My Father: Prisoner of War

1 / 2
Madison's dual memoir offers a powerful, intimate perspective on the suppressed grief and thwarted love that forever alter a family when a wounded soldier brings his war home.
2 / 2
"The War Came Home With Him" by Catherine Madison recounts the story of her father "Doc" Boysen's time as a POW. Captured in Korea, the experience forever changed his perception of the world as well as the treatment of his family. Men who refused to eat starved; his children would clean their plates. Men who were weak died; his children would develop character. Madison details the impact the war and her father's incarceration had throughout her life.

The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter’s Memoir (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)by Catherine Madison, tells the stories of two survivors of one man’s war: a father who withstood a prison camp’s unspeakable inhumanity an a daughter who withstood the residual cruelty that came home with him. During his years as a POW in North Korea, “Doc” Boysen endured hardships he never intended to pass along, especially to his family. Piecing together the horrible tale within the pages of a hidden cache of documents, Madison returns to a childhood troubled by his secret torment to consider, in a new light, the telling moments in their complex relationship.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

“Doc, you got a phone call.”

My father’s name was Alexander. His family called him Lexy. My mother called him Pete, a nickname that stuck after his childhood friends in Minnesota started calling each other by their fathers’ names; his father was Peter. His buddies called him Doc.

It was June 25, and my mother was calling from her childhood home in Boonsboro, Maryland. I was eight months old, and we had been staying with her parents since my father left for Yokohama on May 15. A captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he had volunteered for a temporary duty assignment there, which paid per diem rates in addition to his regular pay. He figured he could live frugally and bank the extra to help us get out of debt.

Doc took the phone.

“North Korea just invaded South Korea. They’re calling it a police action,” said my mother. “What’s going to happen to you? Will you have to go?”

He heard the distress in her voice, but he didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t even sure how close Japan was to Korea or what the fighting there might mean. He reminded her that he had volunteered to go to Japan instead of waiting to be assigned because the Army Medical Department said orders wouldn’t be changed for volunteers. As soon as his ninety days were over, they had assured him, he could return home to Fort Lewis, where he had been stationed to complete a family practice residency. He had finished his medical degree and internship before accepting his officer’s commission.

“Don’t worry. I got it in writing,” he said. “The U.S. Army will keep its word.”

She wasn’t convinced. She liked to say that worrying is a waste of energy because it doesn’t change a thing, but she was worried then. She had just turned twenty-four. Despite her nursing degree, she was anxious about motherhood. Routine anesthesia had knocked her out during the delivery, so she didn’t remember my birth. She was self-conscious about her small breasts (bra size 34A, padded) and gave up breastfeeding early because she feared starving me. She didn’t relish handling child rearing alone, even for ninety days. And while she could blurt out the truth when necessary, she didn’t dare mention her deepest fear — that he would go to war and not come back.

“So what do I do now?” she asked.

“Just go home, and we’ll take it from there,” he tried to reassure her. “The army will help you if you have questions. I’ll be fine. And I’ll be home soon.”

As I slept in my nervous mother’s arms on our flight back to Tacoma a few days later, North Koreans were streaming across the 38th parallel, which had separated the Soviet Union–backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from the American-backed Republic of Korea since 1945, when thirty-five years of Japanese rule ended along with World War II. Fearing broader Communist aggression and supported by the United Nations, U.S. Army authorities ordered their entire Twenty-Fourth Infantry Division to help defend our South Korean allies. The Twenty-Fourth, then scattered throughout Japan, put all its men on alert but picked the Twenty-First Infantry Regiment’s First Battalion as the first to go. On July 1, about four hundred troops, most under the age of twenty, were airlifted to a country many of them had never heard of. The troops were known as Task Force Smith.

At 7:00 a.m. on July 3, Doc arrived at the adjutant’s office at the 155th Station Hospital in Yokohama, as ordered. The colonel was just hanging up the phone.

“Get packed, Doc,” he said. “You’re going to Korea.”

