April 12, 1951. At first, Dan Oldewage thought it was a dream. After a few more tugs at his blanket he slowly opened his eyes to see the dim shine of a flashlight. “Breakfast at 0430, briefing at 0500!” His drowsiness continued to linger as the warmth of his bunk gave way to the early-morning dampness of the enlisted barracks at United States Air Force (USAF) base Kadena in Okinawa. The hot breakfast in the mess hall helped a little, but at the same time the heavy, greasy fare made him want to get back into his bunk and go back to sleep.
In the briefing tent the B-29 crews of the 371st Bomb Squadron assembled, still moaning and groaning from the early morning wake-up call, the smell of hot coffee and tobacco smoke hanging in the air. At precisely 0500 the briefing began, and any notion that the day’s mission would be easy or routine was quickly dispelled as the intelligence officer began his presentation.
The target was the bridge spanning the Yalu River that connected Sinuiju, North Korean and Antung (now Dandong), China. For the men flying the mission, the target could not have been any more difficult, or dangerous. Not only was the bridge deep within “MiG Alley”, a perilous stretch of airspace along the Yalu known for attacks from MiG-15 aircraft operating from bases within China, it also straddled the geographical line of which American and NATO forces were not allowed to cross. In fact, the bomber crews were warned in the briefing that should any airman be captured in this area, the Air Force had no idea as to what would happen to them.
As the giant Superfortress aircraft started their massive radial engines, 25 year-old Staff Sergeant Oldewage took his position in the tail, manning twin rearward-facing .50 caliber machine guns. For this mission, his eighth since arriving in Korea, their aircraft would be flying the slot, or last position in the formation. The tail gunner was the most vulnerable crew member in the slot position, for during this time the deadly and effective MiG-15 typically attacked B-29s from the rear, where they had the best chances of taking down the enormous bombers by skillfully utilizing the 37mm cannon mounted in the front of the MiG-15 fuselage.
The first few hours of the mission were routine. However, not far from the target Dan’s B-29 developed engine problems and began lagging behind in the formation. Radioing the squadron lead, the pilots were instructed to fall back and join another B-29 formation several miles behind them. Just as the rest of their squadron disappeared into the morning haze, three North Korean MiG-15 fighters appeared out of nowhere and began their attack.
Traveling at close to 600mph, the MiGs were almost impossible to target using conventional machine guns such as those mounted in the B-29. Instead, Dan fired in a pattern, hoping the MiGs would fly into the wall of lead he was laying out. On their first pass the MiGs scored several direct hits. The B-29 shuddered, and looking out through the window he saw a hole in the left horizontal stabilizer big enough for a man to crawl through. The aircraft began oscillating, and at about that same time the pilot came over the intercom and informed the crew to prepare to bail out, followed by the sounding of the emergency alarm. Dan tried to confirm the order through the intercom system, however he received no response. Looking rearward he spotted several opened parachutes, which prompted him to open his small escape window and jump into the unknown. Though he had donned his parachute harness correctly, in the commotion he had neglected to fully tighten the leg straps around his thighs. Consequently, as Dan remembers, “when my parachute opened I let out a scream that was probably heard all the way back in Okinawa.”
Just under six years prior, 19 year-old Dan had been the nose gunner of a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) B-24 Liberator based on Ie Shima, flying missions against Japan in prelude of a full-scale invasion. On August 9, 1945 Dan’s B-24 was flying a bombing mission against targets on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. Off in the distance they spotted what they thought was an unusually large thunderhead rising up high into the atmosphere. When they returned they noted this sighting in their reports as an unidentified weather phenomenon. As it turned out the huge plume they spotted turned out to be no thunderhead; it was a mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Just under one week later Japan surrendered, and the war in the Pacific was over.
Dan spent about six months in occupied Japan, stationed at USAAF base Atsugi, southwest of Tokyo. He remembers this time fondly. “I was working in the hospital, and most of our time was spent getting GIs who had drank too much out of trouble. Since we were from the hospital we drove an ambulance, which gave us access to anywhere we wanted to go, anytime!”
When Dan was discharged in February of 1946, he was given the options of full discharge, active reserves or inactive reserves. Wanting to preserve his rank of Staff Sergeant, Dan chose inactive reserves. Though he had no desire to ever go to war again, given the events that had just come to pass it was doubtful the United States would be entering another war anytime soon.
After discharge Dan located to the Los Angeles area, where his mother and father had just retired from Tucson, Arizona. He began building a civilian life in the tranquil years following the war, working for a time as a salesman for Sears Roebuck. However, the post-war tranquility Dan and the rest of the country enjoyed would prove all too brief.
In June of 1950 communist North Korea invaded South Korea, and once again the United States, along with NATO allies, were drawn into a bloody conflict less than five years after the end of World War II. Dan was one of the first inactive reservists to be recalled to active duty, for what was supposed to be a one-year tour, in September of 1950. Now the United States Air Force (USAF), he was assigned as the tail gunner of a B-29 heavy designated bomber.
