Carter's 1st Korean POW to return finally gets Purple Heart


Fish Springs-native William A. Bailey displays a shadowbox containing the Purple Heart and nine other awards he received last month during a ceremony in Oregon. Bailey was held 27 months as a prisoner of war in Korea.
By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com
The date was Aug. 18, 1953, and the Korean prisoner-of-war exchange had just entered its third week. Stories in the Elizabethton Star announced that six Tennesseans had been liberated in a POW exchange, among them, 21-year-old William A. "Willie" Bailey of Fish Springs.
"Cpl. William Bailey Released by Reds," stated the headline beneath a photograph of Loretta and Goldie Bailey holding a portrait of their brother. Bailey finally made his way home Sept. 13 -- the first Korean POW to return to Carter County. The next day, thousands of well-wishers thronged the streets of downtown to welcome Bailey and boyhood friend Cpl. Nathaniel "Tom" McCloud, who spent almost three years as a POW.
While in Korea, Bailey was wounded in a mortar attack and spent a month and a half recuperating. On May 18, 1951, two days after returning to the front lines, he was captured. He spent the intervening 27 months being shuffled from prison camp to prison camp.
More than two years of staring down the wrong end of a gun barrel is a long time to wait for freedom. But it's the blink of an eye compared to the intervening 50 years it took for Bailey to receive the Purple Heart.
Last month, on July 26 in Wilsonville, Ore., during ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Korean War cease-fire, Chief Warrant Officer David Long of Pendleton, Ore., presented Bailey with 10 medals and ribbons earned while serving with the Army's 23rd Infantry Regiment, E Company, 2nd Division.
CW2 Long, of the Oregon Army National Guard, flew a CH-47D Chinook helicopter to the ceremony. After several two-star generals and rear admirals in dress uniform spoke, Long -- still in his green flight suit -- was called to the podium.
Sitting in the audience, Bailey, 71, who now lives in Portland, Ore., thought Long was going to talk about the Chinook. Instead, Long recalled the men and women who served in "the forgotten war."
"But young Americans fought in Korea with as much valor and endurance as their fellow soldiers throughout our history," Long said. "Early in the war, they suffered from our government's unpreparedness. For those who served later in the war, conditions were reminiscent of the World War I stalemate, with troops tormented by heat, bugs and stench in summer, and living in frozen mud trenches in winter ..."
But as bad as it was at the battlefront, conditions for Americans captured by the enemy were far worse, according to Long, who sought to honor all Korean veterans by summarizing the experiences of one man.
"Cpl. William Bailey joined the Army in the beginning of his junior year of [Hampton] high school in September of 1950. After boot camp at Ft. Knox, Ky., Cpl. Bailey was sent overseas to Korea where he was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division. On March 8, 1951, Cpl. Bailey was wounded in action during a mortar attack," Long said.
On May 15, 1951, Cpl. Bailey was returned to the battlefront, assigned to E Company of the 23rd Infantry Regiment. Two days after being returned to the front, Cpl. Bailey was moving wounded soldiers from the front lines. On the night of May 18, the lieutenant ordered his men to dig in for the night. Before daybreak, the Chinese had dug in around them.
"On the morning of the 19th of May, 1951, Cpl. Bailey and about 30 soldiers were taken prisoner," Long recounted. Bailey's family was told that he was missing in action, but it wasn't until December, nearly eight months later, that they finally received word that he was alive.
"As a POW, Cpl. Bailey was moved several times. All of these moves from prison camp to prison camp were by foot. On the longest move Cpl. Bailey walked 170 miles at gunpoint," Long said.
The day the armistice was signed, Bailey had caught six minnows in a stream that ran through the camp. After the POWs were assembled and told about the cease-fire, Bailey could hardly wait to get back to the minnows and fry them up in his mud hut, according to Long. During 27 months of brutal captivity, Bailey lost 40 pounds. Upon his release, he weighed barely 90 pounds.
Long addressed Bailey. "Grandpa, I am very proud of the service that you have given this country. I am very proud of the sacrifice you have made for freedom."
When Long called Bailey "Grandpa," an audible "Aaah ..." was heard throughout the crowd. "I heard one lady go, 'It's his grandpa!'" Long said.
"In the beginning, I looked over at him, but I almost broke up because he was just in tears. After I gave him the awards I saluted him, and he saluted me back," Long said. The two received a standing ovation.
Long's grandmother, Betty Bailey, was in on the surprise presentation, but she couldn't tell her husband, who still talks very little of Korea. "If he had known, he wouldn't have gone," she said.
"We wanted to make it a surprise -- and it was a surprise, I can tell you. There wasn't a dry eye in that crowd when David gave that speech and saluted his grandpa, and grandpa saluted him back," she said.
"I think they pulled a slick one," Bailey said, though he is proud to finally have received the recognition. It wasn't until six years ago that he finally received his 100 percent disability. "They gave me 20 percent in 1953 for getting hit in the elbow and something else -- I think it was nerves," he said. In the 1990s he received 20 percent more because his left leg kept going numb.
"When I got hit in the butt it messed up the nerves in my leg," he said. "Finally, in January 1997, I got 100 percent. The best part of it was they paid me back to 1953. That got me from starving to eating."
Of the Korean War, Bailey said that if U.S. soldiers had had equipment such as is now being used in Iraq, Korea wouldn't have been a problem. "We'd have blown the hell out of them. I carried an M1 and a carbine. Heck, those were 1945 guns. All of the equipment we had was Second World War.
"They finally found out that the mortar we had wasn't big enough to stop the tanks and so they invented one that would. They never did come out with a new gun -- not until we got in Vietnam. If we'd had them guns that they've got over in Iraq now, it would have been a hell of a lot different story," he said.