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Death March survivor shares experience

June 11, 2011
By WARREN SCOTT - Staff writer (wscott@heraldstaronline.com) , The Herald-Star

WELLSBURG - Members of the Ohio Valley Barbed Wire Chapter of Ex-Prisoners of War learned of the Korean War Death March from one of its survivors, Thomas Lyke of Colliers, at a meeting held at Staffileno's on the River.

Lyke related how he was among 850 captured by Communist Chinese troops led by a major known only to his captors as "The Tiger" because he seemed to enjoy killing.

Because of the commanding officer's nickname, those who lived following their capture have come to be known as Tiger Surivors.

Lyke said as a member of the 6th Medium Tank Battalion of Army Company D, he was among troops dispatched to aid 65 Airborne Rangers surrounded by Communist troops.

When he emerged from his tank to help two wounded rangers, one of the company's officers threatened to courtmartial him. Instead, Lyke would later receive a Bronze Star and be named an honorary Airborne Ranger.

The rescued rangers were transported from the site, but the Chinese were able to knock out Lyke's and others' tanks and other U.S. military vehicles, Lyke said.

Wounded and knocked unconscious, Lyke awoke to find dead American and Communist troops all around him. When the area came under fire from U.S. artillery, he took refuge in a cave, he recalled.

Lyke said after being holed up there for four days, he set out for water and food and was captured by the Chinese.

"The Tiger" and his troops had captured American troops and civilians, including several missionaries and nuns, and forced them to march 190 miles "as the crow flies" to prison camps.

Not all of the captives made it to the camps. Many were shot, beaten to death or died from exposure or infection, Lyke said.

He said many lost their toes to frostbite, and captives often used sandstone to scrape dead skin from their feet.

Lyke was incarcerated at several prison camps along North Korea's Yalu River. He escaped once and was gone for two days before he was recaptured, he recalled.

He made another escape attempt, this time with two other soldiers. The three were recaptured and one of his fellow fugitives, a good friend, was beaten on the head and bled to death, Lyke said.

Captured on April 29, 1951, he wasn't released until Aug. 28, 1953. Due to lack of food, his weight had dropped from 157 pounds to 87 pounds within two months.

During his capture, his parents had been notified first that he'd been killed in action, then that he was missing in action and finally that he was a prisoner of war.

Later in his life Lyke became a president and long-time board member of the Korean War Ex-POW Association and through it and other groups, helped other Korean War veterans to secure federal assistance.

Asked if he received any compensation for his efforts, Lyke pointed to his heart and said, "I received it here."

Lyke, who today has Parkinson's disease, said of the injuries and abuse he received during the war, "I got what I got because I wanted (to serve) and I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Having missed serving in World War II because of his age, Lyke altered his birth certificate because he was just 16 when he enlisted for the Korean War.

He also convinced his mother to given written consent, and she later regretted it, Lyke said.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com.)

 
 

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