I guess I’ll throw in one more post for 2012. This one is extra long, sorry. I just started and couldn’t stop. It’s Saturday here, and I am home alone, and have plenty of time, so I can finally write this one.
A couple months ago, I finished a very interesting book titled An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China.1 The book is an autobiography of Clarence Adams, one of the 21 Korean War POWs who opted not to repatriate to the United States. Instead they all went to live in China.
Contrary to popular belief, they did not necessarily “defect” to the enemy. Under the terms of Operation Big Switch armistice, they were free to live in any country they wanted. So the 21 soldiers opted not to go back, but as Clarence clarifies, he never joined the Communist Party nor became a Chinese citizen:
I never considered myself a “turncoat,” because under the terms of the armistice I was entitled to be a free man who could live wherever he wished. I decided to go to China because I was looking for freedom and a way out of poverty, and I wanted to be treated like a human being instead of something subhuman. I never belonged to the Communist Party, I never became a Chinese citizen, and in no way did I betray my country. (pg. 66)
In the book, Clarence describes his life in the city of Memphis, Tennessee in the 1930′s and 40′s as very difficult. In those days, segregation was very common, so like all blacks, he had to live in the poor part of town, and only visit certain areas. If he visited the white part of town, he would be harassed and possibly arrested by the police. As he wrote:
There were a lot of parks for whites, but in all of Memphis the only three parks I remember for blacks were Lincoln Park, Henley Park, and one in Orange Mound. We had no golf courses. Golf was a white man’s game that cost a lot of money, so it would not have made any difference whether we had a golf course or not. (pg. 15)
In school, it was a similar situation: Black kids went to black schools, played on black-only sports teams (which were not allowed to compete with white teams), and job opportunities were limited.
Clarence joined the army in 1947 by chance, after escaping the police in Memphis for a fight he caused, and was stationed in Japan for a time (during the Occupation), and then in Korea to fight the North Koreans during the famous Battle of the Pusan Perimeter. In that battle, the North Korean army had almost completely overrun Korea, and the United Nations was now in a small corner defending Pusan.
During the battle, one of the soldiers asked Clarence if he ever prayed to God, and he replied:
I turned to him and said, “I haven’t prayed up to this point, so why should I start now? Besides, the Almighty knows how rotten I’ve…” I never finished my sentence. I heard a slight popping sound, as if someone had just opened a wine bottle. I looked over and saw that he had quietly fallen on his side. A sniper’s bullet had ripped through his skull. I did not even know his name. Because I had been transferred into this unit my second day in Korea, I never knew any of these guys. I did not ask anybody his name, and nobody ever bothered to find out who I was. (pg. 31).
As the North Korean army retreated, the UN forces started to push back. During this part of the war, he described how whites and blacks were still kept separate:
Ours was an all-black regiment, except for some officers. (pg. 31)
But later when the UN forces retreated from the Yalu River after China invaded, the black units were often abandoned first:
My regiment was hit hard and slowly tried to pull back. For the next several days we got no sleep. We did not even have time to eat, because we were frantically trying to stop the Chinese from overrunning us. We’d set up our big guns, fire them, load them on the big tractors that carried them, and move on to the next rice paddy. The Chinese were all around us, constantly firing at us, and we knew it was just a matter of time before they got us. At dawn on November 29, I noticed that the 105mm light artillery regiment was in full retreat. I immediately asked, “Where are those white boys going?” No one answered. In the afternoon a company of white infrantrymen also retreated past us, and we were ordered to turn out 155mm guns around and lay down cover fire so these white troops could escape. (pg. 35)
Indeed they were captured soon, and forced to march in the snow all the way back up to a North Korean prison camp: Pyoktong #5 prison camp. Clarence suffered from the cold, and his foot developed severe frostbite, then infection. In the prison camp, there were no medical supplies, so he had to use a piece of metal to cut off the dead flesh from his foot, but ultimately he survived.
In the camp, a lot of soldiers (white and black) died from lice, cold and hunger. As Clarence writes:
Our daily food ration when we arrived in Camp 5 consisted of a cup of hot water, and maybe a quarter cup of uncooked corn, beans or sorghum. (pg 49)
When the Chinese took over the camp from North Korea in 1951, conditions improved, but racism still persisted in the camps:
There were still those whites who openly called us niggers and told us what they would do to us when they got us back in the States. Whenever I encountered one of these guys, I thought to myself, And we’re supposed to fight side-by-side with these crackers? I remember a white prisoner coming up to me in Camp 5 and saying, “Nigger, if I had you back home, you wouldn’t talk to me like this.”
I told him, “Yeah, but you ain’t home. You’re a stinking prisoner just like me,” and I hit him upside the head.
