Scars No One Sees

As North and South Korea head for their first summit in half a century, the peninsula's divided families are not the only ones longing for a sense of closure. For thousands of other individuals the war is not yet entirely over. These are the stories of three veterans of the long struggle:

THE SEARCHER. Seventy-year-old Bob Dumas is pumped. Any day now, the Connecticut man is sure he will finally get solid information on his long-lost younger brother. The last positive sighting of U.S. Army Cpl. Roger Dumas was in August 1953, shortly after the signing of the armistice, when two Chinese guards hauled their American prisoner away from a Korean border crossing. The Pentagon has presumed Roger dead since 1954. Even so, Bob has always refused to believe it without hard evidence. He has written thousands of letters to anyone who might help him find Roger. He tried again last month, sending yet another appeal to the Army Casualty Office, with copies to two senators and the secretary of Defense. Last week his phone rang. The caller said the casualty office would produce a full report on Roger. "Within 10 days!" Bob exclaims. "I just know something's going to give--I can feel it!"

Dumas is hardly alone in his optimism. The apparent thaw between the two Koreas is elating scores and possibly hundreds of families in the United States. All told, more than 8,100 Americans are still officially unaccounted for from the Korean War--four times the total for Vietnam. Bob Dumas is just one of many relatives of the missing who think North Korea's leaders may finally be getting ready to clear the air. He says: "I've never felt as much hope as I do today."

Roger Dumas was a cheerful 18-year-old when he shipped out to Korea in July 1950. He had every reason to think his Army stint would be short. U.N. troops helped the Southerners beat back Kim Il Sung's invasion all the way to the Yalu River, on the border between China and North Korea. "See you soon!" Roger wrote in his last letter home, dated November 1950. But the tide soon turned against the allies. Mao Zedong feared the war would jump the river into China. Egged on by Kim and his Soviet patron Josef Stalin, the Chinese leader sent a human-wave offensive of some 300,000 "volunteers" against the U.N. forces. The Chinese overran Roger's unit, the 19th Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division, that winter. One of Bob's most cherished possessions is a tattered, cloudy photo from 1953, showing Roger in a Chinese-run POW camp at Pyoktong, North Korea. The armistice was signed on July 27.

Bob has been searching ever since. He signed up for military duty in South Korea to be as close as possible to his missing brother. He has sued the U.S. government twice; he has stalked the halls of Congress; he has succeeded in meeting with North Korea's notoriously elusive diplomats 27 times. He may have scant chance of finding Roger alive, but he's almost positive Americans are still being held in North Korea.

His hopes skyrocketed last year when the White House asked Beijing for any information available on Roger and a list of 43 other Americans, many reported to be alive and in Chinese hands in the 1950s. "Roger Dumas remains unaccounted for, and no one's abandoned the search," says Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon office that deals with missing personnel. "We want to know what the Chinese might know." Beijing seems ready to cooperate. In response to similar inquiries, the Chinese have agreed to let American investigators examine open-source research materials and interview possible witnesses, including prison guards--although investigators have yet to announce any positive results.

Dumas has a private archive of reported "live sightings" of American POWs by North Korean defectors. One of the most intriguing is the account of Oh Young-Nam, a former secret-police officer, who told of making repeated visits to a secret prison north of Pyongyang between 1982 and 1993. "As many as 10 to 15 possible American POW's could be alive" in North Korea, wrote Pentagon researcher Insung Lee in a March 1996 internal memo. The Pentagon says it does not endorse Lee's conclusions. "I stand by the report," replies Lee. The sightings have multiplied since famine struck the North in the 1990s. A well-informed U.S. official says the refugee exodus has significantly raised the quality--as well as the quantity--of information on possible missing Americans.

The budding North-South detente may at least boost efforts to locate and identify American remains. In Kuala Lumpur last week, North Koreans and Americans resumed talks on joint excavation of a major battlefield site in Unsan, 60 miles from Pyongyang, where between 400 and 500 Americans may have died. Negotiations have been stalled since last year, when Pyongyang demanded construction of a clothing factory for its cooperation. All told, the deal would have cost at least $20 million, says Pentagon spokesman Greer. U.S. policy is to pay only for the costs of recovery operations. Greer says: "We told them, 'We don't buy remains'." Dumas says with a sigh: "All those guys want to do is talk about dead men." He says he's much more excited by the news that Washington is preparing to lift its trade and travel sanctions on North Korea. "I'll finally be able to travel to Pyongyang," he says. "Maybe it's 50 years too late. But then, it's never too late." Never is a strong word. But Dumas is a strong man.

THE LOYALIST. When Zhang Da was captured by the Americans in May 1951, he was removed from one war but then thrown into another. The 17-year-old foot soldier, a native of Sichuan, was remanded to a POW camp near Pusan. And that's where his real troubles began. For captured Chinese soldiers, the U.S.-run prison camps in Korea became ideological battlegrounds between Nationalists and communists.

