Fred O’Broff “just wanted to see some of this great country” when he left his home in Wheelwright at the age of 18 and enlisted in the Army before shipping out to serve in Korea, where he was soon taken into captivity by Chinese soldiers and held for two years before finding his way back to Kentucky.
O’Broff, who now lives in Flatwoods, was the featured speaker for Thursday evening’s monthly military roundtable meeting hosted by the East Kentucky Military Historical Society. EKMHA officers Dan Carr and Matt Potter asked the audience of 45 to 50 to consider O’Broff’s experiences and use their best judgment when asking questions about the things he endured.
O’Broff told the crowd he enjoyed his time in basic training at Fort Knox, where he was trained for infantry duty and tank service.
“When I got to Korea, they put me with a mortar unit,” he said, explaining he was assigned to serve with a unit in charge of firing 4.2-pound rounds or “the big’ns” at the enemy. “I’d never seen a mortar before ... that’s the Army for you!”
The young soldier essentially armed himself with an unused, although filthy, Browning Automatic Rifle, otherwise known as a B.A.R. “I liked the Browning because you could fire 30 rounds of ammunition in probably 30 seconds,” he said, adding the weapon was particularly heavy and difficult to transport. Even with the highly-sought-after Browning at his side, O’Broff said there was little to no chance of escaping capture after the Chinese army allowed him and others into an area where they knew they could easily surround them all. “We had moved 70 miles from the east coast to the west coast of Korea, and the Chinese knew where the weak point was, explaining they had little chance to do anything before realizing the enemy “were everywhere” and the Americans who had been at his side moments before were now nowhere to be found.
He tried to run, O’Broff said, when he heard voices from the area he had just left and assumed it was his fellow Americans returning to give fight. Instead, he found himself encircled by 50 Chinese soldiers. “I don’t know why they didn’t shoot me then. I guess they wanted prisoners.”
Once he was placed with a group of 40 to 50 other prisoners of war, O’Broff said, recalling they were forced to lay in a four-inch snowfall the morning after he was captured, and had to hide among clusters of pine trees to avoid being fired upon by American patrol and fighter planes. That evening, he said the hungry and thirsty prisoners were given a bucket of water along with “some kind of brown powder,” which he thought might have been intended for use as animal food.
“I don’t know what it was. I thought, ‘They’ve confused us for horses. This is horse food! That’s what we ate ... for a while,” he said, later telling of a downed pilot who was also captured and refused to eat the food provided. The young airman was dead within two months, he reported.
“It was just nothing to wake up and see the guy beside you dead,” he said, explaining a host of health problems, including starvation and dysentery, took a huge toll on their captive group. Because he was still relatively strong, O’Broff said he was often selected for burial details, which required prisoners to dig shallow graves in a turnip garden and shovel dirt directly into the faces of the fallen. When the next burial detail was sent into the turnip patch, he said there was clear evidence of animals foraging and digging up the bodies for food.
“That was a terrible sight,” he noted.
After five months as a Chinese POW, O’Broff said he went from 210 pounds to 100 pounds and was afflicted with dysentery, head lice, body lice, snow blindness, night blindness and a little-known but terribly painful condition called beriberi (a nervous system ailment caused by a deficiency of thiamine in the diet), which caused his feet and legs to swell tremendously.
“ ... my hair was coming out. It was really something else,” he said, often looking at the floor as he recounted the situation.
One of the prisoners in the group managed to keep a small copy of the New Testament, O’Broff said, and the men would gather in small groups to share scripture and strength to face their ordeal. O’Broff said they generally had to read Bible passages at night, explaining their Chinese captors were always suspicious of an escape plan if they saw more than one or two prisoners talking together.
“That was a no-no for the Chinese,” he said.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2651.