Dan LeRoy McKinney and Joyce Ann Riley were supposed to marry in Tulia on April 23, 1951. They had met two years earlier in Clovis, New Mexico, McKinney’s hometown.
But when that day arrived, the couple found themselves 7,000 miles apart. While Joyce worked as a nurse in the Panhandle, McKinney was serving north of the 38th Parallel in the Korean War, a corporal in K Company. And on the exact day they should have exchanged rings, McKinney found himself taken prisoner by Chinese infantrymen. Rather than embarking on a honeymoon, he would begin a 300-mile walk to the Korea and China border to Sinuiju, near the Yalu River.
On April 23, 1951, Dan McKinney became a prisoner of war. He would be one for another 28 months.
A Room Tells a Story
A black POW-MIA flag flutters just below the Stars and Stripes outside McKinney’s southwest Amarillo home. Dan McKinney—some call him “Lee,” a shortened version of LeRoy—moved to Amarillo five years ago to be closer to his daughters. At age 97, he lives alone.
Due to the passage of time, precious few World War II veterans—the final witnesses to the last great global war of good versus evil—are still living. The very youngest are 96 years old. Few others remain from the Korean War of the early 1950s.
McKinney, amazingly, is a veteran of both wars. At age 18, he served in Germany for the final two months of World War II. Then, after his Army reserve unit was activated in 1951, he fought in Korea.
Today, he uses a walker. His black hair long ago turned white. His voice is raspy and his hearing unreliable. Yet his mind remains sharp. His recollection is keen and punctuated with humor.
In his home, McKinney has turned one room into a remembrance of his military past with photos of a handsome man in his prime, plaques, medallions, proclamations, books and more. One plaque indicates an auditorium at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis named in his honor. A cloth banner signifies McKinney as the seventh inductee into Cannon Air Force Base’s Wall of Heroes in 2005.
One table features a beautifully carved, ingrained map of Korea with the words “Sergeant Dan L. McKinney, POW, April 23, 1951–August 20, 1953.” Dan calls it “the POW table.”
In one frame, small enough to be held in the palm of a hand, are handwritten words on scrap paper:
“Because of you, I’m alive to enjoy this Christmas. Thanks a million. Richard Godlewski—Polock—Ex-POW, 1957.”
He gives the tour of this room with pride mixed with humility. He reflects on a period when he didn’t need a walker, when he was poor but loved, when duty gave the orders and, like so many others, McKinney followed them.
Dan’s father, Stonewall “Stoney” McKinney, had been a sniper in World War I and worked as a railroad train fireman after that war. Dan was born in 1926, the oldest of four raised by Stoney and Katy McKinney in Clovis. They survived the Dust Bowl and Depression. When Dan was 15, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
“I’d been to Sunday School and church and then gone to the golf course with a friend,” McKinney says. “We played the front nine and went in and they told us war had started. I’m not sure it sunk in on a 15-year-old. I went home and sat by the radio like everyone else.”
One Decade, Two Wars
A few months before graduation from Clovis High School in 1944, McKinney got a letter in the mail from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He’d been drafted into the U.S. Army.
By late summer, he was at Camp Roberts in California for basic training. He left for Europe on a transport ship from New Jersey to England. By March 1945, he’d made his way to Germany.
Still just 18, McKinney was in a replacement depot waiting to be moved, but V-E Day arrived before he saw combat. Instead, he helped process soldiers who were going home while waiting for the inevitable mass movement to the Pacific and the final bloody battle of the invasion of Japan. “We knew without a doubt we were all going to the Pacific,” McKinney says.
Two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese mainland in August 1945 finally ended the war, sparing McKinney and hundreds of thousands from fighting the Japanese on their homeland. McKinney remained in the Army until his discharge in 1947.
When McKinney returned to Clovis, the company commander of an inactive Army reserve unit asked if he would sign up for a three-year commitment. He did. In May 1950, McKinney agreed to three more years.
One month later, McKinney was no longer inactive. Communist North Korea aimed to overthrow democratic South Korea at China’s urging. With that invasion in June 1950, President Harry Truman sent American troops to aid the South and fight the Communists.
Inactive Army reserve units were among the first called up, and McKinney quickly found himself in infantry training at Fort Hood “to get in shape so we could walk 20 miles,” he says.
After six weeks, McKinney was among a trainload of soldiers heading west from Temple, Texas. He knew the route from his father’s career, and the family followed the railroad when visiting family in the Dallas area. The troops would be passing through Clovis, so McKinney called his parents and girlfriend, Joyce Ann, who were waiting for him when he arrived.
“I visited a little bit with them, and finally I said, ‘It looks like it’s time to go.’ My dad said, ‘Come on, you’re riding in the engine with me,’” McKinney remembers. Stoney was the train’s engineer from Clovis to Belen, south of Albuquerque.
