Helen DanielsGeneration: First Generation
Location: Petaluma, CA
Interviewer: Ramsay Liem
Japanese Colonial Period
My mother told me she was married when she was seventeen. She said at that time Korea had been going through many years of drought, so there was no food. Everybody was peeling tree bark and leaves and eating them. So my father said, “I’m not gonna sit around here.” He must have been pretty smart. He left with my mother and went to China. So we were all born in China, in Manchuria—me, my two older brothers, my older sister and my younger sister.
Over the years, my father saved money and bought a farm. No one really told me how. That’s just what I gathered from my mom. He was killed by the Japanese in Manchuria. I believe he worked underground for the independence movement. I asked my mother but she said, “I wouldn’t know, and he wouldn’t tell me.” In those days men didn’t tell their wives everything. Besides, the Japanese could come and beat the wife up, and she would have to tell everything.
But the reason I know that my father did this was every time he harvested, he took rice and came to North Korea, like he was exporting it. When he got there, he shared some news and information, you know, and then he came back. I think he was a middleman helping mostly farmers and businessmen who gave money to help the independence movement, for weapons and food.
Once, when he came back—it was a rainy day—he said, “Well, I gotta go out to look at the paddies.” He took one of the workers and went out with an umbrella. My mother said it was a dark afternoon. Then, Japanese and Korean policemen came over and asked my mother where her husband was. She told them he went to see the rice paddies because there was a problem with the water draining off. That was the last she saw of him; we didn’t even find his body. So, that’s how we lost my father.
My mother went through a lot of hardship to raise us by herself—selling single bowls of rice, washing clothes and she sewed for people. We always didn’t have enough. I mean, with five kids, you know. Actually, my mother had ten children and only five survived. So, we lived like that for the longest time.
Then, at that time, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong were fighting. So, we couldn’t live there anymore because the Chinese in the area were killing Koreans because a lot of Koreans had been used by the Japanese to do their dirty jobs. So when the Japanese surrendered, Chinese people were angry at the Koreans. So a lot of them left.
Liberation from Japan
When the Japanese surrendered, my second oldest brother said he was going back to our country. So he went to Pyongyang and he settled down there, and I think he joined the Communists at that time. Then he told us to come over. So my mother and my oldest brother and his wife, my sister, her husband and daughter and mother-in-law, and my youngest sister, we came down. It was 1946. I was twelve years old.
At that time they gave us rations, you know, so we could survive. My mother thought they didn’t give you enough rations so, of course, you still had to work. She and my sister worked at the college. She was a cook. But school was all free. The uniforms were all cotton. Nobody wore those silk clothes. They said to the rich people, “You cannot wear them. You got to make everybody equal.” We liked them because we were poor, you know. So, we all wore the same clothes and they gave us books, all free. I just finished junior high when the war broke out.
They’re going to have a war in the city and my brother-in-law said, “We gotta move out.” People were saying Americans came to our town, and three days later, they were pulling back. They said they’re going to have war in the city. My brother-in-law said, “We gotta move out.” My older sister and her husband and three children and I left Pyongyang December 5, 1950. We thought we were going for just a few days to escape the bombing. Her mother-in-law came too. I was sixteen years old. They put one child on my back. My sister had one brand new baby, and my brother-in-law carried a four-year old kid. My youngest sister was with my sister-in-law, and she wanted to come with us. But my sister-in-law is dragging her by the arm saying she’d be scared to be left all by herself, and my brother-in-law is dragging me to go. He needed me to carry one of their children on my back. So my sister and I are crying, you know; we don’t want to separate but my sister-in-law is saying we be back in a few days, so leave her. So that’s what happened.
Later I found out my sister was killed with my mother and sister-in-law and her kids from the bombing. I never forgot what my brother-in-law did dragging me away from my younger sister even though I never brought it up to him for almost forty years.
Korean War Memories (Refugee Flight)
Our town was a ghost town. When we crossed the river (Daedong River), there was a canoe. But there were too many people; it was so full that water started coming in. So they started pushing us, breaking the ice. It was just war, people screaming, hollering. We got wet all over. I don’t know how far we went. At evening we slept over at some town, but the town was a ghost town, too. If it was far away, you got better food. If it was close to the main road, there was very little food left. So that’s how we went everyday, walking, early, 6:00 in the morning and when it got dark, then we all started to go over to a village.
My sister’s baby cried a lot because it was a brand-new newborn. Her mother-in-law kept saying we’re going to have to throw her away because she’s making too much noise. She was afraid that communists or someone would hear her and find us. And my sister’s crying because she doesn’t want to throw her away. But just before we got to Kaesong [town near the 38th parallel], her mother-in-law had a friend nearby so she said she was gonna stay there. So I felt better. Then there was just six of us. We walked like that for twenty-eight days.
