Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
POWs and Purple Hearts
Two prisoners, one living, one remembered, receive medals

A U.S. Army soldier who died in Japanese hands after the Bataan Death March in 1942 and a Key West man who survived 33 months in a Chinese prison camp during the Korean War have finally been honored, more than half a century later.

In the dining room of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3911 on North Roosevelt Boulevard, Don Sullivan inspected the Purple Heart that his father, Lt. Col. Joseph Sullivan, earned with his life when he died Nov. 12, 1942, in the Philippines.

Joseph Sullivan was one of 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers and civilians who were forcibly marched through 60 miles of jungle and swamp to Japanese prisoner of war camps. According to Military.com, a warfare history site, Japanese soldiers shot or bayoneted the slow and sick as they lingered or fell. Testimony of survivors revealed that beheadings, slashed throats and casual shootings were common during the march.

Don Sullivan's father survived that march only to die later in a prison camp of dysentery and malnutrition, his son said. Now, 62 years later, his son sat in the VFW dining room and recounted the day he learned his father wasn't coming home.

"I was 6 years old when my father died," said Sullivan, the 73-year-old vicar of St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Center Street. "I have bits and pieces of memories of him, but my brother Bo fell apart. He was in his bedroom crying for hours. Then he wanted to join the Army."

His father's military career paralleled the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, Sullivan said.

"We were living at Fort Lewis, Wash., and he moved us to Bakersfield, Calif., in November 1941 so my mother and his sons could live near family. Then he went on to Pearl Harbor two weeks before Dec. 7."

His father was an eyewitness to the Sunday morning attack that crippled the nation's Pacific fleet in less than three hours, Sullivan said. Shortly afterward he was sent to the Philippines, where he was captured by the Japanese when they invaded those islands.

For Sullivan, his father's last surviving child, holding the Purple Heart was a vital connection to the past.

"I'm going to put this on my wall at home," he said. "That's where I have the photos of my two brothers, my mother and my father."

An honorable POW

Another veteran of the mid-20th century, retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Tom Murray, presented Sullivan with the Purple Heart. After Sullivan briefly addressed a small gathering of military vets, it was Sullivan's turn to present Murray with a medal for the time the Big Coppitt Key resident spent in a Chinese prisoner of war camp.

The Prisoner of War Medal, a circular piece of bronze that shows an American eagle surrounded by barbed wire on one side and the name of the recipient on the reverse side, was authorized by Congress on Nov. 8, 1985.

"I have several medals, including the Legion of Merit, but this is the first one that has my name engraved on it," said Murray, a fit 81-year-old who looks as if he's in his 60s. "This is the most important. It reads 'For honorable service while a prisoner of war.' Not everyone who was in a POW camp acted honorably."

Murray was a 21-year-old private first class in a rifle company at the time of his capture in October 1950, he said. After United Nations forces fighting near the Yalu River -- the boundary between North Korea and China -- were overrun when the People's Volunteer Army's 13th Army Group, Murray was part of a task force of armored cavalry, rifle companies, engineers and artillery units sent to march toward the Chosin Reservoir to see "who was left."

"It was 40 below, snowy and brutal," Murray said. "We were about 27 miles from the reservoir when we saw the Chinese. Someone told us not to shoot at them, that they were just guarding the reservoir, which had a power station."

Murray and his fellow soldiers in the large task force were attacked on three sides, and thousands of Chinese troops blocked their retreat toward the valley opening. They'd marched into a horseshoe-shaped valley with the Chinese in the heights and soon found the communist troops rushing their positions. About 4 a.m., Murray's commanding officer told him and 17 other men that they were surrounded.

"He told us it was every man for himself," Murray said.

Setting out in teams of two, the soldiers tried to sneak through the Chinese lines, but Murray and his escape partner were captured. Murray spent 3½ years in Camp 5, in which half the captives died.

United Nations B-29s bombed the camp; Murray and surviving prisoners were moved to another spot, then moved back. During his captivity, there were no blankets and he lived in the clothes in which he was captured.

In 1953, after the Republic of South Korea and the North declared a cease-fire, a truck backed up to the 38th Parallel, the permanent dividing line between North and South Korea. Murray and other POWs sat in the back; a North Korean soldier released them one at a time and told them to walk across what is now known as Freedom Bridge. Halfway across the bridge, which spans the border between the two Koreas, Murray was met by a U.S. Marine who escorted him across to safety, warm meals and the rest of his life.

Later, as a command sergeant major, Murray was in charge of a transportation unit in Vietnam, moving supplies, guns and other weapons to supply depots -- another pretty hairy job, he said. Murray eventually served 38 years in the army.

George Bretnall, the veterans counselor for the Monroe County Veterans Affairs Department, helped bring the medals to the men after the New Hampshire Chapter of America ex-Prisoners of War determined that Sullivan's father hadn't received his Purple Heart. POWs were recently authorized to receive Purple Hearts, so the New Hampshire vets are tracking down deceased POWs, Bretnall said.

As for Murray's Korean POW medal, Bretnall met him in 2005 and decided to contact the Pentagon to get a medal struck for Murray.

"It took five years, but getting Tom his medal was the most rewarding thing I've done," he said. "When I finally had the medal in my desk drawer for him I said, 'Finally!' "


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