Monday, May 31, 2004

Ex-POW comforts Maupin family

'Keep believing,' he tells family of hostage soldier in Iraq

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

UNION TWP. - Not far down the road from the home of Pfc. Keith Matthew Maupin, the 20-year-old Army reservist held hostage by Iraqi insurgents since April 9, there lives a genial old man whose sunny demeanor gives no hint of his own ordeal as a prisoner of war.

Charles Leigh Whitaker, 74, of Union Township, with a newspaper clipping of himself from 1951.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Seventy-four-year-old Charles Leigh Whitaker lives a stone's throw from Union Township's Veterans Memorial Park, in the same house he's lived in for 46 years with his wife, Joyce - "my sweetheart."

Whitaker now sports a flop of gray hair and a body that's, as he puts it, "short, round and close to the ground." When it's cold out, he still feels pains in his hands and feet, a frostbitten reminder of days sleeping on frozen ground.

Whitaker has had some sleepless nights lately. After praying for Maupin for more than a month, the televised images of Nick Berg, the 26-year-old Philadelphian beheaded by captors in Iraq, haunted Whitaker's dreams and jogged painful memories from half a century ago, when Whitaker spent three years as a Korean War prisoner.

"All this, it's brought things back for me, for sure," Whitaker said recently.

"I hope Matt can have the strength to be brought through. I want his family to know he's not the man they sent to the Army; he's going to be a completely different person when he comes back. And he will come back."

Like the many residents of yellow-ribbon-adorned Clermont County, Whitaker believes the power of prayer will bring the young man back from Iraq, just as he believes the power of prayer brought him back from Korea.

"I want to tell his mother and father to keep on having the faith," Whitaker said.

"You have to keep believing. They did it for almost three years for me. I was 27 months MIA and my family never had a clue where I was or even whether I was alive. I believe he'll make it home. I really do."

'We all found God'

On July 12, 1950, Whitaker had been in Korea for just two weeks with the 21st Infantry Regiment in the Army's 24th Division after replacing a medic who was killed in action.

map At dawn, the North Koreans attacked Whitaker's regiment near Chochiwon, south of Seoul. As the North Koreans enveloped their positions, the 21st withdrew.

Most of those in his regiment were killed. Whitaker and five others ran south into a shallow river. He was crawling through the river, his head barely peaking out for air, when the North Koreans surrounded him. They marched Whitaker to a mound where they gathered about 40 new prisoners of war.

The North Koreans bound the Americans' hands, lined them up and brought out a machine gun. Some Americans said the Lord's Prayer, sure of imminent death.

"We all found God then, truthfully," Whitaker said half a century later over a cup of coffee at the Eastgate Bob Evans.

But a shouting North Korean soldier ran toward the gun. Whitaker assumes he said, "We're taking captives," because the Americans were taken to a warehouse as some of the first prisoners of the Korean War.

Thirteen days later, on July 25, his mother, Pearl Whitaker, received a Western Union telegram signed by an Army general.

"The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son PFC Whitaker Charles L. has been missing in action in Korea since 12 July 50."

For the next three years, Whitaker marched at the behest of his captors, including "Tiger," the infamously brutal, stone-faced North Korean commander over the prisoners near the end of the war.

Prisoners slept on the ground, sometimes in subzero temperatures. They had few clothes, and North Korean soldiers stole their military boots.

"You couldn't escape," Whitaker said.

"You're a white man in an Asian country, so you stick out pretty bad. I don't know if it was the state of shock that kept you going or what, but you did it. You just kept going.

"I was too damn scared to stop, I guess."

Death march

For three years they marched, often traveling 10 miles in a day. Prisoners were given only a handful of food, essentially a glob of millet and sorghum, every day.

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"You were so damn hungry by then, it actually tasted good," Whitaker said.

They ate frogs and grasshoppers and drank water from rice paddies, which gave them amoebic dysentery. Sometimes villagers threw stones and cursed at the marching prisoners. Other times farmers would lay ears of horse corn on the ground, a delicacy for the men.

After two years, Whitaker weighed about 80 pounds.

"Lord, you've seen me this far," Whitaker would pray. "See me one more day."

As a medic tech, Whitaker felt responsible to care for fellow prisoners. But he had to improvise.

To keep wounds clean, Whitaker put maggots on them. The stench was awful, but the wounds stayed clean. Whitaker cured a wrist infected with carbuncle by strapping half a potato to it.

In 1952, Whitaker and 700 other prisoners began their "death march" north to Manpo, near the Chinese border. Anyone who stopped during the 250-mile march was executed.

Walking three abreast, Whitaker marched next to an Australian prisoner, who repeated the 23rd Psalm again and again:

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

Whitaker estimates they lost one person per mile during the march.

"Two things keep you alive," Whitaker said. "You have to have faith. And you have to have a sense of humor. Which might sound kind of strange. But truly, the only way I made it through: You have to laugh about it. You'd be surprised. If you look hard enough you can find funny things.

"You pass a Korean farmhouse and it's leaning over, and you say, 'Good God, was that guy drunk?'" Whitaker said. "You watch a Korean farmer literally fall out of his cornfield to his death; you say, 'He must have been woozy from a bit of sake the night before.' "

In August 1953, after 37 months and 14 days as a prisoner of war, Whitaker was turned over to the Americans. He was one of the first prisoners captured in Korea and one of the last returned to the Americans. The group of 262 prisoners who lived through the death march became known as the "Tiger Survivors."

For decades Whitaker wouldn't talk about his experiences. Nightmares tormented him, and he often awoke fighting with his pillow.

But now he believes it's best to talk about his time as a war prisoner.

"Going through all this renewed my faith," Whitaker said. "You find out who you really are. You become a man's man. You have no fear any more."

Whitaker hopes to attend the biggest party Clermont County has ever seen - welcoming Matt Maupin home. But he doesn't try to compare his years as prisoner to Berg's appalling slaying or to Maupin's captivity.

"What you can't do, you can't compare apples to oranges," Whitaker said. "What they did to Berg, that's what those people do. That's the kind of savages they are. They're fanatics. They're not the same as the Koreans, and they're not the same as the guys who have Matt."



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