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Crossing over

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One woman's account of
a forgotten war

December 1950: Residents of Pyongyang abandon the city and head south across the icy Taedong River. By Bettman/Corbis

For several years, Professor Ramsay Liem of Boston College's psychology department has been collecting reminiscences of Korean immigrants who lived through the Korean War in their birth country. Witnesses to a "war that isn't over," they make up a population that has largely been overlooked by historians, he says. Liem first met Helen Kyungsook Daniels three years ago. Today she lives comfortably in a California city, having married a U.S. serviceman in 1960. But when war broke out in 1950, she was a teenager living in Pyongyang, North Korea. Her family split up, with Helen and some relatives fleeing southward at the threat of U.S. bombing. In America, Daniels kept private, even from relatives, her personal experiences of the war that inflicted three million civilian casualties, until she sat before Professor Liem and his tape recorder. Her story follows.

I JUST finished junior high when the war broke out. People were saying Americans came to our town [Pyongyang, North Korea], and three days later, they were pulling back. They said they're going to have war in the city. My brother-in-law said we gotta move out. I said, no, I'm not going. Both my brothers went to the army, the North Korean army. And my mother went about 300 miles north, where my sister-in-law had gone to have a baby. My sister-in-law came back with her newborn but left her three-year-old daughter with relatives, so my mother went to bring back her granddaughter.

My older sister and her husband and three children and I left Pyongyang on December 5, 1950. We thought we were going for just a few days, to escape the bombing. My sister's mother-in-law came too. I was 16 years old. They put one child on my back. My sister had one brand-new baby and my brother-in-law carried a four-year-old kid. Our town was a ghost town. When we crossed the Taedong River, there was a canoe. But there were too many people; it was so full that water started coming in. So they started pushing us, breaking the ice. There were fires all over. It was just war, people screaming, hollering.

We crossed over, but my brother-in-law couldn't go because they put only women and children in the boats. We got to the other side and waited all afternoon, but he didn't show up. So I told my sister, I'm going back. She said, how're you gonna go? There was a bunch of empty canoes, but I didn't know how to steer a canoe. We both had kids on our backs. A gentleman was there getting ready to go back for his family, and he helped us cross.

When we got back to my home, my youngest sister was with my sister-in-law and she wanted to come with us. But my sister-in-law is dragging her by the arm saying she'd be scared to be left all by herself and my brother-in-law is dragging me to go. He needed me to carry one of the children on my back. So my sister and I are crying, you know; we don't want to separate, but my sister-in-law is saying we'd be back in a few days, so leave her. So that's what happened. Later I found out my sister was killed with my mother and sister-in-law and her kids from the bombing. I never forgot what my brother-in-law did dragging me away from my younger sister, even though I never brought it up to him for almost 40 years.


THE NEXT morning, my brother-in-law and another young man gathered wood and made a raft, and we all crowded onto it. I was never so scared in my life. We got wet all over. It was a cloudy day and freezing, but as we were walking, our clothes dried from body heat. I don't know how far we went. At evening we slept over at some town, but the town was a ghost town. Houses were empty. People would crowd into one room so there was hardly a place to sit and by midnight everyone was laying on each other, you know. That's how we went, every day. Walking early, 6:00 in the morning, and when it got dark, then we all started to go over to a village. If it was far away, you got better food. If it was close by the main road, there was very little food left.

My sister's baby cried a lot, because it was a newborn. Her mother-in-law kept saying we're going to have to throw her away, because she's making too much noise. She was afraid that communists or someone would hear her and find us. And my sister's crying, because she doesn't want to throw her away. But just before we got to Kaesong [near the 38th parallel], her mother-in-law had a friend nearby, so she said she was gonna stay there. So I felt better. Then, there was just six of us. We walked like that for 28 days.

There were thousands of people like us. Thousands! I had [my sister's] son on my back and he was urinating on my back, and I got hot. I'm crying, I was so mad. I had a cane. I tried to hit him. I told him, don't pee on my back. People behind me saw a waterfall from his peeing. I hit him. Then, they got mad at me, because I'm actually hitting them; that's how close the people were walking. It was jam-packed. You couldn't even stop because they'd get mad at you. They just rushed to get out of there, you know.

