‘Along Came A Tiger’
Late Russell native recounted ‘deep fear inside me that I cannot lose’ as survivor of Tiger Death March
“I keep hoping that it will go away, but I guess that I will always have the fear of betrayal and the deep fear inside me that I cannot lose, that the Tiger is still out there, still looking for us POWs so managed to escape his grasp.”
Writing 50 years later, the Tiger death march — named after the nickname given the brutal North Korean officer who led it — was fresh for Russell native James “Jim” Hunt.
He detailed his memories in a book entitled “Along Came A Tiger!” which was shared with the Times Observer. Hunt originally wrote the text in 1995 and revised it in 2002.
Hunt was born on Nov. 5, 1927, in Clearfield County. When he was young, the family moved to Tidioute and then to Russell where Hunt graduated high school.
He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in March 1945 and served on various vessels in the Pacific and in Guam.
He was discharged two years later and re-enlisted in the U.S. Army, attending MP School and criminal investigator’s training at Carlisle, Pa. in 1947.
The next year he went to Japan as an MP translator at the age of 23.
“To this day, I cannot truly say how I learned Japanese and became a translator,” he said.
But it was that move that would put him on a path to Korea.
“It was only with the Lord’s help that I made it out of Korea alive,’ he remarked. “I know that he walked beside me every step of the way.
He originally went to Japan as part of the 24th MPs but was transferred to Co. C, 19th Infantry, 24th Division when it became apparent that hostilities were on the brink of an explosion on the Korean Peninsula.
Stationed close-by in Japan, it’s so surprising that the 24th Division were some of the first United Nations troops on the ground in Korea.
“The 24th Division was under-strength and poorly equipped,” Hunt said. “Most of the ammunition was for practice, with no explosive power.
“When the Korean War started on June 25th, 1950, I was with my division… on an island in northern Japan on maneuvers… Near the end of June, we were suddenly told to pack everything up and we were shipped out immediately to our home base in Kokura on Kyushu Island, Japan. There was some rumor going around about a war in Korea and it was presumed that this was why we were suddenly leaving our maneuvers….”
He was right. Too right in fact.
On July 5, the 24th Division landed at Pusan, South Korea.
“We were told we were just going to help stop the invading North Koreans, and we would be home for Christmas.”
The Army didn’t specify what year’s Christmas Hunt would be home for.
Being in Korea quickly became challenging.
“We marched out of Pusan and the main thing I remember is the second day of our march, we pitched our pup tents and it rained and rained, soaking every piece of clothing we were wearing and all that we had brought with us.”
Hunt’s first brush with Korean opposition appears to have come on July 13 in an unthinkable situation that thrust a choiceless choice on Hunt.
“As daylight grew brighter, we looked across the Kum-gang River at the village that appeared to be deserted. We saw North Korean soldiers who seemed to move around the village. Suddenly someone yelled that there was someone crossing the wire down by the river. We looked down and saw an elderly Korean woman and a girl who was maybe 17-18 years old. Lieutenant McGill yelled for me to come up to where he was standing, looking down toward the river. When I got there, I saw the woman and a girl, both dressed in Korean clothes. Lieutenant McGill told me to tell them to get out of there and I yelled down to them to move back out away from our camp.
“Instead of moving away, they started reaching under their long dresses they wore and we stood in a daze as we watched them pull out what looked like a Chinese burp gun and start to point it at us. Without thinking, I aimed my carbine at them and opened up fire, hitting them both. This thought has haunted me since, yet I know that it was the only thing to do. As we went down to where they lay in huddled heaps, we saw that the girl not only had the rifle, but the old woman was holding a hand grenade.”
He was introduced to more traditional combat two days later by an artillery shell before the sun came up.
“The explosion of the shell was deafening and we sat stunned as the dirt fell on top of us. I watched in horror as the head of one of my friends, blown from his body, came rolling down the slope toward my feet.”
The artillery was just the prelude. A bugle call unleashed the North Korean infantry.
“Then the eerie sound of those bugles,” Hunt recalled. “My skin crawled and I shivered at the sound. Even today, fifty-plus years later, I cannot stand the sound of a bugle, even the playing of taps.
“All hell broke loose. I realized that we were in for one hell of a fight because we were in the midst of an unknown number of enemy soldiers. There were so many that we did not even have to aim to hit one.”
After a firefight that lasted the duration of the morning, the division was given an order to withdraw.
Hunt’s combat experiences ended there.
But his war was just beginning.
“On the following day,” he said, “July 16, my war ended with my capture and my battle for survival began.
Nine of us attempted to escape over the rice paddies… As we were running, we didn’t know where, Charlie (Schmidy, a ‘good friend’) said to me that I had been hit in the leg. I did not feel it but he could see the blood on the back of my trouser legs. Charlie tore off a piece of his t-shirt and with a twig, he found wet the rag and put it on the end of the stick and ran it through the hole in my left leg. The bullet, thankfully, was a lead slug and was not one of the wooden bullets tipped with human waste that they were famous for using.”
