News>Feature - A page from the past: a prisoner of war
Clovis, N.M., veteran Dan McKinney, stands next to his old uniform at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Aug. 16, 2012. McKinney served as a prisoner of war in the Korean War and has shared his experience with 50 Airman Leadership School classes in order that they might understand the sacrifices made so they can live in peace. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ericka Engblom)
Clovis, N.M., veteran Dan McKinney, talks about his experience as a prisoner of war at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Aug. 16, 2012. McKinney served as a POW in the Korean War and has shared his experience with 50 Airman Leadership School classes in order that they might understand the sacrifices made so they can live in peace. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ericka Engblom)
Clovis, N.M., veteran Dan McKinney, holds a coin awarded to him by the President of the United States for his dedication to his country at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Aug. 16, 2012. McKinney served as a prisoner of war in the Korean War and has shared his experience with 50 Airman Leadership School classes in order that they might understand the sacrifices made so they can live in peace. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ericka Engblom)
by Senior Airman Jette Carr
27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
8/30/2012 - CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Today was "kind of a special occasion ... Fifty-nine years ago today I was released from Chinese prison camp."
His voice chokes up. He takes several breaths before continuing. This was a difficult topic of discussion for Dan McKinney, a native of Clovis, N.M., and Army veteran, as he addressed a classroom of Air Commandos. It became apparent as the 86-year-old spoke - being a prisoner of war is something he'll never forget.
For the past seven years, McKinney has come to speak about his experiences as a POW with each Airman Leadership School class at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. He recently reached a monument with the program, giving his 50th talk, Aug. 20, 2012.
Eight years ago, a former ALS commandant approached McKinney's wife, Joyce Anne, to ask if she thought he would be receptive to the idea of speaking to the class of Airmen. Though reluctant at first, he agreed to talk.
"I felt that somebody needed to hear his story," said McKinney's wife. "Very few people know of his experiences except close family and friends, which made it hard the first year he spoke at ALS. Talking with the Airmen has made a great difference in his attitude and his life. It has made him more aware of how much he's helped people and what a difference he's made."
McKinney served in World War II during the end of the fight. When he got home from Germany, he separated from active duty and went into the reserve, signing on for three years.
"My time went out in May of 1950 and I thought, well, that's all... I'm through with that. Then the commander of that reserve unit came to me and begged me to sign up again and I did," said McKinney. "The next month the Korean War started, June 25, 1950."
His girlfriend at the time, now his wife of 59 years, set their wedding date for April 23, 1951.
It was on that date that he was captured in Korea by the Chinese - some guys go a long way to get out of getting married, joked McKinney.
"The Chinese wiped us out that night," he said, his voice filled with regret. "They over-ran us, and to this day I suffer from what's called survivor's guilt. Out of 200 [U.S. army] men, when that night was over there were 26 men alive. Out of those 26, 13 were captured."
Over the next 60 days, McKinney and his fellow prisoners were marched more than 600 miles to Camp Changsong, a Korean village that had been converted into a prison camp for American Soldiers. This is where he would spend the next 28 months in captivity.
"They told us if you don't keep up, you are in trouble. If somebody fell out, we tried to pick them up and carry them and a lot of times we didn't. When one fell out - it might be a while - we'd hear a rifle shot." he said, sucking in a breath. Pausing briefly to gain back his composure, he continued, "We lost a lot of men that way."
"In that walk ... one of the kids - he wasn't in my outfit - he'd been shot," said McKinney. "I carried him for about a week on my back when they made me put him down. They put him down on a road that we crossed and they said the Chinese will pick him up and take him to a doctor. I said 'no I'll carry him'. They wouldn't let me carry him anymore, and I figured I'd never see him again, but after we got released, I got a Christmas card from him and he thanked me for saving his life."
After reaching the camp, the men still faced threats. The soldiers continued to die from drinking contaminated water.
"We buried as high as 25 a day because they wouldn't sterilize the water," said McKinney.
The POWs were grouped into small houses with mud floors. In McKinney's case, there were 10 people rooming with him - all were forced to sleep head to toe.
In a camp full of 18-19 year olds, McKinney, at age 24, felt the need to speak up when the Chinese started their attempts to convert the captive Americans to communism.
As one of the older men in the group, McKinney felt a sense of responsibility. When the Chinese attempted to convert the captive Americans to communism, it was that same sense of responsibility that held McKinney accountable to say something.
"I told the kids, 'don't believe that brainwashing crap'," he said with fervor. "You know what kind of a country we've got back home and you can see what we've got here."
McKinney's protest wouldn't go unnoticed. Because of his outspokenness, he was put in solitary confinement for 75 days.
"If you screwed up, they put you in a box," said McKinney. "The one I was in was about the size of a bathtub, too short for me to lay down in, too narrow for me to sit up."
McKinney and many others did their best to resist, creating mischief for the Chinese keeping them prisoner. The POWs found ways to entertain themselves and developed survival skills to stay alive until they were released. The soldiers leaned on each other for support.
"If you read the six articles in the Code of Military Conduct, you'll see one that covers that," he said. "You don't squeal on your fellow man; you support them."
Many things kept McKinney going, but there was one thing that helped him the most - his faith.
"God was my partner and I got through it because of him," said McKinney. "Your faith will carry you to places you thought you could never get through. I talked to one of the chaplains here [Cannon], who left last month to go to Afghanistan for six months. I told him I couldn't understand why I was spared and he said, ' it's not for you to know or understand'. So you've got to have your faith."
The day he was finally released from prison camp is still fresh in McKinney's memory. He remembers being loaded into trucks and taken to an exchange point. Each captive was walked to a line in the sand by two Chinese guards and released to American forces.
"The first thing we saw was the biggest American flag I'd ever seen in my life," said McKinney, choking back tears. "I don't know when we stopped crying."
It's this love of the flag that inspires many of the Airmen he talks to. Rollefson said that after McKinney's speech, the flag execution is perfect each day when the students raise and lower it because the Airmen are reminded of what the flag stands for and the loyalty it deserves.
"He seemed very moved by what he said, which in turn moved us," said Senior Airman Molly Bloom, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron fire protection journeyman and current ALS student. "I never quite realized how much POWs go through."
Many Airmen present agreed that McKinney inspired them to take more pride in their military service and imparted a lesson to never take anything for granted.
"I would like to say thank you [to McKinney] for serving our country and protecting us so other people didn't have to," said Senior Airman Jeremy Sager, 73rd Special Operations Squadron, loadmaster and ALS student. "As a military member, a thank you is one of the greatest things someone can give me to let me know their appreciation. I don't care about anything else. Just a simple thank you warms my heart. I would hope it does the same for him."
9/20/2012 3:23:28 PM ET Wow just wow. I was a POW in Afghanistan for 173 days and I never got the treatment that this poor guy got in Korea.Bless You