A freed POW opted to live in China for 12 years before returning to the US and becoming a restaurateur
Sept 17, 1999 was a Friday. At the end of a long day's work, Della Adams, information systems director for the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, knew that the Friday rush was cutting in at her parent's Chinese restaurant, where her help was needed.
Feeling "a sense of recklessness and dread" on her way, she arrived at the restaurant to discover that her 70-year-old father, who had suffered emphysema for years, "was not moving like he usually did".
She suggested closing but he refused. Two hours later he finally agreed, but insisted that they clean up first. "That was when he started to have the attack," said Adams, who, after calling 911 three times with no response, found herself driving a hundred miles an hour on the interstate highway trying to get her father to hospital.
Minutes away from the hospital, Clarence Adams, 70, fell over into his daughter's arm and said, "Della, I'm not going to make it this time."
For Della Adams, 62, the concept of her father "not going to make it" might not have existed. After all, this was a man who had survived a war that killed almost 40,000 Americans, a man who severed his festering toes in a POW camp to stop the infection from claiming his entire foot, a man who in effect was put on trial for treason yet opted to defend himself without the help of a lawyer, a man whose desire for a better life was, in his own words, "greater than any fear".
Clarence Adams, one of the 21 American POWs who refused repatriation and instead went to China in 1954 after the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53), often referred to as the Korean War in the West, ended, remains a controversial figure at home. He returned from China to the US with his Chinese wife and children in 1966 and lived for decades with the stigma of a turncoat.
Yet for Della Adams, her father was a hero, "a man of conviction who lived his life without compromise, regardless of the consequences". This is to quote directly from an introduction written by her for the 2007 book Clarence Adams: An American Dream.
It is co-edited by her and Lewis H. Carlson, a history professor and author who first approached the former for an interview not long after her father died. Told in the first person, the book, which combines the protagonist's own writings and audio recordings with recollections of his wife and daughter, was written in words "that are certainly my father's", Adams says.
One word that surfaces from time to time and provides a dark, unsettling undercurrent to the narrative is racism. The book begins with depictions of the discrimination experienced daily by a black boy growing up in Memphis, Tennessee.
"We were allowed to shop on Main Street, but we could not eat anywhere or use a toilet," he said. One time, when a 12-year-old Adams was peeing in an alley behind the main street, he was spotted by the police and had to walk away while "peeing right down" in his own shoes.
"I might not have known what China was really like before I went there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America, especially in Memphis," Adams said years later, in defense of his life-changing decision.
The segregation was total: black teachers taught only black students; black doctors treated exclusively black patients; and black mailmen delivered mail only to blacks. Adams, who called himself "small but tough", received boxing training yet was only allowed to fight other blacks in the ring. (Years later he would take part in a bout held inside the POW camps as the war raged on. And that was more than a decade before he taught the same skills to his daughter so that she could fight off another version of racism in a place her father called home.)
In the 40s the teenage Adams, nicknamed Skippy because of his happy-jumpy nature, learned to hop trains for fun. "We would not just run up and hop on－we had to do it with style," he said.
Once, while doing his "swinging and hooking", a friend of Adams hand-slipped and landed under the train. "There he was. His body was lying on one side of the train and his legs on the other," said Adams who, if not for a series of events that took place not long afterward, might have met a similar fate.
"My father joined the army on Sept 11, 1947, at the age of 18," Della Adams said. "The day before, he had a rather violent clash with a neighborhood bully in the morning, before he and his pals ran into trouble with a white tramp asking them to find him a black woman."
The next day police banged at the front door. Getting a peek of the two policemen from the kitchen, Adams ran out the back door and kept running along the railway track until he arrived at an army recruiting station. Then and there he became an American GI.
Military life may have lifted Adams from the swamp of his previous existence, but offered little in terms of equality. He traveled with the army to the North, where "Whites Only" signs hung outside restaurants, only to be humiliated when waiters pointedly ignored him, an incident recounted with great indignation in the book.
He was shipped out to Korea and then to Japan. But there was no respite from racism since the military itself was segregated. In the summer of 1950 he was back to Fort Lewis, Washington, to be discharged. That was when President Harry Truman announced the outbreak of the war.
The horror of war dawned on Adams the moment he arrived at the front in Korea in August 1950: fellow soldiers were "blown into bits" amid raining mortars; a guy who a minute ago had prayed for life and suggested that Adams do the same "quietly fell on his side" at "a slight popping sound".
But it was not until the Chinese army crossed the border Yalu River into Korea in October 1950 that Adams started to feel imminent doom. " (They) almost wiped us out," he said. A month later Adams, after having been on a desperate run with a fellow black soldier, was captured by a Chinese soldier "staring down at us" from outside their hiding ditch.
All captured Americans were handed over to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. For the next week Adams dragged his frostbitten feet along the barren, snow-covered land toward the POW camp abutting the Korean side of the Yalu River. There were many deaths en route yet Adams was prompted to denounce the war not solely by his own suffering.
According to the biography, at one point after his capture he watched as several American fighter planes bombed a civilian Korean hut. Engulfed by fire, a woman carrying her baby ran out and crumpled on the ground, where they were burned to death, the baby's imprint still left on the mother's back. Adams and a fellow American captive looked at each other.