Their attempt to escape found them holding up in a house until dark when they planned to continue to try to flee.
“As we waited in the house, we suddenly heard some whistling and looking out the paper covering the door we saw a couple of North Korean soldiers heading our way. We watched as they came up to the door, leaning their weapons up against a wall. One of the guns was an old Japanese style rifle and the other was one of the burp guns like the one that had shot at me. I carefully took hold of the burp gun and brought it inside.
“There was no way we knew how to use it so I put it back outside on the porch.”
As fate would have it, one of the Korean soldiers walked into the room where they were hiding and captured Hunt and his comrade, taking their belongings and throwing their dog tags near the bodies of other dead American soldiers.
As prisoners, they marched.
“We were marched by the North Korean soldiers, always north,” he wrote.
They went from village to village staying at each location just a day or two. Early during this period, Hunt came down with dysentery.
“My thoughts circled around my Lord and my mother,” he wrote, detailing an incident where he was tortured over a rumor that he had sold a blanket.
Hunt had been in captivity for about two and a half months when they took to an empty cornfield on October 31.
That’s when Hunt met the Tiger.
“I can tell you truthfully I have seen the Devil,” he wrote. “He came that cold November night in the form of a North Korean major of the North Korean People’s Militia who took charge of us. We quickly nicknamed him ‘The Tiger.’ Why the name tiger? Because the Tiger is a blood-thirsty animal and the major was all of that.
“The Tiger was a madman who enjoyed killing.”
And the Death March commenced.
“By the time we had reached the death march on November 8, we had lost 83 POWs and one nun,” he wrote. “These included 46 murdered by the Tiger and 38 who had died from malnutrition, too weak to carry on or freezing to death.”
Approximately 835 prisoners – including 80 non-military personnel – marched from Manpo upriver to Chunggang over a period of nine days.
Google Maps – which does detail roads in North Korea – estimates the route as 91 miles.
On the first night of the March, Hunt said 24 died of exposure.
A year later, less than 300 of the 850 would still be alive.
“Under the Tiger, no one, including civilian prisoners, could stop for any reason,” Hunt said. “To stop meant instant death.”
The U.S. military personnel in the march had discarded their boots so the North Koreans couldn’t take them and use them.
“As many of us made the march… without shoes, our feet were sore and bleeding but the cold hid the pain,” he said.
The fifth day of the March marked Hunt’s 23rd birthday.
“The death march ended with the last mountain being climbed over and our arrival at a former Japanese mining camp called Chunggong,” he said. “During the march, there was no food and the only water was what snow one could manage to scoop off the ground, without being caught by one of the guards, for even this meant death.”
The march stopped 80 miles south of the Russian city of Vladivostok.
Conditions improved at the camp as the prisoners were issued winter clothes, had shelter and were given a daily ration of rice in addition to “whatever else we could scrounge up.”
Hunt remained there from November 1950 through the spring of 1951 when they were moved to an old Japanese Army camp in July 1951. Later that month, they were handed over by the North Korean forces to the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army.
“All in all, the food here was an improvement over the Korean rice balls,” he said, noting meat was occasionally provided.
The treatment they received from the Chinese was, overall, less violent.
“This camp, like many run by the Chinese, was loosely guarded by Chinese troops, for there was no place to run,” he wrote. “The Chinese had told the Korean villagers that they would pay a bounty for any prisoner who had escaped and returned to them. For any villager that aided a prisoner, they guaranteed them and their family one thing… death.
“Where the Koreans had been brutal, beating us at any and every chance they got the Chinese used pretended kindness and propaganda.”
At the new camp, the days turned to weeks. And the week to months.
“We saw the frequent dog fights between the American jets and the Chinese jets,” Hunt wrote. “During Christmas 1952, for whatever reasons, the Chinese had given each man a small handkerchief. I had been passing my time drawing on whatever I could find – on the letters that I had sent my mother, on special occasions such as Easter and Mother’s Day, I would draw pictures. Amazingly the Koreans and Chinese had let them pass through censorship.”
Noticing his artistic abilities, some comrades stole paint supplies from the camp commander to have Hunt paint American flags. Someone ratted him out and his entire dorm was demolished in an attempt to find the stolen paint.
But Hunt had packed the supplies in mud in the fireplace – the one element of the dorm the Chinese did not search and demolish.
Regardless, Hunt found himself before the camp commander. Hunt’s defense?
“This is a beautiful job,” Hunt said he said. “I wish that I had done it but don’t know how to paint.”
It took a couple of denials to get off the hook.
“If it had not been so serious, it would have been comical,” Hunt said, detailing that one of the soldiers presented a pillow and two eggs (a delicacy) to Hunt and the commander said he could take them in exchange for the paint.
“Suddenly, without thinking, I picked up the two eggs and threw them against the building.”
They let him go but he was called into a small group after and forced to stand in the sun “for what seemed like an eternity.”
They were loaded on trucks and Hunt thought he was headed to a labor camp where he would die.
But then he saw an American flag.