The colonel assured the young army captain that nothing in his past actions had prompted his assignment as battalion surgeon, but given his written promise to be sent home after ninety days, Doc’s imagination took flight. Had he offended a ranking officer? Made a medical mistake? Was he being punished for standing up to an angry lieutenant who had accosted him in the emergency room a few days earlier? Then lieutenant had demanded sleeping pills for his overworked commanding officer and staff, but Doc had refused.

“No way will I give you sleeping pills. You have to cope with the stress, and pills will only louse you all up. This is the worst time to rely on barbiturates,” he’d told the lieutenant.

The young officer pleaded with him, then threatened. “I will take care of you, you SOB!” he said, jabbing his finger at Doc before he turned around and walked out.

Maybe the lieutenant had reported him. Doc didn’t ask, so he never knew for sure. The colonel wished him Godspeed and a rewarding tour.

Within two hours, Doc had his orders. He started on his to-do list. He wired $200 to my mother through military channels (or so he thought — it never arrived). A staff sergeant helped him choose his combat gear — boots, fatigues, bedroll, poncho, mess kit — and taught him to pack: nothing fancy, nothing he couldn’t carry on his back.

“And you keep it on your back, Doc. Don’t trust no one to take care of it for you,” the sergeant said. “That way you’ll always have something to eat with and sleep in. Ain’t never learned of any exceptions. This is war, you know, and piss on that police action crap. When the bullets start flying, you won’t give a damn about what the politicians call it.”

Doc sensed he was getting basic survival instructions.

“Don’t forget — clean that mess gear good, or you will shit for a week. Use sand and elbow grease first, then the fancy soap stuff.” He threw in a musette bag for personal items, “to hold the goodies you might want, but just remember you will probably ditch it when you get in the field. Don’t put anything in that bag unless you can throw it away and not miss it.”

By day’s end Doc had packed his meager belongings and joined throngs of young, confused soldiers milling through the narrow Yokohama streets to catch a train to Fukuoka, a port on the western coast of Japan, more than three hundred miles away. The train was packed with sweaty bodies and anxious souls, but Doc slept soundly until he was awakened in the middle of the night by a medic who had spotted his medical insignia.

“Come with me and look at a guy who has a problem,” the medic said.

Doc followed the medic through the narrow corridor lined with snoring men using their packs as pillows. The patient, lying in a lower berth, was one of several American civilians, evacuees from Seoul, who had boarded the train at a recent stop. No one nearby seemed to know him, but they’d told the medic that he’d seemed depressed and agitated.

“He’s psychotic and unresponsive,” the medic told Doc.

Doc leaned down and touched the patient’s forehead, then felt for a pulse.

“No, he’s cold and dead.” Doc rummaged in his pockets for a tag to tie on his toe. “First American casualty of the Korean War,” he muttered to no one in particular.

By the time the men got off the train in Fukuoka, it was Independence Day back home in the United States. They partied hard that night, knocking back sake and American whiskey and stumbling through the streets. The next day, confusion reigned. After receiving orders to report to one station, Doc arrived only to find that his orders had changed and he was expected to report to another. Goddamn army. It’s always hurry up and wait. Eventually he flagged down a jeep to take him to the ship to which he’d been assigned. He boarded and stowed his gear. At 1900 hours he stood on deck, watching as the lines let go, and the apprehensive, hung-over troops began their overnight journey across the Tsushima and Korean Straits to Pusan, Korea.

Once they were under way, the Twenty-Fourth Division surgeon ordered Doc to hold a sick call and procure any necessary medications from the disaster chests on deck. The sergeant in charge of these emergency supplies assured him that they were inspected on a routine basis and ready for action. Sure enough, their tags sported the appropriate officer signatures and dates. But ready for action? Not exactly.

