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POW remembers life in captivity

Tony Jurek was a prisoner of war from 1950-1953 in Korea. The then-18-year-old spent 33 months as a POW before being released when the war was over. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 4
Korean War prisoner of war Tony Jurek saved this newspaper clipping from 1953. Jurek and fellow POW James Arntson were released from captivity after 33 months. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 4
These round POW/MIA tables sit in many VFW posts and American Legions across the U.S, including this one in Cloquet. The tables represent missing military members from all branches. Everything on the table is symbolic from the pinch of salt that symbolizes the tears of the missing and their families who still long for answers to the red rose that signifies the blood shed by military members during war. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal3 / 4
This painting of a POW/MIA table was recently painted and donated by local artist Sue Jeglowski. The painting will hang above the actual POW/MIA table at the Cloquet VFW to help pull visitors attention to the little table in the corner. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal4 / 4

A small round table covered with a white tablecloth and a place setting for one sits quietly in a corner by itself at the Cloquet VFW Post 3979. The table is a prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action table to honor missing service men and women from all military branches. The table is full of symbolism, from the shape (round) to the slice of fresh lemon on the plate.

"I expect people to respect it," Army veteran and former prisoner of war Tony Jurek said. "It represents POWs and their sacrifices and all of those that died over there, and let's face it — that wasn't a small number."

Jurek joined the Army in 1950. He was 18 years old when he was deployed to Korea. He was in the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion and drove an M-4 tank.

"I was in the 'forgotten war' — the Korean War," Jurek said. "I was there three months when I was captured."

Some memories have faded in the 65 years since Jurek was released, but others remain strong.

He was captured by the Chinese when his unit was overrun during the Battle of Kunu-ri, across from the Yalu River in the Korean Peninsula on Dec. 1, 1950. Of the 787 Battalion soldiers, 331 members were captured. Only 117 survived imprisonment. Two were from Carlton County: Tony Jurek and his friend, Jim Arntson. Arntson died in 2015.

He explained that the vintage tanks they drove were relics from the previous war. The old tanks were worn out and kept falling apart. The men gave up using the tanks and continued without them.

Jureks battalion scattered as the fighting continued. He ran out of food and ammunition.

"Korea was a strange place, desolate," Jurek said. He compared the winter weather to Minnesota's.

Jurek was behind enemy lines. He still remembers the sheer numbers of the Chinese who arrived to help the Koreans.

"One minute, you're a free man. The next, you're a prisoner," Jurek said. "It was a weird feeling."

He is matter of fact about his capture and said he was not afraid.

"Those were different times," Jurek said. "We just rolled with the punches."

He described how the prisoners walked down the road with their hands behind their head. Sometimes snipers would shoot the prisoners as they walked by.

Jurek remembers the food was different. The Chinese had their rations of rice tied in a sack around their neck and carried a tin cup on their belt.

"The prisoners were fed a grain called kaoling," Jurek said. "Everyone lost weight." He said the Chinese bragged that they fed the prisoners 700 calories a day. That was not much less than the 1,000 calories a day the Chinese were eating.

Jurek said he was about 70-75 pounds as a prisoner. He had been around 140 pounds when he was captured.

By late December, the prisoners had reached the camp where they would be held about a month.

The men had to walk a long distance to gather water from a spring that bubbled out of the ground in the middle of the camp.

"It was quite a hike, so you take all of the cans," Jurek said. "I had filled mine with water and was leaving when I bumped into a guy. It was winter and it was icy and it spilled on me. I turned to cuss him out, and here it was Jimmy (Arntson)."

The men were in different parts of the camp so they would sneak out to visit when possible. Then Arntson was sent to Pyoktong POW camp. A short time later, Jurek was sent to the same camp. They were assigned to different sections in the camp so only saw each other during detail.

One of the details included disposing of the bodies. Jurek said there were 10-12 each day. The prisoners were not given tools to dig graves in the frozen ground. They made due as best as they could.

"We took them across the Yalu River to the river bank in China, and that's where we would leave them," Jurek said. "We would hack a shallow depression in the dirt and ice. We would lay the bodies in there and stack the chunks over them. In the spring, you could hear the hogs rooting them up. It's not pleasant. That was the burial of our POWs"

Jurek explained his mother did not know what happened to him for almost seven months.

"We were all MIA's until our whereabouts were known by our government," Jurek said. "I was MIA until around June of 1951, then my mother heard I was possibly a POW."

Prisoners were allowed to write letters. The letters were sent through France with the help of a peace committee. Jurek was not sure if their letters were actually sent because they did not receive answers.

"You got a piece of paper and you would write your letter," Jurek explained. "You would fold the danged thing over somehow and that would be your envelope. It was real efficient."

He said he still has one of the letters.

At the end of July the prisoners began to notice changes in their captors.

"You could see the changes in attitude and you just knew the damn war was over," Jurek said. "It was happy days."

After the signing of the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, it took one month before Jurek was released from captivity. He remembers the sunny day he was released on Aug. 27, 1953. A few truck loads of prisoners were sent to a neutral village in Korea to be exchanged. In contrast, trainloads of Chinese and Korean prisoners were sent to the village.

POW/MIA table symbolism

Jurek says he appreciates the presence of the POW/MIA table and is thankful someone thought about it and made it happen.

The round shape signifies our everlasting concern. The setting for one and the empty chair represents Americans who were or are still missing, like Jurek was. The slice of lemon, which is replaced daily, reminds us of their bitter fate, captured and missing in a foreign land.

Many VFW posts and American Legions have symbolic tables. Local artist Sue Jeglowski volunteered to do a painting of a table and donate it to the Cloquet VFW. They plan to hang the painting above the table and hope to draw visitors attention to the quiet little table in the corner.

"It hurts. (Looking at the table) It brings back pretty bad memories," Jurek said. "Nobody understands freedom more than a POW."

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which was last updated Nov. 2, more than 82,000 Americans are still missing. That includes World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War and the Gulf Wars/other conflicts. Of those, over 41,000 are presumed to be lost at sea.

Americans still missing from the Korean War total 7,676 and 1,592 are still missing from the Vietnam War.