“Instead of a hard labor camp,” he wrote, “we had arrived at the Chinese version of Panmunjom, the village where the Chinese and Americans turned over their prisoners of war… As I looked once again at our flag, tears again streamed down my face, at just being able to once again see the Flag which I loved so much; which represented the Country that we all loved so dearly and had been ready to die for… and almost had. We were in the second group of sick and wounded prisoners of war to be turned over in what was called Operation Big Switch.”
Once turned over to American authorities, Hunt was questioned and questioned some more in addition to psychiatric evaluations.
Hunt wasn’t pleased about that.
“Most of them seemed crazier than any of us could ever have been,” he wrote.
He was flown via helicopter to a medical ship – the USS Haven – the same ship that he had served on during his initial service in the Navy.
The ship then sailed the Pacific to San Francisco.
“As we neared the Golden Gate bridge… the Army decided to really make our lives miserable and flew out a helicopter loaded with newsmen,” Hunt wrote.
One of the reporters told him that his mother was waiting for him on shore in San Francisco.
“My mother who had never ventured outside of our home state of Pennsylvania waiting for me!” he wrote. “How ludicrous. Our was he (the reporter) just being cruel and looking for a slant for a story? For my mother, who was scared to death of airplanes and had no idea how to travel, waiting for me here in California… how ridiculous. It made me so angry, him saying such a stupid thing… Also, mother had no way of knowing that I was dead or alive… Even though we had been allowed to send one letter a month, we had no way of knowing if the Koreans or Chinese had sent any of the letters.”
But she was there when the ship arrived.
“Together, with another POWs mother from Dunkirk, NY, they made plans in August 1953 to travel to (San Francisco) to see the ship.”
They traveled by train and the Russell community raised the funds to cover the cost.
When they arrived where the ship was to debark, his mother was escorted to a seat by a high-ranking Army official.
“Mother later asked who the man was, because he did not introduce himself, and she was told that the man who helped her was United States Army General Omar Bradley. Mother never did get a chance to thank him, but General Bradley never had a truer admirer.
“After I had returned, I learned that the Army had visited my mother right after I had been captured and told her that I had been killed in action… They offered to help her with paperwork and even offered her the insurance money. Mother, though, with her belief in the Lord, refused their help and the insurance money.”
Hunt was awarded two Purple Hearts – one for his leg wound and the other awarded in 1998 on POW Day for wounds and beatings sustained as a POW.
Amazingly, Hunt’s military career did not end with his repatriation.
He re-enlisted the next year – 1954 – in the Navy and saw duty in Vietnamese wasters before his retirement in 1969. He then entered the civil service as a federal law enforcement officer until his retirement in 1990.
His translating skills earned him a citation from President George H.W. Bush in 1991. The citation credited Hunt for “helping to save other lives through your translating.”
From July 16, 1950, until August 16, 1953 – 1,127 days – Hunt was a prisoner of war.
“My weight had dropped from 165 pounds down to 88 pounds,” he wrote more than 50 years since his release. “The bullet in my right leg was dug out by an American doctor, also a POW. Amazingly, and only with the Lord’s blessing, I was able to complete not only the death march but the following years until my release.”
But while Hunt is clear about why he survived, he’s also frank in his writing about how his experiences as a POW impacted the rest of his life.
“Fifty years and not too much has changed. Happiness has only come into my life on rare occasions,” he said. “Once when I married Rose, just 28 years ago, and most importantly, the realization of my Lord’s love for me and the protection he has provided then and still continues to bless me with.”
Hunt wrote that he struggled with how other people struggle to relate to what combat veterans and POWs have experienced.
“These thoughts haunt me, especially during the later part of October, the start of our meeting the Tiger,” he said. “For me, the haunting comes especially in the fall of each year and settles deep upon me during the month of November, the month of the Tiger.”
As if the fear of the Tiger wasn’t enough, Hunt wrote about the constant fear of comrades turning on you in camp.
“Because of this, you are forever fearful and in most cases never learn to trust anyone, lest they betray you; or there is fear that if you enter into a true friendship, the friend will turn on you and the friendship will die.
“This fear I constantly live with, which in some cases has probably cost me but over the years I have found the safest way is to not make true friends. And, except in just a few cases, this has been the way of my life.
“In a sense, I have been one of the more fortunate combat veterans and former Prisoners of War. Although I still have all the haunts and fears, one is the constant worrying that one of the Tiger’s people is still looking for us, and I still have all of the nightmares, yet, with the Lord’s help, I have been fortunate enough to manage to keep the sights and sounds buried in my head enough to where I was able to work and retire from both the military and the U.S. Government.
“Yet some of the haunts still come flowing back, especially as I pass the gravel pit on the road leading to Warren; for this brings back the memories of the gravel pit where the Tiger held us, just before the march, and his men setting up the machine guns, the bullets being loaded in them, and the thoughts of how close we all came to dying on that cold morning on November 1st, (1950).
“It is unfortunate that for many of us the only relief from these haunting fears will be when the Good Lord takes us into his arms, as he has already done with so many of my comrades.”
That final call came to hunt in June 2016 at the age of 88.
He rests in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Russell.