THE TIGER SURVIVORS STORY
by Shorty Estabrook, Founder, Tiger Survivors
When the Korean War began, the 24th Division was on Occupation Duty in Southern Japan. On 25 June 1950, the Communists crossed the 38th parallel enforce. On 29 June 1950, the first Tigers arrested/captured were American civilians.
On 5 July 1950, the first American soldiers (part of Task Force Smith) from the 24th Division were captured.
Capture is such a horrible and terrifying event. You don't know what will happen to you. We had already seen men with their hands tied behind them and shot in the back of the head.
You think that you, too, will be shot after being tortured. All of us were beaten soundly as we moved back through their front lines. Their front line troops attempted to hit or stab us.
The summer of 1950 was very hot and humid, and the smell of battle and flesh was all around.
We were fed twice a day with millet and maize grains, a little rice, and a thin soup of Chinese cabbage and egg plant.
Thirst can drive a man crazy.
But the worst thing was being thirsty. We drank from highly polluted sources such as rice paddies. Soon, we were all sick with stomach pains.
We were marched from the various battlefields and snowballed into a larger group to Seoul the capitol of South Korea.
This is where the Tiger Survivors became a group.
Major John Dunn, Headquarters 34 Infantry Regiment, was the ranking officer. He had seen tough times before as a Company Commander with the famous Merrills Marauders, who were in Burma during WW II. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for that service.
We were in school buildings on the outskirts of the city, and could see our planes bombing and strafing the city every day.
Medical treatment was primitive and lacking. The poor men who had been severely wounded were between a rock and a hard place.
No one had died at this point, but the smell of the wounded was sickening.
We departed Seoul in the third week of August 1950, and traveled by rail to Pyongyang, the capitol of North Korea. We traveled at night to avoid our planes.
Conditions were beginning to worsen. Food, and especially water, was in short supply.
No medicine was available, and the injured wore the bandages they already had.
Some of the men started to die.
The weather was turning cold as winter comes early in North Korea.
We arrived in Pyongyang on 24 August 1950, and were housed in a school on the outskirts of the city. We watched as U.S. planes destroyed the city.
We were still in the clothing we wore when we were captured. Some had no shirts, and some were without shoes.
I had no shoes because my size fits all North Koreans, and they took my boots the day I was captured.
In the middle of the night of 5 September 1950, we were suddenly ordered to move to the train station. Later we learned that U.N. forces were fast approaching.
At the train station we got our first look at the group of 81 civilians who would join our group. The youngest was under one year old, and the oldest was 83.
We boarded a train made up of animal cars and coal gondolas. There was only one coach car and the civilians were placed in it. All the windows had been broken.
Again we moved by night to avoid U.S. planes.
Several died during that trip.
We had lost a lot of weight, and had little energy. But we had to go on or be shot!
On 11 September 1950, we arrived at the frontier town of Manpo-Jin, North Korea.
The letters “-jin” at the end of a town's name means "near water," and “-ri” or “-ni” means "small place."
We were housed in the center of the town in Japanese Army buildings. Remember, the Japanese occupied Korea for 40 years. All Koreans spoke Japanese then since the Japanese had banned the Korean language, and it had gone underground.
The weather was starting to turn into late fall, but we didn't mind it much because we were inside.
A few died there. Our diet did not improve at all, neither did our medical care.
The Chinese Army – all 400,000 of them – joined the war about then. They poured into North Korea from Manchuria. They said they were all volunteers.
They commandeered our buildings and then we became street people – out in the cold.
On 9 October 1950, we departed Manpo and began sleeping in fields.
When it started snowing, we were in dire straits, and the death rate began to soar.
We moved around that area through the towns of Kosan and Donakhon.
On 25 October 1950, we went to a place we now call the "Corn Field," which is just a short distance from Manpo.
The winter wind was blowing, and the chill factor began to plummet. We would collect into groups of about five guys, and dig as best we could, or rather scrape, a shallow hole in the earth. We would jam together there below the force of the wind, and lie down side by side in an effort to share each other’s body heat.
