Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji - Stands Up For Them)
Eugene Rowland was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation. While serving with the U. S. Army in Korea he made two good friends; Virgil Rutherford and Jesse McCray of Muskogee, Oklahoma.
On November 18, 1950 the three friends were swept under by the waves of Chinese soldiers storming across the 38th Parallel and became prisoners of war.
Rowland was my friend. He died several years ago and I thought about him after buying a ball cap from his son, Eugene Rowland, Jr. at the Black Hills Pow Wow. I also wondered about his friends Rutherford and McCray. Are they still alive?
The three-year nightmare for Eugene, Virgil and Jesse began on that cold day in 1950. They were placed in a compound known as Camp Number Five. For the next 33 months they were silent witnesses to the torture and deaths of many American soldiers.
Rowland said to me many years ago, "I guess we'll never forget our buddies - black, white, red and brown - who gave their lives during this terrible time. They were buried in shallow graves, dug by us; on a knoll we named 'Yonder Hill.'"
On July 22, 1953, in a village called Panmunjom, an armistice was signed by General William Harrison for the United States and by Nam Il for the North Koreans. On August 8, 1953, Rowland, Rutherford and McCray were set free. They had spent 33 months as POWs.
"We were told to go home and resume a normal life," Rowland said. "Here we were, broken men, beaten mentally and physically. We had shared loneliness, starvation, and torture. When it had become too much to bear, we turned to God together and prayed for freedom and now we were being told to go live a normal life."
Each discovered in their own way that there would never be a so-called, normal life. The things they had considered normal were not that important to them anymore. Their health had been destroyed and the extreme physical and mental abuse had taken a terrible toll upon them. Captured as young, healthy men, their bodies were now diseased and tired.
It took more than 30 years for these veteran POWs to discover each other again. In August of 1983, a special Prisoner of War Reunion was held in Muskogee and the three friends renewed the joy of their friendship.
To these survivors of Camp Number Five the occasion was more than a hug or a handshake. "There are no words in the English language or in the Lakota language that can describe the things we felt or the things we shared with each other on that special day. The emotions can never be described," Rowland said.
His friend Rutherford recalled, "Over there, 6,000 miles from home, it didn't matter if you were white or Indian. You went through the same kind of hell together every day. You learned to rely on each other. Otherwise we could never have survived. We didn't just become friends; we were closer than brothers, even."
Each man felt the same way about the 33 months spent in captivity. It was as if the world had stood still for three years. There was a daily routine that kept them regimented and before long, the prison camp became a little world of its own to them.
As the days dragged into weeks, the weeks into months and the months into years they watched as many of their companions withered and died. They somehow lost that will to live and to the three friends, it seemed like they just gave up their spirits.
There were two emotions the friends shared at their reunion 18 years ago. They all felt an eternal sense of gratitude for having survived and yet they all felt a terrible sense of loss. "I know we all thank God we are alive, but the thing that haunts us is that so many of our buddies still lie dead and buried in Korea," Rutherford said.
Rowland shared that sense of grief. "Our fellow GI's were laid to rest in unmarked graves. There were no caskets or crosses to mark the spot where they were buried. It always bothered me that most of our friends were buried without that bugle call of taps or without the beat of a drum to sound retreat. I believe they are still buried up there on 'Yonder Hill' in Korea and Virgil, Jesse and me will never forget them."
The reunion in Muskogee was a time of happiness for the three veterans. It was also a time of sadness. It was a time to celebrate life and to reminisce about the bad and be thankful for the good.
It was a time when two white men from Oklahoma and an Indian from South Dakota realized that the lifelong bond that held them together cuts across all racial barriers. It was a bond forged in battle and later in the horrible conditions of Camp Number Five.
Rowland's friends came to the Pine Ridge Reservation to visit him before his death. He brought them to the office of my newspaper and since I am also a veteran of the Korean War, we shared a few tears over hot cups of coffee that day.
Rowland was nearly blind by then. And yet, he had the most beautiful smile on his face when he looked at his two friends and said, "We are closer than brothers can ever be and we will never let 30 years pass before we get together again. A lot of tears fell when we had to split up after the reunion but it was good - real good - to see them again. I prayed for that day."
This column is dedicated to those Korean veterans who fought and survived the "Forgotten War." Although he has passed away, Eugene Rowland served with pride and I am blessed to have called him my friend.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota and a Korean War Veteran, is the retired editor and publisher of Native Sun News Today based in Rapid City, SD. He can be e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)