Far from back home in Los Angeles living a quiet civilian life, having already survived one world war, Dan was now descending by parachute into a dry rice paddy, somewhere in communist North Korea. When he hit the ground it was with such force that he thought he had broken his back. Dazed and in great pain, he spotted a peasant farmer staring at him from across the field. Holding up his hands to show he was unarmed, he nervously approached the farmer. Fortunately for him, the farmer was sympathetic, helping him inside and giving him some boiled water while waiting for the authorities to arrive.
Once taken into custody by the North Korean Army, Dan suffered through both mental and physical abuse at the hands of his captors. He and other POWs were routinely marched at gunpoint through jeering crowds, being cursed at and spat upon. At one point his captors made him kneel down in a ditch, then they cocked their rifles and fired into the air, making Dan think he was going to be executed. Luckily the guards were merely showing off their power, but the constant fear of death remained.
During short stays at homes and police stations Dan was united with several fellow American airmen, some from aircraft in his squadron. They were relentlessly interrogated on topics of USAF operations and procedures, as well as specifics of the B-29. He truthfully did not know the answer to many of their questions, however they were very hesitant to take his word. While the North Koreans and Chinese were hardened interrogators, the Russian interrogators were easier and more amicable in their approach. In fact, many of the airmen felt the Russian interrogators were the very same pilots who shot them down. Nevertheless, most intelligence information they extracted from these interrogations were negligible, at best.
The prisoners were eventually taken to Pyongyang, where they were interned at the city jail for five days in steel cages with no room to sit and a pail for a toilet. When they finally left they were once again marched through angry partisan mobs who hurled rocks at them. Two days later they arrived at what they called the “Caves”.
The mortality rate at the “Caves” was about 60%, mostly from malnutrition and dehydration. Food and water was little, and the battle for survival was daily. Dysentery and other illnesses were common, hastening the death toll. The only respite is when the prisoners were taken outside of the dungeon-like subterranean cells and given lectures on communism and other propaganda.
Sometime in June of 1951 the American POWs were marched to a different camp, “Camp 12”. Along the way the men were allowed to stop and bathe in the Taedong River, for some of them this was their first bath in months. By this time Dan weighed 85 pounds; skin over bones. Upon arriving at the camp they were treated better, the accommodations were cleaner, but the food and medical care was still well below standards. There was one dental kit that traveled between the camps, along with a Chinese man who was most likely not a dentist. However he could pull teeth such as Dan’s impacted molar, minus novocaine or any other medication to dull the pain.
In November of 1951 the POWs were moved again, marching to “Camp 5” on the Yalu River. During the march the men were strafed by American and NATO aircraft, who mistook them for North Korea military, making the journey all the more perilous. After a short stay the USAF enlisted POWs were transferred to another camp, “Camp 2”. This camp was another improvement over previous POW camps where Dan had been interred, and the treatment by their captors also continued to improve, though attendance of the daily communist propaganda readings were still compulsory.
Life went on for the POWs inside “Camp 2”, and despite their circumstances the men interned there made the best of the situation. Friendships were made, bonds were formed and humanity was at long last back within their reach.
It was early summer of 1953 when rumors began circulating in the camp that cease-fire talks were underway. Shortly after, in early August, the men were moved to another camp specifically set up to exchange POWs from the conflict. This camp was appropriately named “Freedom Village”. Every day the guards would call out the names of the POWs to be released the following day. On September 4, 1953 Dan’s name was called and the next day he boarded a truck to take him one step closer to home. His group, which included captured American General William Dean, was among the last to be called for repatriation.
While Dan may have finally been free, he was not well. Suffering from back injuries due to his hard landing, malnourished and weak, he was transferred to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit for immediate treatment.
For nearly two and a half years, Dan’s parents and other family had no idea if he was dead or alive. When his B-29 was shot down he was listed as Missing In Action (MIA), as the North Koreans did not routinely relay POW information to the Red Cross such as what had been done during the previous two world wars. It was not until he was awaiting a ship to the states that he was finally able to call his family and let them know "I'm fine, I'm free, and I'm coming home."
Dan Oldewage after twenty-nine months of enemy captivity.
Dan continued his recovery in the states, spending time at several military hospitals, primarily for back injuries he suffered when he landed in the dry rice paddy. Married in January of 1954, he was finally discharged from active duty with the USAF in March of that year.
In the years and decades that followed Dan and his wife raised a family in a quiet suburb of Orange County. Never one to talk much about his experiences in Korea, prodding by his wife eventually resulted in an autobiography which details his amazing battle for survival amongst the ravages of war.
Several years ago Dan started visiting Lyon Air Museum, to tell his story and share camaraderie amongst the museum Docents, several of whom had been POWs themselves. After much contemplation, Dan decided to join the museum as a volunteer, where he has become an invaluable asset to the team and a favorite among museum guests.
For his valiant service and immeasurable sacrifice to our country we salute Dan Oldewage, and offer the most profound and heartfelt appreciation of an eternally grateful nation.
Article Written By Dan Heller