In hindsight, it wasn’t the safest time to join the military. But when Robert Fletcher enlisted in the Army in May 1950, the decision seemed relatively low-risk. “War didn’t seem possible with the Second World War just ending–peacetime, nobody wanted to mess with the United States,” he recalls.
Just seventeen and still in high school–his mother gave him permission to enlist–Fletcher wasn’t particularly aware of the emerging Cold War. And he hadn’t heard of the tensions that were flaring up on the Korean peninsula. He assumed he was signing up for three years of travel and adventure–a chance to see the world, save up some money, then come home to finish high school and go on to college. As he puts it, with a rueful laugh, “It didn’t turn out that way.”
After five weeks of basic training, he was sent to Japan to join the Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment. Known as “the Buffalo Soldiers,” all the enlisted men were African Americans; almost all the officers were white. Fletcher had been there for only a few weeks when war broke out on June 25, and his regiment was the first sent to Korea.
Even then, he and his fellow soldiers–much like Americans back home–didn’t realize what they were getting into. “We were told it was a ‘police action,'” he recalls. “I asked a sergeant, ‘What’s a police action?’ And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll take our nightsticks and go over there and crack a few heads, and we’ll be back in a week.’ So I said, ‘Well, let’s go!’ It wasn’t until we got there that we realized that people were being killed.
“When the bullets started flying, I said to my platoon sergeant, ‘What the hell is this? Is this a police action?’ He was a Second World War veteran, and he said, ‘No, son, this is war. And you’d better keep your damn head down, or you’re gonna be dead.'”
The company went in with 250 men; within a few weeks, he says, all but eighteen were killed. Though reinforcements were sent, the slaughter would repeat itself. “The North Koreans wanted Korea–their objective was all of Korea by September 1, so they were hitting us very hard,” he says. His company was almost entirely wiped out two more times in the following months.
But despite these losses, Fletcher’s regiment helped to turn the tide for the Americans–for a time. “We had come back to full combat strength in September/October, and we had annihilated the North Korean army,” he recalls. Then, as President Truman and General MacArthur had their famous dispute about whether to press into North Korea (and risk Chinese intervention) or simply liberate the south, the soldiers waited. “We sat there for about two or three weeks, then got orders to go north, up to the Yalu River, which separates China and Korea. Well, the Chinese had already infiltrated and were waiting for us. And they let us come through. And on November 27, we got hit with everything but the kitchen stove.”
Their ranks were soon decimated by a withering assault from a huge contingent of Chinese soldiers, and Fletcher and his company were facing a harsh choice. “We were caught on a little knoll, we were out of ammunition … and the company commander had been hit,” he recalls. Calling the platoon leaders and squad leaders, who included Fletcher, the commander laid out their options: try to fight it out or surrender. He instructed them to put the question to their men.
“They all agreed to surrender,” Fletcher says. “I really don’t know how we could have fought any longer.” So while the officers tied a white handkerchief to a stick and walked toward the Chinese, the men bent the barrels of their guns around tree branches to disable them. A new trauma was about to begin.
It was late November when Fletcher and his comrades began their forced, weeks-long march to a North Korean prison camp. Soon, he says, the average nighttime temperature was far below zero, and the Americans were dressed in summer uniforms. “A lot of guys froze to death, a lot of guys starved to death, a lot of guys died from wounds,” he says. “But when we reached the prison camps, the Chinese turned us over to the North Koreans, and that’s when all hell broke loose.”
Surprisingly, their captors didn’t inflict much violence on the prisoners–as Fletcher describes it, the main torment was something worse. “The North Koreans didn’t beat us, but they starved us to death. If you’ve ever gone to an Asian restaurant, you know the little bowls? We got one of those a day, cracked corn–field corn, not sweet corn, with the hulls still on it. You’d eat that, and it would end up cutting your guts out. So a lot of guys died from dysentery … I was 180 pounds, and I went down to about 90 pounds … I don’t know why I survived.”
By spring, with the death toll in the North Korean camps soaring, the Chinese took them over. They brought in more food: “sorghum cane, millet, some dried pork which had turned green–it didn’t bother us; we scraped it off and cooked it,” Fletcher recalls. But they also instituted a deviously effective disciplinary regimen. “Say you tried to escape, and you got captured. They would not physically punish you. They’d come and find somebody in the building you stayed in who was well-liked by everybody, and they’d physically punish them. Why? Psychologically it hurt everybody in there, so we started policing ourselves.”
This punishment could be shockingly brutal. “One time, four guys escaped. They were gone overnight and captured the next day. So they took one guy out of the compound he was in … tied him on a tripod and threw cold water on him until he froze to death. A couple of other guys did the same thing, so they threw them in a pit and put rats in there, and let the rats eat them. And you had to stand there and watch it. So we stopped trying to escape.”
Though heavily propagandized by the Chinese, the prisoners maintained their morale by dreaming of rescue by the American forces, whose aerial battles they often witnessed over the camps. But rescue never came. They had no knowledge of the armistice that was signed on July 27, 1953, until August 6, when they were told that they’d be going home. “I got a numb feeling,” Fletcher recalls. “I thought they were playing games with us.”
