“I lived in poverty. I lived in a coal mine town. I was working in a coal mine since I was 12 years old. We lived in a company house. I never slept in a bed until I went in the service. I slept on what you would call a pallet,” the 79-year-old veteran says.
The Army made sure he had a real bed and three meals a day. Armed with a new age – 17 – the 15-year-old enlisted in the army and ultimately was assigned to the 2nd Infantry division.
“I got $75 a month and I said, ‘I’ll stay here for the rest of my life’,” he says.
Fate, as it turns out, had other plans. After three years, the Korean War started. After eight months, on May 18, 1951, he was captured in the Mug-gol area of South Korea and marched north through Korea towards the Yalu River.
“I walked barefooted up through here – all the way up,” he says.
The Chinese marched him almost 300 miles. Along the way his captors stopped him at Death Valley and other prison camps.
North Korea said they respected the Geneva Convention. The Third Protocol of the Convention outlines basic care for prisoners and respect for the dignity of life. Prisoners were supposed to have basic needs met as well as food, shelter, and medical care. The Red Cross worked with prisoners of war.
At least, that was the theory.
“They didn’t recognize the Geneva Convention. I never saw another American from the day I was captured, other than other GIs. The one camp I was in we had 1600 men who died there from starvation and froze to death. The Red Cross never came in and gave us packages like they did in World War II,” he remembers.
They tried to brainwash him.
“They were trying to swing your mind against the United States, which I refused to do,” he says. He had to learn the Chinese National Anthem and sing it to the guards.
“It was very degrading – you had to sing that to them stupid bastards everyday.” He sang, but fought other aspects of the brainwashing. His punishment? His captors put him in a locked cage and denied him food. They beat him.
All the while, letters home assured his family he was alive and well. They had to, he said, or they wouldn’t get mailed.
A child looks out at the world from the picture of Donald Denny, 15, in his pressed uniform.
28 months and one day after his capture, Donald Denny was freed.
“Coming home was very difficult. They gave me no rehabilitation whatsoever. I left at 15. I came home at 21 and I was thinking everything was going to be the same as it was when I left,” he says.
“All the girls were married with kids,” he smiles. While his buddies were dating, he was in a cage in North Korea. His real friends – the men who now understood him – were his Army buddies.
“We spoke a different language. I was lost. I had nothing in common with anybody,” he says.
Shrapnel in his legs and back meant that he couldn’t make a career of the service as he hoped.
“I done my job, though. I feel the south Korean people are living so much better because of what little but I’d done to help them. But it takes a little bit from a lot of people to help a country like that.
“I would do it all again. No matter what we do, I might not feel it’s the right thing to do, but I’m going to do it. I’m a true American.”
This Monday he will place a wreath his wife made in front of the Korean Memorial at Freedom Park. The wreath is a memorial to soldiers missing in action. 92,000 families still don’t know what happened to their loved ones in wars. 89,000 soldiers are still missing in action from World War II. 8,000 Korean War soldiers are listed as MIA; 1,600 went MIA in Viet Nam. One soldier is MIA in Afghanistan.
“The families have a right to know what happened to these people,” he says. “I have two friends that were alive when I left that never came home.
“They never came home.”