Finnegan Found – Surviving the POW Camps on the Yalu by John N. Powers

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A story untold. Left in the dark. For seventy years. This novel tells that story, shines a light on that darkness. Our prisoners-of-war in Korea are truly the forgotten men of the forgotten war. The prisoner-of-war camps along the Yalu River saw half the prisoners die during the first winter. Then the Chinese began their efforts at “re-education.” The Chinese attempted to convince the prisoners of the decadence of capitalism and the glories of communism. Those “students” who failed to demonstrate the correct amount of enthusiasm were punished.

Swede is one who fights back. Only nineteen years old, he escapes three times and pays a price for each. He is starved and exposed to the freezing winter night while buckets of water are thrown on him. His guards beat him-and worse. Swede decides they might kill him, but he will never give up. Finally allowed to rejoin the main camp, he teaches others to resist, becoming one of the worst of the men the Chinese fear – the Reactionaries.

Swede escapes from his cell night after night to steal food and medicine for his fellow prisoners, each time returning before he is caught. He joins men like Earl Stoneman and Henry Page to convince other POWs to fight the Chinese efforts at poisoning their minds. He becomes involved with a B-29 the Chinese have captured and burns records the Chinese keep on the prisoners. When he is sentenced to a year in a penal camp, Swede continues to escape at night to help fellow prisoners being isolated and tortured. He saves a friend from certain death at the hands of the Tiger, a fanatical Korean who executes prisoners. In doing so, he buries another friend in secret.

Swede decides to continue the fight against this new enemy, even though he is still trying to understand what causes men to inflict such pain and suffering on their brothers.

Forgotten for seventy years. Now is their time to be remembered.

My Thoughts

Paul Larson ‘Swede’ grew up as an honest, hard working farm boy. At age 19 he enlists in the army to gain some life experience and is sent to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He is captured on his second day there and begins life as a POW in North Korea where the Geneva Conventions regarding the health and welfare of POWs mean nothing. Instead he and his fellow prisoners are force-marched, starved, and not given essential medical treatment. Those unable to keep up are shot on the roadside. The camp they eventually reach is unsanitary and brutal. And this is only the first of several camps that Swede is sent to, varying in degrees of brutality and neglect.

Over the following two years Swede meets and works with a close-knit group of other POWs to bolster morale, throw as many obstacles in the way of their captors as possible, and help other POWs to survive – often risking severe punishment and possible death.

This was not an easy book to read in places. The POWs in this war have not had fair coverage of the hardships they faced, and the author has told their story perfectly. In the end notes the author mentions that most of what happens in the book is based on real accounts from POWs, and their different stories have been coalesced into this book – fiction based heavily on factual accounts.

I feel as though I have been educated by reading Finnegan Found. It’s a sad and sobering read and gave me my first real understanding of why so many American POWs in the Vietnam War either didn’t come home, or came home psychologically damaged – in some cases irreparably. And also why they didn’t receive the same welcome and support on their return as the POWs from previous wars.

A very solid 4.5 stars. Highly recommend.

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