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Cold winters resonate with Korean War POW

BRADENTON

Dick Caverly hates cold weather.

Thirty-five years operating heavy equipment in Michigan winters will do that.

“It’s why we moved to Florida,” he said, padding around his Village Green home in a sweatsuit. Nodding at the 40-ish temperature outside Monday morning, he said. “I thought we left this behind.”

His dislike of winter goes way back.

Sixty years, to be exact.

Caverly was an 18-year-old Army infantryman in the Korean War when he was captured by Chinese Communist troops Nov. 28, 1950, and spent 33 months — three brutal North Korean winters — as a POW.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get out of there,” said the grandfather of 10. “I had a lot of people praying for me back home because I was really lucky.”

Caverly survived on his guile, gumption and guts and will be among the honorees at Saturday’s 2 p.m. POW Appreciation Ceremony at American Legion Kirby Stewart Post 24.

He’ll join World War II POWs Edward Dostie and Bob Eldridge and Brad Smith, a former Navy pilot imprisoned for seven years in North Vietnam, at the ceremony.

Caverly’s role in the event resonated with Bill Field, Post 24 commandant.

“No man can say how he’s going to react as a captive. I can’t even imagine that,” said the Korean War vet. “I have a great deal of respect for Dick. He had a rougher time than I did.”

Caverly was a runner with the Second Division, 38th Infantry Regiment, which had pushed deep into North Korea. But the Communist Chinese, who entered the war Oct. 23, struck back.

“We had orders to pull out and the C.O. sent me back to platoon to tell them to cover us,” he recalled. “I got down there, the platoon sergeant goes, ‘Caverly, what are you doing here? The (enemy) are all over the place.’ About that time they hit us.”

Stunned by an explosion, Caverly came to and tried to carry a wounded comrade when the Chinese jumped him.

“One stuck a bayonet to my throat. I’m thinking, ‘This guy’s going to stick me.’ But he didn’t. He let me help the guy,” he said. “I carried him the next two weeks until he died.”

Caverly saw a lot of Americans die that first winter.

Lingering wounds and cold were a killer.

“Every night they’d march us 10, 20 miles, marching in 40 below in summer clothes. I often think the Chinese could’ve turned over the wounded. You carried them 20-30 miles and they’d die, strung out all along the road,” he said. “How’d they get buried?”

They weren’t.

Caverly would learn the gruesome business of burial detail.

“We made the first camp and more guys were dying off,” he said. “Sometimes 15, 18. Sometimes four. You couldn’t bury them. Everything froze solid. We laid them in a valley. After a couple of months there were a lot of guys there.”

According to U.S. military Korean War statistics, 2,806 Americans died in POW camps.

“I think about those guys who didn’t get out of there,” Caverly said.

Malnutrition was chronic, too.

POWs had nothing to eat but sorghum, maize, millet and cracked corn.

“If you didn’t eat it, that was the end,” he said.

Physical punishment wasn’t widespread, but selective.

“Every once in awhile the Chinese would take somebody out and beat them just to put on a show,” he said, speaking from experience.

Caverly knew about solitary, as well.

“It was a 4-foot by 4-foot hole with a cover,” he said. “If you had to go to the bathroom, you did it there. After a week of that, I said I’ve got to learn to keep my mouth shut.”

Several months later, Caverly was moved to a second POW camp. Conditions, food and clothing improved somewhat.

The mood, too.

U.S. aircraft would cover POW camps with pamphlets of news from home.

“That’s how we got our info, like who was in the World Series. We knew about the peace talks going on, too,” Caverly said. “After that first winter, things got where you believed you could make it.”

Hugh Caverly kept the faith during his kid brother’s captivity.

“Very few know what he went through, but he was a devil,” said the Port Charlotte retiree. “If anybody could make it, it was going to be him.”

He’s right about that.

Dick Caverly, who received the Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge among other decorations, was freed Aug. 28, 1953.

As he and 154 other Americans eventually rode trucks south for a POW exchange at the border, North Korean villagers threw rocks at them along the way.

“People knew we’d been released and were going home,” Caverly said. “So whenever we made a pit stop, we’d load up with rocks. The next time they threw rocks at us, we threw rocks right back at them.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com.

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