Time Period: WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War
Colonel Gerald “Gerry” Fink was born in Chicago in 1921. He enlisted in the USMC as a reservist during World War II and served as a fighter pilot, apparently serving stateside. Later, he was called up to serve in the Korean War.
On August 12, 1951, during his first mission over North Korea, then-Captain Fink’s F4U Corsair was shot down over Wonsan Harbor. His initial attempts to eject failed, but he managed to bail out at a low altitude, sustaining injuries to his hand. When Fink landed, he found himself under fire by the North Koreans and their Communist allies, and they captured him soon after. Disarmed before he could defend himself, enemy soldiers proceeded to knock out two of his front teeth, shot his knee, and broke his arm (Fink later reset the bones himself). He was then dragged through the North Korean city of Wonsan, where locals spat at him and urinated on him. While he may have wondered if he was going to survive the experience, noting that he felt “his survival was only in the hands of G-d,” Fink was on his way to becoming a Marine legend in captivity.
Forcibly marched to the POW camp known as Pak’s Death Palace, north of Pyongyang, Fink was interrogated and tortured for not divulging information about the US Naval order of battle. At long last, Fink finally named some American ships to his captors, but devilishly, he only mentioned ships that had either been sunk at Pearl Harbor or during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Evidently fearless, Capt Fink wasn’t afraid of the consequences of speaking his mind—or doing what he wanted. When a Russian interrogator asked why Fink had come to North Korea in the first place, he responded, “To kill Communists!” and was promptly beaten. It was during this interrogation that he became oddly fixated on three extra-long hairs growing on the edge of the nose of the same interrogator, a behemoth of a Russian woman, and plucked one. This earned him a significant beating and three days of solitary confinement in a vermin-infested cell—although given that particular crime, it’s surprising that his punishment wasn’t more extreme.
Throughout his capture, Fink became well known for his concern for fellow prisoners. In one case, Fink helped bury a British POW who had succumbed to disease; the frozen ground and the substandard nutrition did not prevent him from showing honor to his fallen comrade.
Fink never remained still. He ingeniously crafted knives, tools, stethoscopes, and even a wooden pegleg that was so well designed that USAF Major Thomas Harris, who had lost a leg while bailing out of his plane over North Korea, was later able to play volleyball with it. The item he was most proud of was a three-foot-tall memorial that he carved out of wood to honor Chaplain Emil Kapaun, a Christian chaplain who courageously kept up prisoner morale in the same POW camp, and, in 2013, would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. His three months of labor on the icon would be paid for by ten days of solitary confinement. When Capt Fink returned to the barracks, he was just in time to lead his fellow POWs in organizing a celebration to mark the birthday of the Marine Corps on November 10. Incredibly, they made a cake out of ingredients they stole from the prison camp’s kitchen.
Capt Fink was said to have kept up his fellow POWs’ morale throughout the ordeal, organizing possible escape routes, spending untold hours encouraging fellow recipients of torture and degradation, and mustering countless acts of defiance. After two years in subhuman conditions, he was finally released during Operation Big Switch and finally returned home in August 1953. He continued to serve his country for many years, eventually retiring with the rank of colonel.
Colonel Gerald Fink passed away on November 10, 1987, an especially poignant date—the birthday of his beloved Marine Corps.
Originally printed in the Passover 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.