We thought this was as bad as it would ever get, but it wasn’t.
On 31 October 1950 (Halloween), a North Korean Major from the Security Forces assumed command of our group.
We later gave him the nickname "The Tiger,” because he was so brutal, and enjoyed killing.
We departed the corn field that day on our death march – the "Tiger Death March!"
We were not in any shape for marching. We did not have proper foot gear or winter clothing to protect us from the cold.
Our new North Korean Major started us marching toward the distant snow-capped mountains of the Kosan Pass.
On 1 November 1950, the line of POWs and civilians was stretched out, and The Tiger, now at the head of the column, looked back and spied several POWs sitting beside the road.
He had issued an order that no one was to fall out of the march. The sick and the dead were to be carried.
We were in 13 sections with an American Officer and a Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of each section.
The men beside the road were too weak to proceed, and the North Korean guards had told them to stay beside the road, and transport would be provided.
The Tiger went ballistic, and asked his guards what happened. They denied they had given any such order.
The Tiger then ordered Major Dunn, our Commanding Officer, to come to the front.
Next, he ordered officers from each of the sections having men who dropped out to come forward.
Six officers came forward and stood at attention on a knoll beside the road.
Commissioner Lord of the Salvation Army of England, who was The Tiger's interpreter, announced that The Tiger would execute all six for disobeying orders.
Then, the Commissioner started to beg for their lives, and The Tiger threatened to shoot him as well.
Finally, the Tiger said he would shoot one officer. He said the section that had the most men beside the road would determine who would be shot.
Lt. Cordus Thornton from Texas was that unfortunate officer. He was in charge of the 7th Section.
The Tiger asked Thornton if he had anything to say, and the gallant lieutenant replied that, in the American Army, there would be a court martial to determine guilt or innocence.
The Tiger asked his guards if the lieutenant was guilty. The guards said "Yes ... kill him ... kill them all."
The Tiger then shot Lt. Thornton, or I should say executed him, in front of all of us. He shot him once through the back of the head.
The lieutenant did not beg, and he did not flinch or cry. He stood like a man, and showed us all how to die.
His was the first atrocity of the Korean War that was so witnessed. Lt. Thornton is our hero, and we have dedicated our work and rosters to his memory.
The Tiger Death March ended on 9 November 1950 at Chung-Gang-jin, North Korea.
We left 89 persons behind who were shot to death by The Tiger, and his men.
One was a helpless French Nun; another an elderly White Russia woman. The only sin these women committed was that they were too tired to go on, and they tried to seek privacy to relieve themselves.
Strong men became weak because they had to carry the sick and dying, as well as the dead, until they were told to leave them beside the road.
At Chung-Gang-jin, we could see the war across a field just to our south. We were hoping to be rescued but that was as far north as the United Nations forces came.
I really think that if they had come across that field, we would have all been shot.
On 16 November 1950, we were suddenly ordered to move out in the middle of the night.
It was here that my best buddy, Jack Samms, was brutally beaten to death. I was powerless to do anything about it, and had a terrible sinking feeling in my gut.
The next morning, we came to a place that was to become our home until 29 March 1951. It was a small place called Hanjang-ni, North Korea.
There was a large one story school building with several outbuildings and a central well. We thought that things would improve, but we were dead wrong.
I won't go into the terrible description of life there. Suffice it to say that 222 brave people were promoted to Glory at that hell hole of all hell holes.
The dead were stripped of clothing, such as it was, and carried to a nearby hill. The clothing was for the living.
We had no other choice. We were not allowed to dig a grave. And we didn’t have the energy or tools with which to dig.
We all weighed less than 100 pounds by now, and were sick and consumed by lice.
We were mental basket cases. The dead were left in shallow indentations in the earth. "God, please take care of our brothers," we would say.
