CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
William E. Schultz
Korean War Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 1st Marine Division, Ex-POW
Date: November 15, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
William E. Schultz was born in June 1930. After high school, he went to work for a telephone company in New York City. His father had been a Merchant Marine seaman during World War II. Schultz enlisted in the Marine Corps reserve at age 17.
Schultz trained at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Little Creek, Virginia, before returning to reserve status at home. He noted that life in the reserves was “kind of boring” as, save for Thursday night two-hour drill meetings, he was still essentially a civilian and otherwise lived a normal life with a normal job.
Things changed in 1950, however. In August of that year, Schultz’s unit, the 14th Signal Company, was activated for service in the Korean War. He was sent to San Diego Naval Base, where he was engaged in telephone, switchboard and pole climbing training. Schultz was then relocated to Camp Pendleton, California, for advanced infantry training, which included live fire exercises with rifles and explosives, an infiltration course, night fighting, and mountain warfare. Schultz recalled that, at this time, wounded men were already returning from Korea. Morale was “not too high” among the Marines, and he was not looking forward to heading to the front. Schultz nevertheless emphasized that “you had to do it.”
Once training was completed, the 14th Signal Company was split up. Schultz was moved to the Headquarters Battery of the 4th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division – a 155 mm howitzer unit. As a wireman, his job was to string wire for field telephones and to repair broken lines. The wire was “very functional”, he explained, “but something that was left over from World War II, very old.” Schultz also remarked that the quality of his rations improved from training, as the “terrible” K-rations were replaced with superior C-rations in Korea.
Thanksgiving came shortly before Schultz’s departure to Korea. The troops at Camp Pendleton received a brief leave period for the holiday, but were restricted to a 500-mile radius around the base. Schultz and several other men disregarded that limitation; and, he flew to New York to spend the weekend with his family. His flight back to California was delayed by a snowstorm; however, so he returned to base a day late. Schultz had to explain himself to his commanding officer; he had concocted a story about being stranded by a flood in Fresno (within the 500-mile radius) to cover his tracks. The Colonel walked in and asked him: “How did you enjoy your dinner in New York City?” Schultz was restricted to base for a week, but received no further punishment, as, “going over to Korea… [was] punishment enough.”
Schultz left for Japan on the USS Telfair, a trip he remembered as “awful”. The voyage was delayed by a typhoon and lasted three weeks. Unlike many of his comrades, he never suffered from seasickness; though, he temporarily lost the desire to smoke while onboard. After passing through Kobe and Sasebo, Schultz finally landed in Pusan, Korea and headed north to the front, On the way, his transport truck struck a group of hanging tree branches. Believing the noise was from incoming enemy fire, several combat veterans suddenly jumped off the truck. “As soon as I saw them diving all over the place,” he recalled, “I knew, oh, this is not gonna be good.”
Schultz had arrived in Korea just after the Inchon landings. His unit crossed the 38th parallel and set up their artillery. (The first fire missions began near Wonju.) When the massive Chinese counterattack drove the Americans back, Chinese artillery rounds landed near his position. He had no direct contact with the enemy. Seeking some action, Schultz and a few of his friends decided to volunteer to be stationed at a forward observer post.
Schultz had only been at the post for one day when one of the telephone lines heading back to the artillery battery went out. Along with a Jeep driver and another soldier, he began to travel along the line to find the cut. As it was late in the evening, they used the light of their Jeep to follow the line along its path. Suddenly, the group took some rifle fire. In no position to fight, they quickly sped off to the artillery battery. On arrival, they found that the wire had already been repaired, and thus began to return to their observation post. On the way, the Jeep overtook two trucks heading in that direction. Schultz hitched a ride on the lead truck, while the Jeep returned to the battery.
