When Sgt. Heyward Eugene "Gene" Tumbleston left his studies at Moultrie High School to volunteer for the Army, he couldn't have had any idea how much the Korean War would impact his life. He enlisted on Nov. 18, 1948. He was captured during The Battle of Unsan in the Fall of 1950 and held for 34 months in a prison camp run by the Chinese Communists.
He died Feb. 22 at the age of 82.
While engaged at Unsan, Tumbleston's unit was under heavy shell fire and a group of soldiers was separated from the rest when they fell out of position. As he recounted in an Evening Post article published on Sept. 4, 1953, they came across an injured Chinese soldier and Tumbleston bandaged his wounds while trying to get some useful information out of him.
As expected in war, they didn't trust the soldier when he told them of a safe way out. Thinking it was a tactic, they went the other way, which led to their capture.
For the first 14 months after his imprisonment, Tumbleston's family only knew of him as missing in action. This is after he'd already been wounded in battle and returned to the front lines. His father died, not receiving the "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" note his son had sent to him and not knowing whether his only son was dead or alive.
In the letters that made it to Tumbleston's family, he talked about how he was "getting along fine," according to News and Courier articles from September 1953. He would talk about his plans and would ask for photographs from home. His letters never much mentioned his welfare or his daily activities, just the repetition of the word "well."
It took four months for his letters to make it back to the Lowcountry. They were sealed with censor's tape, had his address in care of the Democratic People's Republic (of North Korea) and the white dove of peace was on the front.
Tumbleston was released on Aug. 10, 1953 and was the first Charleston POW to return home from Korea. It was Sept. 2, 1953 and he was 22 years old.
In those 1953 News and Courier articles, he opened up a little about his experience as a prisoner, but never revealed too much about Communist propaganda tactics or their treatment, for fear of retaliation against his fellow soldiers still in captivity.
Upon his return, he claimed that "mental strain" was the worst part of prison life, "outweighing the starvation diet, the loneliness, the monotony," while acknowledging that he "came through it without any break in my health while many of my buddies died."
His fellow captives died primarily of starvation, but some died from their wounds.
According to Tumbleston's daughter, Joann Jarman, he suffered from survivor's guilt and often he "would wonder why he survived when he was forced to bury so many of his comrades in the three years they spent in the camp."
After Tumbleston returned to Charleston, he met his first wife, Georgia Wright, at a downtown dance. That same night, he told his friends that he was going to marry her. And he did, then they moved to Florida and had daughters Cathy Elder and Joann Jarman.
Tumbleston and Wright later divorced and, according to Jarman, he "lived life on his terms." Because of what would later be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, "he could never settle down," she said.
He lived in several states, getting work as he went. "Because he did not have a high school education," Jarman said, he "used his wits to procure jobs."
He had been an overseer for road building into the gold mines of Colorado, a guide on a fishing boat and a sheet metal laborer on planes with TWA. Ultimately, he retired to Islamorada in the Florida Keys and opened up a taxi company.
In June 2012, Tumbleston's health had deteriorated and he decided to move back to Mount Pleasant to be with his daughters Jarman and Elder. He was in continual pain, according to Jarman. His back was "broken in the prison camps by the guards beating him ... with the butts of their rifles," she said.
Tumbleston lived with Jarman for a year-and-a-half. They "had a chance to catch up on the years that the fallout from the war robbed us of," Jarman recalled. "He chose to come back home where he was born and raised and be with us. It's an ending to his story that comforts me."
He also reconnected with his first wife, Georgia Wright. She was in a nursing home, experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer's, but "they managed to visit and he had a chance to say things to her that he wanted to say over the years," Jarman said.
"When (my mother) died, my husband and I took him to her grave so he could (set down) a dozen red roses ... and say a final goodbye to the woman he swore he should never have left," Jarman recalled.
"The war impacted my entire family ... The time (my sister and I had with him) is precious and I already miss our talks together so very much."