Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The compelling memoir of an escapee from North Korea November 20, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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SEVERAL DAYS AGO I STARTED and finished A River in Darkness—One Man’s Escape from North Korea. Masaji Ishikawa’s memoir, written in 2000 and translated in 2017, is a compelling book, the type of story you want to stay up late reading.

It was a fitting read right before Thanksgiving. Why would I say that given the content which is simultaneously revealing and absolutely heartbreaking? It is not easy to read about an oppressive government, corruption, propaganda, starvation, death, discrimination and so many other horrors.

But it is a book that needs to be read by someone like me. Someone who grew up without much but still had enough. Someone like me who is the daughter of a Korean War veteran. Someone like me who pursued a journalism degree. Someone like me who can write and speak freely. Someone like me who lives in a free country.

I needed to read Ishikawa’s statement: “The penalty for thinking was death.” To me, that proved the most powerful line in the memoir. I cannot imagine feeling that you cannot even think freely.

Upon finishing the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the freedoms I have. But I also felt an overwhelming sense of grief for those people who live under oppressive regimes. Still today. This book opened my eyes wide as political rhetoric runs rampant.

TELL ME: Have you read this memoir and, if so, how did you react?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Viewing North Korea’s threats from a personal perspective April 5, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:31 AM
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HAVE YOU CONSIDERED North Korea and the recent missile threats lobbed against the U.S.?

I have.

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

For me it’s personal. Personal because some 60 years ago my father, dead 10 years now, fought as an infantryman in the Korean War. On February 26, 1953, he was struck by shrapnel at Heart Break Ridge. In May 2000, he was awarded a Purple Heart for those wounds. I don’t need to explain Heart Break Ridge. The name tells the story.

Today I reflect on his horrible experiences there and wonder whether that war was worth all the death, all the physical and psychological damage inflicted upon those who fought? Like my dad.

I suppose you could wonder this about any war. Was the war worth the lives lost, the lives changed?

The answer to that question cannot be tidied into a succinct statement, for the response would vary depending on your perspective—perhaps as a soldier, a parent who lost a son or daughter, the daughter who watched her father struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

War is never neat and tidy, but rather complicated.

Did the Korean War halt the spread of Communism? Yes, in the south.

This photo, pulled from the shoebox which holds my dad's military photos, is simply labeled "front line." That would be "front line" as in Korea, where my soldier father fought.

This photo, pulled from the shoebox which holds my dad’s military photos, is simply labeled “front line.” That would be “front line” as in Korea, where my soldier father fought.

Yet, despite the signing of a truce, a definite uneasiness has existed between the two Koreas, separated by a 155-mile long, 2.5-mile wide fortified Demilitarized Zone, for 60 years.

Now North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, has thrown the region into even more uncertainty by his actions and threatened actions. I won’t expound, only note that when I heard mention of North Korean missiles on standby to possibly strike U.S. targets in  Hawaii, Washington, Los Angeles and Austin (Texas), I listened. Anytime a specific place in the U.S. is named, the entire situation becomes much more personal.

I suppose that is part of the strategy, to heighten anxieties. With so much information out there, whom do we believe? Is North Korea capable? Is it not?

This photo from my dad's collection is tagged as "Kim, Rowe, Allen & me, May 1953 Machine Gun Crew." That's my father on the right.

This photo from my dad’s collection is tagged as “Kim, Rowe, Allen & me, May 1953 Machine Gun Crew.” That’s my father on the right.

What would my Dad, who termed Korea “a hell hole,” say about all of this?

What would Teri Rae say about all of this? She was only six weeks old when her dad died. My father witnessed Ray’s death on the battlefield. (Click here to read about Ray.) He never forgot. I’ve never forgotten either the heart-wrenching and horrific story of the Nebraska soldier who never returned home to his wife or his first-born.

These are my thoughts as I consider the unsettling situation unfolding in Korea.

What are your thoughts?

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An unbelievable 83,451 still missing March 23, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:21 AM
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A tribute to POWs and MIAs at the veterans' memorial in Northfield.

United States suspends recovery of troop remains in North Korea

I nearly skipped over the AP article on page A5 of my local daily newspaper. But then I paused, allowed my eyes to linger on the headline before reading the heartbreaking story.