The first chest he opened was full of broken bottles, goopy tubes, and saturated bandages. The second contained plaster of Paris, well hardened. Among the World War II–vintage surgical instruments was a pair of forceps, which he picked up and opened. They broke as he closed them. The pair of scissors was nothing but rusted metal. The sutures were useless. He shook his head.

“Let’s deep-six the medical chests,” he said to the sergeant. “We have no supplies. Period.”

The ship docked in Pusan the next morning, spilling its human cargo down the gangplanks. It was hot. Men cussed as rain poured from laden clouds and they got their first glimpses of the stark, monsoon-soaked, treeless Korean mountains. On the outskirts of the city, Doc joined his unit, the Twenty-First Regiment’s Third Battalion, and got busy scrounging medical supplies. After filling one pocket with morphine syringes and another with three or four bottles of penicillin, he attempted to conduct a routine sick call. By the time he finished, he’d decided that in war — any war, all wars — knowing how to fight trumps knowing how to practice medicine. He asked around until he found an infantryman willing to show him how to shoot an M1 and a carbine and how to clean and replace the parts of each. The sergeant also showed him a Colt .45 but emphasized the carbine and plenty of ammo.

“Most docs couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, so you better have something to spray your target,” the sergeant said.

Doc paid close attention. He asked his new battalion aid station buddies where he might find a firearm but got only shoulder shrugs. Guns were hard to come by.

When the division surgeon pulled up in a jeep the next day, Doc noticed that he had a .45 on his hip, a .38 under his shoulder, and two carbines and an M1 in the vehicle.

“I’ve got new orders for you,” the surgeon said. “You’re going to the front lines.”

Doc pressed his lips together, tight, as the news sunk in. “I need a gun,” he said.

“We’re short on artillery and ammunition, so no guns to spare. Sorry.”

Apparently a pocketful of morphine and a head full of medical knowledge will be my only weapons, he mused as the surgeon drove off.

As the steamy day waned, Doc joined the troops and equipment that filled the passenger cars and flatbeds of a train headed to the front lines. Local civilians had filled the men’s canteens with hot water or tea and roused a band to send them off. As the train clanked and strained its way north, the cramped soldiers noticed similar trains packed with Koreans, some of them clinging to the sides with a single handhold, headed south. Contradictory rumors about Task Force Smith ran rampant — that the Americans were holding the North Koreans back or that the North Koreans had wiped them out. The train traveled all night, occasionally stopping along the way for reasons no one could determine.

Once while the train was stopped, its passengers and some locals watched three or four Koreans dig a large hole in the ground. When they were finished, other Korean soldiers tied the diggers’ hands behind their backs, blindfolded them, stood them at the edge of the ditch, and shot each one in the back of the head. They fell into the hole they had dug, and the soldiers and civilians threw the dirt back in the hole to cover them up. The dirt throwers were nonchalant, Doc noted, and the Koreans on board the train were unfazed.

As in the subsequent war that sent U.S. soldiers to Asia, it was nearly impossible to tell who was who. North Koreans and South Koreans looked alike, and the 300,000 Chinese who, three months later, crossed the border into North Korea, would not have looked much different from its current occupants, at least not to Westerners. The Americans, with their tall stature, round eyes, and uncommon skin colors, stood out, making them easy targets.

The train reached Taejon, about fifty miles from Korea’s west coast, about noon on July 8, and unloading began. But after everything was unloaded, word came down that it had to be reloaded, because the destination was now Chochiwon, farther north. At Chochiwon, the train was unloaded again. The troops moved out a few miles to a nearby location and began digging in for the night, but another destination mistake had been made — no one seemed to have a map — so they retraced their steps. About eight miles north of Chochiwon, in a long, narrow valley that stretched between two mountain ranges and contained the single road and railroad track they were supposed to protect, the disgruntled men pitched tents and dug foxholes. On his third day in Korea, Doc noted how hard the ground was, and how bitter the critiques of the president and Congress back home. Panic reigned as casualties began rolling in.

Doc was running out of penicillin and morphine. He treated a sergeant whose right thumb had been shot off.

