- I Cannot Forget: Imprisoned in Korea, Accused at Home by Johnny Moore and Judith Fenner Gentry
Corporal Johnny Moore, U.S. Army, celebrated his 21st birthday in 1953 as a prisoner of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force. That he was still alive was a cause for celebration. Of the some 3,000 American soldiers captured with Moore in November-December 1950, about half had died. The survival rate was worse than that of the Americans who had surrendered on Luzon in 1942. Four days after his birthday the Chinese released Moore at Panmunjom, and he rejoined the U.S. Army after almost three years of captivity. He then faced another war, which he lost.
I Cannot Forget is a memoir Moore recorded in 2002; it was then edited and annotated by an academic historian, Judith Fenner Gentry, a family friend. Moore’s account has two novel features. His story includes his disastrous Army career, 1953–1957, and his harrowing experiences as a “progressive” prisoner of war (POW) and a stigmatized “collaborator” caught in the hysteria of “treason” and “brainwashing” charges that swept the United States in the 1950s.
Moore provides some detail on his downfall in the Army, but Gentry reconstructs Moore’s post-release problems in detail for 1953–1957. By his own admission to Army investigators in the RECAP-K (Korea) Program interviewing released POWs, Moore [End Page 239] had told the Chinese about food thieves in his company. He had also attended antiwar and anti-American classes, signed peace petitions, and spoke in detail to Chinese confessors. He also went into solitary confinement for acts that benefited other GIs and enraged the Chinese. He believed his limited cooperation with the Chinese saved American lives.
Pressed to testify against two other enlisted men whose records more clearly made them collaborators, Moore incriminated himself. He became the subject of multiple inquiries before these trials and faced eventual court-martial. Moore folded under the pressure and became a drunk and undependable soldier. Multiple convictions for unauthorized absence took him from staff sergeant to private first class, 1956–1957. A civil conviction for check fraud gave the Army an excuse to discharge Moore as “undesirable.” Moore then served 22 months in California prisons. Before his death in 2012, he fought the stigma of being an ex-convict, Army failure, and (perhaps) a “brainwashed” secret Communist. Against the odds he became a successful businessman, husband, and father.
Moore’s account of his captivity from November 1950 to August 1953 contains no surprises, but his account verifies the narratives of other survivors. In addition to the published accounts, this reviewer has read the detailed narratives, written in 1954, of Master Sergeant (MSgt.) Manuel A. Aldis and MSgt. V. D. Millspaugh, both U.S. Army regulars and captured like Moore in 1950. MSgt. William Olson, a suspected “progressive,” wrote an extended memoir, “Brainwashing,” that impressed General Mark W. Clark. They all agree on the POW life of survival.
These narratives (and many others) confirm what the Army knew in 1954: Communist “brainwashing” by torture or clever psychological coercion was nonsense. Unless POWs went to re-education lectures, signed peace petitions, denounced American imperialism, and made antiwar radio and film statements, they risked starving to death. Warm and clean clothing and medical care ensured superficial participation in Communist courses in modern politics. Fifteen percent of Army POWs showed a degree of voluntary participation that made them “progressives.” Sheer survival, not ideological conversion, determined a GI’s compliance in propaganda acts. The sub-Spartan regime in Camp 5, the largest concentration of U.S. enlisted men, encouraged survivalism. Escape was impossible (as POWs learned by experience) and exchange uncertain. Cooperation was easy to rationalize. Of the 2,638 Army POWs who survived, only 123 could be called “reactionaries” or POWs who refused any Chinese appointment to a leadership role, refused to be an informer, and refused special favors—and then survived crude beatings and solitary confinement in an outdoor pit or...