Edward Gale Wilkins

1928 - 2003

Korean WarWWII

Their Story

Edward Gale Wilkins was born August 22, 1928, or 1930 (birth record says 1930), in Des Moines, Iowa, to Edward Galen Wilkins and Ethel M. (Billingsley) Wilkins. At the time of his birth his father had been a truck driver for 10 years.[1] Edward had six sisters and a brother: Mildred Marie, Betty J., Grace Garnett, Gladys Virginia, Mary Margaret, Shirley Ann, and Ernest E. His sister, Gladys, died at the age of 5 in 1933, of poliomyelitis, in Broadlawns Contagious Hospital, Des Moines.[2] This condition is also known as polio, a viral infection causing nerve injury which leads to partial or full paralysis. It can paralyze the victim’s diaphragm and make normal breathing impossible and was widespread in the 1930s and 1940s. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that Dr. Jonas E. Salk and colleagues developed a polio vaccine. Polio was considered eliminated in North and South America by 1994. Edward was just three years old at the time of Gladys’ death.

During the 1930 census, Edward was not listed.[3] His sister Gladys was born January 28, 1928. During the 1940 census in April, Edward was listed as 9 years of age. This seems to confirm his actual year of birth as 1930 rather than 1928, which is on most other records. Edward attended Byron Rice Elementary School and Woodrow Wilson Jr. High School.[4] In 1940 his father was a laborer with WPA[5], the Works Progress Administration; an American New Deal agency that employed mostly unemployed and uneducated men to carry out public works projects during the Great Depression.[6] His mother died at the age of 45 in July, 1945. She died of endocarditis, or inflammation of the inner lining of the heart’s chambers and valves, due to complications of nephritis. She had been ill for four months.[7] His father was already deceased by that time,[8] having died in 1941 at the age of 53 of coronary occlusion leading to a heart attack.[9]

Edward enlisted in the Army November 29, 1945, in Des Moines with just two years of high school under his belt. His sister, Mildred Lafferty, said in a January 1951 interview with the Des Moines Register that Edward enlisted in the Army when he was underage.[10] If the 1930 date of birth is correct, he would have been just 15 years old. It is possible that he provided his year of birth as 1928 in order to enlist. His parents were both deceased at the time of his enlistment. Mildred said he served three years in the Army, much of it in the European Theater. Records indicate he served in the infantry in the Hawaiian Department during WWII.[11] He was discharged September 24, 1948.[12]

Edward reenlisted in 1949, this time in the Marine Corps, and was with the First Recruit Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California, from April 1 to 30, 1949. In October of both 1949 and 1950, Edward was listed on the Marine Corp Muster Rolls at Camp Pendleton[13] and on the 1950 Camp Pendleton census.[14] On October 9, 1950, he was listed as a PFC on the muster roll aboard the USS Bexar enroute to Incheon, Korea, with I Co, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division Fleet Marine Force.[15]

The 1st Marine Division fought at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. It was a brutal 17-day battle in freezing weather, and regarded by some historians as the most brutal in modern warfare by violence, casualty rate, weather conditions, and endurance. On the night of November 27, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army’s (PVA) 20th and 27th Corps of the 9th Army launched multiple attacks and ambushes along the road between the Chosin Reservoir and Kot’o-ri. At Yudam-ni, the 5th, 7th and 11th Marines were surrounded and attacked by the PVA 79th and 89th Divisions. A plan was made to break out from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines as the vanguard in a convoy with a single M4A3 Sherman Tank.[16] The 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines would attack south to cover the roads from Chinese attacks. On December 1, 1950, the 3/7 engaged the PVA. The fighting was fierce, requiring the Marines to call in night fighters to suppress the attacks. The fighting lasted well into the morning of December 2 until all the Marines had managed to withdraw from Yudam-ni. It was on this day that Edward went missing.

Edward was reported missing in action on December 2, 1950.[17] In early January 1951, The Red China radio at Peiping broadcast a list of American and British war prisoners who had signed a statement saying they were getting “courteous and kind treatment.” The Red North Korean radio at Pyongyang used such propaganda tactics previously. General MacArthur’s headquarters said it could not verify the list of prisoners.[18] At the time of this statement, Edward’s sisters in Des Moines had not heard from him since November 1949 when he was home on furlough.

In December 1951, the Defense Department began releasing the list of Americans named by the Communists as held in POW camps in Korea. The Department emphasized it “cannot vouch for the accuracy” of the information since it was “supplied by enemy sources.”[19] Edward was listed in Prison Camp 1.[20] In May 1953, the Pentagon identified 78 missing Marines believed to be prisoners of the communists in Korea.[21] Edward was one of them. There had been 570 Marines missing and this list brought the total of those identified as prisoners to 153. He was held at Ch’ang-Song Prison Camp 1. In July of 1951 he was still there and listed on the Hqmc Mp and Prisoner of War Roll Washington D. C., as he was in October 1951, January, April, July and October 1952,[22] until August 21, 1953.[23]  Camp 1 in the village of Ch’ang-Song was located near the Yahu River and Camp 3, and was controlled by the Chinese Army, who had entered the conflict on November 25, 1950.

