Powers to share war story
NEWELL – Coming down out of the Chosin Reservoir region in December 1950, Marine Corps Pfc. Tom Powers and his cohorts in George Company were set upon by thousands of Chinese soldiers who were using North Korean civilians as human shields.
Powers, 83, of Newell, shot one enemy soldier in the face and, after using up all his ammunition, choked another with his bare hands.
That man’s face, especially the image of his bulging eyes, accompanied Powers almost nightly for more than 60 years – until he followed the advice of a therapist at the Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Calcutta.
“I’d see him at night. I’d see him not only in my dreams; I’d wake up and I’d see him in the air,” Powers said. “I couldn’t get him out of my head. (The therapist) told me that I should start to talk to him and make friends with him. And I did, and he went away.”
Powers still has nightmares about his combat experiences in the Korean War – as well as other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – but not nearly as frequently as he used to. “Now, it’s once every couple of months,” he said. “So many veterans used to come back from wars and had problems and never talked about them. The VA says, ‘Talk about it.’ “
Powers is less reticent than he used to be. Because of his willingness to share his stories, he was featured in a 2010 book about George Company and interviewed for a TV special that is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. March 31.
“Bloody George at the Chosin Reservoir,” episode five of the six-part series “Against the Odds,” will air on the American Heroes Channel next Monday. Formerly the Military Channel, the American Heroes Channel debuted on March 3 and is available on some DirecTV and Dish Network packages.
A camera crew from the 43 Films production company interviewed Powers for the special at his Newell home in April 2013. He and his wife of 12 years, Joan (Kology) Powers, are anxious to see the final result.
“It’s my understanding that they focus on only one night, which is Task Force Drysdale,” he said.
Task Force Drysdale, named for British Lt. Col. Douglas B. Drysdale, was a joint British-American campaign to push through from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri in November 1950, according to historian Patrick K. O’Donnell’s book “Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story – The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company.”
It was during that operation that Powers had the presence of mind to save the eye of a fellow Marine who had been hit by a Chinese mortar round. “After one strike,” writes O’Donnell, “machine gunner Tom Powers recalled seeing a fellow Marine’s eyeball grotesquely hanging from the socket by a thread, like a shiny golf ball.”
Powers picks up the story from there: “He said to me, ‘How bad is it?’ I slipped his eye back in and tied a battle bandage around part of his face and said, ‘Ah, it’s only a scratch.’ What are you going to tell him?”
Powers said he met the man 50 years later at a George Company reunion in San Diego. “I knew it was him because he had a big dent in his forehead. It was more than a scratch,” he said. “But his eye was good. Thank God for that.”
One of the things that saved that man and others, said Powers, was the cold. Temperatures that winter dropped as low as 35 degrees below zero, with a wind-chill factor of 100 below, he said.
“Guys that got hit wouldn’t bleed that much because it was too cold. The blood would coagulate right away,” he said.
Powers said the cold made everything else difficult. “You had all these clothes on. You’d have to take everything off to get to even have a bowel movement,” he said. “I guess you’d get accustomed to it, but the wind was terrible. That wind would come off the (Chosin) Reservoir and hit us very hard.”
There were other battles to follow – experiences that Powers did not count on when he first enlisted in the Marines in 1948 at age 17. Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., Powers said he didn’t like school, but he also didn’t want to “bum around.” So he enlisted.
Two years later, when war broke out in Korea, Powers was sent from Jacksonville, Fla., to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where George Company was assembled. They landed at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, and engaged in urban combat in the capital of Seoul before moving on to their most difficult assignment – the Chosin Reservoir campaign of November and December 1950.
Severely outnumbered and suffering from extreme cold, George Company proved pivotal in the American successes in the early part of the war, O’Donnell writes. However, the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines company paid a high price, losing 149 of its members to combat action in Korea.
Powers left Korea in June 1951 and stayed with the Marines until 1956. Married, with one child and another on the way, he began a career in law enforcement – first in New York City and later in his native New Jersey. He retired in 1995 after working as an officer in Ocean County, N.J., where he investigated everything from deadbeat dads to homicides.
Powers relocated to Florida, where he met his wife, Joan, about 13 years ago. A native of Chester, Joan was living in Greenacres, Fla., at the time, and Tom was living in Wellington. They met at a senior mixer held at a local Russian Orthodox church, he said.
The couple got married on the front porch of a house that Powers had built near Estes Park, Colo. But the elevation was too much for him, so the couple moved back to Florida, this time to Margate near Fort Lauderdale. That stay also was short-lived, he said.
“We had six hurricanes that year, and the last one blew our house away,” he said.
The couple moved to their Newell home 10 years ago. Powers has stayed active with a group of aging George Company veterans known as the “Chosin Few.”
The former ammo bearer and machine gunner said the renewed attention that the Korean War is getting is long overdue. “I wish we would get the respect that we deserve,” he said.
“It’s hurtful because in three years, we lost almost the same amount that they lost in Vietnam in 10 years. We lost 33,000. We still have more (soldiers) than even the second world war who are considered missing in action,” Powers said.