As they continued down the road, Schultz began to hear artillery fire coming from the battery. He knew that something was not right, as everyone should have been getting ready for bed. Schultz’s suspicions were well-founded, as it was not long before the trucks ran into an ambush. He was knocked off the vehicle by a grenade blast, losing track of his gun and helmet. Schultz dove behind the truck and into a ditch as bullets kicked up dirt in front of his face and flares illuminated the sky. Soon, a Chinese soldier appeared above him. Schultz did not blink or breathe as the soldier kicked dirt in his face. The American cowering next to him was shot dead.
Spontaneously, Schultz jumped up in front of the enemy soldiers. He felt strangely relaxed, and as if he was in a movie, as everybody started yelling at him and pointing their rifles, yet no one fired. Schultz was taken into custody and marched up a hill with some wounded Chinese troops. After his capture, he was constantly in fear of being killed. A Chinese soldier came up to him and said, “Do not worry, we will kill you.” Schultz was unnerved, as he did not know if the soldier meant to say that he would or would not be killed. He did feel slightly more relaxed when he was placed into a shack with two other captured Americans.
The Chinese then took Schultz in for interrogation, where he exaggerated everything. At the end of the session, the interpreter asked why he had lied. “Didn’t we treat you well?” he asked. Schultz did not agree, explaining that his New Testament, school ring, and wallet had been confiscated. To his utter surprise, the former two items were soon returned to him. “From that point on,” he said, “I felt pretty good.”
The Chinese kept Schultz and his fellow prisoners marching north every night. He slept during the day and was given a handful of rice and a ladle of water for daily consumption. As they continued, more POWs joined the group. Schultz particularly remembered one Australian soldier, who looked just like his father. Though Schultz obeyed orders, there was some dissidence in the column. In one incident, a group of officer POWs escaped. They were soon recaptured, however, and subsequently paraded through the camp tied up on trucks. In another incident, Schultz witnessed the trial and execution of a GI POW who had killed a Chinese soldier.
The march continued. The column moved through a village, where large crowds gathered in the street and began to yell and pelt the prisoners with stones. A North Korean officer approached the POWs, pulled out a gun, and began to wave it at them in a hostile manner. In response, the Chinese escort troops cocked their rifles and forced him to back down. “At that point,” Schultz recalled, “I was very thankful I was with the Chinese.” He passed a group of Chinese soldiers heading south to the front. The Chinese pointed and laughed at the ragged Americans, but Schultz knew that their arrogance was unwarranted, thinking: “In a few weeks, half of you guys will be dead.” At one point, an American B-25 Mitchell bomber flew directly over the column, close enough for Schultz to see gunners on board. Everyone scattered in fear of an attack, but the plane did not fire. A few minutes later, gunfire could be heard in the distance as the plane attacked enemy positions.
Advancing north, the column began to stretch out, eventually to the point where no Chinese soldiers were in sight. Along with two other men, Schultz and several other POWs decided to use the opportunity to escape, by hiding in bushes near the road until the rest of the column passed. Unfortunately, at the rear of the column a group of Chinese soldiers probed the bushes for runaways, discovered Schultz and his comrades, and forced them back into the column. In hindsight, he realized that this was fortuitous, as he believed that he would have died trying to reach friendly lines.
Schultz finally arrived at a prison camp near the Yalu River. Due to his rank as a corporal, he was made “squad leader” for his eight-man room. Initially conditions were quite poor; the men were not afforded an opportunity to shower or don clean clothes until a month after their arrival, when they were taken to a community bath and given blue Chinese uniforms.
The Chinese tried “brainwashing” the prisoners, forcing them to attend daily schooling sessions. Schultz explained that this was a futile effort on their part, a fact which the Chinese themselves soon realized, and the indoctrination effort was suspended. The prisoners were then assigned to perform hard labor. Each day, they were marched up to the mountains to collect timber to stock for the winter. Schultz remembered that one prisoner refused to collect wood, and was then forced to apologize in front of the whole camp. Ahead of the cold weather, the prisoners also received new cotton winter uniforms. He noted that the camp was located within “MiG Alley,” and about once a week he would witness aircraft dogfighting for a few minutes.