“We whizzed along at 97 mph and I said, ‘You don’t have to get in such a big hurry to get rid of me,’” he says. This was the end of the line for Stoney. He eased his way off the train intentionally, without saying goodbye to his son. It would have been too hard.
The train eventually made its way to San Francisco, and McKinney boarded a troop transport ship headed across the Pacific to fight in what many call “The Forgotten War.” Near midnight on Dec. 24, 1950, the ship hit the international date line.
Crossing it would mean a skip ahead to Dec. 26—no Christmas. Intentionally, the ship paralleled the international dateline for four hours so those on board could have some experience of Christmas Day.
It would be the last one for many.
The 300-Mile March
The fighting in Korea was brutal, barbaric and almost impossible. McKinney joined K Company of the 19th Regiment on Jan. 18, 1951 in Pusan. In the early months of the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had American troops pushing the North Koreans further north to the Yalu River and the border with China.
Believing MacArthur was not going to stop at the border, China entered the war with superior numbers, pushing the Americans and South Koreans back near the 38th Parallel, the border of North and South Korea. Three months later, McKinney was fighting for his life at a place called the Iron Triangle near the 38th Parallel.
On the night of April 22, 1951, McKinney found himself fighting, in the dark, using grenades, bayonets and hand-to-hand combat. Exposed, K Company took the brunt of Chinese artillery, mortar rounds, and Chinese suicide bombers carrying grenades. Artillery rained down on the Chinese, but they just kept coming.
K Company, later given a distinguished unit citation, withdrew to a ridge. They ran out of ammo and fought instead with .45 pistols and bayonets. Earlier in the day, McKinney had been made a squad leader. As night fell, he led eight new soldiers.
“For all I know, all eight died that night … their first night,” McKinney says. “I suffered from survivor’s guilt.”
With dead men all around him, McKinney decided that remaining in a foxhole was a death sentence. He climbed onto a ridge and wedged himself between large rocks. In the process, he took shrapnel into his waist from friendly fire—artillery had been called in. But he was still alive.
When the sun rose, the Chinese found McKinney and others shaken but alive. North Koreans were known to kill survivors, but the Chinese had taken over the POW operations. “That saved my life,” he says.
On a day when McKinney was supposed to be taking the hand of Joyce Ann Riley in marriage in Tulia, Texas, he raised his own hands to begin a march north. For the next 58 days, until June 19, McKinney and 200 other prisoners marched 300 miles northwest to the prison camp at Sinuiju. They marched only at night. The Chinese were fearful of being spotted by American planes.
Along the way, more captured Americans were added. Many did not make it, dying of combat wounds or amoebic dysentery, an intestinal parasite passed from contaminated water. Chinese soldiers carried their own rations. Americans were sometimes given some rice and millet to get them through the day. McKinney weighed 155 pounds when he was captured. By the war’s end, he had dropped to 115 pounds.
When they finally reached Sinuiju, prisoners were placed in three-room huts that were 9 feet by 9 feet and had a mud floor, mud fireplace and one large pot. The pot was used for bathing, to boil drinking water, and to wash their only clothes.
Thirteen soldiers slept head-to-toe in each room. When one turned over, McKinney says, they all turned over. In the winter, those in the middle of the room slept more warmly. “In the summertime, those guys who had it good in the winter roasted,” McKinney says.
Each prisoner received a metal bowl, which held a half bowl of rice in the morning and a half bowl at night. The Chinese used Americans for manual labor. The first summer, they were sent four miles up in the mountains to carry back tree logs to the village. One man carried a four-foot log. Anything longer, two carried.
“We were weak as water,” McKinney says. “I never thought about how long I’d be there. I looked around and thought, if everyone else can live like this, so can I.”
McKinney believed the Chinese treated them “the best they could.” After all, they were POWs. But if anyone strayed away from the rules, there were consequences.
English-speaking Chinese talked with the prisoners, extolling the Communist way of life and other propaganda. On one occasion, McKinney had heard enough. “I told them that’s not going to fly,” he says. “I said, ‘You talk English. You are aware of what it’s really like.’ They had some education. I said, ‘You’re trying to sell these people, but you’re not selling me.’ I told those kids not to believe it.”
McKinney was taken away from the camp and isolated with 14 other “troublemakers” in a tiny hut for the next 72 days. The only time they were allowed to leave was to relieve themselves. But in that hut, McKinney met Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, a Japanese-American from Gallup, New Mexico. Miyamura became a lifelong best friend. At first, they were bonded by the same home state, and would soon become even closer in this band of brothers.
