Ethan Shard comes from an incredibly difficult childhood, but that seems to pale compared to his situation in the early 1950s, first as a prisoner of war of the North Koreans and later the Chinese communists. As a comfortably situated enlisted truck driver in the U.S. Army of Occupation in Japan, Ethan knows trouble is once again on the way when the North Koreans invade their southern neighbor. In the meantime, he has befriended another soldier, Skitter, and together they have experienced some luck at low-level black marketeering with the Japanese. Both are plucked out to join a “provisional infantry company” (which is never a good sign).
Rushed to the front lines, the two are among the earliest of the Americans captured by the seemingly unstoppable North Korean communists. For years they are subjected to hideous mental and physical torture along with their fellow prisoners. Even after hostilities end, they are still pawns during peace talks. Shard must be a reluctant “section leader” of his small crew, who experience consistent losses through disease, starvation, and executions. His harsh upbringing, though haunting, seems to harden him to withstand his many challenges.
This is a dark, visceral, and gut-wrenching account of the “forgotten war.” The author provides a clear warning of what horrendous atrocities a one-party ideological totalitarian state is capable of committing. Prisoners are forced to become self-described “progressives” and proclaim their hatred for America or be tortured to death. Captured clergy members, including Father James and Sister Mary Clare, are especially reviled. Still, Benn describes moments of tenderness and inspiration under the worst of conditions and provides a few surprise twists which this reviewer never saw coming. Not for the faint of heart, but still an exceedingly worthwhile novel.