“We’re going to evacuate you,” Doc said, pointing to the litter jeep that was shuttling casualties to the ambulances waiting about a mile down the road.

The patient shook his head.

“Look, Doc, I fought all the way through the Pacific, and I’ve been hit before. These kids out here can’t even fire a rifle. They should be fighting their mamasans in Japan, not a war,” he pleaded. “You can’t leave those poor bastards out there alone, and I can help them even with this thumb gone.” He picked up his gun and walked back toward the firing line.

Doc treated one wounded man after another, asking each how it was going. The men with rifles complained about having no ammunition. The ones with ammo had no guns. Someone reported that four out of five of the big 105 millimeter howitzers wouldn’t fire. Doc rolled his eyes. Not a happy and glorious battle.

Throughout the night and the next day, mortars exploded. One landed directly in the center of the battalion aid station, destroying all of its scrounged supplies. Another mortar took out the only jeep. Doc, his medics, and others began walking south, where machine gun fire soon pinned them down in a water-filled ditch. A tank commander rescued them by blowing up the enemy’s machine gun, then positioning his tank between the Americans and the gunfire erupting from the mountainsides. Once they were out of immediate danger, the ragtag group hitched a ride in passing trucks and returned to Chochiwon. They reported their experience to a skeptical junior officer.

Later, Doc overheard the officer as he briefed the headquarters crew. “Shit, they’re just medics. They don’t know our guns from the gooks’. They just got scared and got out. Gooks doing an envelopment? They don’t have brains enough to do that. They’re trained by Russians and only use frontal attacks. We’re going to hold that line, because there’s no way they could have gotten behind us.”

I guess we imagined those bullets that hit our friendly tanks. And those North Koreans we saw dug into the mountainside — also figments of our imagination? Dejected and tired, Doc kept his thoughts to himself.

Doc was sleeping on the porch of a mud hut when a medic awakened him with new orders. The men had found another jeep, more medical supplies, and three carbines they could use to shoot their way through the valley they had just escaped.

“I heard A Company screaming for medics on the radio. They’re

my buddies, Doc, and we’ve got to help them any way we can. I know it’s a suicide mission, but they need us,” the medic said.

Doc gathered his wits. He’d been in pressure situations before as a willful youth trying to convince the world that he could survive on his own. But am I up to a mission with no return? Why me? Why here? If I don’t go, can I face my new buddies, my family, myself ? The decision was quick but not easy. Doc said a prayer and climbed into the jeep.

They took off. Military police stopped them at the base of the mountain ridge and told them to go back because the enemy was dug in there thick as flies, waiting for morning. When Doc and the medic argued, the MPs gave in and explained where to dodge bullets, where to coast quietly to the next hill, and where to open fire and give ’em hell.

The driver gunned the jeep for all it was worth. Tracers flew by as the passengers emptied their carbines, shooting up the ridges. The jeep hit a hole in the rough road and careened on two wheels but stayed upright. The harrowing ride ended at their former aid station, now a mass of rubble with wounded men scattered about. They dressed the wounds as best they could and loaded their patients into the jeep and every southbound vehicle they could stop.

The sun was dropping as they cleaned out their foxholes for the night and prepared for a new dawn, whatever that might bring. The left bank, across the river, did not seem to harbor any enemy soldiers, but North Koreans flanked them on their right. Doc was confident that HQ was aware of their predicament and would send reinforcements to hold the line and eradicate the enemy. Certainly the U.S. Army and Air Force will come to our rescue.

The next morning, July 10, all hell broke loose. A North Korean tank rumbled in through the heavy fog. Doc kept his head down. Men ran in circles as guns fired and mortar rounds exploded. As screams for more guns or ammunition and warnings to get out of the way echoed off the hills, more U.S. soldiers poured over the ridge.

“Who in the hell are you people?” one yelled. “Third Battalion aid station,” Doc yelled back.

“Get the hell out of here,” the voice thundered from above. “We’ve been run over. Every man for himself !”

