Former POW looks back on experience

CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth
Dan McKinney, seen here at his home in Clovis, spent 28 months as a P.O.W during the Korean War.

By Marlena Hartz

Editor’s note: The CNJ is running a monthly series profiling war veterans in the Clovis area.

Safe behind the glass door of a TV cabinet sits a wooden chess set. It was hand-carved by retired Sgt. Dan Leroy McKinney nearly 60 years ago, with a knife fashioned from the arch support of a combat boot. To survive as a POW in the Korean War, McKinney had to be many things and crafty was one of them.

Captured on April 22, 1951, when his army platoon was overrun by the Chinese, McKinney was one among 17 soldiers of over 200 who survived the battle at North Korea’s Iron Triangle. He was marched under the cover of night to Camp Changsong, a village invaded and converted into a housing ground for captured American soldiers. McKinney came to know the inhospitable terrain of northwest Korea well in the 28 months he spent as a prisoner of communist China.

Soldiers tried to pass the time in any way they could, some made playing cards from old cigarette cartons; McKinney fashioned an entire chess set from materials he found around the camp.

Although McKinney retired soon after his service in the Korean War, and now lives just minutes away from a lush golf course, he said nightmares of Camp Changsong still dot his dreams.

“The Chinese invaded a Korean village. The soldiers stayed in the Koreans’ homes. We slept nine men to a room; head to foot on cotton comforters,” McKinney said.

The soldiers quickly adapted to their captors’ way of life, McKinney said, boiling water — to kill the germs that flourished in water supplies — and eating sorghum, millet and peanut flour. McKinney’s love of America, and the American way of life, never faltered, despite efforts by the Chinese to turn soldiers against their country.

“I was 24 at the time, and a lot of the other men were only 15 or 16 years old. I tried to remind them of the good things we had back at home when the Chinese would try to brainwash us into believing communism was better than democracy,” McKinney said.
As punishment for his outspoken behavior, McKinney spent 75 days in solitary confinement, a box built with slabs of wood and furnished with a set of handcuffs.

It isn’t often that McKinney talks about his experiences in Korea, said his youngest brother, Donald McKinney, who remembers receiving the first letter his brother wrote from Camp Changsong.

“I worked at a clothing store,” Donald McKinney said, “I ran a block and half from the post office to bring the letter home and read it.”

McKinney’s wife of 53 years, Joyce Ann, also remembers receiving letters — one remains, slightly discolored but intact, in a scrapbook she keeps in an upstairs room. The Chinese, she said, censored huge chunks of what McKinney wrote, blacking out entire sentences. Most of the letters she sent to McKinney he never received.

“I remember that I was in college at the time (of McKinney’s capture),” said Joyce Ann, who meet her husband at a dance a year before he left for war, waiting 28 months for him to return home. “I never had anything to worry about except if I had a new dress. Then I grew up. I would go out and sleep in a swing, because I thought, if he doesn’t have a bed, why should I,” Mrs. McKinney said.

After the July 1953 peace talks, McKinney was released. The soldiers were called to freedom alphabetically and traveled to the closest railhead by truck, McKinney said.

“It was a whirlwind,” his wife said. “We intertwined all our emotions and fears and we were able to talk about things and get through it.”

McKinney has gone on to do many things — he thrived in a career as a business man, he has a close relationship with his two daughters, and he and his wife recently bought a Winnebago — but North Korea has never really left McKinney.

“If I could go back to that town (site of Camp Changsong), I would,” McKinney said. But travel in the area, McKinney said, is restricted by North Korea.

“I know where about 15 men are buried — it makes me angry, the Chinese don’t want people to know what went on up there, that they didn’t treat us right — but those men deserve to be buried properly,” McKinney said.

Despite all he has endured, McKinney’s defense of his own country has never ebbed.

“We’re still the best country in the world,” McKinney said, “and it’s worth fighting for.”

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