Spring came, even to that ungodly place, and the warm sunshine was most welcome.
The Tiger was replaced by a kinder North Korean Major, and we believed that things were really going to get better.
But we were still starving to death; there was little food even for the North Koreans.
We would catch frogs to eat as well as other things that I won't mention.
On 29 March 1951, we moved from Hanjang-ni to Andong to an old Japanese Army Camp.
As we approached ChungGang-jin, the sky became full of B-29 bombers – the first we had seen since Pyongyang.
We were happy to see them, but suddenly their bellies opened up and the bombs started to fall. Now, we were not so happy! Miraculously, only one POW was wounded.
Summer passed at Andong, but 50 more died!
In October of 1951, we were ordered to move again. The civilians went to a different place, and we did not see them again.
We were put on river barges and moved down river to Chang-Song, North Korea, where we were turned over to the Chinese Army Prisoner of War Camp system, also known as Camp #3.
The Chinese took us to a parade field of sorts, and brought out huge amounts of rice and steamed bread.
We couldn't believe our eyes. What a meal! We were in the "tall cotton," so to speak.
The next day was the same. More food! We were given new clothing – the first since our capture. Some tobacco was also issued, along with sugar. From then on, we started to gain weight.
But 10 more of our brothers died at Chang-Song. They died as a result of the treatment under the North Koreans. All of them were returned to our side and sent home to their loved ones.
Life became boring. The Chinese tried to make Communists out of us by using so-called brain-washing methods, but they did not have much luck.
In August 1953, we came to freedom. But it was not a quick plane ride to the states for most of us. We were put on ships that took 16 days to get to San Francisco.
And, much to our amazement, we were treated on-ship as if we were still in prison!
We were then sent home, which was a horrible mistake.
We should have been taken to hospitals, and given thorough mental and physical examinations.
We should have had the worms removed from our systems.
The rest is history and I hope that I have explained how it really was.
Fifty-nine percent of the Tiger Survivors group died in captivity.
It was a terrible price to pay when a simple medication could have saved many of our brothers and sisters. ###
In memory of all the people who did not make it out of that terrible place, I dedicate my life and the ongoing work that I do.
May God Bless America!
In love, freedom, and peace,
Company “B” 19th Infantry Regiment
TIGER SURVIVORS PUBLICATIONS.
A CAPTURED NORTH KOREAN FILM, Four minutes of our group in captivity.
NO OTHER CHOICE, By George Blake
IN ENEMY HANDS, By Larry Zellers, Larry was one of the civilians with us. He has been promoted to Glory.
AMBASSADOR IN CHAINS, The story of Bishop Patrick Byrne, an American and Apostolic Delegate to Korea from Rome. He was raised in a house that sat where the Supreme Court now stands in Washington, D.C. He was with us and died at An-Dong, North Korea.
I SHOULD HAVE DIED, By Philip Dean (His real name is Phillippe Gigantes.) He has since died and was a Senator in Canada for many years. He was a war correspondent for the London Observer and was with our group.
CAPTIVE IN KOREA, Another book by Philip Dean.
MARCH TILL THEY DIE, By Father Philip Crosbie
IN MORTAL COMBAT, By Pulitzer Prize winner, John Toland.
VALIANT DUST, by Commissioner Herbert Lord of the Salvation Army of England.
DIARY OF SISTER EUGENIE, A French nun who was with us. She died several years ago at her convent in France.
REMEMBERED PRISONERS OF A FORGOTTEN WAR. An Oral History of Korean War POWs. Chapter 2 Tells of the Tiger Death March. St Martin’s Press- NY
With Love, Peace, and Freedom,
Shorty Estabrook, 37645 Flora Ct, Murrieta CA 92563-2726, 210-267-5243
Founder of the Tiger Survivors
USA Retired E-7
POW 37 months and 13 days
Estabrook, Shorty, 2007, The Taro Leaf, Vol. 61(3&4), Summer&Fall, pg. 22-26.