MANDAN, N.D. — A Mandan native who endured sleeping on a floor rice mat with no linens, countless hours of interrogations and having to empty a latrine – by hand − recently had his name added to a memorial at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery.
Vern Huber survived nearly 16 grueling months as a prisoner of war during the Korean War.
Last week, Huber and 33 others had their names added to the POW/MIA memorial’s center podium, which now features an etching of Huber, a U.S. Air Force veteran, flying in his F-84 aircraft.
“When we built that memorial, we told our people that we wanted to be able to add names,” said Virgil Horst, of the Viet Nam Legacy Vets Motorcycle Club. “I had all the names put on that I had, and now we've added more.”
Military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, according to Horst, who said the motorcycle club’s mission has always been to “never forget those who didn’t come home to our soil.”
Huber, who says his POW experience made him more cognizant of what can happen in life and how bad it can be, said honoring prisoners of war, as well as veterans, is “certainly due.”
He says he’s happy to see the POW/MIA flag flying in front of the state Capitol, after Gov. Doug Burgum recently signed a bill that requires the flag be displayed daily at the south entrance.
“What’s being done now is due and the guys doing it are just doing a fabulous job,” he said. “They do so much.”
Huber, who joined the Air Force in 1950, was captured by the Koreans on May 16, 1952, after the F-84 aircraft he was flying became severely damaged by enemy ground fire. His ejection from the gunned-down plane was successful, but he landed in an area containing enemy troops.
“That was hairy. That was very hairy,” he said. “Especially when I got farther down toward the ground and the North Koreans started shooting at me.”
Huber, 90, was hit in the left arm by a bullet, which remained lodged in his muscle throughout his captivity. A bullet grazed his right shoulder and he also found several holes in his parachute.
Seeking refuge on the side of a hill, he used his emergency radio to call for help, noting he was OK, and was told a helicopter was on its way.
Within minutes, and before the helicopter could arrive, the enemy crept up behind Huber, taking him prisoner at gunpoint. He instinctively threw his radio against a tree, hoping to break it.
“They came and grabbed me, threw me on the ground and took my pistol and my escape knife away from me, covered me up with pine boughs and sat on me,” he said. “They waited for the helicopter to come in, then they shot at it and the helicopter had to back off.”
Cave living, quick wit
Part of the 49th Fighter Bomber Wing, Huber’s squadron had 32 pilots when he joined, with 48 planes available for use by the entire wing. By the time he flew his 44th mission, which resulted in his being taken captive, 21 pilots and 13 “flyable” aircraft remained.
Huber initially spent time in several caves and endured hours of interrogations. On one occasion, spanning the course of two days, he was taken to an open area in the mountains, handed his radio, which survived being thrown against a tree, and told to call for a rescue helicopter.
He was instructed to say, “This is not a trap.”
“I left the ‘not’ out,” said Huber. “I’m sure the intent was … the Russians and North Koreans did not have helicopters … so they were trying to get American helicopters.”
Rescuers avoided the area thanks to Huber’s quick wit.
Fleas and stolen peppers
Around mid-June 1952, Huber was transported to a North Korean interrogation camp, which had less-than-ideal living conditions and was home to about 13 prisoners. Living on a diet of millet and rice, they slept on rice mats on the floor with no blankets, with some opting to use bricks for a pillow.
Every morning, the POWs would stand out on the patio, roll down their socks and kill the fleas that had accumulated during the night. The record was 72 fleas under one pair of socks, according to Huber.
“It was very filthy,” he said. “There were lice and fleas.”
Adjacent to the prisoners’ camp was the interrogators’ living quarters, where POWs would spend time doing manual labor, such as emptying the latrine by hand — a job that took three days and supplied fertilizer — and sweeping dirt paths with thatch brooms.
If the guards weren’t watching, a prisoner would snatch a few peppers from the interrogators’ garden.
“We’d take those and put them in our rice bowls,” Huber said. “It’d really give it a little flavor.”
However, the snatching stopped after the men witnessed the housemaid’s young children doing their “morning duty” on the pepper plants.
Enduring the cold
By early September 1952, Huber was transported to a second interrogation camp in China. Living conditions improved “considerably,” he said, but the prisoners had to endure a brutally cold winter. A bowl of water left on the windowsill at night turned to ice by morning.
The POWs were each provided a blanket, comforter and dishes, among other items. They received haircuts, were allowed to shower and received dental care when needed. There were additional food offerings, as well, including cabbage soup, soybean milk and biscuits.
In January 1953, Huber started working in the cook shack, where he became a “baker of fine breads.” He also took advantage of sleeping in the kitchen, warmed by the heat of the fire.
Told that their loved one’s fate was uncertain, Huber’s family, including his parents, two brothers and three sisters, as well as his girlfriend, Marlene, who would later become his wife, were later notified on June 5, 1953, that Huber was seen alive and in enemy custody.
Huber’s mother, Elsie, wrote him a letter every Sunday; he received only 10 of them. The eight letters Huber wrote to his parents and future wife were never delivered.
“They never got one of my letters. Not one of them,” he said. “I’m sure they went for propaganda.”
Freedom at last
When he was captured, Huber weighed 192 pounds, compared to 145 when he was released Aug. 31, 1953, after the armistice the month prior that ended the Korean War.
While they showed no emotion, as commanded, when the attorney read them the armistice, the POWs celebrated privately afterward, according to Huber.
“We yelled and hugged and so on because we knew it was all over with,” he said.
On Sept. 20, 1953, Huber returned to America via boat, which had Korean War newsreels playing in the lower level.
“They had it real thought out,” he said. “They had movies and they had news rooms so you could watch everything that had occurred while you were gone.”
A psychiatrist on the boat encouraged the POWs to talk about their experiences upon their arrival home.
“That’s why I don’t hesitate to talk about it,” Huber said. “I think it’s helped me mentally.
“I do remember so much. The memories back then are always there,” he added. “I wake up a lot of times thinking about it. And I think talking about it does good … more people need to know.”