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Not forgotten: Korean War vet, member of all-black artillery unit, recalls surviving three years as a POW

OKMULGEE — Keep fighting to live, or give up and die.

For the captives at North Korea’s Prisoner of War Camp No. 5, it was a choice many of them had to revisit on a near-daily basis.

Having seen plenty of men lose hope, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Roosevelt Powell knew how easy it could be to give up.

But he made up his mind, he said, not to let his fellow POWs do that — at least, not before he had a chance to talk to them.

“I tried to convince them to stick it out — keep living to get back home,” Powell said.

For some of them, no words could make a difference. Other POWs, however, drew strength from Powell and would later credit him with helping them keep going.

“I was blessed,” he said. “My mind didn’t focus on how long I’d be there. I never thought about giving up or not going home again.”

In advance of National POW/MIA Recognition Day last Friday, Powell — a longtime Okmulgee resident and Korean War veteran who spent nearly three years in captivity — talked about his experience with the Tulsa World.

Powell, who will turn 92 next month, endured extreme deprivation and harsh conditions as a POW, including winters of 50-below-zero temperatures.

He received a Purple Heart in connection with injuries from that time and later an Oklahoma Cross of Valor from Gov. George Nigh.

Powell, who grew up in Beggs, joined the Army when he turned 18, just weeks after the end of World War II in 1945.

Trained as a heavy-equipment operator, he went on to spend the next two years on Guam.

Segregation of the military by race officially ended in 1948 with an executive order. But it would be several years before that was fully enforced, and there would still be a few all-black units up until 1954.

One of those units was the 503rd Field Artillery Battalion.

In June 1950, when communist North Korea invaded South Korea, kicking off the Korean War, Powell would be assigned to the 503rd, where he was joined by other young African American soldiers, including his soon-to-be friend, future U.S. congressman Charlie Rangel.

Powell, a member of a 155-mm howitzer crew, arrived in South Korea with his unit in August. Part of a U.S.-led United Nations force, the 503rd fought fiercely, blasting away at the North Koreans with its howitzers.

“It was real war,” Powell said.

“We whipped the Korean army — demolished them,” he added. “By September we were sitting there waiting to go home. We’d won the war. Or so we thought.”

‘Couldn’t save all of them’

Just as Powell and his comrades were feeling pretty good about things, a new enemy emerged.

When units from communist China began swarming across the border to back North Korea, “I remember thinking the U.S. didn’t make enough ammunition to kill all the Chinese coming in,” Powell said.

Having pushed north nearly to the border with China, the 503rd found itself trapped.

“The Chinese were just pouring in,” Powell said.

The unit moved south to try to link up with American forces, but near Kunu-Ri they ran into the enemy.

Powell was driving a vehicle towing his crew’s howitzer, when an explosion killed his engine, causing him to smash into the howitzer ahead of him.

“I either had to hit it or take it off the road. And there was a cliff to the right.”

In the crash, Powell’s right forearm was broken near the elbow.

He found a medic. But just as he cut his sleeve and went to work, the young man slumped over on top of Powell. He was dead, hit by enemy fire.

“I had to push him off of me and take the IV out myself,” Powell said.

It was shortly after that that Powell was captured along with other members of his unit.

Powell’s imprisonment would begin after a three-day march.

Upon arriving at Camp 5, at Pyoktong near the Chinese border, the POWs were herded into facilities in what had previously been a mining camp.

There, with dozens crammed into small rooms, they slept on mats on the floor.

It was crowded at first, Powell said. But it didn’t stay that way. As prisoners succumbed and died, it thinned out.

The weeks advanced, and Powell, housed with other black soldiers, settled into POW life as best he could.

His broken arm had never been treated. The bone-chilling temperatures of that first winter worked to his favor, though, effectively setting it, he said.

Meals were the bare minimum. They consisted of boiled corn and, later on, millet.

“You never got enough,” Powell said. “Every morning, we’d wait to report the men who’d died overnight. So we’d get their portion.”

Powell tried to be an encourager among the inmates. He wanted his fellow POWs to keep the faith.

“But you couldn’t save all of them,” he said.

He came to believe, he said, that men could will themselves to die.

“They’d say, ‘I can’t live like this anymore. I’m going to kick off tonight.’ ”

Sure enough, they’d be dead by the next morning, he said.