When the prisoners crossed the demarcation line between North and South Korea, “That was probably the greatest day of my life. I looked up at [the American flag], and it was blowing in the wind, and tears came up in my eyes. I just couldn’t believe it. And the general said, ‘Welcome home.’ I don’t think I remembered another word after that, because I was just looking at that flag. It was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.”
Of the over 7,000 American soldiers taken prisoner during the war, about 40 percent died in captivity. And those who survived often dealt with the lingering fallout from the war. As Fletcher describes it, this included an unfair stigma: public paranoia over Communist brainwashing tactics made it hard for former POWs to find work. Worse, many were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, but public awareness and treatment options for those ailments were practically nonexistent.
When he first arrived home, Fletcher says, “The first thing my mother said to me, after she gave me a big hug and a kiss, was, ‘You’re not the nice young man that left here.’ … It took me a long time to understand what she meant, because I [had been] very quiet, very pleasant. Now I was very gruff, tough–didn’t need anybody. … I slept one hour a night, I smoked five and a half packs of cigarettes a day, and all I did was pace. And I drank quite heavy, because that was the easiest way for me to ease my pain.
“I could not relate to people,” he says. As veterans, “I would say 99.9 percent of us had post-traumatic stress, and you always felt you were going to have those nightmares of the war, being captured, the freezing, the lack of proper food–all these things would be flashing in your mind. [So] you’d be very afraid to even talk about it. And you really didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for you. People would say, ‘What was it like?’ And a lot of times I’d say, ‘You wouldn’t understand if I told you’–that was my way of not talking about it.”
He drifted for a time, living with his mother in Ypsilanti, and taking a series of jobs, which he quit within weeks. The instability continued over the next few years, as he moved to Ann Arbor, got married, then divorced. He eventually settled into a job as a nursing assistant at the VA hospital, did a stint at Sears, owned a bike and moped shop, and worked for the city water department. And in 1962, he married his current wife, Carol, and they had five children.
But though to all appearances his life had stabilized, Fletcher was wracked with anger, guilt, and undiagnosed depression for decades. He had an explosive temper and struggled to relate to people, including his own wife and kids, with whom he never talked about the war. “I always felt that they would hate me for killing people,” he says. “You go to church, and it’s ‘Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not kill,’ yet I had killed. How are you gonna tell your kids, ‘Yeah, I killed people, and I’m a nice guy?'” It wasn’t until 2000 that, after Fletcher arrived at a near-suicidal state, his wife convinced him to seek help at the VA hospital.
Thanks to psychiatric treatment and Carol’s support, Fletcher eventually came to terms with his past. He even found a unique source of solace: helping other POWs. As a volunteer with the VA’s Advisory Committee on Former Prisoners of War, he helped other former POWs navigate the unique challenges and illnesses they face. The work helped him recover emotionally from his own wartime traumas. And though he never sought it, he recently received belated recognition for those sacrifices: a Purple Heart, which was commemorated in an informal ceremony at Bell’s Diner in May. (Bell’s owners are Korean, and Fletcher can often be found there.)
Although he was wounded during the war, Fletcher never reported the injuries. He believes the government learned about them from talking to his fellow POWs. “Once you’re in combat, you see guys get their legs blown off, and they get the Purple Heart, and you feel very good about it. But you could also fall and cut your finger, and if it was in a combat zone, that was a Purple Heart, because all you had to have was blood drawn. [So] at this point in my life, I wasn’t interested in it.” He also resists the tendency among civilians to portray his service as an act of heroism. “I was not drafted, I volunteered. I went in to do a job, and I looked at that as my job. I guess I’m from the old school.”
Fletcher’s experiences have left him deeply skeptical of the value of war and the government’s approach to veterans. “No combat veteran should be discharged out of the United States Army until they’ve gone through six months to one year or more of deprogramming,” he says. “The military teaches you well how to kill, but they don’t teach you how to not kill … The whole demeanor of the military is to strip you of your personality, strip you of who you are, and make you who they want you to be. How do you come back to being who you should be? They don’t do anything to [help with] that, even today. Look at the Afghan and Persian Gulf veterans. They throw them out into civilian life and they don’t know what to do, so they get angry, they start shooting people … I’ve always said it’s the federal government’s fault, because the federal government never helped them become who they were before they went in, or close to it. Maybe you can never become who you were.”
The price paid by veterans has left him reluctant to call any war a victory. But in spite of all that he and his fellow POWs went through, he has a surprising answer to people who ask if he regrets his decision to enlist. “I’ve been back to Korea twice, the wife and I. And I see a country that’s prosperous and booming … a country that we helped stay free, with a democracy. So when people say, ‘Would you do it again?’ I say, ‘Yes, I would.’ It was worth it.”
A short video about Fletcher’s experiences during and after the Korean War is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btsCIoXTCMM&t=5s.