There were thousands of people like us. Thousands! I had her son on my back, and he was urinating on my back and, you know, I got hot. I’m crying, I was so mad. I had a cane. I tried to hit him. I told him, “Don’t pee on my back.” People behind me saw a waterfall from his peeing. I hit him. Then they got mad at me because I’m actually hitting them; that’s how close the people were walking. It was jam-packed. You couldn’t even stop because they’d get mad at you. They just rushed to get out of there, you know.
So we all came to the Imjin River. There’s American soldiers, Korean soldiers, and Korean women police [South Korean]—they’re all there. They all had guns on us, saying, “You can’t come.” So we said, “Why?” And they said, “Because of the North Korean soldiers, you can’t trust who’s a soldier, who’s not. So everybody’s standing, screaming, hollering. Then everybody says, “Hey, we’re going! Either we die here or die crossing.
It was all ice, and it broke because there were too many people. I finally made it but my brother-in-law sank in with his son. I wanted to jump over and help them but people behind me were pulling me back saying, “You’re too heavy. You’re gonna break it and then we can’t even cross.” I didn’t listen. I just jumped over and fell down. My nephew had one of those hats that ties at the neck. I could only grab that and while I’m pulling him up, he’s screaming, crying. I’m choking him, you know. Then one of the GIs came over and helped me pull him and my brother-in-law up. Then they started searching all over our bodies to see if we had any weapons. This was Christmas Day.
After that we came to Yongdung-Po. There was a boxcar train and two ways you could go, either to Seoul or down south to Busan or Daejeon. So we all climbed up there, slowly because we had babies. We stayed up there three days, sitting on the top edge of the car. When the train stopped, it jerked and pulled back, and people dropped off and died, you know. But my brother-in-law tied us up there so we couldn’t even move.
Finally, we got down to Daejeon and stayed for about five days. Then they said, “You gotta move,” again. So we got on a train and went down to Iri, a small town. We stayed in a refugee camp there for three years.
No, no, no; they don’t know much about my experience in Korea. I don’t know why I didn’t talk to them. I think a lot of parents would love to talk to their children. But they might not be interested or, actually, I was too busy raising them. Now I talk a little bit to my daughter. She couldn’t believe it. I tell her a little once in a while, sometimes: “Yeah, I did this and this.” “Oh, Mother, how could you live like that?” you know.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell them, you know. I talk a little now to my daughter. So every time I try to go to North Korea, she knows how I feel about them. Every time I get a letter, she says, “Mom, you got a letter from uncle.” She knows what I’m looking for all the time. But she doesn’t know any details. If she did, maybe then she would understand why I live how I live. One of the reasons I’m doing this project is for the younger generation of Korean Americans; this history is very important. It will be forgotten if we don’t tell them.
That war influenced me for a long time. When my children were growing up, they brought their friends over, you know, neighbors over. I was always hungry during the war, so when they played, I was always trying to give them cookies. I was trying to feed them. I was always trying to give my children everything they needed because I never had anything. When it comes time for her friends to go, I say, “Go and have some more. Have some more, okay?” My daughter thinks this is because I’m a Korean mother, all Koreans do that. But looking back at history, I think the reason is because we never had enough food, too many years without. I’m like Americans now. I throw food away even though I should not. But, then, sometimes even now, I try putting it in the refrigerator to freeze it.
For me the war also meant not having family and not having someone to tell me what to do or help me. All my life I was just by myself, on my own—making decisions, everything by myself. Even after I married.
Life in the United States
So, I’ve gone around in circles—China, to North Korea, down to Osan and to Seoul, then to the United States, back to North Korea. Yeah, we live in a kingdom here. I feel that this is a kingdom in comparison to what we had to go through. It was tough. I know that a lot of people had hardship, but I don’t think anybody had hardship as we did because we didn’t have a father. That’s when the hardships started.
It’s all a painful story; there’s no pleasure in it. Sometimes I want to forget it, but I just can never forget. When I go to bed, lie down, and am not feeling sleepy, I say, “Well if, if I had done something differently, my life would’ve been different.” But you had no choice. I didn’t have a choice to do anything differently. No guidance, no education, too busy surviving, living. Daily, daily. You make breakfast, but you don’t know if you’re going to have dinner.
So I’ve come a long way.[Portions of this interview are taken from “So I’ve Gone Around in Circles: Living the Korean War,” Amerasia Journal 31:3 (2005): 157-177]