The prisoners were deprived of most information from the outside world; but, they did have some communication avenues available. Schultz could send letters to his family, in which he wrote of things that his parents would recognize, so they would know that the letter originated from him and was not a Chinese forgery. In turn, he also received some letters from his parents, though the correspondence was necessarily bland. The prisoners would show or read their letters to the Chinese guards, who refused to believe that the prosperous American society that they described was true.
Schultz emphasized that the Chinese were “always focusing on propaganda.” In one instance, they provided the prisoners sports equipment, and gave them the opportunity to play ball in a field. The prisoners soon realized, however, that this was simply a ploy, as a French communist newspaper crew was standing by to film the scene. “As soon as we figured that out,” Schultz explained, “we didn’t [cooperate].”
The camp did not house American prisoners exclusively, and there was also a large British detachment. One time, some of the British prisoners put on a play for the camp. During the play, one of the actors, named Sykes, made a wisecrack about the camp commander, which was overheard by a Chinese interpreter, who proceeded to inform the commander. Furious at the joke, the commander had the actor removed from the stage, an act which was not taken kindly by the prisoners. The entire audience of 1000+ people rose up and began chanting “we want Sykes!” and then returned to their quarters in defiance of the camp guards. The Chinese commander later apologized, passing the incident off as a “miscommunication”.
On Chinese New Year, each squad leader was given a tray of cookies to distribute to his squad. Unfortunately, while returning to the barracks, Schultz fell into a trench and ruined the cookies in the dirt. Each man was also given a teaspoon of Chinese wine. Schultz recalled how several men traded with other prisoners to obtain more wine, and that one man ended up “pie-eyed”. He ran around the camp assaulting the Chinese until he was finally restrained.
At the end of Schultz’s first summer in captivity, an American warplane strafed the camp. From that point on, he lived in fear of being bombed and could not sleep soundly. Schultz prayed for rainy nights, when planes would not be flying. To prevent future attacks, the Chinese erected a tower with floodlights to signal to American planes the location of the camp. However, this was soon taken down, as the Chinese were wary of the Americans using the tower as a navigational reference point for attacks on nearby military targets. This was no doubt correct; on one night, Schultz heard dozens of B-29s flying over the camp. Soon after they passed, he could hear “the rumbling of the biggest bombs” for several minutes. Apparently, the bombers had been targeting a power plant on the Yalu River.
Day-to-day conditions in the camp were distasteful. Sickness was widespread, with many prisoners suffering from diarrhea, worms, and dysentery. The food was the same — broth and rice each day, with meat or fish occasionally added. To pass the days, Schultz kept track of his meals each day in a calendar he drew on a page of his New Testament. He recalled one case in which an eyeball was present in his fish soup. “The only way we could survive mentally,” Schultz said, “was to not think about going home.”
Fortunately, the time to depart was approaching, and as peace talks progressed, the situation in the camp began to improve. The Chinese informed the prisoners that “the peace talks were going well”, and the quality of food improved. Finally, one day, the prisoners were told that the war was over. In celebration, the Chinese distributed fruit, handkerchiefs, and soap to the prisoners. Schultz and many other prisoners, however, felt disgusted, saying: “You could have given this to us the last two years.”
Schultz returned to South Korea via truck. (The prisoners joked that though surviving all their hardships in the camp, they could be killed if the truck drove off the narrow mountain road.) He was subsequently shipped from Inchon to California. One of the first things Schultz remembered upon returning to the United States was eating a delicious steak dinner in San Francisco. From that point, his mind “was a blur.”
During his interview, Schultz briefly commented on the leadership he served under in the war: “He [Ridgway] supposedly… was a good combat general. MacArthur, in my mind, was too political. Ridgway was no-nonsense.”
Schultz was promoted to Sergeant and discharged from the Marine Corps in October of 1953 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was asked to re-enlist, but declined the offer, instead deciding to use his GI benefits to attend St. John’s University for two years. Schultz later joined the VFW in Brick Township, NJ, as well as several other veterans’ organizations.