So, we all came to the Imjin River and my brother-in-law said, we have to cross. He said it was not that deep, and he took my sister and the baby across. But when he came back for me, he was so cold he couldn't cross over again. He was freezing, shaking, saying, I can't go. We hollered to [my sister] and told her to stay there. We're gonna stay overnight and tomorrow morning, we're gonna come over, right? She says okay.

The next morning we came back to the river. There's American soldiers, [South] Korean soldiers, and Korean women police—they're all there. They all had guns on us, saying, you can't come. So we said, why? And they said, because of the North Korea soldiers, you can't trust who's a soldier, who's not. Everybody's standing, screaming, hollering. Then they started calling names, is the so-and-so family there? A couple of us said, yeah, yeah, we are. Then everybody says, hey, we're going, too. Either we die here or die crossing.


[THE RIVER] was all ice, and it broke because there were too many people. My brother-in-law pushed me saying, crawl over, you can crawl over. As soon as I touched the ice it started rolling over. I had a kid on my back. I finally made it but my brother-in-law sank in with his son. I wanted to jump over and help them, but people behind me were pulling me back saying, you're too heavy. You got kids in there. You're gonna break it and then we can't even cross. I didn't listen. I just jumped over and fell down. My nephew had one of those hats that ties at the neck. I could only grab that, and while I'm pulling him up, he's screaming, crying. I'm choking him, you know. One of the GIs came over and helped me pull him and my brother-in-law up. Then they started searching all over our bodies to see if we had any weapons. This was Christmas Day.

The next morning, we went to look for my sister, but we couldn't find her. So we started looking for a sign from her. People who were lost were writing messages everywhere—on empty houses, fences, trains that were broken down—"I'm here." "We're over there." Finally, we found her name saying, "I'll be in the next town." . . . We reunited and my brother-in-law was screaming, hollering, yelling; all mad at her because, he said, I told you to stay where I left you! I think it was about three or five days when we finally found the sign that said, "I'm in this town."

After that we came to Yongdung-Po. There was a train and two ways you could go, either to Seoul or down south to Pusan or Taejun. So my brother-in-law said, well, let's get on the train. It was a boxcar train. We all climbed up there, slowly because we had babies. We stayed up there three days, sitting on the top edge of the car. When the train stopped, it jerked and pulled back and people dropped off and died, you know. But my brother-in-law tied us up there so we couldn't even move.

Finally we got down to Taejun and stayed for about five days. Then they said, you gotta move, again. So we got on a train again and went down to Iri, a small town. We stayed in a refugee camp there for three years.


THAT WAR influenced me for a long time, a long time. When my children were growing up, in America, they'd bring friends over, [and] when they played, I was always trying to give them cookies, trying to feed them. My husband would say, you can't do that, you have to ask their parents. But I didn't want them to get hungry, you know. I was always trying to give my children everything they needed, because I never had anything. I often wrote letters to my sister when she was in Korea and I would say, I wish I could send this [leftover food] to you, because I have to throw it away, nobody eats it. It's okay, I'm like Americans now. I throw food away even though I should not. But if it's stale two, three days, I try putting it in the freezer.

My children just think this is the Korean way, this is a Korean mother. . . . When it comes time for their friends to go, I say, have some more, have some more, okay? And my daughter says, oh, you'll never get away from my mother. She thinks it's because Koreans do things like that. But I look back all through history, and I think the reason Koreans are this way, the most important reason, is [that] a lot of Korean people struggled, and during Japanese occupation, we had nothing. If you go to [a Korean home], the first thing they ask is, did you have dinner, did you have lunch. The first thing we say—we don't say, how are you—we say, did you have lunch? That's all because of too many years without.

For me the war also meant not having family and not having someone to tell me what to do or help me. All my life I was just on my own, making decisions, everything by myself—even after I married. In 1991, I visited my two brothers in North Korea, for the first time in 41 years. When I saw my older brother, he was like a dad to me. I felt like I'm home. . . . I keep saying to myself, if I have enough money, I would go live there, you know, three months, four months, a year. I don't care about the political differences. Just, the U.S. and North Korea better not have a war again. I feel strongly about that. Family comes first.

 

Ramsay Liem's work of collecting Korean-American oral histories continues. Readers with stories to contribute may contact Professor Liem at liem@bc.edu.

 

Photo: December 1950: Residents of Pyongyang abandon the city and head south across the icy Taedong River. By Bettman/Corbis

 

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