Remembering war and captivity

About three years after he first set foot in South Korea, Cecil Phipps was crammed into the back of a truck with dozens of other emaciated American soldiers, who, like him, had been captured by the enemy during the Korean War.

The Fort Dodge man recalled that a Chinese soldier was in the truck, guarding them as they headed for some unknown destination.

Then, he said, the truck stopped and the Chinese soldier climbed out. Moments later, an American soldier climbed in. That’s when Phipps and the other troops knew that the war was over and they were safe.

”Everybody hollered,” Phipps said.

Phipps, 83, is now in Washington, D.C., for ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice that stopped the Korean War on July 27, 1953. He and his wife, Joyce, will join other veterans and their families to visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Washington Marine Barracks, and other landmarks in the nation’s capital.

This is the second time Phipps has gone to Washington for ceremonies related to the conflict. In 1995, he was there for the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Phipps, a Fort Dodge native, enlisted in the Army in February 1950 as a way to see the world. The Korean War started on June 25 of that year when the communist forces of North Korea invaded democratic South Korea. At the time, Phipps was a private first class in the 35th Infantry Division stationed on the island of Okinawa.

He said his division was moved to South Korea on Aug. 1, 1950. By that time, North Korean troops had conquered all of South Korea except for a large semi-circle around the southern port of Pusan. The area became known as the Pusan Perimeter.

According to Phipps, every American soldier who came into the Pusan Perimeter was immediately moved to the front lines. Eventually, the American forces began moving north, recapturing land from the communists.

”Every town we went through we had to go door to door to make sure there weren’t any North Koreans hiding there,” he said.

In October 1950, Chinese forces invaded and sent the Americans retreating back down the Korean peninsula.

”The Chinese came across the border,” Phipps said. ”They busted up a bunch of people.”

Phipps and six other men from his unit got separated from the rest of the troops during the chaos of the Chinese onslaught. He recalled that they decided to work their way south in hopes of linking up with other Americans. He said they walked for a couple of days. They had no food, he said, and drank water from rivers.

The lack of food and water, he said, meant that he and his fellow soldiers weren’t thinking as clearly as they should have been. That, he said, contributed to them blundering into a village occupied by the Chinese.

”We were completely surrounded by guards with rifles just instantly,” he said.

Their Chinese captors moved the Americans around frequently over the next few weeks. Phipps said they were taken into China and were paraded through the streets of a village.

”I suppose they did that so the Chinese could see what the bad Americans looked like,” Phipps said.

In early 1951, he was moved into a prison camp in North Korea which would be his home for 33 months. He subsisted on a diet of millet, and went from 195 pounds to 75 pounds.

Each morning, he said, a Chinese soldier came into the hut where he and about 15 other prisoners lived and asked ”How many dead?” Phipps said there always was at least one dead soldier. He said 1,500 men died of disease and starvation in the camp.

Phipps said that on the day they were loaded into the trucks, the soldiers had no idea they were going to be released until that lone GI climbed aboard.

He was discharged from the Army in February 1954 and returned to Fort Dodge. He worked for 38 years for Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric before retiring.