Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Hero or Traitor?" by Ellen Lynn

Hero or Traitor?
Ellen Lynn

It was a dark dreary day, windy and rain, as a group of us parachutists waited at the edge of the airfield, in a desolate part of a Korean battlefield. Our very secret mission was a dangerous one and the weather added to the general atmosphere of gloom.

A helicopter was to pick us up here and drop us over a prison camp in North Korea. If we were lucky, we would destroy that new red underground depot, find Tod Lessing, rescue him and bring him back to safety or maybe kill him. But there were many questions in our minds: Was he really held near that particular dump? The supposition that he was there was based on a hunch. Was Capt. Lessing the great hero we all worshiped, or was he a traitor, a renegade?

In spite of our doubts and questionings about Lessing we all were anxious to get started on our mission. And I, for one, had been Tod's closest buddy since we came to Korea. We had been G.I.s together and I knew him from the beginning. I had been witness to many of his acts of heroism. Many of us owed our lives to his courage and presence of mind under fire. I for one couldn't believe that my friend Tod Lessing had turned traitor—even though I heard his own voice making that startling admission over the radio.

It goes back six months. Our forces had cross the thirty-eighth parallel and we were fighting in North Korea. Tod's acts of heroism had won him numerous decorations and promotions to the rank of Captain. He was the hero type and he had been given a merited build up. He was football hero—then division boxing champ—then front line hero. His name and fame were known to every G.I. and every Red. The army set him up as an example to be emulated. Even the American press added to the build up. If any guy deserved it, Lessing did. There was a quality in him that made the men adore him—hero-worship him.

One day, when we were north of the thirty-eighth, in the midst of the constant fighting, the muddy marches, the blood, pain and utter weariness, Tod got a shoulder wound. He was sent back to the hospital, which meant he would see his girl, Carol Trent. She was a Wac driver—sometimes for the hospital, sometimes for the big brass. They had met in Korea and fallen in love. So when Tod was hospitalized they had a chance to see each other every day. It was during this time they made their decision to get married. As soon as Tod was able to leave the hospital he asked and got permission to marry. They went to the chaplain who performed the ceremony. I stood up for Tod. There was something almost sad about the meager happiness these two young people grasped for themselves in between the grim episodes of war. In the traditional custom a bunch of us threw rice at the happy couple as they hurried into the waiting jeep which was to take them on their honeymoon.

Tod and Carol were gone for two weeks. When they returned they were bubbling over with descriptions of the beautiful country they had traveled through—in North Korea where we then were. But the day after their return Tod was saying good-bye to his bride as each returned to their outfits.

The times that Tod spent with Carol were pitifully few, when the Allied forces began to suffer severe blows. The Red Koreans were pushing us back rapidly toward the thirty-eighth parallel. They had acquired amazing strength in equipment and fresh forces and our troops were so overwhelmingly outnumbered there was nothing to do but yield ground and move back, back whence we came. The Reds had built a secret underground tank depot near our lines. It was wreaking havoc on us. It had to be located and knocked out by hand—by parachutists. Tod volunteered to find and destroy it. He took a squad behind the Red lines. He never came back—nor did any of his men. The Reds boasted they had our famous war-hero, Tod Lessing.

It was a cruel blow to Carol. I'll never forget her face as she got the news. All the blood seemed to drain from it, leaving her alabaster white. Her eyes looked like two black pools, as they misted over, and she ran quickly to her quarters.

The beating our troops was taking put a spell of gloom over all of us. More and more men were being captured by the Reds. But the thought of Tod stuck in our minds. It was especially hard to think of a man of his courage and strength being held captive in a Red prison camp. And the sight of Carol's set features as she went about her tasks, or waited for news concerning P.W.s, kept us from forgetting the great war hero, Tod Lessing.

I was stretched out on my bed one day, in sheer exhaustion, when something on the radio caught my attention. My body went rigid as a familiar voice came clearly through the transmitter. Was I dreaming? It sounded like Tod! I sat up and saw that the other men were listening just as intently as I. We exchanged mute glances and continued to listen.

"...and so, friends, buddies, I can only say that I fought hard to win for our cause, as you well know. That was because I knew only one side of the controversy—our side. I knew only what our Democracy would let me know. In the six months I've been in this prison camp, I've learned a lot... the other side of the question. You will be startled to hear me say that in comparison with the democratic way of life, this Communist prison camp is like a honeymoon. You will be shocked at first, and angry, that I, an American officer should speak so glowingly of our enemy's way of life. But I have learned a lot, and I am not given to rash statements, nor snap judgments. Any of you who is lucky enough to be taken prisoner..."

Someone snapped off the radio. Then there was an explosion, like firecrackers, from all parts of the barracks. In the only language in which soldiers can let off steam, they started to give vent to their disgust at what they heard Tod spouting over the radio. As for me, I was completely confused. There was no doubt about it—it was the great hero Tod talking. It was his typical quiet, matter-of-fact style of speech. And there was such conviction, such sincerity in his tone!

I decided to get dressed and look up Carol. I had to find out if she had heard the broadcast by Tod. It was evening before I could get over and I had to wait sometime before she came out. Apparently some big brass was in there having a conference with her. Suddenly it dawned on me! It must be about that broadcast! I was right. After the officers had left Carol hurried out to me and we went into the women's parlor.

"Hank, that broadcast! Have you heard it?" she blurted out.

"That's what I came to see you about," I answered. "So you heard Tod, too?"

There was an odd smile on her lips. "Those officers, Hank, brought me a recording of what Tod said. I hadn't heard it," she explained to me. "Well," I said, "What do you think?"

She smiled more broadly. "You don't believe Tod meant that tommyrot, Hank? Now, confess, do you?"

It was hard to explain my confused feelings. But I tried. "I'd swear it wasn't Tod talking—only, obviously, it was. He didn't sound as though he was being tortured into saying those awful things. But Tod couldn't mean it..."

Carol was looking at me intently, then she placed her hand on mine. "Hank, you're Tod's buddy so I'm going to tell you something confidential. They brought me that recording to identify Tod's voice and to see if any ideas occurred to me after listening as to what he was saying. Hank—I think I know where Tod is imprisoned. When he said "this Communist prison camp is like a honeymoon" he was telling me that the underground tank depot is the town we stopped at when we were on our honeymoon trip."

I stared at Carol in amazement. "Yes," she went on, "I told it to the officers and they're going to send a paratropp mission to try to knockout the depot and make a rescue." Behind her quiet smile, she was tense, nervous, but here was the first ray of hope she'd had in six months that she might see Tod again.

The wait for the helicopter seemed endless but finally the plane came whirling down to the field and we climbed in. We were off to the place Carol had designated. We had been briefed in great detail of our task but we could not help wondering—"Is he really there? Is it just woman's intuition sending us off on this dangerous mission?"

Carol's information, and intuition, were correct. We found the tank depot and succeeded in planting the dynamite. When the explosion went off we knew we had destroyed a dangerous trap to our forces, but we lost half the squad on the mission. We didn't even attempt the rescue of Tod. Our remaining numbers got back to the helicopter by a hair's breadth.

We weren't keeping long in suspense as to Tod's fate. The next day the Red station blared again, announcing that Tod had been executed. Through all the abuse and contempt the announcer heaped on our forces, we learned that the Commies had caught on to Tod's tip-off to us in his radio broadcast. Their revenge was swift—but Tod died as he had fought—a hero.