“The archive does not contain the complete record of the past that it promises.”
—Helen Freshwater, “The Allure of the Archive” (Poetics Today, 24.4)
Four years ago, I visited the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University to do some research, I thought, on Korean POWs. I had naively typed the word “Korean” into an archival search engine. There were two results for all of Boston; I can’t remember what the other archive was. I went to the Howard Gotlieb Center to write a story about Koreans and war. What I found was the forgotten story of a white American POW, who might or might not have betrayed his country, a good man and the basis of my just-released novella, The Last Repatriate. [*]
In its time, in the 1950s, the story of Corporal Edward Dickenson was major news. Upon the “end” of the Korean War, 23 American POWs refused to return to America. Dickenson was one of them. This was during the Cold War, and the defection was considered a win for the Communist Chinese and North Koreans. Zero Chinese prisoners refused to go back to their home country. The 23 POWs were given a few months to change their minds. Soon Corporal Dickenson became the first to repatriate.
He was treated, upon his return, as a hero. He received leave and backpay from his three years in the North Korean POW camp, and was dressed up nicely and photographed beside attractive nurses as an example of what the other 22 could come back to (effective in luring at least one of them, Claude Bachelor). When Corporal Dickenson arrived in his home state of Virginia, he married and had a honeymoon. He had lost a lot of weight, and was suffering from what he termed “fits”—by their description probably seizures—which had started in the camp. By the end of his leave, he was arrested and accused of being a traitor, eventually receiving a 10-year sentence and losing his new wife to divorce.
Corporal Edward Dickenson entered the Army in 1950, with a fifth-grade education, and was captured on November 5 of that year near Unsan, South Korea. He and other prisoners marched north to a frozen camp on the Chinese border, where he was held until September 12, 1953. He attempted several escapes, almost succeeding once. After that last attempt, he was interrogated and, according to the information in the archives, abused and threatened. There was some talk, in the news and at the trial, of “brainwashing.” He ended up recording speeches and signing petitions and writing articles for his captors. He was also accused of handing over information on fellow POWs, such as regarding escape attempts. In 1953, he was told not to repatriate; he claimed he refused, twice, before the guards threatened him into complying.
I found (and still find) it hard not to be captivated by this 23-year-old kid, tortured and starved in Korea and then jailed in America. He had lost everything. He had also, in some ways, betrayed the ideals of his country and his fellow prisoners. Stories like this one usually become movies, not forgotten. As I researched, the picture in my head took clearer and clearer shape. The picture of a man who had been told he was a hero, only to be told a month later that he was a villain. And then throw love into the equation?
Corporal Dickenson returned to the McCarthy era, to a time of fear and accusation. He had served his country for 38 months, 35 of those as a prisoner of war. Should he have gone to jail? Was he a good man? It is impossible to judge the actual person, but fictional truth isn’t limited by the actual. Note this, though: there had been two previous major cases at that time of POWs tried for collaborating with the enemy, both involving officers. One, Colonel Schwable, was returned to the Marines. The other, General Dean, was given the Medal of Honor. By 1956, four other non-repatriates returned to America as free men. So you see why I couldn’t let history decide things.