Sixty-five years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, initiating the Korean War. The U.S. and sixteen other nations joined forces to repel the invaders.
About three weeks later, in July 1950, a young captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps was captured on the front lines and held in brutal prison camps for more than three years. “Doc” Boysen would survive unbelievable hardships, return home, and live for almost fifty more years.
This fall, the University of Minnesota Press is publishing his story as told by his daughter, the writer Catherine Madison. Here is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter’s Memoir.
SEOUL, KOREA—July 1950
More than two hundred men were quartered in a two-story schoolhouse on the northern outskirts of Seoul. North Korean officers visited them to deliver lectures on the evils of capitalism and assure them that they would be treated well. The Koreans also announced that because Gen. Douglas MacArthur had insisted that captured Americans receive their customary three meals a day, the prisoners would be fed three times, which simply meant that their current rations of unseasoned rice balls, watery cabbage soup, and an occasional piece of melon were divided into three portions instead of two.
The men spent several days housed in the crowded school. Occasionally guards would take a prisoner or two away, ostensibly to make political broadcasts; those men were not seen again. Among the troops themselves, no one seemed to be in charge. One soldier informed Doc that, as a captain, he outranked others and was supposed to be the acting CO (commanding officer), but Doc protested, insisting that a medical officer does not command infantry troops.
Physically, he was suffering. His feet were bruised and swollen, and it was all he could do to walk to the latrine. Mentally, the games had set in, his suspicions repeating in an unforgiving loop. Why didn’t the army keep its promise to send me home after ninety days? Am I being punished for refusing to give sleeping pills to that surly officer? Did I do something else wrong? Or fail to follow orders? Why didn’t I receive any letters from my wife while I was in Japan? Was the army holding them back? Did she even write? Am I paying for my past sins? Back home I hit a chicken with the car. And I passed that extra copy of the med school test to my frat brothers. But didn’t I already get punished for those things?
Slowly, as he began to feel better physically, the mental torture eased. His thoughts turned to survival, and he focused on the present moment and whatever he might do to make sure those moments kept coming, for him and for those around him. He asked to assist with sick call, but the Koreans refused. As near as Doc could tell, they had little to work with, shoddy equipment, and meager pharmacy supplies. Once they invited him to join them, but when he showed up at the “clinic,” he was asked to pose for a propaganda picture. He refused.
At one point, all the prisoners were escorted into the school auditorium and told to sit. Stiff and stilted, select American officers and GIs read prepared statements asking the men to sign a petition demanding an end to the war. After the prisoners signed, the readers explained, the paper would be sent to the United Nations. The Koreans circulated the petition, a blank piece of paper, and insisted the men sign, which they did, of course, thinking it might help them survive. (Several of the men wrote the same names, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but no one seemed to notice.)
One afternoon, the guards summoned the men to the courtyard for roll call. “Come with, come with,” the Koreans shouted. The men followed orders, not realizing that they would not be allowed to return to the schoolhouse, where they had stowed what few possessions they had left—tattered Bibles, rosary beads, pictures, whatever extra clothing they had managed to hold on to. As they were marched off to a train yard, they vowed they wouldn’t make the same mistake again. From now on, they’d keep any and all possessions with them at all times.
Doc had already lost plenty: his thick glasses, his St. Christopher medal, his shoes. But he also gained much of a substance: a new acquaintance named Peppe, who would become a trusted confidant and lifelong friend, and other friends, like Shorty Estabrook, a nineteen-year-old spitfire who made everyone laugh, and Eli Culbertson, to whom he’d been tied with telephone-wire that bloodied their wrists. He also gained a new, or perhaps renewed, belief in the existence of a supreme being, whatever its name.
It’s something that makes you believe that your strength is part of a plan devised by someone more powerful than you. It’s there like a huge wave just before it crests, powerful and never ending in its beauty as it just keeps rolling along, silent in all its majesty but ever present.
It is the faith and hope that sustains you; something you accept and admit you do not understand. Prayer becomes a constant, not a once-a-night event—and not always in words, perhaps, but surely in thoughts.
How else can you explain the fact that you survive?
Journalist Catherine Madison was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.
The University of Minnesota Press is giving away 10 advance reading copies of The War Came Home with Him. To enter, send an e-mail with your preferred mailing address to email@example.com, subject line: Catherine Madison giveaway. Deadline to enter is July 10th; winners will be notified within one week. All submitted mailing addresses will be used for the purpose of the contest only.
“I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison’s skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story. She is truly a reliable narrator, and her interweaving of her father’s ordeal as a prisoner of war with her own growing up in a household with a broken and damaged man is honest and generous and truly moving.” —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People