Plunging down the hill, he repeated the order as he passed: “Every man for himself, Doc, and good luck.”

“Who in the hell are you?”

“Colonel Jensen, your commanding officer. It’s no use. Get going!”

Doc followed him toward the road, where, just beyond, American men huddled in bunches in a narrow ravine along the river. Every few minutes, some of them jumped up and tried to race across the shallow river to the rice paddies on the other side, unleashing a barrage of machine gun and mortar fire. Most didn’t make it.

Doc took cover in the ravine as Jensen, trying to corral his men, was shot dead.

“If we stay here, Doc, we’re sure to get it. The only chance we have is to run the river,” said the sergeant crouching beside him. “When I say go, run like hell. . . . GO!”

The two raced into the water as bullets flew. Halfway across, the sergeant yelled that he was hit, but he kept running and made it to the other side. He dropped down beside a ridge in a rice paddy. Doc fell in the next paddy above him, on the other side of the ridge, then crept back to drop down beside him. The sergeant asked for some water. Doc handed him his canteen. Machine guns raked them once more. Mud covered them both. Doc lay still. He asked the sergeant if he wanted more water. The sergeant said no. He asked where it hurt. The sergeant moaned. After a few minutes, the sergeant quit responding to his questions.

Eventually the firing let up and Koreans started yelling. Doc was amazed to see GIs standing up and surrendering. Lying motionless, he watched as they were pushed and shoved into groups and marched north on the road. Remembering the pictures he’d seen on the front page of the Stars and Stripes — GIs lying facedown with their hands tied behind their backs, the backs of their heads blown away — he promised himself he wouldn’t give up.

It was hours, he figured, before he dared turn his head. The firing and the yelling had stopped. The sergeant beside him was dead. Bodies were strewn everywhere. Estimating that it was midafternoon, Doc finally decided to get up, sprint for fifteen or twenty yards, then drop down again. He tried it. Nothing happened. He did it again. And again.

He had no idea where he was or what direction to go. East, maybe, and then south. The moist air hung heavy, stifling. Walking was difficult. Out of shape, he struggled to climb the rugged hills. He dropped his cartridge belt and empty canteen cover to lighten the load. He spotted an isolated farm hut and slowly, hands up, approached the door. A frightened farmer beckoned Doc inside and motioned for his wife to give him water, a bowl of rice, some vegetables, and pickled daikons. After Doc ate, the farmer shooed him away, but not until he had carefully drawn directions in the dirt and pointed out a path across the valley and into the mountains on the other side.

Doc followed the path. He waved to an observation plane flying low over his head, but the pilot only dipped his wings and went on. The sun was falling fast. Doc thought he could hear the distinct hum of American engines just over the next hill, which kept him going, over one hill and then the next, until he collapsed in a clump of bushes and fell asleep.

He rose with the sun and continued on, making sure to cross any trails at right angles. As he made a break across one of them, a North Korean soldier’s head popped up just over a small hill about thirty or forty yards away. The soldier looked right at him. Doc ran faster. The soldier yelled. Doc dropped into a small hollow, slithered under some brush, and lay still.

Within minutes, the patrol closed in. Half a dozen Koreans yelled incessantly as they swarmed his hiding place and hit him with their rifles. They pulled off his glasses and stomped on them, spit in his face, and ripped off his dog tags and beloved St. Christopher’s medal from his merchant marine days. They emptied his billfold, tossed its contents to the wind, pulled the boots off his feet, and tied his hands too tight behind his back. They mimed their questions. Was he a rifleman? A mortar man? Each question was accompanied by blows, spitting, kicking, and body punches. He tried to tell them he was a doctor. Finally they yanked him to his feet and pushed him to walk along the trail he had tried to cross.

It was July 12, 1950. Six days after arriving in Korea, my father became a prisoner of war.

Reprinted with permission from The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter’s Memoir by Catherine Madison and published by University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.