CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Kenneth E. Williamson was born in New Hope, Pennsylvania in June, 1928. Before his military service, he worked in a paper mill as a carpenter and laborer. Williamson’s older brother served as a gunner on a US Merchant Marine ship during World War II (WWII) but never spoke of his wartime experiences. His brother-in-law also served in WWII and was in combat at the Battle of the Bulge.
Williamson paid little attention to the progress of the Korean War after it began in June, 1950. He believed he might be drafted, however, and he was on October 10 of that year. Following basic combat and advanced infantry training at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, where he recalled that he adjusted well to military life, Williamson boarded a train to Seattle, Washington, from where he shipped out on an overcrowded troopship on a twenty-eight day voyage to Japan.
On the way to the Far East, Williamson received instruction on the causes and course of the Korean War to that date, including the Chinese intervention on behalf of the North Koreans. After stopping briefly in Japan, his ship docked at Pusan and then Inchon, Korea, where he went ashore in March, 1951. He remained in Inchon a few days and then traveled by truck along desolate dirt roads to Seoul, which had been overrun a second time by the enemy, and then had been recently recaptured in an Eighth Army counteroffensive. Once at the front he was assigned to “E” Company of the 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, and was in combat shortly after. When a South Korean unit was pushed back by the enemy, American infantry and armor soldiers from the 24th, including Williamson’s unit, were sent to restore the line and rescue the South Koreans. Throughout the remainder of March, Williamson remained on the front line, living in foxholes and eating K-Rations before pulling back three miles for a break.
After a week in the rest area, Williamson’s unit moved up to the line again. On the night of April 26, 1951, an intensive Chinese attack, part of the enemy’s “Fifth Phase Offensive,” halted after fifteen minutes and was followed by an eerie silence, during which Williamson’s attention was drawn to a house on fire in the distance. During the pause the Chinese infiltrated and surrounded the American position, then launched an overwhelming attack, with an intensive mortar barrage followed by a human wave infantry assault, featuring blaring bugles and intensive small arms fire, which overran the position held by Williamson’s 150 man company. Williamson, who recalled that only thirty Americans survived the attack, was hit with something on the head, temporarily knocked unconscious and awoke with a rifle muzzle stuck in his face. His captors confiscated his ammunition, hand grenades, mess kit, Social Security card, knife, fork and entrenching tool. They allowed him to keep his watch and wallet.
The survivors of Company E were marched north with other prisoners. Early on in the march, one man tried to escape and was shot dead. After a trek of eighty days, covering some 600 miles, wandering in seemingly different directions and paraded through villages in front of North Korean peasants as war trophies, the prisoners were loaded onto a railroad boxcar on which they traveled north all night. For food they were issued a powdered dry ration of soybeans, peanuts and sorghum, which Williamson mixed with some hot water he managed to acquire. Upon leaving the boxcar in the morning, the POWs resumed walking, traveling into a valley with a stream running through it where they given a brief opportunity to bathe for the first time since they were captured. Shortly afterward, Williamson and his comrades arrived at POW Camp Number 3, on the Chinese border at Changsong, where he would remain incarcerated until the end of the war.
24th Division soldiers advance up a hill in Korea, 1951. Williamson quickly fell into the camp routine. Every morning there was a count of POWs, followed by breakfast, which consisted of “bean juice” and a type of soy milk. After breakfast prisoners were detailed to carry firewood from a nearby hill back to the kitchen area, and they then washed themselves in a river that ran through the camp. In the afternoon the prisoners received a ration of white rice or sorghum, often issued to them by dumping it in a trough. The weather turned cold in October, and the prisoners had to sleep in unheated mud huts on straw mats. They were issued quilted Chinese style uniforms and allotted a change of clothing and new shoes twice a year. Prisoners were able to exercise by walking around the compound. Some selected prisoners, deemed “reactionaries” by the camp authorities, were kept in a cage for weeks at a time.
Williamson recalled that Camp Number 3 held 200 British and 175 American POWs at the time of his arrival. He recalled that the British, who had been captured as an entire unit, had a more coherent internal organization and appeared to be treated better than the Americans. They had their own cook and barber and managed to keep their quarters clean. Williamson did his best to keep himself clean and made a razor out of a piece of sheet steel. The North Koreans issued prisoners a ration of sugar and tobacco, and, since he did not smoke, Williamson was able to trade the tobacco with other prisoners for more sugar, which he added to any liquid he drank. Lice were a continual problem, and the prisoners immersed their clothing in hot water in an attempt to kill the insects.
Williamson’s family was originally told that he was missing in action and then killed in action, but they were eventually informed of his POW status. During the course of his more than two years in the POW camp, he received twenty-two letters from home, all of them censored by his captors. He received no Red Cross packages and no knowledge of the course of the war or current affairs beyond the camp boundaries. He often heard US planes flying overhead, however, and on a few occasions the area of the camp was strafed, causing him to fear he might be killed by his own side. He recalled that his overall treatment was “fair.” Although life was hard, and his captors unsuccessfully tried to “brainwash” him on a couple of occasions, he was not tortured in any way.
On August 14, 1953, with the end of the war, Williamson was overwhelmingly relieved at having survived, and he was returned to US army custody as part of the prisoner exchange. After arriving back in the United States, he returned to his hometown, where he was greeted by his family, the townspeople and a band. He was discharged from the Army on October 14, 1953.
Williamson showed the interviewer a photo of himself on his return to the United States, as well as a bar of Chinese soap, and other articles he had stored in a bag made out of the pocket of a field jacket and had retained as souvenirs of his captivity.
Kenneth E. Williamson was awarded the Korean Service Medal with one bronze service star, the United Nations Service Medal and the National Defense Service Medal. One year before this interview, he was featured in a newspaper article finally being awarded his Purple Heart medal, which he had waited close to 50 years for. Williamson died on October 14, 2004.