“There were nights where we lost three or four,” Powell added. “It always happened at night when it was quiet. I never saw anyone die during the day.”

One of his fellow POWs, Oscar Hill, was from Okmulgee.

Hill, who died last year after a longtime friendship with Powell, had joined the Army at age 15, with his mother giving her permission.

He came close to despairing during captivity, Powell said.

“He gave me credit for keeping him living,” he said. “He told me I saved his life.”

“We made it back together.”

The Forgotten War

Powell’s other memories of his confinement include a “POW Olympics” staged by their captors. Prisoners from other camps were brought in to compete in the games, which were held at Camp 5.

The event was such a big deal, Powell said, it even prompted a visit from Chinese ruler Mao Zedong.

Powell and the other inmates had a chance to talk to Zedong. He spoke fluent English and answered their questions.

“He said he’d been traveling all day to get there,” Powell said. “He sat down on the ground as he talked. Then he took a two-hour nap.”

As for the “Olympics,” they were mostly for show and propaganda, of course. Daily POW life, Powell said, was never fun and games.

During their captivity, POWs were also pressured to embrace communism.

“Oh, there were a few turncoats,” Powell said, but most didn’t take the bait.

“Everybody had to take this mandatory course and when you finished, you got a certificate. I think most of the certificates ended up in the trash.”

Over his 32 months of captivity, Powell’s only contact with the outside world were letters from home. He received three during that time. His family sent dozens more, but they were probably intercepted by censors, he said.

Freedom finally arrived in July 1953. With the war’s end, Powell and the other surviving POWs were repatriated.

From the camp, they would travel by ox cart, fishing boat and finally rail to reach American forces in Pusan.

There, Powell was hospitalized for 11 days, undergoing a regimen of vitamins and shots. He had lost more than 50 pounds and weighed a slim 110.

Powell opted out of further military service. Altogether, he’d served nearly eight years, and he held the rank of staff sergeant.

Returning to Oklahoma, he went on to a career in maintenance at the post office in Okmulgee, from which he retired after 33 years.

Today, Powell looks back on his segregated service as unfortunate and a product of “ignorance.” But, he added, “when you lived under it all your life, you just accepted it.”

Powell still felt like he had fought for his country — even if that country did not yet grant him full equality.

Veterans of Korea sometimes refer to it as the “Forgotten War.” Powell, agreeing that they’ve been overshadowed by other wars, is no exception.

“We were forgotten from the beginning,” he said. “When we docked in California, it was like they were slipping us back in. When a shipload of troops comes in, there’s supposed to be a band and people to greet you. Nobody greeted us.”

Even now, he added, “I can’t tell any difference” in how Korea veterans are recognized.

But Powell couldn’t forget Korea if he tried.

As he’s carried his memories and other effects from the war, his wife, Bobbie, has been there for him.

“I’ve been through this war, too, lots of times,” she said, adding that she’s heard all his stories.

And there are the physical reminders.

Powell’s feet were frostbitten, his hearing damaged by the thundering howitzers. And he still has scars from the accident that broke his arm. Because of them, he doesn’t like to wear short sleeves, his wife said.

A 100% disabled veteran, Powell had a pacemaker put in last year.

But overall he’s doing well and is still able to enjoy his favorite pastime at his home, gardening.

“The doctor told me he’s just a blessed man,” Bobbie Powell said.

“I am blessed,” her husband agreed. “No doubt about it.”


Gov. Kevin Stitt's Cabinet picks criticized for lack of diversity

OKLAHOMA CITY — One-fifth of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Cabinet members are women, and no one in the group is black.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, is one state leader who believes that the governor’s Cabinet should be more representative.

“I would say it is very concerning because I have seen the difference it makes when women are at the decision-making table because of the different perspectives they bring,” Virgin said.

Stitt’s 15-member Cabinet comprises three women and 12 men.

Two of the Cabinet members are Native American.

None is African American.

Oklahoma’s population is 50.47% female and 49.53% male, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates as of July 1.

The state’s population is slightly more than 65% white, according to the bureau.

“I think Gov. Stitt has an opportunity to make sure all Oklahomans are represented in his Cabinet, but now his Cabinet is not reflective of the population,” Virgin said.

Baylee Lakey, a Stitt spokeswoman, said Stitt sought out and recruited a number of women and people with various backgrounds for Cabinet and agency posts.

