MARQUETTE — Willis Remus, who turns 94 this month, grew up in the Great Depression era and is no stranger to hard work or challenging circumstances.
However, when Remus was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950 to serve in the Korean War, he never could have imagined the events that awaited him in the coming months and years.
Remus wasn’t the only person in his family to serve in the military, but his experiences would be vastly different from those of his family members.
“I had two brothers in service too, younger than me,” Remus said.
However, he was the only one of the brothers who would fight in the Korean War.
Remus was initially sent to Fort Wayne in Detroit, then took a train to Fort Belvoir in Virginia for his training. He was trained as a combat engineer and was sent overseas in spring 1951.
“We were put on a ship and sent to Korea,” he said.
He was first sent to Japan, and then Busan, South Korea.
“It was a surprise, I had never been overseas before,” he said.
Korea was a “mountainous country” and the Korean War was “a different type of war,” Remus recalls, describing it as a “hardline war” that involved trenches, tanks and heavy equipment.
On May 18, 1951, a disastrous event that would shape the following years of Remus’s life took place.
“They just captured us, the whole body of us … they captured our platoon,” he said.
The capture by enemy forces was followed by a grueling experience for Remus and his fellow prisoners of war.
“They marched us all the way up to the Yalu River,” he said. “That was in weeks, not days.”
When they arrived at the prisoner of war camp, the experience was not what some might envision, Remus said.
“They put us in this village with the public. I mean, there was no barbed wire fence, no,” he said. “Everyone thinks of a POW camp as a fenced-in place. It wasn’t. We … were with the public.”
However, the power dynamics were clear from the start.
“We knew they were the boss, that’s the whole thing,” he said.
Remus and his fellow POWs were tasked with doing hard labor.
“Their soldiers had to cut wood — they used it for fuel, used it for cooking, for heat,” he said. “That was it. We did the same thing that their soldiers did off duty.”
And although the work they did may have been similar to that of an enemy soldier, the difference in the roles was crystal clear.
“We knew what we had to do and they knew what we had to do,” he said.
Remus said one of the hardest things was adjusting to the food, which was “the same thing that soldiers ate.”
Beyond the hardships of daily life in the camp, there were other numerous other challenges.
“It was isolated … you didn’t know what to think of it,” he said.
While his own day-to-day life was filled with uncertainty and hardship, he was alive and surviving. But Remus knew he couldn’t do anything to address the worries that his family must have had at home.
“Nobody knew where I was. I couldn’t write letters and you couldn’t receive letters,” he said.
As months and years at the POW camp wore on, Remus endured his imprisonment day by day, moment by moment.
“I wasn’t married. If I had been married when this happened I don’t think I could have did it,” he said. “But these are things that happen at the spur of the moment.”
The Korean Armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953.
This followed around two years of negotiations among China, North Korea and the United Nations Command. The agreement would lead to the final exchange of prisoners of war on both sides during the Korean War.
That exchange, called Operation Big Switch, began on Aug. 6, 1953.
“They just took a few of us, not many, and put us on a train,” Remus said. “And the trains were nothing but freight cars.”
Remus would travel by train for days.
He walked through Freedom Gate near the border between North and South Korea exactly 27 months to the day he was taken captive, a newspaper reported at the time.
“We ended up in Busan,” Remus said. “I ended up on a ship going to Japan and from Japan, I went on another ship to San Francisco.”
His younger brother, who was in the Navy Air Force, had made preparations for Remus to return to the United States.
“He made sure that he was there when I came home,” Remus said. “So he just made his own plans and he got me a uniform and got me out of there.”
His brother made sure that Remus was sent to Michigan recover, rather than being routed to Madigan General Hospital located on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
“He got me a uniform, a Navy uniform and put me on a plane to Selfridge Field,” Remus said. “… Afterwards I came home. I only spent a couple days there at Selfridge (Air National Guard Base.) I came home and spent some time with my parents at their house.”
Remus then decided it was time to start the process of returning to civilian life.
One part of this was arranging to go to Chicago to get his discharge.
“I had no uniform, I had nothing,” Remus said. “No paperwork, no nothing. When I went to Chicago … I explained to them what I was there for. And they gave me the paperwork. And that was it.”
Another step involved returning to the civilian workforce.
“Then I made up my mind that I better go get my job back because … they promise you if you’re in the service you’ll get your job back,” Remus said.
Remus returned to Sears-Roebuck, first working in stock, then moving to the sales department.
And with his return to Sears-Roebuck, he met the woman who would become his wife.
“When I came back home, I went to the personnel department to get my job back and that’s how I met her,” he said.
The couple would spend the following years building a life together. They married and had three daughters. But after 23 years together, tragedy struck: Remus’s wife died of cancer.
However, he would eventually remarry. And after 40 years of working for Sears-Roebuck, Remus would travel the world with his second wife.
“We traveled around the world three times,” he said. “All the providences of Canada, all the states in the United States, all the countries in Europe and Asia, we traveled.”
Of all the places he visited, Remus recalls most fondly visiting New Zealand, particularly the country’s mountain ranges.
The Korean Conflict between North and South Korea continues to this day. North Korea and the United States remain technically at war because the Korean War ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
“That war was never over yet,” Remus said. “They never declared peace. They haven’t.”
Both North and South Korea each still claim to be the sole legitimate government of all of Korea.
But the sacrifices of Remus and his fellow soldiers and POWs will never be forgotten.
Remus, a member of the D.J. Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette, was recently honored at Jacobetti during a National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony.
“I felt good what about what I did. I wouldn’t want to plan somebody to do what I did. No. I don’t think they could do it,” Remus said. “…. I led a blessed life because a lot of people could have never had done that and I would have never planned it that way. So, that’s life.”
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.