Imagine a young soldier stationed halfway around the world. He’s been through hell on the battlefield and landed in a prison camp where food comes in starvation rations, infectious diseases run rampant, and winter nights descend in a bone-chilling freeze deeper than anything he’s ever known. His comrades in arms are dropping like flies, their bodies tossed unceremoniously into ditches.
One thing keeps this young man going–a faith planted deep inside of his heart by a beloved mother and a devout church community back home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He dreams time and again of his mother’s hot biscuits and cornpone. He thinks often of how she probably doesn’t even know whether he’s dead or alive.
Then comes a day when his captors toss him a bone. They give him permission to write a letter home and tell his mother that he’s still alive, still holding onto that faith. Robert Banks turned that offer down. As we’ll see, it was a decision he made with a heart full of love.
The First 17 Years: From Cambridge to Japan
First, some background. Banks was 17 years old when he joined the Army on Jan. 14, 1948. The son of William and Lillie Banks, he’d grown up in working-class fashion in Cambridge, Md. Newspapers of the time describe his father as a laborer and his mother as a “semi-invalid.” The family home on bustling Washington Street stood a few short blocks away from Bethel AME Church–that historic house of worship was a centerpiece of Banks’s childhood years.
After basic training in Texas, Banks landed in Japan with the 24th Infantry Regiment. That unit has a place in the history books–it was the last all-black force in a U.S. military that was slowly but surely desegregating in the post-World War II years. Banks was probably stationed at Camp Gifu, the focal point of the 24th’s peacekeeping work. Located 250 miles west of Tokyo, Gifu ranked as a remote, low-key, and uneventful outpost–just the sort of assignment military authorities preferred back then for all-black units.
By all accounts, the 24th had it pretty good in Gifu. They were mostly left alone by white higher-ups, some of whom had well-documented histories of meddling unfairly in the affairs of black units. The camp boasted amenities quite lavish by the standards of the time. The USO put on frequent shows at the Easly Theater. The Red Cross installed a lounge, a game room, a library, and a patio. In a book about the 24th Infantry during these years, historians William T. Bowers, William M. Hammond, and George L. MacGarrigle point out that many soldiers had come from impoverished backgrounds.
“Overall, life with the regiment was so pleasant that it exceeded anything many of the soldiers had ever known.”
That peaceful time in Gifu came to an abrupt end in the summer of 1950 when tensions on the nearby Korean Peninsula erupted into civil war. The United Nations sent troops–mostly American–to support a beleaguered South Korean army.
The 24th got its orders to join the fight early in that war. The transition out of Gifu was a rocky affair. Many soldiers reacted with anger when commanders denied them permission to go into town one last time. Quite a few of those soldiers counted local Japanese women as girlfriends. Some had been in Gifu long enough to have children and form makeshift families. A bunch of soldiers slipped out of camp one night in defiance of that stay-out-of-town order. Things got raucous that night—the incident that became the subject of an official Army inquiry.
Captured on the Banks of the Yalu
The Korean War unfolded in three big waves. The war began with a surprise North Korean attack that very nearly won the war, pushing South Korean and U.N. forces to the brink of defeat. But the allies held on at a last-ditch refuge in the city of Busan. Fresh troops and supplies soon arrived through that city’s port, putting the allies in position to counterattack.
The offensive that followed nearly won the war in turn, with the allies advancing deep into North Korean territory. In November 1950 Robert Banks and his comrades in the 24th were in the vanguard of that push. Banks did his part along the way–and then some. He won a Bronze Medal for combat heroics, though it hadn’t yet been officially pinned on his chest. He earned a promotion to sergeant, though the paperwork hadn’t yet gone through.
The war’s third wave began with an astonishing surprise. The 24th was operating quite close to the border with China along the Yalu River when Chinese troops entered the war, surging across the Yalu in an overwhelming show of force. Robert Banks got caught in the middle of that surprise.
