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News / Life / Clark County Life

Hockinson author’s new book details brother’s experience in Korea

Dan Strawn’s “Past Awakened: Wars, Letters, Brothers” focuses on brother Mel's time in the U.S. Army

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 30, 2021, 6:02am
6 Photos
Soldier Mel Strawn was an eyewitness and took powerful snapshots of a 1952 uprising by North Korean prisoners against their captors at Koje-Do, a South Korean island used as a massive prisoner of war camp during the Korean War.
Soldier Mel Strawn was an eyewitness and took powerful snapshots of a 1952 uprising by North Korean prisoners against their captors at Koje-Do, a South Korean island used as a massive prisoner of war camp during the Korean War. (Mel Strawn) Photo Gallery

Hockinson author Dan Strawn’s slim-yet-layered new memoir centers on his beloved brother’s experience as a soldier in Korea. But “Past Awakened: Wars, Letters, Brothers,” is also about the tricky process of memoir writing itself: chasing down distant facts and cross-checking personal recollections that are already fading.

They may have been dirt farmers, but the Strawn family of Collister, Idaho, produced a trio of artistic sons: Mel, an accomplished painter and poet, who died in 2020; Dick, a concert violinist; and Dan, who taught business communications and computer science before finally following his creative writing dream in retirement.

Now 82, Dan Strawn has published short stories, essays and novels that explore the cultures and contradictions of the American West: the horrors of the Nez Perce War, the joys and challenges of small-town boyhood, the global conflicts that transformed local boys into warriors in Europe and Asia.

“Our life has been a life shaped by war,” Strawn said in an interview. “War set the stage for everything. We have been living with the impact of one war after another.”

The broad-minded and sensitive Mel, the eldest Strawn brother, was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Korea in 1951. But instead of sending him into combat, Mel’s superiors recognized his smarts, trained him to be an office clerk and put him to work processing prisoners at Koje-Do, a wartime prison island off the coast of South Korea.

“They switched out his carbine for a typewriter, which may have saved his life,” Strawn said. Mel’s access to a typewriter also made it easy for him to send thoughtful letters home.

But did Mel learn to type in the Army, or back at home with Mom? His answers seem to shift as Strawn interviews him. And what about Mel’s impressive archery victory in Korea? His memory of that day is gone, but Strawn remembers him telling the story with relish. “I didn’t make that up,” Strawn said.

“How do you go back and forth between things that happened in the 1940s and 1950s, and conversations you had about them in the 1990s?” Strawn said. “I wasn’t sure I could bring readers along, but I tried.”

Who was Yoo?

The deepest ambiguity in “Past Awakened” is the identity of a prisoner named Mr. Yoo — a South Korean intellectual who’d been captured and forced to fight by the North Koreans, then recaptured and imprisoned by United Nations forces at Koje-Do. A sensitive soul and prolific poet, Mr. Yoo quickly went from Mel’s prison assistant to his friend. Mr. Yoo even wrote a few friendly letters to the teenaged Dan Strawn, still at home in Idaho. Strawn now wishes he’d written back, he said, but he never did.

But was Mr. Yoo actually a Communist agent, whose real agenda was organizing the violent prisoner revolt at Koje-Do in 1952? Infiltration of prisons by North Korean “moles” was documented, and Strawn concedes that he has no definitive proof either way. What he does have is Mel’s eyewitness description of the desperate stalemate that persisted at Koje-Do until American reinforcements arrived.

“The guards would fire tear gas into the compounds to get (the prisoners) away from the perimeter,” Mel wrote. “The prisoners would pick up the cannisters and throw them back over the barbed wire fencing. They didn’t have gas masks, but neither did we. Both sides of the barbed wire cried and were unable to attack or resist.”

Strawn doesn’t believe that Mr. Yoo was a North Korean secret agent.

“Mel regarded these people as human beings,” Strawn said. “Mel was a humanitarian. Mel was a fellow poet and artist. He always chose to rise above prejudice and see the humanity in people.”

That’s obvious in some of Mel’s eloquent letters home, which are supplied at the end of the book.

“We depend on all nations: their well being, eventually, contributes to our own,” Mel wrote to his family in December 1951. “The common man of any of the countries is no enemy of us, is very human, loves, dreams and feels just as we do. He must be helped (It is not his fault that governments war), given the consideration we would desperately need if the fortunes of the world were reversed.

“The notion that we can get along alone is stupid,” Mel wrote. “The world is a small place.”