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A POW with attitude

Tens of thousands of Korean War veterans live in the Tampa Bay area. A few agreed to share their recollections with us.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 22, 2003

For Marine Sgt. Richard Oven, held captive during the Korean War, stubbornness sometimes trumped fear. And common sense.

Oven, then 19, spent late 1952 and early 1953 in several North Korean POW camps, living on a bowl of rice a day and sleeping on wood floors through the brutal winter.

He had shrapnel in his leg and hand. He had a chip on his shoulder. And a sense of humor.

Each day, the Chinese would question the prisoners at length about U.S. military secrets, none of which they knew.

"They'd say, "Who is the commander of your outfit?' And I'd say, "Clark Gable,' " said Oven, who lives in Seminole. "At night, we'd laugh about it. We'd say, "Hey, what did you tell them (today)?' "

Other times, his captors would show Oven aerial maps and ask him to identify objects on the ground.

"I'd say, "Looks like a supply depot to me,' " Oven said. "I'd give them anything. I had no idea. For all I know, it was a rice paddy. They'd write down reams of stuff."

Their captors also tried to indoctrinate the POWs into communism.

Oven didn't object.

He knew they would offer a cigarette if he listened and nodded quietly. Then, when they weren't looking, he would steal several extra smokes for his pals.

Oven says he and other troops were disrespectful to and lied to their captors partly because they were young and strong-willed and brazen. But more than anything, they had to maintain their sanity.

"It broke the monotony," he said. "You had to do something."

His antics met with reproach only once.

Two Chinese doctors in white smocks, their hands dirty, came one day to examine the shrapnel in Oven's hand. When they started poking around, he let loose a stream of profanity.

"I called them every name in the book," he said.

One doctor paused, looked at Oven and said in perfect English: "Stop being a baby."

The doctor had gone to school in Detroit.

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