“Millions and millions of Chinese came running at us. We were surrounded. I was captured.”
That short quotation from an old newspaper article barely hints at the horrors that unfolded on the battlefield. Banks’s daughter, LaShon Foster, says that her father and a good number of his colleagues tried to evade capture by laying amid “stacks of dead bodies,” some already decomposing. While trying to stay still and feign death, those soldiers could feel rats and mice nibbling on their limbs.
That third wave saw Chinese and North Korean forces push the allies back toward South Korea. The fighting would end in a tense stalemate at the “38th Parallel,” which still serves today as the border between the two Koreas.
Robert Banks missed out on all but the start of that third-wave action. He was reported missing on Nov. 28, 1950. Before that he had written home every week without fail, but the letters stopped arriving back home in Cambridge after a last one dated Nov. 23. His name first appeared on an official missing-in-action report on Dec. 28, 1950. He had three years in the service at this point—he was 20 years old.
Desperate, Deadly Days in ‘Camp Five’
Banks would spend most of the next three years on the banks of the Yalu, enduring life in the most notorious and deadly of North Korean prison camps. POWs in “Camp Five” slept on dirt floors in mud huts. Their diet for long periods consisted almost entirely of “cracked corn.” A piece of bread might show up on rare occasions.
The winter months of early 1951 were brutally cold, even by North Korean standards. Those huts had no reliable sources of heat. The prisoners had no lamps or candles. They were given no coats or other scraps of winter clothing.
If North Korean guards decided that a POW had been “disobedient”—and they often did so for trivial transgressions—they often put the offender in “The Ice Box” That’s what POWs called a vault that had survived the bombing of a bank building. Quite a few prisoners died from the cold in that box.
Banks’s daughter LaShon Foster learned from her father about another brand of torture that was never mentioned in newspaper interviews. Prisoners were lined up and told to stand on one leg, balancing as if in a yoga tree pose. If they let their airborne foot touch the ground, they were sometimes shot in the head. Foster says that on at least one occasion her father held his pose while the men on either side of him were murdered.
In later newspaper accounts, reporters quoted Banks using two main words to describe his early months of captivity. The first was brutality, for obvious reasons, but the second was monotony. Many days passed in endless and empty fashion, broken up only by re-education sessions filled with anti-American propaganda. No exercise periods, no books, no organized activities.\
Banks guesstimated in those later interviews that 30 to 40 prisoners died every day early on in his stay at Camp Five. The U.S. Department of Defense puts the death toll among POWs held in all the North Korean camps at 7,614. The most common cause was infectious disease (66%), aggravated by the absence of quality medical care. The second-leading cause of death was “external causes” (11%), a category that covers a broad range of violence, ranging from the torture and murder of prisoners to fatalities caused by errant bombing strikes or gunfire from nearby battles that sprayed into the camp. Here is what Banks would say years later about the suffering he witnessed:
“As long as I live I will remember those buddies, between five and six hundred, some of whom wandered around the prison camp, crazed [and] untended until some got so bad they had to take them away. … The men dying like flies, and the POWs digging trenches in the bleak ground around the hills along the Yalu. And the broken bodies going into the shallow trench, with no one to say a word.”
He tried his best to do some small measure of justice by the lost souls:
“I prayed, as my mother taught me, silently, that the good Lord would take care of them at home in heaven.”
Banks’s son, also named Robert, says his father later told the family how he would sometimes look around at his fellow prisoners, wondering which of them would dig the trench that his body would land in when the time came. This is why Robert Banks decided not to write a letter home to his mother when that opportunity first arose. He figured he was going to end up in one of those ditches. Why give his beloved mother hope, when that hope was almost sure to be dashed?
It’s unclear how many months these darkest of days lasted, but Camp Five eventually underwent a transition for the better. More professional Chinese soldiers took over from the North Koreans. The food got a little more plentiful. POWs were allowed to stoke underground fires and warm up those mud huts on cold nights. They had fuel-oil lamps. They could play a little soccer and football. They went swimming sometimes in a restricted area of the Yalu.
