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A page from the past: a prisoner of war

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jette Carr
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
"[It's] kind of a special occasion today," said Clovis, N.M., native and Army veteran Dan McKinney, as he addressed a classroom of Air Commandos. "Fifty-nine years ago today I was released from Chinese prison camp."

His voice caught in his throat and he took several breaths before continuing. That this was a difficult topic of discussion for McKinney, was not lost on his listeners. It became apparent as the 86-year-old spoke - the ghosts of his past as a prisoner of war haunted him with its memory.

For the past seven years, McKinney has come to speak about his experiences as a POW with each Airman Leadership School class at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. He recently reached a monument with the program, giving his 50th talk, Aug. 20, 1012.

Eight years ago, a former ALS commandant approached McKinney's wife, Joyce Anne, to ask if she throught he would be receptive to the idea of speaking to the class of Airmen. Though he was reluctant initially, he agreed to talk.

"McKinney credits this program with changing his life," said Master Sgt. Brian Rollefson, 27th Special Operations Force Support Squadron, ALS commandant. "He was able to get this stuff off his chest by talking about his experience. He held it in for so many years. Though it takes a lot out of him each time, it's also proved to be a release."

McKinney served in World War II during the end of the fight. When he got home from Germany, he separated from active duty and went into the reserve, signing on for three years.

"My time went out in May of 1950 and I thought, well, that's all... I'm through with that, but then the commander of that reserve unit came to me and begged me to sign up again and I did," said McKinney. "The next month the Korean War started, June 25, 1950."

His girlfriend at the time (now his wife of 59 years) set their wedding date for April 23, 1951.

Some guys go a long way to get out of getting married, joked McKinney, as it was on that date that he was captured in Korea by the Chinese.

"The Chinese wiped us out that night," he said, his voice filled with regret. "They over-ran us, and to this day I suffer from what's called survivor's guilt. Out of 200 [U.S. army] men, when that night was over there were 26 men alive, and out of those 26, 13 were captured."

Over the next 60 days, McKinney and his fellow prisoners were marched more than 600 miles to Camp Changsong, a Korean village that had been converted into a prison camp for American soldiers. This is where he would spend the next 28 months in captivity.

"They told us if you don't keep up, you are in trouble," he said. "If somebody fell out, we tried to pick them up and carry them and a lot of times we didn't. When one fell out - it might be a while - we'd hear a rifle shot. We lost a lot of men that way."

"In that of the kids - he wasn't in my outfit - he'd been shot," said McKinney. "I carried him for about a week on my back and they made me put him down one night. They put him down on a road that we crossed and they said the Chinese will pick him up and take him to a doctor, and I said 'no I'll carry him'. They wouldn't let me carry him anymore and I figured I'd never see him again, but after we got released, I got a Christmas card from him and he thanked me for saving his life."

After reaching the camp, men continued to die from drinking contaminated water. North Korean families kept their outhouse next to the wells and though they had developed immunity to it, for Americans the effects of this water were devastating.

"We buried as high as 25 a day because they wouldn't sterilize the water," McKinney said.

The POWs were grouped into small houses with mud floors. In McKinney's case, there were 10 people rooming with him and they were forced to sleep head to toe. The space was so limited, he said, if one man turned over, everyone turned over.

In a camp full of 16-17 year olds, McKinney, at age 24, felt the need to speak up when the Chinese started their attempts to convert the captive Americans to communism.

"I told the kids, 'don't believe that brainwashing crap'," he said with fervor. "You know what kind of a country we've got back home and you can see what we've got here."

Because of his outspoken protests, he was put in solitary confinement for 75 days.

"If you screwed up, they put you in a box," said McKinney. "The one I was in was about the size of a bathtub, too short for me to lay down in, too narrow for me to sit up...I tried not to get into that operation too many times."

McKinney and many others did their best to resist, creating mischief for the Chinese keeping them prisoner. The POWs found ways to entertain themselves and developed survival skills to stay alive until they were released. The soldiers leaned on each other for support and weeded out anyone who snitched on their fellow prisoners for favor.

"If you read the 10 articles in the Code of Military Conduct, you'll see one that covers that," he said. "You don't squeal on your fellow man; you support them."

The main thing, though, McKinney said carried him though this experience was his faith.

"God was my partner and I got through it because of him," said McKinney. "Your faith will carry you to places you thought you could never get through. I talked to one of the chaplains here [Cannon], who left last month to go to Afghanistan for six months and I told him I couldn't understand why I was spared and he said, ' it's not for you to know or understand'. So you've got to have your faith."

The day he was finally released from prison camp is still fresh in McKinney's memory. He remembers being loaded into trucks and taken to an exchange point. Each captive was walked to a line in the sand by two Chinese guards and released to American forces.

"The first thing we saw was the biggest American flag I'd ever seen in my life," he choked back tears. "I don't know when we stopped crying."

It's this love of the flag that inspires many of the Airmen he talks to. Rollefson said that after McKinney's speech, the flag execution is perfect each day when the students raise and lower it because the Airmen are reminded of what the flag stands for and the loyalty it deserves.

"He seemed very moved by what he said, which in turn moved us," said Senior Airman Molly Bloom, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection journeyman and current ALS student. "He was extremely knowledgeable and you could tell by watching him relive it - he felt it again. I never quite realized how much POWs go through."

Many Airmen present agreed that McKinney inspired them to take more pride in their military service and imparted a lesson to never take anything for granted.

"I would like to say thank you [to McKinney] for serving our country and protecting us so other people didn't have to," said Senior Airman Jeremy Sager, 73rd Special Operations Squadron, loadmaster and ALS student. "As a military member, a thank you is one of the greatest things someone can give me to let me know their appreciation. I don't care about anything else. Just a simple thank you warms my heart. I would hope it does the same for him."