A machine-gun squad leader, Miyamura’s heroism was among the greatest in the Korean War. Two days after McKinney was captured, Miyamura fought near Taejon, left a sheltered position and killed 10 Chinese with his bayonet rifle, and then returned to administer first aid to wounded and direct evacuation. As a second wave attacked, Miyamura killed 50 more of the enemy before he was severely wounded. He was still fighting when captured.
Prisoners like McKinney and Miyamura treasured activities that would take their minds away from captivity. McKinney carved an entire chess set. First, he created a knife by removing a metal shank out of a combat boot and splitting a branch to form a handle. Out of wood, he then carved a set of pawns, knights, rooks, bishops, and queen and king.
“It took me a month to make the knife and a month to carve the pieces,” he says. “I had about six inches of wood left.” He still keeps those pieces on a chess board in a glass cabinet in his home 70 years later.
Hot summer days melted into cold winters. Boredom blended with physical labor. They knew little of the outside world beyond the sunrises and sunsets of Sinuiju, but were allowed an occasional letter home.
In 1952, after having spent 18 months as a POW, McKinney sent a homemade Christmas card home. He stenciled and colored the word “Peace” on the front. Inside he wrote, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Where there is Peace, there is blessing.”
And in pencil: “With All My Love, Lee (Dan LeRoy), Cpl. Dan LeRoy McKinney”
Miyamura became ill—possibly dysentery—and McKinney cared for his new best friend for months. In May 1953, McKinney thought Miyamura would die, but the soldier rallied. He bet Hershey they would be free by July 4.
McKinney lost the bet. Not by much, though.
The July 27, 1953, Armistice Agreement ended the war, dividing Korea into the Communist North and Democratic South. More than 36,000 Americans died in combat. McKinney was one of an estimated 3,200 American POWs.
Three weeks later, captors summoned McKinney and his fellow prisoners to the parade ground of the camp. “They had a set of machine guns there, which was different,” he says. “They figured when they told us the war was over, we’d try to take over the camp. There were some cheers, but we didn’t raise a lot of hell.”
Over the next few days, trucks rolled by with POWs on their way to full freedom. Those at Sinuiju were the last ones to be released, with McKinney and Hershey placed in the last truck because they were supposedly “reactionaries.”
The men made their way to Panmunjom, just north of the 38th Parallel, a place dubbed “Freedom Village.” McKinney’s 28 months of captivity ended Aug. 20, 1953.
“There was an American base there with a big United States flag,” McKinney says. “It was the biggest I’d ever seen in my life. It sure looked good.”
Sixteen days later a ship arrived in San Francisco with Korean Veterans aboard, including McKinney and Hershey. Miyamura had been informed he would receive the Medal of Honor for his heroism and was treated as such. He was the first to depart.
The rest of the soldiers stood at the railing. That’s when McKinney spotted his parents, Stoney and Katy, with his fiancée, Joyce Ann. “They told us when you get to the head of the gangplank, you call your name and we’ll tell you if you have visitors,” McKinney remembers. “I called my name and they said, ‘No visitors.’ I said, ‘Like hell.’ My parents were the only ones in the pen.”
Finally, on Oct. 18, 1953—30 months after the original date—McKinney and Joyce Ann got married. For what might as well have been a honeymoon, they drove to Washington D.C., for a ceremony to honor Miyamura and other Medal of Honor recipients at the White House with President Eisenhower.
McKinney stood for an inordinate amount of time after the ceremony, waiting to meet the president while Eisenhower spoke to Miyamura. Impatient, McKinney told Joyce they were leaving. “We waited at the car forever,” he says. “I asked Hershey’s wife what you talked about so long. She said, ‘Oh, we were just exchanging recipes.’ I must have looked like a jackass turning down a chance to shake hands with the president.”
Back home, McKinney spent a semester at the University of New Mexico then worked for the post office in Tulia before returning to Clovis. There, he worked for a Mobil Oil dealership until 1965, then an auto parts store for 11 years, then opened his own parts store, which he sold in 1987. Joyce Ann retired as coordinator of nurses for Clovis ISD in 1992.
The lengthening shadows of a remarkable life have seen loss over the past two years. Joyce Ann, his wife of 67 ½ years, passed away on Jan. 21, 2021. And a year ago, last December, Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura died. McKinney attended his friend’s funeral in Gallup, New Mexico.
Yet Dan LeRoy McKinney, as he has done all his life, perseveres. He lives independently. His daughters and their husbands are not far away. His gait may be slow and his voice raspy, but his spirit remains untouched.
When asked what he takes away from these 97 years, and in particular, his 28 months as a POW, he pauses for a long time. A lip slightly quivers.
“I’m just lucky to be here,” he finally says. “I’m grateful for every day.”