By Dr. Mark DePue, Director of Oral History
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
It has been 64 years since Wilbur Fawns of Williamsville, Ill., served in Korea – 64 years for his memories as a combat engineer during the last year of the Korean War to fade into a blur. But some incidents have stayed with him all these years, no matter how much he’d like to forget. The day he visited Panmunjom, the site of the truce talks, is one of them.
Truce talks had dragged on for over two years, hung up on the issue of repatriation of prisoners. The Communists insisted that all prisoners held by UN forces be returned to North Korea or China. The UN delegates countered that each prisoner be given a choice on whether to return north. Tens of thousands of North Korean and Chinese prisoners refused to be repatriated, fearing that they would be treated as pariahs by the Communists.
Fawns was well aware of all of that. And he had heard horror stories about the atrocious treatment that American prisoners received from their Communist captors. A few hundred hospital cases had recently been returned to UN control, and their tales of starvation diets, beatings, torture and daily propaganda briefings made a deep impression on him.
He also knew that the Communists were eager to exploit even the tiniest infraction to their political advantage at the negotiation table.
These things were on his mind when a warrant officer asked Fawns to drive him up to Panmunjom, the tiny village sandwiched between the UN and North Korean lines where negotiations were underway.
The two Americans, traveling by jeep, stopped at a checkpoint manned by Marines, where they turned in their weapons. Weapons and ammunition were strictly forbidden beyond that point.
“The Marines were stationed in a little hut,” Fawns recalled during a recent oral history interview. “You stopped and you turned over all of your weapons, ammo and everything.”
Fawns handed over his carbine, and the warrant officer turned in his pistol but not his cartridge belt loaded with several rounds of ammunition. When they arrived at the truce site, a Marine spotted the warrant officer’s cartridge belt.
“Do you know that he had his cartridge belt on?” the guard asked Fawns incredulously. “How did he get by with that?” “I have no idea!” was all Wilbur could say.
As the Marine carried the cartridge belt back to a tent near the building used for the talks, a Communist guard was obviously watching.
When it was time to leave, “the warrant officer told me, he said ‘Fawns, go up to that Marine and get my cartridge belt and we’ll head back.’ …I just walked up there and I got that cartridge [belt]. The Marine gave it to me, and the minute I got that cartridge belt, two [Chinese guards] come running around the truce building, and spitting out all this stuff, and come over to me and got me and spun me around and took that cartridge belt from me.”
They soon “had my hands behind me, spitting all this stuff. …The Marine told me, he said, ‘Wait till we get an interpreter.’ So he went in the tent and there I am. I thought, oh, my God, I’m done.”
It took some fast talking before the Marine convinced the Communist guards to let Fawns go, stressing that the belt was not his, that he was just following orders.
“I didn’t sleep for two days after that deal,” recalled Wilbur about the day he almost became a prisoner of war. “It was awful.”
The armistice was finally signed on July 27, 1953, but there is still no peace treaty ending the conflict. Sixty-four years later the two sides are still technically at war, and the border between North and South Korea remains the most heavily guarded border in the world.
Mark DePue is the Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. You can listen to Wilbur Fawn’s story at the program’s website, www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.