Banks regained a measure of physical strength. More importantly, his spiritual state improved as well, especially after those Chinese guards began allowing men Banks described as “better educated” POWs to lead Bible readings and hold makeshift religious services.
“The longing for home got us down at times, [but] then we would ‘spread the Good Word’ [among each other, that] God is here just the same as at home, and someday we’ll go home.”
It was during these days of rejuvenation–the spring of 1952—that Banks changed his mind and began writing letters home. His first missive was a Mother’s Day greeting.
Much later, in the early 1970s, a newspaper reporter would interview Banks and two other former Korean POWs about their experiences. The idea behind the story was to help local families who at that time were welcoming POWs home from Vietnam. All three Korean War veterans warned that letters home from prison camps “painted rosy pictures” that did not reflect the horrors they were enduring.
For example Banks sent a photo to his mother during this period showing him diving happily into the Yalu River. Here is LaShon Foster:
“My dad told us that what you did not see in that picture was the guns drawn on him and his fellow prisoners, forcing them to pretend they were being treated right,” LaShon Foster says.
Homecoming for a Hero, 1953
Back on Washington Street in Cambridge, the long wait started with that first official missing-in-action report from December of 1950. Lillie Banks passed a full year not knowing whether her son was dead or alive. Then, in December 1951, the name Robert Banks appeared on North Korea’s list of captured soldiers. Here is what Lillie said to a newspaper reporter that day:
“I always had a feeling he was still alive. We prayed day and night for him. It’s all I want for Christmas. It means everything that [my son is] alive.”
Seventeen more months passed without any word. Then, at last, that Mother’s Day missive arrived in May 1952. More letters rolled in after that.
Finally, the war drew to a close. Banks was released after 32 months and 13 days in Camp Five. The Army sent him and thousands of other newly freed prisoners home by way of slow-moving ship rather than high-flying plane. The extra time allowed for physical exams, mental health evaluations, and deprogramming of brainwash victims.
Banks was now 23 years old. Upon meeting him in person, one reporter described Banks as “physically frail but spiritually strong.” He had lost nearly 40 pounds. The reporter added:
“He knows his mother … will take care of that with good home cooking.”
A ship carrying Banks and 327 other POWs arrived in San Francisco in August 1953. Some of the POWs aboard were from the West Coast—their families came out to welcome them home.
“On the pier below, many a wife sighted her husband and many a mother her son and started a happy shout–only to find that it came out a sob. Some children, bewildered because they didn’t quite understand it all, huddled in their mothers’ arms, their backs to the fathers they had never seen or could barely remember. Flash bulbs popped and broadcasters dashed to and fro, dragging tangles of cable. But neither the repatriates nor their families minded.”
Robert Banks probably watched that reunion scene, but he had to wait some more for his own reunion moment. His plane landed at Friendship Airport (now BWI) on Aug. 24. From there he went to the Baltimore home of a relative.
“I was talking to a reporter [outside] when my mother first sighted me as she came down the street. She screamed. I heard her and turned. I ran to her. She kissed and hugged me and said in a choked voice, ‘Son, we’re proud to have you back.’ I could only say, … ‘I’m proud to be back.’”
The City of Cambridge pulled out all the stops to welcome Banks back to the Eastern Shore. City officials and American Legion leaders met Banks’s car just outside of town, then led the hero of the hour through town in a 40-car motorcade that crawled along behind two drum-and-bugle corps.
“Almost the entire population of Cambridge lined the flag-decorated streets as the parade honoring the 23-year-old Negro veteran traveled to the Municipal Building.” The crowds were especially thick in the ‘Second Ward,’” the historically African-American neighborhood where the Bankses lived.
