CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Christopher McAndrews enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 at age 16, using a forged birth certificate because he was eager to serve. His older brother and role model, who served as a sergeant in World War II, told him that the military would “make a man out of you.” McAndrews did his basic training at Fort Dix. He then went to Airborne School in Japan, since Fort Benning had no room left at the time. After completing training, McAndrews was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division, which was stationed in northern Japan. He fell in love with Japan and described the Japanese people as “perfect.” When McAndrews re-enlisted in 1949, he requested to return to the Far East, and his wish was granted. He was assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, then stationed in Sasebo, in southern Japan.
McAndrews was at a movie theatre in Japan when the Korean War broke out. An announcement was made, the movie ended early and he had to return to his barracks. The occupying forces in Japan were the first American troops to be sent to Korea. Unfortunately, most of these men were inexperienced; the equipment they were issued was either outdated or malfunctioned, most definitely the 2.5 anti-tank rocket launchers (aka bazookas) were ineffective against the Russian T-34 tanks used by the North Koreans.
The 24th Division landed at Pusan and was transported to Taejon, where there was heavy fighting. On July 19 and 21, 1950, part of the division, including the headquarters detachment, was surrounded, pinned down and forced to surrender. Casualties included 922 men killed and 228 wounded of 3,933 committed there. Many soldiers were captured as well, including the division commander, Major General William F. Dean, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for conducting the critical delaying action.
McAndrews was one of the prisoners. He and several hundred other POWs were marched to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. McAndrews remembered being paraded through villages where civilians punched and spit on Americans who had blonde or red hair. He had black hair and so escaped the attacks. Once in Pyongyang, the prisoners were placed in a schoolyard surrounded by guards. They were then marched to the Chinese border to prevent their liberation by American forces. McAndrews recalled this series of forced marches being nightmarish; the North Koreans stripped him of anything remotely valuable, including his shoes that they exchanged for cheap rubber sandals he had to cover with paper and straw to prevent frostbite. The POWs were only allowed to drink unpurified water from lakes and rivers and fed rice balls which tasted terrible. Fortunately, he did not catch any diseases from the inferior food and drink.
On arrival at the Chinese border, the North Koreans had a new commandant – who quickly earned the nickname “The Tiger” for his ruthlessness – in charge of the POWs. The guards, mockingly called the “Honor Guard” were poorly trained yet fanatical North Korean soldiers. During a march from one camp to another, “The Tiger” ordered every American officer to ensure that his men don’t fall out of line. One group had twelve men who fell out, and the officer in charge was executed. “The Tiger’s” reasoning was that he failed to follow an order which is punishable by death during a time of war. Other horror stories involving “The Tiger” include almost being machine-gunned in a schoolyard twice, as well as the 100-mile infamous ‘Tiger Death March’ which had one American perishing every mile due to fatigue.
Soon after McAndrews’ imprisonment, the Chinese entered the war, and he recalled witnessing Chinese soldiers cross into Korea during the night, and thought they were better equipped than the North Koreans and larger in numbers. There were also Russians and Hungarians who lived across the street from the prison camp, most likely military advisors aiding the North Koreans.
The POWs were eventually transferred to Chinese control, which benefitted the Americans considerably, as the Chinese were much more benevolent towards them. They received better medical care, were able to send mail and were given military uniforms. The Chinese did force the POWs, including McAndrews, to attend indoctrination classes. The class he was in had college graduates who often debated with the “instructors” and refuted the claims made by the Chinese that Americans were the aggressors in the war. The Chinese also took pictures of each POW to make it easier to identify them. In 1953, with the signing of the armistice, there was a prisoner exchange, and McAndrews was released and returned home to America.
McAndrews never forgot his experiences in Korea; he had to bury POW friends while on burial detail during his time as a prisoner of war. He remembered how hopeless the situation seemed when the only way to escape was if he knew Russian or Chinese. McAndrews continued to reflect on his life as a POW long after the war ended, and he was free and home. He received the Purple Heart, the Army of Occupation Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, the Korea Service Medal with 3 Bronze Service Stars, and the Parachute Badge.
Christopher McAndrews passed away at the age of 86 on July 13, 2016 at a state veterans nursing home in Florida.
A comprehensive account of the experiences of Korean War American prisoners can be found at: koreanwarlegacy.org/chapters/the-pow-experience.