Monday, April 1, 2013

History Among Us: The Korean War POW Experience of Richard “Dick” Whalen

Richard Whalen at St. Alban’s Naval Hospital upon his return stateside – still grievously ill but overjoyed to be home.  Image from Dick Whalen Collection. 

This blog entry is written by library volunteer Hannah Hamilton. 

From Thanksgiving of 1950 to late April of 1953, the Mr. and Mrs. Frank Whalen were unsure whether or not they would ever see their beloved son, Richard “Dick” Whalen, again. Rotterdam Junction’s own Dick Whalen was taken Prisoner of War at Unsan, North Korea by the Chinese in November of 1950. He was at times declared “Missing in Action” and at others “Dead” by the Pentagon. Through the years of Whalen’s imprisonment, his parents’ lives were plagued by sporadic and conflicting messages pertaining to their only son’s well-being. It was not until approximately April 30th of 1953 that the Whalens received a letter from their son confirming that he was alive, and would soon be returning home.

An image of the Pyoktong POW Camp in North Korea with the Yalu River in the background, where a young Richard Whalen spent years alongside his comrades. Image from Dick Whalen Collection. 

Whalen considered himself as having been “treated well” in the POW camp, despite the horrors he faced. Upon his release in the summer of 1953, he was swiftly airlifted back to the U.S. where he spent more than a year undergoing treatment for an advanced case of tuberculosis. Whalen was brought to the notorious Camp Five at a time when prisoners were dying at a rate of a dozen per day, and managed a close scrape with death. Decades later in April of 1982, he wrote to Congress on behalf of fellow American Soldier Tibor Rubin, insisting that Rubin was deserving of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Whalen accredited Rubin with his own survival in the camp, as well as that of many other prisoners.

Frank Whalen of Rotterdam Junction holds a photograph  of his son, Dick Whalen, in the hospital after leaving a POW camp in North Korea. Photo by Kolenberg, Albany Times-Union. Photograph from Dick Whalen Collection. 

Whalen wrote of Rubin, “He stood out in the crowd as he helped those of us who became sick or who needed encouragement not to give up as this was a prelude to dying.” Whalen also spoke of Rubin’s bravery in procuring extra food for the sick and in doing all he could for those in need of help, at no small risk to himself: “In Camp Five under the Chinese, it would have meant an extra work detail or a couple of days in the hole.” 

Korean War veteran Tibor Rubin received a Medal of Honor in 2005. From U.S. Department of Defense website ( 

The once-army-cook maintained correspondence with many of his fellow soldiers in later years, and also served as Historian for the Town of Rotterdam. His was a true labor of love, as he built up a vast collection of documents and photographs pertaining to the area, particularly Rotterdam Junction. Tragically, his collection of photographs and documents was heavily impacted by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Irene (click this link for more information about the damage done and salvage efforts). Recently the Library has worked to make many of those preserved records available to the public. Of course, none of the work which is now underway would have been possible without the steadfast work of Richard Whalen, or perhaps without the undaunted Tibor Rubin, who helped him to see Camp Five through.

A youthful Whalen (far right) smiles in the Korean POW Camp, a locale which, Whalen remarked, “would have been a hit if it were in Lake George." Image from Whalen surname file. 

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