After two years in captivity, Heyward Tumbleston decided he’d had enough of his Chinese guards, the bitter cold and the lack of edible food.
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Korean War-era veterans will be recognized by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott at 4 p.m. today as part of the 60th anniversary of the armistice that led to the Korean cease-fire.
The event will be similar to the gathering Scott assembled earlier for veterans of World War II.
The recognition is at the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston, Exhibit Hall B. Each veteran will receive a special congressional certificate of appreciation, as well as a pin.
Held inside the notorious “Camp 5” deep in the isolated hills of North Korea, there was too much death and too much torture. So Tumbleston and a fellow prisoner opted to escape.
Their plan was both daring and naive. During the nights they could see bombardment flashes from U.S. Navy guns over the horizon. They figured if they could make it to the coast they could steal a boat and get away.
Part of their effort worked; they made it close enough to hear the ocean. But that’s where their try for freedom ended.
Tumbleston’s companion was shot dead by an enemy patrol when they entered a clearing they thought was isolated. Tumbleston was recaptured and taken back to Camp 5 where he was kept inside a tiny box. “I lived in that thing for two months,” he said. “Whenever I got out, I couldn’t walk.”
Today, the calendar marks the 60-year end of the Korean War when an armistice brought a close to hostilities but not a true peace. Some 483 servicemen from South Carolina were killed in the three years of fighting that claimed more than 54,000 American lives, including nearly 8,000 never accounted for.
Tumbleston, 82, of Mount Pleasant — “Gene” to his friends — doesn’t plan to do any form of celebrating, figuring the war is long over and barely remembered, except when there’s the occasional saber-rattling from the North. It’s a feeling veterans’ advocates say is common.
“After facing combat, a lot of people never want to come back and talk about it,” said Frank Adams, a volunteer with HonorFlight South Carolina, one of several nonprofit efforts dedicated to taking aging veterans free of charge to see their war memorials in Washington, D.C. Many of these groups are now further expanding their missions to include Korean vets along with those from World War II.
Tumbleston grew up around Charleston. He attended the former Moultrie High School in Mount Pleasant but admits to being a bored, troublesome teenager. In 1948 the opportunity came to join the Army, so he took it. He was sent to Fort Jackson in Columbia, assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division and shipped to peacetime Japan.
“I loved those Japanese gals,” he said with a sly kick in his voice.
Life abruptly changed for the corporal in June 1950 when war on the Korean peninsula broke out between the communist North and the West-friendly South.
Tumbleston remembers his unit getting a quick pep-talk from an officer about containing the global spread of communism. The message was all but lost on the poor Southern kid.
“We were supposed to be going in fighting communism,” Tumbleston recalled. “And I didn’t even know what communism was.”
During his first weeks in-country, Tumbleston was wounded in the left arm by a North Korean bullet. He returned to the front lines later that year. His capture came that November after the Chinese Army suddenly and surprisingly entered the war. “They hit us about 200,000 strong,” he said.
Isolated and trapped on top of a hill, his post was attacked by Chinese troops for three days straight, coming in wave after human wave. “I don’t know why, but they sure wanted that piece of property real bad,” he said.
When the ammunition ran out, only six of his unit’s 65 men were left.
The survivors began heading toward what they thought was safety but not before stopping to give water and aid to a severely wounded Chinese soldier.
Tumbleston thinks that single act of kindness probably saved his life.
Moments later, hundreds of Chinese troops who had been watching his every move emerged from concealment in the hills above.
When they got up, “it just seemed like the whole mountain moved at one time,” he said.
If his captors had been North Korean, “they would have killed us right then,” he added. Tumbleston’s family would not know of his POW status for more than an year.
Life as a prisoner became a minute-by-minute, day-by-day struggle. There were long night marches in the biting cold when he had only light clothes to wear. Peasant huts became his home. Sometimes the food was no more than handfuls of millet — tasteless grain.
“That’s what we use here for bird seed,” he said. “They’d boil it up twice a day.” The millet would “wash through you,” he added. “It had no food value at all.”
When his Chinese captors learned that his aunt had married an Air Force officer, they wanted information about the airman’s importance so badly they beat him severely enough for him to be paralyzed. The beatings were futile; Tumbleston had never met the guy.
And there were collaborators to deal with — Americans who sided with the Chinese in exchange for better food. “There was 21 of them that I know of. I think most of those are dead now,” Tumbleston said, adding that he later gave testimony against one of the men. “He was ratting us out.”
“They wanted us to denounce our country and come and live in China,” he also said of his captors. “We could have jobs and eat good; we could get married,” he said of their promises.
One of the worst instances of torture he saw was when a downed fighter pilot was placed in a sealed steel drum.
“They beat on it continuously,” he said. “They were trying to drive him crazy and make him sign a confession of dropping germ warfare.”
Tumbleston survived the remaining months of the war until one day with little advance warning he was sent back south as part of the armistice agreement. He came home, got on with his life, went to work and started a family.
One of his two daughters, Cathy Elder, 58, of St. Stephen, said she never heard about her father’s wartime and POW accounts until about 10 years ago. She described him as an absentee father to her when she was younger. Growing up, she knew he was always a “restless” man, she said.
“That was part of the PTSD. As we got older, we realized a lot of it wasn’t his fault,” Elder said. When the stories of the war did come, it was “in little bits and pieces,” she added.
Decades later, Tumbleston still suffers nightmares that bring back the fighting and death he saw.
“The Chinese — I’ve seen them time and time again in my dreams,” he said. But the misery pangs and anger have subsided.
“I don’t really hate them now,” he said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.