The Chinese treated the prisoners relatively well and provided education, but also tried to introduce Communism as well:
The Chinese also setup voluntary study groups. Out of curiosity I joined one of them. By this time I had read several books about China and Russia and the new societies they were trying to build. I was introduced to the basics of Marxism and something called the history of social development. (pg. 56)
Not surprisingly, this had a strong effect on Clarence:
I never became a Communist or a Chinese citizen, not even after my many years in China. I was looking for something much more fundamental. I wanted to be treated as a human being, and I wanted the opportunity to live a better life. Although our Chinese captors never became close to any of the prisoners, they at least treated black and white prisoners with equal dignity—or indifference. Thus, for the first time in my life, I felt I was being treated as an equal rather than as an outcast. (pg. 59)
When the two sides of the war signed an armistice, it was time to exchange prisoners. As Clarence writes:
Nevertheless, I know I would face a court-martial and likely a dishonorable discharge, if not worse. Even if I escaped all that, I would once again have to start at the very bottom of society. I would suffer discrimination, and there would be little economic opportunity for a better life. By this time I had been around the Chinese long enough to being to like and understand them, and I was curious whether communism really was as good inside China as our instructors insisted it was. One thing I did know for sure. I might not have known what China was really like before going there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America, and especially in Memphis (pg 64).
So, Clarence Adams was one of 21 men (3 blacks, 18 whites) who decided to go to China instead of the US, in accordance with the armistice.
In China, Clarence and the others stayed at Beijing University where they learned Chinese language, and were given free food and medical care. Later he earned a degree in Chinese literature and then went to Wuhan University to teach English. Unlike like in Memphis, he was well-received by Chinese people and people helped him adjust to Chinese culture and language:
I always felt at ease with the ordinary working-class people of China. They would invite me into their homes, and we would joke and laugh together. We’d talk about everyday life, and I’d play with their kids. I became a part of their families, and I could completely relax. (pg 77-78)
But Chinese officials were different:
The workers were straightforward and honest in what they said, unlike the intellectuals and bureaucrats, who always said what the government wanted them to say. (pg. 78)
He also spent a lot of time with embassies from Africa in Beijing (especially Ghana), meeting foreign ambassadors, and helping to translate Chinese documents and propaganda into English. He also married a Chinese university student and had two children.
One controversial thing Clarence did in this time during the Vietnam War was to help make a recording that was later broadcasted in Vietnam to American soldiers. The broadcast was meant for black soldiers only and said in part: “You are supposedly fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese, but what kind of freedom do you have at home, sitting in the back of the bus, being barred from restaurants, stores and certain neighborhoods, and being denied the right to vote?” and later: “go home and fight for equality in America.”
Unfortunately, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the situation in China grew worse, and very anti-foreign, so Clarence and his family were forced to return to the US. There, he was questioned by the CIA about his involvement with China and he told them everything. Because he was so open and honest, and because he intentionally avoided American revolutionary groups, the government left him alone and even paid for his travel expenses to Washington D.C. Life in America had improved somewhat for blacks after the Civil Rights Movement, but Clarence still struggled to find a job, and with racism in Memphis.
When he found a job at a printing company in Memphis, he was harassed by the Printers’ Union (an all-white union at the time) who later tried to kill him during a labor strike because he was still coming to work.
Eventually, Clarence got enough money to start his own Chinese restaurant in Memphis, and with a lot of hard work found a stable business and was able to retire. In his final words in the book, he writes:
Many social and racial changes have occurred in the United States since my return in 1966. However, some of these changes are not as pronounced as they appear to most white people. Memphis is a good example. The overt racism of the past is no longer acceptable. I can now walk in any park, shop at any store and sit wherever I please in any movie theater or restaurant….But surface changes do not mean that racism has disappeared; it is just more subtle. I recently called a food supplier for an order. He could tell from my voice that I was black, and he asked for a higher price for the items I wanted than he did when Lin [his wife] called him a short time later.
Covert racism means it exists, but nobody is responsible, and it can be even more frustrating than the old-fashioned Klu Klux Klan kind. At least in the old days, you knew where you stood with whites. Today you have no idea what their true feelings are or what they are planning for you. (pg. 141)
One day his daughter asked him if he still hated white people, given that he had many white friends during the War, in China, and in Memphis and I felt his reply was really powerful:
I told her, “Della, it’s not a racial thing so much as it is cultural. White is simply not a skin color; it’s an idea, a way of acting, and because of this I will never completely trust whites to the day I die.”
….I greatly admire Malcolm X, and I read his autobiography several times.2 I found it very telling that it was only after he went to the Middle East and met white Moslems that he changed his mind about the “White Devils,” as he called them. At home, he continued to hate and distrust white Americans, and I have to agree with him.
Clarence Adams finally passed away peacefully in 1999. He lived an amazing life, and at the same time a very difficult one. I really enjoyed this book because of its candor, and also for showing a side of American, Korean and Chinese life that isn’t easy to find in other books. Clarence Adams is often criticized for betraying America during the Korean and Vietnam War, but I think it’s very important to step into his shoes and see how he lived and why he made the choices he did.
Only then can he be fairly judged.
1 Actually, I was able to purchase the book thanks to people clicking on the sponsored links from this blog. Thank you all for your support.
2 So did I when I was in high-school. I remember my mom taking me to see the movie Malcolm X by Spike Lee and it was still one of my favorite movies of all time.