Survival in a POW camp

Christian Cotroneo
Staff Reporter - Toronto Star

For a table-washing, sink-scrubbing 18-year-old working at a Toronto pool hall, war held a certain allure.  Glory, adventure the very idea burst with possibilities. In 1950, Len Badowich traded his mop for a rifle and enlisted for the Korean War. It wouldn't take long for him to learn that the only things that burst in battle are bombs, shrapnel and hearts.

Not yet old enough to leap into the cauldron of war, Badowich trained in 
Wainwright, Alta. As a member of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, Badowich was part of the "reinforcement battalion."  The 2nd Battalion, which had gone ahead, was composed mostly of grizzled veterans of the Second World War who expected the Korean conflict to be over by Christmas. They were wrong. Badowich received the call to arms in the spring of 1953.

It came from the Hill. An embattled fortification just north of Korea's 38th Parallel, Hill 187 was the site of a teeter-totter struggle between United Nations forces to the south and Chinese-backed North Korea. Badowich landed in the midst of the mayhem to reinforce the beleaguered defenders, but he arrived only to see the Hill fall to the enemy. The swarming Chinese invaders exacted a terrible price. What they didn't take in lives, they took back to cave-like camps deep behind Chinese-Korean lines. U.N. soldiers eventually regained the Hill, but for Badowich and six other Canadians, it was too late.

If the chances of living though front-line warfare were bleak, the odds of surviving as a prisoner were slimmer than the rifle barrel that bit into his back. The first year of the war had seen more than half the 5,176 American POWs die.

But as the 69-year-old Badowich insists today, he's a survivor, not a war hero.

While trudging northward, his party skirted hundreds of mines and dodged a battery of bullets and bombs. "I was scared," he recalls. "Everything that moved, they shot up. My greatest fear was that I would be a coward in front of my equals and my friends." Badowich crossed deep into Chinese-controlled territory. One of only 34 Canadians who lived through wartime captivity, Badowich bled from his ears and toes during the trip, but he knew better than to complain.

The POW camp hosted a propaganda film festival for the tired, tattered arrivals: Badowich had to take in every screening, night and day. Uniformly anti-Western, the films suggested U.N. forces were dropping germ bombs on Korea. The biological barrage supposedly included germ-infected grasshoppers. Badowich didn't buy a word of it. When his captors brought him a petition denouncing the attacks, he didn't sign. He was labelled a "throwback," quarantined with other doubters and subjected to even more shrill propaganda.

Some soldiers did bend Badowich remembers several American soldiers who received better treatment for renouncing the war. Considering the circumstances, he could hardly blame them. While Canadian and British soldiers, as well as U.S. Marines, only gave their names, ranks and serial numbers to the enemy, raw soldiers plucked from various parts of the U.S. "didn't know how to behave," he says. They only knew how to be afraid.

Captive South Koreans proved more amenable. "They re-educated them and put them back into the North Korean army, many of them."

While the Chinese used beatings, solitary confinement and sensory deprivation to press their point, Badowich says they were more interested in education than punishment.

"We went to classes every day and every day we had a pencil and notebook."

The questions were invariably the same:
Why are you here?
Why are you fighting?
We are a peace-loving country.

The tutelage, while slanted, was unique for a Brandon, Man., native. "I could tell you all about the Long March that Communist forces made in the '40s. I know all about that," Badowich says.


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