A prisoner's war

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cheyenne A. Powers
  • 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

It began as a civil war, but would soon become an international affair when the United Nations decided to join and support South Korea against North Korea and its ally, the People's Republic of China. One man found himself caught in the middle of it all.

Ray "Doc" Frazier, was a young man living in Tennessee with his grandparents and two siblings when he decided to join the Army to serve his country. But with a minimum age requirement of 18 to enlist in the Army, Frazier, then 16, had to lie about his age to get in.

"I grew up in poverty, illiteracy and superstition," Frazier said. "I had only completed the second grade and I couldn't even sign my name. When I went to join the Army, the recruiter wrote my name in pencil and I traced it with ink."

Frazier started his Army career as an ambulance driver but soon made his way up to a medic working with special forces teams.

"I had done a little of everything," Frazier said. "My military occupational specialty was a medical NCO, but I was everything from Special Forces on down."

Frazier received a majority of his training while in Guam in 1949, prior to being sent to Korea.

"At first I was an ambulance driver," Frazier said. "I would get called out to wrecks whenever one happened and the victims would be either cut up, beat up or have a broken bone. Since I was the first person there, I would administer first aid then take them to the hospital. So I learned first aid pretty well."

About two and a half years into Frazier's enlistment, he was sent to help in the Korean War and attached to a machine gun platoon as a medic. On May 19, 1951, Frazier was captured by Chinese soldiers.

"We managed to hide, fight and run for about three days, but they got us," Frazier said. "There were 128 of us in the company and they killed 121 within the first 30 minutes. By the fifth of June they had 750 soldiers captured, and we started the long march north."

During the death march, Frazier met one prisoner who was captured during a previous conflict which involved the U.S. 

"We came up on this town and one of the guys said 'I was here in World War II for three years,' we looked at him and thought he was lying," Frazier said. "He said that he had drawn a picture in the barracks there and sure enough when we got there, his picture was still there with his name next to it."

Upon arriving at Camp 3, Changsong, North Korea, 180 of the men survived the four month death march. Frazier however, was still not willing to let his freedom be taken away from him.

"I tried to escape a couple of times, [but] they weren't successful," Frazier said.
His longest escape lasted a total of 18 days, and the closest he got to freedom was the difference of one hill.

"We were on one hill and the American troops were on another, firing [at] the hill we were on," Frazier said. "We found a bunker to wait in until the American troops came, but we were caught when one of the guys went to find water and was seen by a Chinese soldier."

While captured, Frazier faced many hardships, from malnutrition to brain washing as well as witnessing the execution of a fellow comrade.

"The Chinese brought this guy, James, into camp with his hands tied behind his back and we all thought he must have been a bad one," Frazier said. "Well one day they were setting up machine guns all around the barracks and everyone was wondering what was going on. James told everyone they were there to execute him. He had escaped before, and killed every Chinese man he could. Everyone got upset, especially one of his good friends. James said, 'Don't cry, I got it comin', I don't mind.' He took off this towel he used to wear around his neck and put it on his friend and said, 'I'll see you buddy.' His last words were, 'God bless America,' and he was one of the bravest men I had ever seen."

Frazier said that there were times when the Chinese soldiers would gather them up and fire blank shots at them.

"They did it to mess with your head," Frazier said. "After a while, you got used to it."

The POWs had to find ways to keep themselves busy and deal with the lifestyle at the camp.

"Every Saturday night we would have a Grand Ole Opry," Frazier said. "At the time I could imitate everyone on the Opry. The guys all loved it."

Frazier also explained that while in the camp, a prisoner of war built two guitars out of scrap metal and anything he could get his hands on. The Chinese soldiers let Frazier and his friend play the guitars over the public announcement system for the camp to hear.

"They had captured a war correspondent who had kept his camera with him," Frazier said. "They took a picture of us playing the guitars and used it as propaganda."

The picture was sent to the U.S. to show the POWs were able to play music for the camps. Frazier said that the photo was how his family learned he was a POW and still alive.

"Another thing we would do is have imaginary meals," Frazier said. "Each day someone would imagine what we were eating. One morning I imagined scrambled eggs and bacon. One guy asked if I could imagine some ketchup for his eggs, so I did. Another asked for mustard and the first guy hit him, it was the stupidest fight I've ever seen in my life."

While living in such poor conditions at the camp, Frazier relied on his Army medic training as well as home remedies his grandmother taught him to cure any ailments the POWs contracted.

"My grandmother was Cherokee Indian off a reservation in Missouri, and she had a charm for everything," Frazier said. "She treated everything with kerosene, wild onions and castor oil. The combination of it all was the key. Back then, she would also use charcoal to cure stomach pains, I thought if it worked then, it would work now. So I burned that sorghum seed into charcoal and it stopped everyone's stomach pains. I also remembered she would crush up red pepper and stir it up with water and make you drink it to cure stomach worms. So I stole a sleeve of peppers off a Korean porch one day, made a cup of hot water and did the same thing and it killed all the worms. Soon the guys all called me Doc."

Frazier also organized a resistance group within the camp.

"We were called, 'The Dead Don't Collaborate,' we were pretty well organized throughout North Korea," Frazier said. "We even communicated, and corresponded with other camps and told them what to do [during certain circumstances]. But it didn't take [the captors] long to figure it out, we were all caught."

Frazier was court martialed and charged with refusing to confess. The Chinese soldiers confined him in a small box as punishment.

"That box was 60 inches long, 24 inches wide and 30 inches tall," Frazier said. "There was no way you could stretch out or sit up straight."

While spending time in the box, Frazier had to find ways to keep his sanity.

"I had a black widow spider in the box with me," Frazier said. "I named her Bertha and caught flies for her, she helped maintain my sanity. I tried to teach her to bite the guards. She lasted about three months. I woke up one morning and found her dead in her web. However, she had laid eggs. I didn't want 500 black widow spiders crawling around here, so I took the web, eggs, and her, and then threw her outside my box. I appreciated her while I had her though. I spent many hours with that spider."

Without the company of his spider, Frazier thought of new ways to occupy his time. He would make up songs in his head and count how much money he would have when he got out of the camp.

"If I stayed there long enough I could have bought the place," Frazier said.

After seven months in the box, Frazier was finally released. For a year afterward, he was sent from camp to camp. While in Kaesong, Frazier and other POWs were loaded onto trucks and sent to Freedom Village where they would be liberated.

"We knew the war was over because we hadn't seen any plane activity in two or three days," Frazier said. "When [I was] told the war was over, it felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted off of my shoulders."

More than 3,000 American POWs returned home after the war ended in July 1953, and more than 8,000 were still missing in action. Frazier had spent 865 days, five hours and 15 minutes as a POW.

He received very little reintegration when he returned to the U.S. in Sept. 1953, and immediately continued his life in the active duty Army for 22 years. Frazier retired as a 1st Sgt. after serving tours in Africa and Turkey with a security agency, and also served during two tours with special operations in Vietnam.

Frazier's POW memorabilia can be seen on display during the POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony at the Pima Air and Space Museum, in Tucson, Ariz., on Sept. 18.