Veteran Stories:
Charles Gordon Owen

Army

  • Announcement in The Province that Gordon Owen had gone missing in Korea, 7 May 1953. Note Mr. Owen's beard, which was allowed only for pioneer officers.

    C. Gordon Owen
  • Photo of Gordon Owen in a California newspaper reporting on return of prisoners of warn from Korea, August 1953.

    C. Gordon Owen
  • Vancouver Sun photo of Gordon Owen on his return to Canada, 1953. Pictured with him is his wife, two kids, and mother.

    C. Gordon Owen
  • Photo of Gordon Owen with his wife and son upon his return to Canada, 1953.

    C. Gordon Owen
  • Photo of Gordon Owen at the Hotel Grand Pacific, Victoria, BC, November 2, 2011.

    C. Gordon Owen
Enlarge Image
Listen to this story

"But what he did was he put the barrel of his gun to my head and pulled the trigger."

Transcript

I was wounded a total of seven times over that period, and on May the 3rd [1953], my birthday coincidentally, we were overrun in the position that I was defending [during the Battle of Hill 187] and I was taken prisoner and I think it was only the second lieutenant star on my shoulder that saved me from being shot on the spot. The Chinese thought they’d captured the American brigadier-general.

Now, from there, I was marched with a broken leg and a piece of shrapnel hanging out of my head, broken shoulder, broken arm, through various Chinese locations, eventually ending up in a isolated area where I had my own platoon of Chinese guards in a small shed attached to a Korean woman’s house.

They tried the normal, well, I guess I’d call them tortures, now although I was sort of out of it at the time, having a fellow practice a one-note violin outside where I was trying to get some sleep, I guess we call it sleep deprivation now. It worked for a while, but (laughs). I remember they put me up against the firing squad one time which I think was their little joke. Which, they wanted me to dig my own grave and I said, “No, if you’re going to shoot me, shoot me.” And they said, “Well no, no, no, you don’t want, if we shoot you, you don’t want to be lying on the top of a paddy field” and I said, “Why not?” So to carry on the day, we’re sort of, didn’t know what to do next so two of the Chinese soldiers in the firing squad dug the grave and then at the last minute, a guy comes running over the hill and says, “Oh no, they want to talk to him up in the hill.” Well, I think it was a staged thing, at least that’s the way I looked at it, and they never did shoot me.

I was humped over a candle in this little cell that they had me in, I couldn’t stand up in it, and I guess the Chinese guard thought I was doing something, praying or something, he spoke a bit of English, he opened the door and ran in and said, “No god, no god!” I was sort of surprised that he’s shouting at me and I can piece together what he said. And, so I just continued on doing what I was doing, I didn’t think he was going to do anything other, maybe run up and tell the interpreter or something. But what he did was he put the barrel of his gun to my head and pulled the trigger. This all happened so fast that I was surprised as he is when the bullet didn’t fire. And he looked at me, took his gun and threw it in the corner and went running out and screaming up the hill. A few minutes later, the interpreter came down and said, “What happened?” So I told him. So he went over to the corner of the cell and picked up the gun - I hadn’t touched it - opened the breach, took the bullet out, sure enough, the striker had hit the cap but it hadn’t fired. This was not staged, he just got, you know, private soldiers do that in wartime. He was just, his teaching and indoctrination had led him to believe certain things and he was going to solve it right then and there. And well it just didn’t work. So that I think was the most alarming situation I had.

Eventually, about a week before the war ended, I was taken and put in a camp. It wasn’t an official camp, it was more of a staging area with a bunch of American officers and one Australian officer, where my health was so poor that I was dying and I was put in their aid station for a couple of days. And then I was interviewed by an interpreter who came and said, “We need to get you cleaned up, you’re going to China.” And I said, “Huh?” Anyway, I wasn’t in any position to do anything about it so I went, they took me down to the river that ran by the staging area, and I got in the river and get cleaned up and when I got out, they had a full set of blue commissar clothes waiting for me and a white shirt with I call a “gone collar” and a cap. And took all my tattered uniforms and put me into that and the Chinese commissar suit. The only thing they let me keep was my regimental scarf, which I still have today.

Then they took me over to the Chinese general that controlled the area, and he’d come down to the staging area, and introduced me, he spoke very good English and said, “No, you’re not going to China, you are going to take an ambulance convoy to Panmunjom. You are in charge as the convoy commander.” And I said, “Oh, right sir.” I don’t know about what to say. I said, “When is this going to happen?” “Oh,” he said, “right now, the interpreter will take you down over the side where the convoy’s waiting.” And so I didn’t know what else to do, he was a general, so you know, I’d better salute him. So he was surprised but he returned the salute and it was on Chinese newsreels. I don’t know if they put in his return salute on it. I went over the edge of the hill and there’s 19 Russian […] ambulances, there were 90 UN soldiers in them, all very badly wounded, none of them been ex - obviously none had been exchanged, even though both sides had claimed that the last exchange was over [since the July 1953 armistice]. So I went down and met my lead driver who said he’d been ex-Shanghai bank clerk, his English was very good. And I said, “Well,” he said, “well, what do you want to do?” and I said, “Go.” So, off we went.

We drove until late that night and we got to Panmunjom, and got to a UN outpost, manned by an American PFC [Private First Class], with a barrier across it. He was very surprised to see us. So he said, “Who are you?” I told him who I was. Of course, I’m dressed, remember, in this blue suit and he’s very suspicious, 19 Russian ambulances, all driven by Chinese. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to turn around and go back because I won’t be relieved until 4 o’clock this afternoon, I’ve got no radio and no telephone.” I come in and I said, “Look, I’m an officer, Canadian Army, whether you believe it or not, and we are going through. If I go back now, I’m sure that they’ll just shoot us and that’s the end of the problem.” So I said, “How many rounds have you got in your rifle?” and he said, “Ten.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you go to the back” - he was so adamant about stopping us - “go to the last ambulance and shoot ten men, then you can say you ran out of ammunition defending your post.” And he looked at me and he said, “You’re crazy” and I said, “That’s right, I’m crazy enough to run your barrier.”

But one day I was parked down, down Victoria [British Columbia], this is quite a few years ago, and I watched an Asian gentleman come out of an Asian - Japanese restaurant, and I knew I recognized him and it took me a couple of minutes to recognize. See, that’s the interpreter that I saw in one of the camps [in Korea]. So I went up behind him and we had a nickname for him, his name was “Bloody Hands” because he was always trying to tell people that we westerners had bloody hands and this was his opening statement all the time - we shouldn’t have been making war against them. And so he got this nickname. So I went up behind him - and I’m sure he knew that was his nickname - and I went up behind him because he’s walking down Blanchard Street and I said, “Bloody Hands, what are you doing here?” Well, I’ve never seen a man change from brown to white so fast. He, “Oh, no, no.” I said, “I’m pretty sure you’re an illegal immigrant and I’m going to go and do something about this.” And I went back to my car, followed him slowly up Blanchard Street at a discreet distance, and then went back and phoned Immigration. But he was gone by then, wherever he went, I have no idea.

Oh God, this would be in the eighties. Say about 1981, somewhere in there. So it’d be, what, 1953 to almost thirty years later. But he hadn’t changed that much.

Follow us