“Because of this process, Gov. Stitt’s Cabinet includes three women who are making state history by being the first females to serve in the roles of Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Science and Innovation, and Secretary of Native American Affairs,” Lakey said.

Members of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus who were contacted also expressed concerns about the lack of minorities on the Cabinet.

“I would just say that in this day and age, we should be intentional about having government reflect its people,” said Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, who serves as chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

“I am talking about capable people,” she said.

Another caucus member, Sen. George Young, said the majority of Stitt’s Cabinet members are middle-aged white men who come from a business background.

Young, D-Oklahoma City, said it is troubling when that many members come from one demographic group because they tend to have a limited view of the issues.

Stitt has said he wants to run the state like a business, Young noted.

But “the state is not a business,” he said. “The state of Oklahoma is there to fulfill the needs and hopes of the citizens of Oklahoma.”

Carly Putnam, Oklahoma Policy Institute policy director, was also asked about the makeup of the governor’s Cabinet.

“Oklahomans deserve a government that represents them,” she said. “There is a concern at the very basic level that we don’t have that.”

Michael Junk, Stitt’s chief of staff, said that when the governor was filling the positions, he was looking for people who were the most qualified for the posts.

The governor also was facing financial limitations at the time the Cabinet was formed, Lakey said.

“We were operating on a budget that was the same size of the Governor’s Office budget in the early 1980s, without adjusting for inflation,” Lakey said.

“In light of the new FY 2020 budget, the Governor’s Office is working to ensure our Cabinet members, many of whom are currently operating in a voluntary capacity, are properly compensated.”

Stitt’s office has received an additional $2 million from lawmakers, bringing his budget to $3.7 million.


Tulsa Transit launches new routes Monday

When Tulsa Transit last changed its routes 15 years ago, none of its riders had iPhones, ride sharing was still called carpooling and Facebook was barely more than an idea.

When new routes launch Monday, the Tulsa Transit Authority hopes it will catch up to the pace and technology of its riders, complete with a riders’ app that’s in development.

General Manager Ted Rieck has been a part of the redesign team from its earliest phases. The new routes are cost neutral, meaning all changes were done within existing resources at the transit authority, and Rieck said riders should see on average about 25% faster rides thanks to the elimination of many of the loops in the previous system. The fixed-route system also will have free rides for its first week so people to try them out.

The transit authority in part used census data to structure routes around what Rieck described as a crescent-shaped area of riders that previously hadn’t been well served.

With the main hub downtown at Fourth Street and Denver Avenue, Rieck said many of the new routes are designed to provide the most comprehensive options for that concentration of riders.

“It’s an area that has a high population of potential transit users,” Rieck said. “That’s informative because our system is oriented downtown, but the users don’t live in downtown. They live in this crescent area along Admiral to maybe Sheridan, Memorial and Mingo, then south as far as Woodland Hills Mall.

“That whole area was kind of identified as a high transit-need location. We discovered our route structure wasn’t reflecting that demographic reality.”

Apart from better serving certain areas, Rieck said technology will be a huge part of attracting new riders and accommodating a younger ridership.

Riders can send a text message specific to their stop to find the schedule, and in the near future, Rieck said there will be an app to pay for bus fares.

“You can pay for your bus fare on your phone and when you get on the bus you show the validated screen to the bus driver,” Rieck said. “That way you don’t have to fish around for currency or buy a pass. You can connect your mobile app to your bank account or credit card and pay for your fare.

“We hope to have that implemented sometime by the beginning of 2020, certainly by the middle of 2020.”

With the new routes comes a change to a longstanding policy. Rieck said starting Monday, buses will no longer stop for individuals flagging them down.

Instead, Rieck said buses will still pick up those hailing for a bus, but only at established bus stops.

“We’ve been going through installing about 1,600 signs across the city to encourage people to wait at an actual stop instead of flagging it down,” Rieck said. “So we’re going to be moving away from the flag-stop system to where you have to be at a designated stop.”

The wave of changes to routes, schedules and how riders pay are all a part of what Rieck hopes transit in Tulsa to be for the next generations. He said the city’s bus system has to reflect Tulsa today, not what it used to be.

“Certainly in that time the world has changed and even Tulsa’s changed,” Rieck said. “So we felt it was necessary to get a handle as to where people are, where they want to go, and how to better serve the public with our system.”