Just as efforts to find American service members missing during the Korean War were set to resume, that mission has been suspended. The action comes on the heels of North Korea’s plans to rocket-launch a satellite in apparent violation of United Nations’ sanctions.

That’s the situation in a nutshell. Hopeful families who have been waiting for the return of their loved ones for more than 60 years still wait.

I cannot imagine. The wait. The not knowing. The pain in losing a child to war. How many mothers and fathers of Korean War veterans have died without bringing their soldier boys back home for proper burial? Many.

The statistics shocked me. I had no idea that 7,960 Americans are unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office, U.S. Department of Defense. Among the missing/unaccounted for are 146 Minnesotans. Click here to read that list.

But the numbers are even more staggering when you consider the totals for wars from World War II through the 1991 Gulf War. There are 83,451 Americans missing. That’s almost the entire population of Duluth. Most of the unaccounted for, 73,690, served during WW II.

Yet, until you begin thinking of the missing in terms of names, the totals seem merely overwhelming statistics that cannot be comprehended. So I went to the DPMO website and clicked on news releases. There I found what I was seeking—the names of soldiers gone missing in Korea and who, all these years later, have been identified through the use of modern-day forensics.

Just to explain, North Korea gave the U.S. 208 boxes of remains believed to be those of 200-400 U.S. servicemen, according to the DPMO.

Among the recently-identified remains are those of Army Cpl. William R. Sluss, 21, of Nickelsville, Va. He was captured by the Chinese and died as a result of malnutrition in the spring of 1951 while a POW in North Phyongan Province, North Korea.

The remains of Army Pfc. George A. Porter, 21, of Philadelphia, were also recently-identified. He was among more than 100 men taken prisoner by the Chinese during what became known as the “Hoengsong Massacre.”

And then there’s Sgt. Willie D. Hill, 20, of Catawba, N.C., whose infantry division was encircled by Chinese forces in November 1950 resulting in heavy losses, including that of Hill.

William. George. Willie.

They were young men lost to war, in a very literal sense.

I have never lost a loved one to death by war. But I have lost a loved one to war. My father fought as an infantryman on the front lines during the Korean War. He was wounded on Heartbreak Ridge and decades later, in May of 2000, was awarded a Purple Heart. He returned to Minnesota a changed man, unable to bury the horrific memories of buddies blown apart before his eyes, of enemies he’d killed.

Today he would have been identified as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. But back then, upon his military discharge in 1953, my dad was simply expected to return to civilian life as if nothing had changed for him personally.

April 3 marks nine years since my dad died at the age of 72. I am convinced that he would have lived longer had any type of counseling been available to him upon his return  to the farm fields of southwestern Minnesota.

Yet, despite my wish that he could have gotten help, I am thankful that he came home. In one piece. Alive.

Thousands of other American families do not have the comfort that is mine—to visit a cemetery knowing their loved one is buried here, on American soil.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts on the latest conflict in Korea November 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:38 PM
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WHEN I HEARD this morning of the North Korean attack on South Korea over contested waters, I thought instantly of my dad. He fought on the front lines during the Korean War and was wounded at Heartbreak Ridge.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, left, with two of his soldier-buddies in Korea.

He, like so many other Americans, gave of themselves in Korea and, still, 60 years later, the conflict between the north and the south remains. Were the Americans’ efforts six decades ago worth the personal losses given nothing was ever truly resolved?

I know what my dad sacrificed for his country. He gave up a certain sense of inner peace. He was forever haunted by the horrors of war. That affected many facets of his life and impacted his family too. Me. My mom. My siblings. Life was sometimes a struggle for him.

But my dad was lucky. He survived. He did not die, like his buddy Ray, who was blown apart the day before he was to leave Korea. My father saw his friend die. You never forget something like that. I heard the horrible, wrenching story many times.

All of these thoughts passed through my mind today. I miss my dad, who died in 2003. I wonder how different he may have been had he never been called upon to defend South Korea, to kill North Koreans, to see his friends die upon the mountains of Korea.

I wonder. And, yes, today, with the news of the escalating tension, my heart breaks.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling