‘Can I Come Home?’ Asks American Ex-POW Who Lived in China, Poland
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ The America of the Cold War 1950s branded Army Cpl. Harold H. Webb a turncoat, labeled him a squealer and handed him a dishonorable discharge when he declined to return from a POW camp after the Korean War. Now Harold Webb wants to come home.
He is one of the 21 American prisoners of war who chose to stay with the Chinese nearly 33 years ago. The U.S. State Department says he’s not an American anymore.
″When I left Korea, when I said I would not return home, was the beginning of the time I wanted to return home, back in 1954,″ he said in a recent interview in Louisville. ″I’ve always had it in my mind. I’ve always had deep down inside in me - I am an American. I was born in this country. This is my place.″
Webb was a prisoner of war of the Chinese for three years. He was a voluntary resident of China for six years. He moved to Poland in 1960 after getting to know some Polish students in China and made a fateful decision to take Polish citizenship in 1970.
This August, 13 months after Webb returned to the United States on a Polish passport, the State Department rejected his petition for citizenship. Without U.S. citizenship, the 55-year-old Webb has little chance of bringing his Polish wife and two teen-age daughters here.
″The Department of State ... finds that your naturalization as a Polish citizen in 1970 constituted formal recognition of a long-standing intent on your part to relinquish your U.S. citizenship,″ the department said in a letter.
Webb said he took citizenship in Poland, on the advice of friends, to protect his Polish wife and his soon-to-be-born first child at a time of unrest in the country.
″Was there a physical threat? I don’t think there was. I cannot say and I will not say there was a political threat,″ he said. He felt more secure becoming a Polish citizen, he said, but did not know that he could be giving up his U.S. citizenship.
Webb can appeal the State Department’s decision administratively, take the case to court, hope for a special bill in Congress or try to return as an immigrant. Last week he sent a letter renouncing his Polish citizenship to the consul in Chicago.
″I only want now to appeal in this idea to the American people and let them judge me: Can I come home or not? Should I be able to? I think they can understand my story and I think they will say I have a right to come,″ said Webb, who is living with relatives near Louisville.
In 1949, as a 17-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., with a ninth-grade education, he enlisted in the Army. On Dec. 1, 1950, his unit was surrounded and captured above the 38th parallel, which divides North Korea from South Korea.
In January 1954, at the end of the war, he spurned the last appeal from U.S. officers to come home.
He said he was sick of war, of hunger, of fatigue, of death. By the end of his term in Camp 3, through what he now calls indoctrination, he believed the only aggressor was the United States and the only safe place for him was China.
″I guess at that time, being a young man and certainly not developed ... it blinded me to the fact that being Chinese captors of mine, they were also intervening in Korean problems,″ he said.
″I think the principal feeling at that time was only to express our ideas of being against the war″ and in favor of world peace, he said.
″And at that time, coming back and expressing views of that, I believe at that time that I would have been punished.″
He might have changed his mind, Webb said, if the military had allowed the former POWs to meet directly with their families.
″I will say for sure it would have made a difference on every one of the men if the mothers, fathers or sisters or families would have come to us ... and most probably the majority of all of us would have come home,″ he said.
Webb says his family, whose identity he hides to protect them from possible harassment, wrote to him after his capture but then lost touch with him. His parents are now dead.
In Middle European-accented English, Webb said he never found the freedom he sought in China or in Poland.
″I felt there (in China) I was being used by them to get their political views over, whereas I wanted to be used by myself to get my views over,″ he said, adding that he chose China not to hurt the United States or to espouse communism, but to express an anti-war view.
″I didn’t know what the peace movement was before I went to Korea. But when I was part of that, I was on the front, I saw many people dying. I saw men, women and children dying, American soldiers, Korean soldiers, Chinese soldiers, people dying and suffering, prisoners of war, my buddies, people dying of starvation as a result of that war,″ he said.
″And then I thought something about peace, ... world peace would stop those things. I didn’t go on Radio Peking to start tearing down American imperialism.″
Instead, what he did was learn Chinese and earn a degree in English from Wuhan University in China. Later he taught English in Katowice in Poland, married there and reared two children. A few years ago, he had a reunion with his sister and decided it was time to come home.
In the United States, the Army dishonorably discharged the 21 prisoners who refused to return, identified Webb and 11 of the others as camp informers and consigned their cases to yellowing records.
Scribbled notes and brittle pages from newspapers on file at the Pentagon indicate that one of the GIs died in China and that at least 17 of the surviving 20 had returned home by 1976. There is no confirmation, but Webb thinks he is the last to return.
After tracking her brother down in Poland, Webb’s sister in 1985 sent the formal invitation the Polish government requires for residents to leave.
Since his return, he has worked briefly in a gas station and in a Chinese restaurant where he tested his rusty language and waited for the U.S. government’s decision.
State Department officials said federal privacy law prevented them from discussing Webb’s case. However, several of his actions match examples of ″intent to relinquish citizenship″ listed in a department manual, such as entering the country on a foreign passport and failing to register children as U.S. citizens.
″I have to find out what the American people think,″ Webb said. ″Is the State Department really representing the ideas of the American people? If they are, then what can I do?″