up, go for a morning walk for exercise, eat breakfast, and then wait for dinner. They would eat twice a day until a few months before the Armistice was signed. They also went swimming in the backwaters of the Yalu River and unloaded the barges that brought food from China. Every day past noon they would go to the river and wait for the U.S. fighters to come over and tangle with the MiGs. Their POW camp was right near MiG alley.
“When the armistice had been signed, we didn’t know that it had been signed,” recalled Cortez. “They got all of us together in this large building and announced that we were going to be going home. Then they told us to be sure to tell everyone in America that we had been treated with leniency and that they had been good to us. Everyone started booing. We didn’t believe them because of all the lies they told us.”
It wasn’t until some Sabre jets flew over the camp did they know the armistice had been signed and the war was over.
“One of them came over our camp and did a victory roll. Then we knew it was true,” said Cortez. “Everybody got so excited.” He was one of the last POWs to be repatriated from his camp. “There was this guy Chico and myself,” said Cortez. “We thought they were going to keep us for all the bad things we did in the camp.”
And once he came across Freedom Bridge, what was the first thing he wanted?
“I had a chocolate ice cream cone,” laughed Cortez.
Cortez stayed in the army until he retired in 1970. He would also fight in another war, Vietnam. Today, though, Cortez has no regrets for being a prisoner of war. He harbors no ill feelings against the Chinese, but not the North Koreans.
“They were the most brutal. More than the Chinese,” said Cortez. “They would beat you. They would shoot you.”
At the same time, as Cortez looked back on the personal sacrifices he made as a POW, there is no bitterness or disdain. “Yes, it was worth it, even after being a Prisoner-of-War,” noted Cortez. “What we accomplished in Korea stopped Communism from spreading to other places in the world. The small part I had during the war is but my part in seeing what I saw when I was there. The Koreans were most appreciative of our effort in stopping the aggressors from the north. The recognition we received was rewarding enough for me.”
Back on the tour bus, all the veterans and their wives applauded as Cortez took his seat along side of his wife. As the bus slowly drove away, Cortez took one last look at the bridge.
Free at last.