Someone recently asked former prisoner of war Bill Norwood if he had ever returned to Korea since his release in 1953.
“Yes,” he said. “I was there last night, the night before, and the night before that.”
Prisoners of war and others declared missing in action will be remembered Friday at 10 a.m. at Veterans of Foreign War Post 2598 at 3370 North Ocoee St. The somber ceremony marks the sixth year homage is paid to the more than 100,000 service members missing or unaccounted for from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, both Iraq wars and the war in Afghanistan.
Norwood said that upon his release from his captors, he crossed the line of demarcation between North and South Korea near Panmunjom, and a reporter from the Knoxville Journal asked Norwood for an interview, which he granted.
“When I got home and saw the article, it wasn’t even close to what we had talked about,” he said. “I wasn’t in that good of shape, but he made it sound 10 times worse and my poor mother was frightened to death. I said then I would never talk to another reporter.”
The reporter was interested in Norwood because he was from Tennessee and just wanted general information, such as the name of his hometown (Benton) and which unit he was in.
“He made me out to be worse in appearance than what I was and that’s what frightened my mother. She was expecting to see a rack of bones come walking in,” he said.
Most of the men’s weight fell to below 100 pounds, “but as those so-called peace talks progressed, they were feeding us a little better and most of us did gain a little weight. I think I was close to 120 pounds,” he said. “But he (the reporter) had me still back in the days when we weren’t being fed very much. But, he needed a story I guess, and kind of made up his own. What I resented was him putting so much stress on my mom.”
The North Koreans treated prisoners harshly, especially in the beginning as they were marched 900 miles through North Korea. He said the first words of caution troops were given on the way to the war was to not eat vegetables or anything else grown from the ground — even if a piece of fruit fell to the ground — it was considered contaminated by the human waste that was used as fertilizer.
“The food there, particularly in the beginning, some guys just couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t eat it. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life, but it hasn’t always been steak and such for me,” he said. “If you try to give me something, I’ll try to eat it and I did, but some guys just couldn’t. They didn’t have the will or determination. They starved to death.”
Their captors turned the cooking over to the POWs soon after settling into a permanent camp. The kitchen consisted of two big iron pots Norwood described as wash pots.
“You just threw your stuff in there and whatever happened … I was selected to be a cook and I couldn’t even boil water, for goodness sakes,” he said. “One of the problems we had was the grain was always old and it was full of bugs. They were little black bugs and there would be thousands of them, little hardback beetles, I guess.”
Since he had nothing else to do, he picked out the bugs so the others wouldn’t see them in the food.
“I tried that and I looked at it. I had a big pile of bugs and a small pile of food, so I just threw them back in,” he said. “If you have a strong determination and a will to live, you’ll do things you can’t even believe yourself.
“But that was in 1951 when we went through the worst part and later in 1952, they began to feed us a little better and there wasn’t as many deaths as there was in the beginning,” he said.
After his release, Norwood said all POWs had trouble adjusting and had to work it out in their own ways.
“I hadn’t slept in a bed in three years and to have a nice, fluffy bed; it just didn’t seem right. I preferred the floor,” he said. “You have to learn to adapt and that in many ways was one of the problems I think most of us encountered. Of course, it took time to get used to the food because you’re not used to having so much food.
“I thought I could eat a whole horse when I came back. I had envisioned all of these things during that time. The first thing they gave us was a small container of ice cream,” he said.
Norwood asked if that was all he was going to get. A nurse told him that if he ate all of the small portion of ice cream, then he could have all he wanted.
“I couldn’t even eat all of that,” he said. “My stomach had shrunk, but I’m making up for it now.”
Norwood credits his wife, Liz, for saving his life.