When the motorcade stopped at City Hall, Mayor Russell P. Smith had this to say:
“It is with pleasure that I welcome you back, not only to your mother and father, friends and relatives, but to the city of Cambridge. A mother’s prayers are answered. You are a symbol to all those people who lost their boys. You are a shining example of courage and determination to help your country and all those of the free world who fought and suffered for justice. I salute you.”
Gifts were given. Commendations were awarded. During a ceremony at American Legion Post 87, Lillie Banks was presented with a corsage and asked to say a few words.
“I am so happy at having my son back that I can’t say any more. I am thankful from the bottom of my heart.”
Then Robert Banks himself was called up. He managed a total of five words:
“I’m proud to be back.”
In the days that followed there were many interviews with various newspapers. One of those contained a quote from Robert Banks that seems a fitting way to close out the chapter of his ordeal that ended with this homecoming celebration.
“It was my mother’s faith, her teachings right here [in Cambridge] when I was a boy, to believe in God and our way of life, that kept me sane and free in mind all those dreary days.”
The Price Paid by Robert Banks–and His Family
I wish that I could report that the war ended for Robert Banks at that point, but it didn’t. He spent many months at a military hospital in Pennsylvania, receiving care for a bullet wound and myriad other physical problems. Doctors decided that removing that bullet ran too high a risk of paralysis, so it remained lodged in his spine for the rest of his days.
Banks went to school to become an electrician. Back in Cambridge, he opened his own business, repairing TVs and doing electrical work. He also worked in a local factory owned by National Can. He sometimes took on extra part-time jobs.
Banks married Guinervere Cornish in 1956. They would have seven children together, two of whom shared details with me by email about the struggles their father endured in his postwar life. Make no mistake, however, about the most important thing those children want you to know about their father. LaShon Foster:
“My father was the greatest father of all time. The children of Robert I. Banks would never trade him for billions. He was one of the kindest men we have ever known, and if people go to heaven now, my father is sitting there.”
Robert Banks’s ordeal never ended. In addition to physical problems he struggled mightily with post-traumatic stress disorder. His mind would sometimes drift back into the war zone. He struggled with alcohol addiction. This potent mix could knock him off mental balance and set him off into uncontrollable rages. LaShon Foster:
“When daddy would go back into time and think that he was on the battlefield, his children suddenly became the enemy.”.
His children had to flee the family home during these episodes. Their safe spot was the home of their grandmother—the same woman whose teachings and faith Robert Banks credited for his ability to survive everything he endured in Camp Five. As the oldest child, Robert Jr. tried his best to protect his siblings. He would create a diversion, distracting his father and taking the brunt of his fury so that his siblings had time to reach a designated safe spot. LaShon Foster:
“We called my grandmother’s house ‘home base. Once you arrived there, you were protected. He could not cross that door in one of his rages, no matter how crazed he was from his nightmares and PTSD.”
Then the rage would pass. Foster continues:
“The day after one of these attacks, he would buy you the world. There is nothing he would not do to make up for the night before. We don’t know how many tears he cried. He hated every moment of his rages.”
Once again: Those episodes and Banks’s other struggles in life do not define the man in the memories of his children. When they recall Robert Banks, they think of his “heart of gold.” Here is Robert Jr.:
“We sometimes had little to spare, but my father would give to others from our pantry as if it was overstocked. He would feed the homeless and offer jobs to those who were overlooked in life. He would do TV-repair work based on a customer’s promise to pay, then look the other way when they didn’t pay.”
“Our fondest memories are of a man who would give his life for you and me, a man who loved us unconditionally. And that is how we loved our father back, unconditionally—the good, the bad, and the ugly. He is our hero. He pushed us all. He wanted us not to be afraid, to stand tall for what we believed in.”
Robert Banks died in 2008 at age 77. He suffered horribly at the end from liver and kidney failure, LaShon Foster says. In addition to his wife and children, Robert Banks was survived at the time of his death by 19 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
One question seems unavoidable here. If he had a chance to start over again, would Robert Banks choose once more to sign up for the military at age 17? LaShon Foster says that every time that question came up her father replied in the same way.
