Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Korean Ice Box: The Ordeal of Bill Skinner

by David Parmer

There is an old saying, “Like father, like son,” that frequently applies to sons who follow in their father’s footsteps. Bill Skinner, son of Austin Skinner, was well aware of his father’s service in Siberia during World War I. Bill grew up in Clarksburg, but he frequently visited his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. W. O. Skinner in Orlando. Although his father served in the Great War, his father’s brothers, all of whom were younger than Austin, served their military time during the Second World War. Tales of Otto Skinner’s sons’ military service were frequently told in the Skinner household. Bill grew up expecting to serve his country as did his father and uncles.

In September 1949, twenty year old Bill Skinner was sworn into the United States Army, little knowing that in less than one year, he too, like his father, would be subjected to frigid Asian winters.
In 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea and quickly pushed the surprised South Korean Army and their American allies into a small corner of the Korean peninsula known as the Pusan Perimeter. While this military debacle was taking place, Bill was stationed in Japan with the 7th Infantry Division, out of harm’s way.
Above, left: Young Bill with a sack of apples and the rifle his great grandfather Jackson McWhorter Skinner carried through his service in the Civil War.
Right: Bill, in 1954 in Boston, MA.

The Incheon Landing
To relieve the cornered South Korean Army and their American allies, General MacArthur devised a military plan which involved an amphibious invasion of the Korean peninsula at Incheon, nearly half-way up the western coast of Korea . Drawing upon the United States Marine Corps, the 7th Infantry forces and a scattering of other United Nations forces stationed in Japan, General MacArthur put together an amphibious landing force. Machine gunner Pfc. Bill Skinner was part of this invasion force. The Incheon landing achieved surprise and was quite successful. The American military force gained a foothold on the Korean peninsula and effectively cut off some of the North Korean Army to the south of Incheon.

Invasion of North Korea
After re-taking the South Korean capitol of Seoul, MacArthur divided the Incheon landing force into two separate forces, swinging one pincer to do battle with the North Koreans to the south and the northern pincer to swing north to deal with the North Korean Army in the north. Bill was with the northern pincer movement and during the winter of 1950 found himself at a place called the Chosin Reservoir near the Chinese border.

Boots Too Small and Freezing Cold
After World War II, the huge American military machine had been for the most part de-commissioned and had passed into a “peace-time” army. Military supplies were scarce and at the time of the Incheon landing, winter clothing for the troops were still in the planning stage on a desk in Washington, D. C. A pair of combat boots, a couple sizes too small, had been issued to Bill Skinner prior to the Incheon landing. Despite his objection to the boots, none of his size were available to the supply-strapped quartermaster, and Bill was told to “make-do.”

Bill’s father, Austin, had told his son about the Siberian winters with temperatures fifty and sixty below zero. Fighting his way north with the 7th Infantry Division, 31st Polar Bear Regiment, Bill endured cold he had never known before, and which was only believable because his father had told him about his own Siberian experience. Ill fitting boots and lack of winter clothing proved troublesome to Bill, but the worst was yet to come.
Right: To read it, click on this article announcing that Bill was MIA.
Left: archival photo of American soldiers during the Korean War

Chinese Intervention and the Surrender
Chinese forces poured into North Korea in overwhelming numbers during the winter of 1950 and overran the ill-equipped and out-numbered American troops. Cut off from retreat, and suffering from -35 F. temperatures, the ill-clad American forces surrendered. Bill was wounded by grenade fragments, unconscious because of hypothermia and had to be carried to the surrender point. His feet were frostbitten. All of his toes on his right foot and all but two on his left foot were lost. Had it not happened that maggots invaded Bill’s frost-bitten, rotting feet and ate away the rotted parts, his condition would have been far worse.

Prisoner of War and Repatriation
During Bill’s first winter in his concentration camp as a prisoner of war, over 500 of the 800 prisoners died of malnutrition, disease, or intentional execution by North Korean guards. Bill’s physical condition was perilous and the watery rice ration he was given had caused his weight to drop to around ninety pounds. Had it not been for the sharing of a dry rice ration by a Methodist missionary, Nellie Dyer, who was also a prisoner, Bill believes he may not have come home. After control of the American prisoners of war passed from North Korean hands to the Chinese, conditions became somewhat better, but were still inhumane. Bill was a prisoner of war for 889 days until he was repatriated on August 14, 1953.
See also an earlier article Korean War POW
Left: Red Cross document advising of Cpl Wm. Skinner's release from the Communist prison.
Right: Bill Skinner about the time he was released.
Below: Bill Skinner's homecoming party

Today, Bill resides in Clarksburg. In 1980, he was instrumental in the formation of the West Virginia prisoner of war association known as Mountaineer Barbed Wire Chapter No 1.

1 comment:

  1. Nellie Dyer, who also survived captivity by the Japanese during WWII, was a good friend of my family. After being freed from the North Koreans, she returned to her home in Conway, Arkansas. She continued to inspire all who met her, and lived a long, active life, well into her tenth decade. She was a person of great courage, generosity, and self-sacrificing Christ-like love for others.