Freedom isn’t free; the story of a POW veteran

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Bailee A. Darbasie
  • 57th Wing Public Affairs

A black hat, the word “VETERAN” in an eye-catching, bold yellow font and several colorful ribbons stitched to the front—it’s a typical sight on military installations. 

The men and women who wear these hats wear them with honor as they walk amongst the servicemembers on base. Each hat is unique— not because of the various ribbons, words or pins attached— but because of the veteran wearing the hat and the story of their service.

Like every veteran, retired U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Ramos has a story.

He recalled it as “the coldest winter in 100 years.”

The commander-in-chief of the United Nations Command, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had planned for a rapid invasion of the Korean peninsula, with an end goal of having U.S. troops back home by Christmas.

“It was so cold that the ground was frozen,” said Ramos. “We needed to make foxholes to keep from freezing to death during the night, so I took my shovel and began digging into the hard ground.”

Cold and exhausted from chipping away at icy dirt for several hours, Ramos settled for the shallow 10-inch hole he managed to dig, and that became his bed to stay warm in.

Ramos was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division as a machine gunner. Their mission was to establish and maintain the lines used to evacuate service members to the coast of the peninsula. From there, combat-worn Soldiers and Marines would board ships and return home to the states.

Ramos and his infantry division spent four long months marching across South Korea, from Busan to Seoul, to a point known as the Kansas line. They were ordered to hunker down and prepare to hold the line, no matter the cost. 

“At that point, I had been there a day shy of six months,” stated Ramos. 

After six months of continuous service while deployed, the Army was allowing selected Soldiers to take rest and recovery leave for two weeks in Japan before returning to combat in Korea. Ramos was one of the names selected.

“All I needed to do was set up my machine gun and stand by until the morning,” said Ramos. “Then I would go on my R&R.”

Unfortunately, Ramos never made it to his rest and recovery time. That night, the Chinese forces advanced upon the line his division was holding.

“We could hear commotion going on, but it was far away,” said Ramos. “We didn’t expect anyone to come our way.”

Just as he had convinced himself it was nothing to worry about, Ramos began to hear an unusual noise just several feet ahead of him—the cutting of barbed wire, the Kansas line’s first form of defense.

“I looked down past our barrier, and I saw a big mass in front of the barbed wire fencing,” recalled Ramos.

Without hesitation, Ramos opened fire with his machine gun, rapidly unleashing nearly 250 rounds into the darkness, towards what he rightfully identified as a threat.

“I emptied one box of ammo and I said ‘alright another box,’” said Ramos. “That went on for a while because once I opened fire, everyone else opened up too. I went through almost 3,000 rounds that night.”

After Ramos and his team depleted their ammunition supply, he began to throw hand grenades as the enemy approached the line. Despite his unwavering dedication to defending the line and his fellow Soldiers, he knew it was only a matter of minutes before the Chinese troops zeroed in on his exact location and overran the area.

“I had the idea of handing them a grenade when they finally got to me,” said Ramos. “So, I prepared the grenade and told my assistant gunner to stay down.”

Four Chinese troops approached; Ramos pulled the pin and counted to three in his head. 

“One, two, three,” he recounted.

He handed off the grenade and immediately jumped in the opposite direction, strategically landing in a foxhole. 

But the blast of the explosion sent countless shards of shrapnel into Ramos’ body, wounding him and making it impossible to escape. As he laid in the foxhole the remainder of the night, he felt an excessive amount of blood running down his arm.

“I didn’t know that along with being wounded by the shrapnel, I had also been shot through the arm,” said Ramos.

The next morning, Chinese forces swept the area, collecting the wounded Soldiers and taking them as prisoners of war.

“They tied us arm to arm in a single file column,” said Ramos. “They had us march all the way from the Kansas line to their labor camps.”

Injured and exhausted, the Soldiers had one motivation during the taxing journey to the camps – staying alive.

“Anyone who fell out was thrown into a ditch and killed,” said Ramos. “Throughout the trip, the marching would stop, we’d hear a gunshot soon after and then the marching would continue.”

Despite the course of events Ramos had endured, the worst was revealed when they finally arrived at the prisoner of war camp.

Soldiers spent their days cold, hungry and in silence.

Every day, the prisoners lined up for chow where they were served what Ramos described as “soupy rice.”  

“They’d boil just a few cups of rice and add it to a giant pot of water,” he recalled. “That’s all they’d provide for the hundreds of us imprisoned there.”

The new life of those captured also included wearing lice-infested clothing and sleeping on floors with no bedding. Their living quarters were overly crowded, forcing Soldiers to sleep curled up on their sides just so there was enough space for everyone to lay down at night.

Through their shared suffering and uncertainty of the future, the prisoners had grown to know and understand each other – forging unbreakable bonds.

“But we couldn’t talk,” expressed Ramos. “If they saw a guy talking too much or to too many people, they’d think he was planning to escape and just kill him.”

Battling the hostility of their captors every day, Ramos and the rest of the camp were also forced to watch communist propaganda. Prisoners were forced outside in the cold and told to sit down on planks of hard wood and watch videos about converting to communism. This lasted for hours.

“They were trying to brainwash us," said Ramos. "They hoped I would turn on my country, but I never did.”

Ramos spent over two years as a prisoner of war before finally being liberated in August of 1953.

Almost unrecognizable, Ramos, who left the U.S. as a fully healthy and functional young soldier, returned as a 97 pound man with limited mobility in his arm from the night he was wounded. 

He attributes his survival of those harsh years to his fellow POWs.

“You have to stick true to who you are and rely on the good people around you to get you through a time like that,” said Ramos.

Despite the freezing nights, brush with death and years as a prisoner of war, Ramos was dedicated to continuing to serve the United States of America. After being repatriated, Ramos stayed in the Army and retired after 22 years with an honorable discharge. 

“Freedom isn’t free,” stated Ramos. “You have to earn it.”