The Americans insisted they would never forcibly repatriate anyone to Mao's China. Any Chinese POW had a right to choose Taiwan instead. But political organizers among the prisoners had their own ideas. The pro- and anticommunist factions fought for recruits, especially as the war outside the fences neared an end. The rivalry "was very intense, even more complicated than the 'real' fighting was," recalls Gen. He Ming, a retired senior Chinese officer. He saw the camps firsthand as leader of the "explanation teams" sent out by Beijing to talk prisoners into returning to China.

Zhang needed no coaxing. Even so, his decision took courage. He says anticommunist inmates waged a "reign of terror" to coerce their fellow POWs into rejecting Beijing. "The pro-Taiwan hard-liners used all kinds of methods to threaten and torture us," says Zhang. After he declared his desire to go home, pro-Taiwan prisoners tied him up and punished him. "They would hammer on my nails, burn me with a hot iron or cigarette butts. I can't remember how many times I passed out." Once his tormentors tattooed a Nationalist slogan on his left arm: OPPOSE COMMUNISM, FIGHT RUSSIA. A scar marks the spot now. "I scraped the tattoo off with a razor," says Zhang. "It was very painful, but it would have been more painful to leave such a permanent humiliation."

The humiliation wasn't over. The explanation teams had promised the returnees a hero's welcome. Instead, they were branded as turncoats for letting themselves be captured alive. Roughly 6,000 of the 20,000 or so POWs finally went home. Like more than 90 percent of them, Zhang was expelled from the Army and the Communist Youth League--and targeted for persecution in every subsequent campaign against deviation from the party's orthodoxy. He and the other former POWs would not be rehabilitated until the rise of Deng Xiaoping, a quarter century after their homecoming.

The consensus among Chinese intellectuals today is that Kim and Stalin tricked China into joining the war. Many historians say Mao lost Taiwan in the course of rescuing Kim. Last year Zhang joined a tour group to visit the site of his old POW camp on Cheju. "I still don't understand why China decided to get involved," says Zhang. "What a worthless, meaningless war."

THE EXILE. Jim Veneris insists he has no regrets. On Nov. 8, 1954, he and 20 other American POWs publicly chose to live in China rather than to go home. The U.S. media declared them victims of brainwashing. In a headline, one U.S. newspaper described them as STOOL PIGEONS OF THE REDS. Veneris, now 78, prefers to see himself as a good-will ambassador. He says he chose China as a way of protesting both war and McCarthyism--the obsessive anticommunist campaign led by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In the 1960s and early '70s, Beijing's propaganda machinery would trumpet Veneris's criticism of the Vietnam war. Even so, he says, "I never denounced the United States."

A bubbling, talkative extrovert, he sees himself not as a man without a country, but as a man with two countries. He still has his U.S. passport, and he retains a passion for things American. He chain-smokes American cigarettes whenever he can get them. He yearns for National Geographic magazine, "especially the articles on astronomy." At the slightest provocation he bursts into choruses of "My Darlin' Clementine."

Beijing gave him a choice when he arrived in China: work, study, till the land "or do nothing at all." Veneris, a Pennsylvania coal miner's son, chose work. "I've always been working class," he says. He learned to run a lathe at a paper mill near the Shandong province capital of Jinan, and he married a Chinese woman in 1957. From 1963 to 1966 he studied international relations at People's University in Beijing. He wrote a thesis on "how great the American people are and how great the Chinese people are."

Then the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution broke. He went back to factory work, hauling discarded slippers, bales of hay, cloth scraps--"the heaviest, bulkiest, backbreakingest stuff"--to be chopped up as raw material for Double Happiness brand toilet paper. "A lot of screwy stuff was going on," he recalls. But the gregarious Greek-American prefers to focus on the "happiness" he experienced as "part of 3,000 Chinese families" at the mill. His first wife died of TB, and a second marriage ended in divorce. Today Veneris lives with Bei Xirong, 70, "my much better half."

Many of the transplanted Americans began slipping quietly home almost as soon as they arrived. Only one other former American POW is still living in China; his name is Howard Adams. "I don't want to talk about the Korean War," he told NEWSWEEK. In contrast, the raspy-voiced Veneris is delighted to chat about practically any topic. "I was taken prisoner against my will," he says of his record as a soldier. "I was not a collaborator or a defector or a dejector or whatever." He says he never joined the Communist Party and has never been charged with breaking any laws in China or America.

Veneris has gone home to America three times. The first visit was in 1976, for the bicentennial. His 28-year-old son is working as a truck driver in New York. His daughter, 30-year-old Wen Xiaohua, has applied for a visa to join her husband, a businessman also working in the States. Sometimes Veneris thinks about dying. "I want to be cremated," he says. "Half my ashes should go in the Mississippi. And half in the Yalu River. Then I'll call it quits --but it's too early yet." He says just one thing bothers him: "The [U.S.] Army gave me a dishonorable discharge. That's a verdict I want to reverse." There's no law against wishing.

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