TRUCKSVILLE — Fred Searles shipped off to Korea six decades ago knowing the risks all too well.
He counted among his ancestors a settler killed in the 1778 Battle of Wyoming. His own grandfather had been killed in action in World War I, he said.
Searles didn’t suffer the fate of his forefathers. Instead, as Searles told people at a sunset gathering Friday outside The Rock Recreation Center and Back Mountain Harvest Assembly, he spent 33 harrowing months as a prisoner of war, enduring cold, hunger, thirst and vermin while watching colleagues die around him in the mud huts that became their prison.
“Most of us were 18, 19-years-old. But that is who you get to fight a war, because at that age, you think you are invincible,” the Kingston man recalled Friday night during a ceremony honoring American POWs and military personnel who remain missing in action.
“You’re scared, sure, but you don’t think anything is going to happen to you,” added Searles, who served in the U..S. Army from 1950 to 1953.
The ceremony was held in honor of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, but also to raise awareness of plans to erect a POW/MIA memorial at the Carverton Road site. Several dozen people gathered in the flickering light of a blaze known as a “watch fire,” a military tradition used across the centuries to call scattered soldiers home at the end of battle, organizers said.
It was held in conjunction with another fundraiser, in which organizers at The Rock also plan to create an artificial turf outdoor sports playing field in the name of Matthew Benjamin Rondina, a Kingston Township Raiders youth football player who died from brain cancer at age 13 in 1998.
Elijah Miller, development director at Rock Recreation, was attempting to run 54 miles on Friday — recalling Rondina’s number — as well as doing 540 pull-ups to help raise funds for both projects. He was busy running as the ceremony got underway.
Friday’s ceremony was part of a full weekend of activities, including a 5k trail run today, 3 on 3 basketball at the Rock Center and an 11 a.m. memorial service on Sunday at Back Mountain Harvest Assembly.
There were other speakers Friday, including New York resident Debra Kay Anderson, who told the audience about her father’s death as an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, and how it took a quarter century to find his remains.
Searles, meanwhile, choked back tears as he recalled his ordeal in Korea, and those people who did not make it home with him.
There were times when the prisoners only had a thimble full of stale rice to eat, he said, and drank runoff water from rice fields that had been fertilized with human feces. If a prisoner died overnight, survivors often didn’t tell the Korean captors until after rations had been handed out, so the living might share the tiny bit of extra food reserved for their lost compatriots, Searles explained.
“The American people are hungry if they go 20 minutes past a meal time,” Searles said — adding that he didn’t mean to insult his audience, but that few people in this country can understand the level of starvation POWs endured, or that many North Korean people might still be forced to endure.