Friday, May 8, 2009

Harold Fischer

Today’s New York Times had an obituary for Harold Fischer. I don’t ordinarily linger on the obit page but was intrigued because the headline read, “Harold E. Fischer, 83, American Flier Tortured in Chinese Prison, Is Dead.”

The story of Fischer is one of unease—you see, Fischer was a fighter pilot who was shot down by the Chinese during the Korean War, the early 1950’s “police action” (the term of that era) which so many have forgotten or minimally acknowledged. It’s the war for which few statues have been built. And Fischer’s tale is one that provides a sense of guilt—of uneasiness at what happened to him with the natural question of “what would I have done in his situation?”…and of an acknowledgment that there are veterans of Korea who went through similar atrocities as those we acknowledge from more recent wars like Vietnam and the plight of the POW’s.

Born in Iowa, Fischer enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in 1944. He, like so many of his generation, thought first of serving their country given the timing, which was the height of World War II. After his discharge, Fischer attended Iowa State University for two years, then enlisted in the Army. He later transferred to the Air Force where he became a fighter ace, flying 170 missions during the Korean War. He downed 11 MIGs during his flying career but it was after his 11th that his engine stalled and he was forced to eject over Chinese territory, where he was captured.

From April 1953 to May 1955, after the war ended, Fischer was kept in a cell in a Manchurian prison. His quarters were dark, damp, with no bed and no light save for the slot where food would be pushed each day. A high-frequency whistle pierced the air hour after hour in the cell.

The Chinese held a mock trial in 1955 for Fischer and three other U.S. airmen who had been captured. They were found “guilty” of violating Chinese territory by flying over the border while on missions in North Korea. It was under this duress that Fischer confessed to participating in germ warfare.

Fischer and his three comrades were granted their release a week after “confessing.” The release was seen at the time as a way to minimize Cold War tensions between the U.S. and China.

No military disciplinary action was taken against Fisher and his prison-mates. All were restored to full military duty and Fischer went on to pilot helicopters in Vietnam. He earned the rank of colonel as well as numerous medals, including the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross.

“I will regret what I did in that cell for the rest of my life,” Fischer said. “But let me say this—it was not really me, Harold Fischer, Jr., who signed that confession. It was a mentality reduced to putty.”

Fischer died on April 30 at age 83--53 years after the day he entered that dank cell in a Manchurian prison.

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