In 1953, the Korean War had been raging for three years when thousands of North Korean prisoners of war were set free below the 38th Parallel at Pusan.
Hagerstown resident Ed Peters, 81, said he was a military policeman serving in Korea at the time as he watched the enemy soldiers mix with the local population.
“They brought hundreds of (boats) into Pusan and released those guys in the streets,” Peters said. “Letting those prisoners go free in Pusan created some headaches for the local police ... They were running around and no one knew who was who.”
According to documents from the time, the prisoners were released in June 1953 because many of them said they were anti-Communist and wouldn’t return to fight for North Korea.
In 1952, Peters was drafted by the Army shortly after he graduated from the General Motors Institute of Technology in Flint, Mich.
“In those days, all young men of my age expected to be drafted,” he said.
Peters said he and other draftees were put on a bus in downtown Hagerstown and taken to Baltimore to be inducted into the Army.
After the induction process, Peters said, he was sent to Fort George G. Meade, Md., for three days. He said he was standing in formation at Fort Meade when a soldier called the names of every man who was at least 6 feet tall and had two or more years of college. The Army needed those men, he said, to take military police training in Georgia.
After he finished the military police training, the Army gave Peters some money and told him to find his own way to San Francisco. He said he bought a plane ticket and flew to California, where he boarded a troop ship and set sail for Japan.
Peters said he spent several days in Yokohama before he boarded another ship for the short voyage to South Korea.
In March 1953, he landed at Pusan, where he served as a military policeman directing traffic, and conducting Jeep and harbor patrols until the war ended four months later in July.
“We had quite an area to cover,” he said. “There was all kinds of excitement.”
He stayed in Korea after the war ended, protecting United Nations dignitaries who were charged with ensuring the conditions of the cease fire were followed.
Peters said he was in Korea in the fall of 1953 when a fire started on a hill overlooking Pusan and quickly engulfed the city.
Earlier in the war, refugees fled to Pusan to avoid the fighting. As a result, the city’s population swelled from about 200,000 to nearly 1 million people. Many of the refugees, he said, were living in cardboard shacks that were consumed by the flames.
Records show more than 28,000 people were displaced.
He said so many refugees were in Pusan that many of them didn’t have a place to sleep and died on the streets. Human-drawn carts would come around to pick up the dead, Peters said.
Peters said he left Korea in August 1954 and was discharged from the Army after serving about two years on active duty.
“Looking back at the whole experience, I think I benefited from it,” he said. “I matured. I got to see the world.”
He said he considered his military service as “soft” compared to what soldiers and Marines went through fighting on the front lines.
“I have nothing but respect for them,” Peters said.
After the war, Peters returned to Washington County and got a job at Thumma Motor Co. on Frederick Street in Hagerstown. He said he was the service manager there until 1961. Afterward, he worked at Fleigh Motors on Oak Hill Avenue and later took a job with Potomac Edison, retiring from the utility in 1997.
For the last 60 years, Peters said, he has tried to understand what the Korean War was all about.
“No one seemed to have a handle on what the United States was doing at the time in a third-world country. You never really heard about it,” he said.
Recently, however, he said the answer has grown clearer.
South Korea has developed into one of the strongest economies in the world, while Communist North Korea struggles to feed its people.
“It went from a devastated country to a vibrant, economic power. It’s just amazing,” he said.
Earlier this month, Peters was among a group of local veterans who were invited to a dinner with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Washington, D.C.
“We got a rousing round of applause,” he said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been thanked ... If all that sacrifice — all those men hadn’t died — I’m sure that whole peninsula would be under the control of North Korea.”