Ed Slater served with the U.S. Army in the Korean War, where he was held as a POW.
Ed was in a family of eight boys and five girls, with one brother serving in the Army and another in the Navy. Ed wanted to help the family like the other boys, so at age 17, and with only a grade-school education, joined the Army. This was his first time away from the family home in Quincy, Ill.
Ed went into the 24th Infantry as a machine gunner and was sent straight to North Korea after basic training. His first job was to guard an ammunition plant. Then he was sent up to the 38th Parallel, where it was minus 40 degrees at its worst. It was June 25, 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea and Ed was invited to participate and was sent directly to the front line south of Seoul. On July 7 a battle took place near a river that outnumbered Ed’s unit 30 to 1 and most died, Ed being a survivor. Following that battle Ed spent two weeks alone behind enemy lines, was captured, escaped, and was captured again. They beat him, shot him, and threw him in a grave before taking him to an enemy officer who had been educated in California.
Again, he was thrown in with South Korean prisoners, beaten and tortured for three days with no food, and witnessed many people killed. They took his boots, and the march of prisoners began with cut-up feet, and starvation showing its signs. He heard they were heading toward the Manchurian border with 389 prisoners, losing 100 to disease, injuries, and starvation soon after the march began. The men were fed rice in a ball the size of a tennis ball once a day and drank water out of rice paddies fertilized with human waste, causing disease in many of the men.
Still without boots, Ed tore his pant legs off to wrap around his feet. They marched at night so the planes wouldn’t see them. However, they were strafed and many killed by their own planes. It was hard to tell who was POW and who was the enemy, so both sides were killed during attacks. In one of those attacks Ed was hit in the leg, but had to continue on the march in order to stay alive. Men were shot down, starved and beaten, with a few managing to escape. During one rampage, Ed and others were lined up near a ditch and were shot, landing in the ditch. Ed had men dead and alive on top of him and was again bayoneted to ensure that he was dead. Ed survived the diesel fuel thrown on the bodies and the fire following.
The survivors feigned death until the North Korean execution squads left. Then they began moving, cold, bleeding, and traumatized by the attack, they helped each other crawl away from the heaps of bodies that were once their friends and fellow prisoners.
The death march lasted 96 days, with few survivors, and is said to have been 600 miles long (longer that the Bataan Death March) because of the irregular path they took. Had weather cooperated, the 187th Airborne would have reached them, but foul weather caused them to jump behind instead of ahead of the march.
When Americans were seen, one prisoner asked them, “Who is Betty Grabel’s husband?” because they could not believe they were actually being rescued and to ensure it was not the enemy.
Ed was eventually rescued and remembers a general putting his long coat over his shoulders. Ed told him not to do that because he had lice, but the general said he was owed that privilege. Ed went from 170 pounds to 114 pounds in three months. He was sent to Japan for treatment and had not seen any survivors of that march until 55 years later when he answered his phone and one of the men searching for him was on the other end. Soon after, a reunion took place in Branson, Mo., for seven of the surviving men along with an author who wanted to write a book and tell their story. The book is now in print titled “Sunchon Tunnel Massacre Survivors,” by Pat Avery and Joyce Faulkner.
After eight years of military life, Ed and his wife settled in Independence and have two children. He suffers from PTSD and still dreams of airplanes firing at him. He is the recipient of two Purple Hearts, one Bronze Star and a list of other awards. Ed returned to Korea 55 years later in hopes of releasing demons of the past.
Ed’s military history may be viewed in Veterans’ Hall in the Independence Parks and Recreation Truman Memorial Building, 416 W. Maple.
– This is part of a weekly feature on local veterans submitted by Helen Matson, volunteer program director for the city of Independence