Declared Dead At War, He Returned Alive To Find His World Had Moved On Without Him

Jul 27, 2019
Originally published on July 27, 2019 1:39 pm

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

Walter Dixon had been married for just five days when he shipped off to Korea for his second war deployment.

About a year later, at age 22, he was declared dead. When his obituary was published in the local paper, his wife back home in Waynesville, Mo., had no way of knowing that the news was premature.

In reality, Dixon was alive behind enemy lines.

In an interview at StoryCorps last month, Dixon, a 90-year-old veteran of three wars, spoke to his son Russ Dixon about how, after a case of mistaken identity, he returned home to find that his world had moved on without him.

Dixon was serving in the Army's 38th Infantry Division when, he says, he was captured while trying to aid his fellow troops.

He was about a half-mile from his post when he saw five men from his unit get shot down by an artillery round. "One of 'em's legs were both broken, so I took my field jacket and wrapped around his legs to hold them together," he says.

When he returned to his weapon, Chinese forces supporting the North Koreans came up behind him.

"When I got captured, those guys in that hole with my field jacket there, they just got blown all to heck," Dixon says.

When the bodies were later found, Dixon's jacket, which carried letters from his wife in the pockets, was the piece that mistakenly linked him to a deceased fellow soldier.

"I'm sure that's why they reported me dead instead of captured," Dixon says.

For the next two and a half years, he was held prisoner in a North Korean camp.

It was a harrowing experience, Dixon recalls. To stay warm, he would go searching for wood to burn and, at times, cooked rats as sustenance. One day, a guard thought he strayed too far.

"I started to make better headway and this guard hollered for me to halt, but I didn't," he says. "So, he stuck me with his bayonet. Kind of a rough time right there."

Dixon escaped five times, but each time he was caught, and punished. When fighting came to a halt, the Red Cross came to the camp and notified the prisoners of their release.

Back home, because Dixon had been reported killed, his wife had moved on. She remarried and had a child with another man.

At the time, Dixon says, he didn't have much to say.

"I can't blame her. I was dead. Then she found out I was alive. The only obvious thing to do was to divorce one of us."

Dixon and his wife would divorce. But he couldn't resent her, he says.

"Anger don't do you any good on something like that, you can't do nothing about it," he says. "You just gotta handle it the best way you know how."

Despite everything he experienced, Dixon chose to stay in the military. It's a decision that his son Russ still wonders about.

"It was my life," Dixon said. "After you go through all of that, you ain't scared of nothing."

Russ said he is proud of his dad, who went on to serve in Vietnam. "I tell a lot of people about your seven Purple Hearts and all that, and I brag about it just about every day," he told his father.

As for Dixon himself, he says he couldn't care how others remember him. It's enough for him alone to know the sacrifices he made.

"I can remember me," he says. "I don't have any wants or needs of memory. I just enjoyed my military service ... I'd do it again. And I'm proud of it."

As for that local obituary writer? Dixon ended up marrying her and having three children together, including Russ.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Kelly Moffitt.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now it's time for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, conversations between veterans and their families. Today we hear from 90-year-old Walter Dixon, a veteran of three wars. He returned home from World War II, got married right before he shipped off to Korea at the Army's 38th Infantry. He tells the story about what it's like to be declared dead on the battlefield and then return home alive. He came to StoryCorps with his son, Russ Dixon.

RUSS DIXON: Can you tell me about how you got captured in...

WALTER DIXON: I was away from my unit, probably a half a mile. And there was five guys, and they got hit by an artillery round. One of 'em's legs were both broken. So I took my field jacket and wrapped it around his legs to hold them together. I went back up to my machine gun, and that's when I got caught. When I captured those guys in that hole with my field jacket there, they just got blown all to heck. My jacket, it had letters from my wife in its pockets. So they assumed that that was me. And I'm sure that's why they reported me dead instead of captured.

R DIXON: How was the conditions in the POW camp? I know you said you ate some rats.

W DIXON: Yeah. Course, we had to burn wood to stay warm. And so we'd go on wood details, and I started to make better headway. And this guard hollered for me to halt, but I didn't. So he come and he struck me with his bayonet. Kind of a rough time right there. I escaped five times, but I never made it. When the war was over, I went in a hospital there for a few days. Then I went to Fort Hood, Texas.

R DIXON: You were alive, but yet they reported you killed. So what did you say when you found out that your first wife was remarried and had a baby?

W DIXON: I said, well, good luck. Ain't much you can say. I can't blame her. I was dead. And then she found out I was alive. The only obvious thing to do was divorce one of us. And she made her decision. Anger don't do you any good on something like that. You can't do nothing about it. You just got to handle it the best way you know how.

R DIXON: Why did you stay in the military after that experience?

W DIXON: It was my life. After you go through all of that, you ain't scared of nothing. I went back to Korea, and then I went to Vietnam from there.

R DIXON: Well, I tell a lot of people about your seven Purple Hearts and all that, and I brag about it just about every day. So how do you hope to be remembered?

W DIXON: I don't really care.

R DIXON: (Laughter).

W DIXON: I can remember me. No. I don't have any wants or needs of memory. I just enjoyed my military service, and I'd do it again. And I'm proud of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: That was Walter Dixon speaking with his son, Russ Dixon, at StoryCorps in Waynesville, MO. There's a bit more to this story. When Walter was declared dead, a woman named Aldine May Fenton wrote his obituary for the local newspaper. He wound up marrying her. They had three children, including Russ Dixon. This interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.