“He would quote the words from [country singer] Lee Greenwood: ‘I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. Yes, I will gladly stand up and defend her still today. I love this land. God bless the USA.’”
Robert Banks Jr. sums up the story of his beloved father this way:
“Only a few people ever heard the nightmare screams or watched him twist and turn and sweat the sheets wet. On many a night he would talk in his sleep about how they did this or that to him and his fellow prisoners. Guinervere Banks, his wife, always stood by his side as he fought the demons.
“As his oldest son I often wonder how he ever made it through. Our father was small in size but a giant among men. He taught us that there’s nothing you can’t do if you give it your all and let God be your co-pilot through life. He loved life, even while carrying a tremendous amount of weight on his shoulders. He carried that weight all the way to the end. He was a survivor.”
May Robert Banks rest in peace. May God bless his family.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore and Whimbrel Creations LLC.
NOTE #1 Gratitude
My first version of this story was based entirely on old newspaper articles and other historical documents. It ended with a brief, just-the-facts summary of the postwar life of Robert Banks.
I shared that draft with family members, asking them to check it for mistakes. They caught a few, but then LaShon Foster and Robert Banks Jr. went beyond my request and shared the story of their father’s postwar struggles and how those struggles impacted the family. Here is LaShon Foster explaining why they did that:
“We want everyone to know that Robert Banks, our hero, came with a price. We want everyone to know that war affects many more people than just the soldier.”
NOTE #2: Modern-Day Connections
The Banks family retains a strong presence in Cambridge today.
- Bank’s daughter, LaShon Foster, has served in elective office as a city commissioner, been a candidate for mayor, and pitched in on many civic projects.
- Another of Banks’s daughters, Janice Banks, became one of the first black women to join the volunteer Rescue Fire Company in Cambridge once that organization allowed blacks to join. She put in 30 years with RFC and remains an active member today.
- Banks’s grand-nephew, Dion Banks, has also been involved in many civic projects, including one that would make Robert Banks proud—an effort to restore the building that houses Bethel AME Church to a fuller measure of its historical glory.
- Several of Robert Banks’s descendants—including children, nieces, and nephews—have served our country in the military.
NOTE #3: A Japanese Connection
The 2008 obituary for Robert Banks notes that he was the father of one more child on top of the family he had with Guinervere. The list of surviving children includes “Roberta Banks of Honshu, Japan,” which leads me to guess that Banks was among the members of the 124th who fathered children with Japanese girlfriends while stationed at Camp Gifu.
NOTE #4: An End to Military Segregation
Robert Banks entered Camp Five as a prisoner in November 1950. Eight months later, in July 1951, the Army announced plans to disband the 24th Infantry Regiment as part of its slow-moving desegregation process. Fifteen months after that–in November of 1952–the Army declared that desegregation project fully complete. Banks returned home from captivity in August of 1953.
NOTE #5: Mixed Feelings about that Hero’s Welcome
For obvious reasons, people in Cambridge felt there was much to celebrate back when Robert Banks returned home from captivity in 1953. They gave him a hero’s welcome.
But Banks himself had mixed feelings about the festivities. Do you remember how he was interviewed in the 1970s by a reporter looking to offer advice to families and communities as they welcomed home prisoners of war from Vietnam? That reporter paraphrased Banks and two fellow Korean POWs as advising “friends and families not to lavish too much attention on returning Vietnam prisoners and, for the first few months at least, not to ask too many questions.”
Banks’s son, Robert Jr., adds one more thing to consider here, and that surrounds the media coverage devoted to his father and his fellow POWs when they returned home. As Robert Banks and his family came to see things, Robert Jr. says, the only type of story reporters seemed interested in were “ones that benefited the press and showed how great this country was.” The full story, as we have seen, was much more complicated.