"We both were thinking the same thing: if the guard shoots us, well, we deserve it because we should not be here in Korea," he said many years later.
When spring came in 1951, Adams' frostbitten toes had rotted so badly that he knew something "drastic" must be done if he was not to lose the foot. Pulling out the steel arch support from his combat boot, he sharpened it and with it cut off the gangrenous toes. "I counted to 10 and cut two of them off at a time," he was quoted as saying in the book. "Actually, I counted to ten about 20 times."
Amid the rising death tolls for the POWs, the Chinese took over the camp from the DPRK and installed "the lenient policy". Hao Zhanjun was one of the interpreters brought in to communicate with the POWs.
"During the first few months, two or three POWs died in each unit every day," she said. "That's about a dozen per day. The doctors and nurses worked very hard, and the mortality rate gradually dropped."
Hao's interview is part of the 2006 documentary film They Chose China, focusing on the fateful decision made by the 21 American POWs to go to China at the end of the war. Director Wang Shuibo unearthed rare video footage showing POWs of various nationalities competing in the Inter Camp Olympics, organized by the Chinese camp authority in November 1952 and in which about 500 POW athletes including Adams took part.
Meanwhile, Adams volunteered as a go-between, which allowed him to make suggestions to the camp authority on behalf of his fellow POWs. These included improving camp sanitation and adding space for sport, recreation and worship. The Chinese accepted them all, Adams said.
Adams, one of the POW signatories of the Stockholm Appeal, which called for an end to hostilities, also actively took lectures given by English-speaking Chinese camp instructors, some of whom had spent time in the US. One of their topics was world peace and another racism.
Later, to widespread belief in the US that the 21 defectors had been brainwashed by the Chinese, Adams replied, "How can it be brainwashing if someone is telling you something you already know is true?"
When the time came－the armistice agreement signed by the two sides in June 1953 gave all prisoners the right to choose where they wanted to be repatriated－Adams, who was repeatedly threatened and openly called "nigger" by some white POWs at the camp, chose China, and thus became one of the three black American POWs to do so.
"None of the 21 was political, with the possible exception of James Veneris, whose parents had been Communists in their native Greece," he said.
The stories－the pain, frustration and inner struggle felt by the man both at home and 11,000 kilometers from it－trickled down to Della Adams over many evenings and many more bottles of Old Grand Dad whiskey. "I was interested in why he went to China and why he came back, decisions that ultimately impacted my life," she said.
In the wee hours of Feb 24, 1954, the Americans crossed into China on a train. In line with their own wishes, some were sent to factories, some to rural villages and others, including Adams, to universities in Beijing. Adams' classmate at Renmin University (People's University), Samuel David Hawkins was the youngest among the 21 and the only known survivor of that group today.
"The emphasis was the language," Hawkins, 87, told China Daily in a recent interview. "We had an interpreter who had been with us in the POW camp. From time to time we would have jowzers (jiaozi, dumplings) and bowzer (baozi, meat stuffed steamed bread), but we all had trouble adjusting to the traditional Chinese breakfast (soupy rice with pickled turnips)."
Yet for as long as Della Adams can remember, the combination of porridge and pickle had been her father's favorite breakfast, along with fermented tofu and fried peanuts. For her, someone who has adhered to the same menu to date, a love of Chinese food can be acquired, especially when you are married to a Chinese. Liu Linfeng, her mother, married her father on Dec 20, 1957. (Liu is known by her family and friends as Lin and referred in the book as such.)
By that time, Adams had completed his courses in Beijing and was studying Chinese literature at Wuhan University. Through some mutual friends, Liu, who taught Russian at a college in the mountainous central Chinese city, met Adams, the first black man she had ever met.
The attraction was instant. "My mother later told me that she had always wanted someone stronger and darker, although 'darker' had never meant 'black' until she met my father," Adams said.
"They shared not only a political outlook－both were leftish thinking－but also a fun-loving spirit. My mother was so free-thinking, very much a feminist and a great business person," Adams said, referring to the fact that for the three decades her parents operated restaurants in Memphis, Liu had looked after the business side of things. "My father was equally liberal about gender roles."
In the 1950s in China it was unthinkable for any young Chinese lady to marry an American GI. But Liu, whose father was a local warlord before his own death in the 1930s and who went on the run from the invading Japanese with her elder brothers and sisters, returning years later to find her mother dead, was anything but faint-hearted.
Della Adams was born on Jan 3, 1959. "The whole conversation on the mountain where the university was located was on what the baby would look like－some said it would be checkered; some said it would be black on one side and white on the other; some said it would look like the zebra," recalled a bemused Clarence Adams, who filled her daughter with gratitude for "the working-class people, of whom my father considered himself one".
"My birth was followed by what is known today as China's Three-Year Famine. Everybody was starving, more or less. Yet people would come by and bring food－an egg one man had collected from his hen that morning, or some fish another had just captured. This is for the child, they say," Della Adams said. "Whenever my father talked about these people, his eyes lit up－he had never before in his life experienced that level of kindness from people who were not his family or close friends. And it's making me cry right now …"