UN prisoners suffered horrific treatment. Out of 7,000 US prisoners, 2,800 (40%) died in captivity.[24] Diet and medical conditions were notoriously bad. Almost no medical aid was available to the sick and injured: “Men just died. They got dysentery and died.”[25] In 1951, the Chinese tried to improve the treatment of POWs after being alarmed by the excessive death rate. The Chinese established permanent POW camps in the far North, close to the Yalu River and held indoctrination sessions, which gained notoriety for potential brainwashing. The food at Changsong consisted mainly of sorghum and boiled turnips.[26] The 221 Marines captured in Korea endured an unexpected ordeal. Prisoners in past wars had suffered malnutrition, forced labor, and other acts of cruelty, but never before had their captors tried systematically to coerce them into participating in a propaganda campaign. Despite the harsh treatment by the Chinese, 197 Marines survived captivity and were returned in Operation Big Switch.[27]

The Repatriation of POWs from North Korea and China, called Operation Big Switch, occurred between August and December 1953,[28] one month after the Korean War ended with the Korean Armistice Agreement. The armistice brought about a total pause of hostilities.  The signed armistice established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the de facto new border between the two nations, put into force a cease-fire, and finalized repatriation of prisoners of war. The DMZ runs close to the 38th parallel and has separated North and South Korea ever since.[29] Big Switch was the largest and final exchange of prisoners with 4,700 U.S. POWs returned to U.S. control. Edward and 149 other prisoners, including three others from Iowa, were released August 21.[30] It was the largest one-day group of GIs delivered in only 30 minutes, one hour and 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Trucks carrying Americans rolled up to “Freedom Gate”, the reception center where they processed all UN returnees except for RKA personnel.[31] The 150 freed Americans were the noisiest to come to Freedom Gate in all the days of the Panmunjom exchange, shouting “whoopee” while still half a mile away.

The men removed their prison clothing soon after arriving at Freedom Village, showered, were issued robes and slippers, received medical care, ate a special meal, and were processed through the warehouse for clothing.[32]

Korean war veterans who served in the Chosin Reservoir Campaign during October, November, or December of 1950 could have been exposed to temperatures which were 50 °F below 0 at times, and the wind chill factor reached 100 °F below 0.[33]

The 1st Marine Division reported 604 killed, 114 dead of wounds, 192 missing, 3,485 wounded and 7,338 non-battle casualties during the war.

A couple weeks after being repatriated, Edward arrived in San Francisco in early September aboard the USS General John Pope.[34]

After his return to the states, he was living in Pleasantville, Iowa, on the farm of his sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Burnham.[35] He then reported to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for discharge on November 13, 1953.


[1] Iowa, U.S., Births (series) 1880-1904, 1921-1944 and Delayed Births (series), 1856-1940 – Ancestry.com

[2] Iowa, U.S., Death Records, 1880-1904, 1921-1952 – Ancestry.com

[3] 1930 United States Federal Census – Ancestry.com

[4] The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) · 5 Jan 1951, Fri · Page 3 – Des Moines Youth Red Prisoner

[5] 1940 United States Federal Census – Ancestry.com

[6] Works Progress Administration- Wikipedia

[7] 30 Jun 1945, Page 10 – The Des Moines Register at Newspapers.com

[8] Iowa, U.S., Death Records, 1880-1904, 1921-1952 – Ancestry.com

[9] Ancestry.com – Iowa, U.S., Death Records, 1880-1904, 1921-1952

[10] The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) · 5 Jan 1951, Fri · Page 3 – D.M. Youth, 21, Red Prisoner

[11] NARA – AAD – Display Full Records – Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, ca. 1938 – 1946 (Enlistment Records) (archives.gov)

[12] Edward Gail Wilkins – Facts (ancestry.com)

[13] U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 – Ancestry.com

[14] 1950 United States Federal Census – Ancestry.com

[15] U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 – Ancestry.com

[16] Battle of Chosin Reservoir – Wikipedia

[17] January 23, 1951, Unit Diary from Ancestry.com

[18] Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa) · 5 Jan 1951, Fri · Page 2 – Iowa Man on Peiping Radio Prisoner List

[19] The Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tennessee) · 19 Dec 1951, Wed – Pentagon Warns of Doubtful Accuracy in Red List of War Prisoners, 19 Dec 1951, 8 – The Knoxville News-Sentinel at Newspapers.com

[20] Des Moines Tribune (Des Moines, Iowa) · 19 Dec 1951, Wed · Page 1

[21] Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) · 22 May 1953, Fri · Page 2

[22] U.S., Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 – Ancestry.com

[23] NARA – AAD – Display Full Records – Repatriated Korean Conflict Prisoners of War, 7/5/1950 – 10/6/1954 (archives.gov)

[24] Korean War POWs detained in North Korea – Wikipedia

[25] Forgotten Marine’s Tribulations Didn’t End With Captivity : Korean War: Nick Flores’ sacrifices counted for naught when he returned to the States. He was denied an honorable discharge and refused a commendation–until POW-MIA investigators found his records.

[26] Korean War Educator: Memoirs – Raymond “Doc” Frazier (koreanwar-educator.org)

[27] OUTPOST WAR, U.S. Marines from the Nevada Battles to the Armistice (koreanwar2.org)

[28] Operation Big Switch

[29] Korean Armistice Agreement – Wikipedia

[30] Carroll Daily Times Herald (Carroll, Iowa) · 21 Aug 1953, Fri · Page 10  – Four Iowans Freed

[31] The Honolulu Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii) · 21 Aug 1953, Fri · Page 7 – Prisoner Return Stepped Up

[32] Quartermaster Support for Big Switch – Prisoner Exchange 1953 (army.mil)

[33] What Risks Did Korean War Veterans Face in Addition to the Enemy? (nvf.org)

[34] The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) · 7 Sep 1953, Mon · Page 2 – More to Return

[35] Open Assault Case Hearing, Des Moines Tribune, 6 Nov 1953, p.7