Nick Tosques of Ocean View endured some rough times during the Korean War.
And yet, after spending more than two-and-a-half years in Camp #1, Changsong, North Korea, his outgoing nature has survived.
According to Tosques, many of his fellow veterans keep their stories balled up inside. He has taken a different tack.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t as highly recognized in the 1950s, but even then, doctors knew something was wrong with the returning soldiers — and especially the ex-POWs.
“My VA (Veterans Affairs) doctors told me, ‘Get it out — you can’t hold it in,’ and that’s what I did,” he pointed out.
Tosques said talking about his experiences helped him move beyond them and focus on other things.
His military career almost started back in 1944, when he played hooky with two schoolmates and made a run at the Navy recruitment office on F Street, in downtown Washington, D.C.
They passed the physical tests, but perhaps the recruiter sensed something amiss with the faked birth certificates. He sent the 16-year-olds home, telling them to come back next year.
However, Tosques fell into other plans and never went back. After high school, he entered an apprenticeship, intending to follow his father’s footsteps at the Department of Treasury (Engraving and Printing).
He never completed that training — the Army drafted the 18-year-old Tosques in 1946.
He said he’d been looking at possible occupation duty in Europe, but never went overseas — that time. Having served his eight-month tour at Fort Jackson, S.C., Tosques returned to Washington, D.C. to resume his apprenticeship — “But the Chinese had other ideas,” he stated.
The Army re-inducted him in 1950 and sent him to Korea.
Stationed near the 38th Parallel with the 555th Battalion of 105 Howitzers, Tosques was two weeks away from going home when the North Koreans launched the Spring Offensive of 1951.
“Word came around, ‘Hook up everything and let’s get out of here — the Chinese are coming,” Tosques recalled.
They rolled out with nine trucks, but the Chinese had disabled a tank in the road, and the way was blocked.
As the Chinese troops advanced down the hillside, Tosques and company opened up with the howitzers, but by mid-afternoon, the Chinese were close enough to fire rifle grenades.
The situation was deteriorating rapidly and Tosques remembered a fellow soldier shouting at him to “Look up and look out,” and he dove for cover.
Of what happened next, Tosques had no recollection. He awoke many hours later, around midnight, to the sight of the U.S. trucks ablaze, and the sound of small arms fire nearby.
He pulled himself up to see if he was hit, and finding no obvious damage, started wandering through the trucks, looking for survivors.
Tosques found one man badly hit, in the abdomen. He took the fatigue jacket from a dead soldier and bound the wound as tightly as he could.
“He asked me for water, and I went around and took a canteen off another guy and gave it to him,” Tosques recalled. “I know you’re not supposed to give them water when they’re hit like that, but I gave him the canteen.”
The wounded man was too big for Tosques to carry. He went looking for help.
“I didn’t know which way to go, but I came across three guys from the 5th Regiment Combat Team (we supported them),” he said. “I was just a Private First Class, but they said, ‘wherever you go, we’ll follow you.”
They moved, changing direction whenever they hear the sound of Chinese voices growing louder, but eventually there was nowhere to go. The enemy had closed on them.
Tosques and company disassembled and scattered their rifles, and then threw themselves on the ground.
Unfortunately, the Chinese were using their bayonets to check for soldiers playing possum. Tosques steeled himself as they approached, but couldn’t help flinching when they stabbed him — the gig was up.
“It sunk in slowly,” he remembered. “We really didn’t even think about it until the next day– we were captured.”
It wasn’t long, however, before they started to get a sense for what that meant, and that was when Tosques discovered another wound.
“They wanted our boots,” he said. “One of the guys didn’t want to give them up, but they put a gun to his head — I said, ‘Hey buddy, I don’t know you, but I think you’d better give them the boots.’
“Then I went to give them mine,” he continued. “I got the left boot off, but I couldn’t take off the right one.”
He found a piece of shrapnel driven through the boot and into his ankle.
A medic had been captured as well. With his help, and Tosques gritting his teeth, they were able to pull it out.
“The next day, I tried on Chinese sneakers for the first time,” he quipped.
“The guy that stabbed me, he wanted my ring,” Tosques recalled. “He was just a young guy, and when he got it, he acted like he had a new toy — it was funny at the time, but I was scared to laugh.”
He would need that humor to carry him through the next 28 months in captivity.
“We didn’t get treated what I’d call real, real bad,” he said. “Now the guys the North Koreans captured, well they didn’t have enough food to feed their own army, let along POWs.”
Tosques also recognized what World War II prisoners had gone through, as the Axis powers realized their coming defeat.
While he was careful not to minimize the ordeal others had faced, Tosques described the privation at Changsong as harsh.
Some POWs died of malnutrition, unable to stomach the steady diet of dirty rice. Others were executed, often at the slightest provocation.
The rest endured intense cold, huddled on mud floors, 10 to a hut.
They traded places throughout the night, giving the fellows isolated near the walls a chance to warm up, and were rousted every morning at 6 a.m., often to hard labor.
Tosques remained at Changsong for 28 months. The peace talks dragged on, and POW exchanges were further complicated by the fact that many North Korean and Chinese prisoners didn’t want to return home.
“Finally, the officers came out and said, ‘The peace talks are signed — you’re going home,” he recalled. “A lot of the guys didn’t know whether to believe them or not.”
It was true, and Tosques returned to the U.S. in late 1953.
“So many of my friends still have everything in here,” Tosques said, pointing toward his gut. “They don’t want to talk about it.”
• He recommends fellow veterans open up — in his case, at least, it’s been a help.
• He encourages veterans to make an effort, put in a little legwork, and get their benefits.
• He also encourages them to go after the medals that are their due.
Tosques has his POW medal, but said he’d never received his Purple Heart.
He said he’d applied for it, but faulted the loss of military paperwork in the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire.
“I would like my three daughters (Vicki, Gerri and Christine) to have the medals, or for my grandsons to be able to hang them on the wall,” he admitted.
He does have his VA medical benefits, though, including full disability.
“So many vets feel they just don’t have the time to apply, but I have a lot of friends my age (76 years old) that are sorry they never went,” Tosques pointed out. “Any vets who haven’t bothered, and are entitled — as they get older, they’re going to realize they should have done it.”
And Tosques’ ability to share has led to many experiences he otherwise would have missed.
He’s been Past State Commander for the American ex-POW Association (Chapter 1), Past National Director for the ex-Korean POW Association, and Past President of the Korean War Veterans Association, Sussex County.
He said he’d laid the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns three times, and with his wife, Ruth, pushed for a tree and plaque to commemorate Korean POWs.
He continues to track efforts to find nearly 8,200 Korean POWs and MIAs still unaccounted for, and bring them home.
Tosques married Ruth in 1955. “We met in March, we were engaged in April and we were married in June,” Tosques said, with a smile.
After a few starts and stops (and another stint at Fort Jackson), he finally made it into the Department of Treasury. He had a long career printing stocks and bonds, and then currency.
It took a while, but after many years, Tosques said he’d gotten “sick and tired of looking at money.”
He retired to South Bethany in 1983.
His wife has passed on, but Tosques stays active, with Disabled Veterans (DAV), the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
Now based in Ocean View, he’s a regular at Quillens Point (Mason-Dixon Post 7234).
His friends have nicknamed him “Trippy Nick,” for his service in the “Triple Nickel” 555th Battalion.