Just after the war in Korea ended, the first refugees began returning to their villages, or what remained of them. These villages were strictly out of bounds to British troops.
That was a problem, because the nearest one was only a few hundred yards from our camp – far too big a temptation for some of the men in the battalion. One of the men in my platoon, Thompson, was an incorrigible womaniser, so when I saw him standing alone near the camp perimeter one morning, his gaze fixed on the village, it wasn’t difficult to guess what was on his mind.
He heard me approaching and turned to face me. I said, ‘If you go anywhere near that village, Thompson, the OC will throw the book at you. You know that.’ He gave me a searching look. For a moment, I thought he was going to argue, then he just nodded and turned away.
But the inevitable happened. For the first few nights he got away with it. Then one night, presumably acting on intelligence, the MPs (military police) parked outside the village, and walked in quietly. They caught him with his pants down. The OC gave him three weeks in Seoul Penitentiary, a punishment camp run by British Commonwealth forces.
As an NCO I was detailed to escort the prisoner, together with the jeep driver and another private soldier, to the prison in Seoul. But Seoul is a big city and, on the day in question, we couldn’t find the prison. It was like driving into London for the first time and not being able to speak the language or read any of the signs; but that didn’t worry us unduly – we’d been living in mud and holes in the ground for too long, and this was our first taste of freedom. Even Thompson was smiling and waving at the girls, yet he must have known what an unpleasant experience lay in store for him.
When we finally drew up outside the prison gates, I’d hardly stepped out of the jeep, when a red-faced Provost Sergeant came striding towards me. He proceeded to tear a strip off me for being late with the prisoner, bellowing at the top of his voice, his nose an inch from mine.
Then the prisoner was made to double up and down outside the wire, heavy kit bag on his shoulder. It was a hot day, and the sweat was soon pouring off him. His cap fell off, and his fair hair flopped down over his forehead. The Provost kicked his cap aside in the dust and ordered two guards to take the prisoner through the gates, still at the double – everything was done at the double in this camp.
Thompson went pounding on towards the prison buildings. When he got too far ahead, the guards simply bawled at him to about turn, as they followed at a more leisurely pace. This was repeated several times.
Then we noticed, beyond the buildings, a huge figure-of-eight marked out on the hillside, on which, from this distance, prisoners the size of ants were running round and round in full kit. One prisoner seemed to stumble and fall to his knees. He tried to get up, but couldn’t make it. A burly guard ran over and hauled him roughly to his feet and pushed him back into line.
Thompson must have seen all this. There was shock and disbelief on his face. We felt sorry for him. He’d been a good soldier and comrade and now he was being treated like a dog, by people that had probably never been within a mile of any combat zone.
The guards showed Thompson no sympathy. One of them was smiling as they dished out the punishment. Thompson looked completely exhausted. He gave a pathetic, appealing look through the wire. We were his only hope.
I turned away abruptly and got back in the jeep. The others followed. We were seething with anger. But there was nothing we could do about it. If we made any kind of a protest we would probably be charged with insubordination – perhaps even end up behind the wire with Thompson. I told the driver to move off. He stabbed at the accelerator and we roared off in a cloud of dust.
Three weeks later I walked into our makeshift canteen, and there was Thompson sipping tea at one of the tables, looking very gaunt and thin. A few of the men sat around asking him questions about his experience. He was reluctant to answer, just nodding occasionally or shaking his head. Mostly he stared at the landscape through the open tent walls.
I don’t think I ever heard Thompson speak again during all the time I knew him. But his eyes told the story. The thing that shocked me most of all, though, was that his hair had turned completely white. Someone said it must have been bleached by the sun – but I’m not so sure about that.