The Army was Ronald Alley's life, and even after they court-martialed him at Fort Meade for collaborating with the Chinese who held him prisoner during the Korean War and sentenced him to 10 years of hard labor and disgraced him with a dishonorable discharge, he still believed in the Army and thought it would someday do him justice.
He had, he declared again and again, committed no crime during his 33 months of captivity. He did 3 years and 9 months at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and when he got out in 1959 and went back home and found work as a Fuller Brush man, he still had faith that the Army would see its mistake, restore his honor and welcome him back into the ranks.
Twice he applied for a hearing before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, and twice they turned him down. His congressman offered to help him try to get a presidential pardon, but Alley declined that offer, saying that a pardon would be an admission of guilt, and he had committed no crime.
Alley was a tall, husky, opinionated carpenter's son with a high school education, the oldest of eight children raised in Bar Harbor, Maine. To the people of that picturesque resort island, which he left so hopefully at age 17 when he enlisted in the Army and came back to in disgrace at age 36 after Leavenworth, he was known as a man with an obsession. He had no hobbies, just the Army. He was 55 when he died of a heart attack in 1978. The day he died he had been on his way to see the editor of The Bar Harbor Times, who wanted to hear the story of what had happened with Alley and the Army.
Alley's German-born widow, whom he had met and married in 1947 while he was a captain assigned to the military government in occupied Germany, did as he had wished: She buried him with his war medals, in the uniform she had bought to replace the one the Army took away when they sent him to Leavenworth, beneath a granite tombstone engraved with the American flag. Right up until the end, former Maj. Ronald E. Alley still believed in the United States Army.
Erna Alley, who after her husband's court-martial supported their two small children by picking apples, working as an Avon lady and operating Erna's German Motel in Bar Harbor, has embraced the obsession. She seeks for her husband a posthumous honorable discharge, a posthumous promotion to the rank of colonel and a change in the military records to indicate that he was found not guilty of all charges 27 years ago, when the court-martial was convened.
"The military was his life; the sun rose and set over the military," Mrs. Alley, 60, said. "He was a proud, proud officer. He would have been a general." She never told her son and daughter the truth about why their father was gone, and she remembers what he said to them later, when he had come home and they were old enough to understand.
"He told them, 'I want you to love your country. It is a great country. I love the Army. Some day justice will be done. Some day they will recognize that a terrible mistake was made, that I was a good officer, that I wanted the best for my country.' "
Mrs. Alley is joined in her efforts by her lawyer, Gerald Williamson, and by Don Snyder, a former editor of The Bar Harbor Times, whom Alley had been on his way to see when he had his heart attack. Snyder, 31, is a writer whose interest has always been in "the people who dream and plan and believe in good things and suddenly one morning they wake up and find that not a single thing is the way they thought it was, and they struggle to resist disillusion and cynicism and go on."
These are the characters of Snyder's novels, and he says he has found one in real life in the person of the late Ronald Alley, the only Army officer in this century sent to prison for collaborating with the enemy. (Out of the Vietnam War, only one American POW--Marine Cpl. Robert R. Garwood--was tried for collaboration.) "He was never bitter or cynical," Snyder said. "He wouldn't hear a bad word about the Army. He never gave up." Snyder has spent three years researching a book on Alley, aided in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington.
Last fall the military board that twice turned down her late husband's requests for a hearing finally granted Mrs. Alley a hearing. And two weeks ago she and her son and her lawyer and Don Snyder all traveled to Washington to testify before the five-man Army Board for Correction of Military Records, in an effort to convince them that Alley had been wrongly disgraced.
Three former Korean War POWs who spent close to three years in captivity and knew Alley from Camp Five--a bombed-out village in the mountains of North Korea, where more than 500 American men died--also spoke. So strongly do two of them feel that Alley was wrongly accused and convicted that they traveled here at their own expense from their homes on the West Coast.
One of them, retired Lt. Col. Charles Peckham of King City, Calif., said, "He was so proud of his country, of his Army. I never met another man in my whole damn life whom the Army meant more to. I'll tell you this: I didn't know Ronald Alley had gone to Leavenworth. I was so sure that when it got to the review board it would be thrown out. And when I read in the Salinas (Calif.) newspaper, after Ronnie Alley had died, that he had gone to Leavenworth, I cried, because there was no way, no way. It was ridiculous."
Another former POW, retired Lt. Col. Robert Wise of Tacoma, Wash., who testified for Alley at the court-martial in 1955, termed his trip to the District "a moral obligation." And he said, "If Ronald Alley was guilty, then I was guilty, too, and so was everyone else there."
The Uniform Code of Military Justice held then that telling the enemy anything more than name, rank, serial number and date of birth constituted collaboration. Alley, one of 14 Korean War ex-POWs court-martialed and convicted by the Army, was found guilty of charges that included leading pro-Communist peace parades and indoctrination sessions, writing a pro-Communist article for distribution to the POWs, expressing opinions that the U.S. government was an imperialistic government waging an imperialistic war in Korea, and giving to the enemy such information as artillery secrets, the signaling code POWs used to alert each other to the approach of their captors, and the religious and political affiliations and home addresses of the POWs.
Alley's widow and Snyder do not claim that Alley did none of these things. But they say that all of the Korean War Army POWs held by the Chinese "collaborated" in some way in order to stay alive, and that Alley, an abrasive, blunt-spoken loner who was disliked by most of the other prisoners, was made a scapegoat for a war poorly fought. They call the court-martial, which lasted three months, a circus and contend that Army officials had already made up their minds to make an example of Ronald Alley. They also say that Alley was a victim of the times, when the military establishment was seeking to toughen its image and when the frenzy of witch-hunting created by the late U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy was at its peak, and the smallest things could make a man a Communist in the eyes of the suspicious.
Last week's hearing was held at the Pentagon, in an overheated, carpeted room with an American flag in one corner. As the former POWs spoke, one by one, in voices thick with emotion and remembering, the events of 30 years past, when Americans went to fight a difficult war in Korea, came back and were relived: The fighting in 50 -below-zero weather at Chosin Reservoir, where many American troops were captured by the Chinese and then marched by their captors throughout North Korea; the terrible conditions of the Chinese prison camps in the mountains, the brutal winters, the lack of food and medical treatment, the sleeping all crowded together on dirt floors in tiny rooms, the indoctrination sessions, the overwhelming numbers of men who died in those camps, the suspicion among the prisoners, the distrust, the reduction of men to animals.
The former POWs were Army men then, and they remain Army men today, and they had not expected to cry, but they did.
The five civilians who will rule sometime within the next month on Erna Alley's appeal listened impassively from their chairs behind a long wooden table; it was impossible to read their thoughts. But the two dozen people in the audience seemed visibly moved and, like the soldiers who testified, some of them cried. It wasn't just the story of Ronald Alley they were hearing, it was also the story of the other prisoners of war: of what they had survived and how they had survived and how it had changed them. The numbers themselves are staggering: There were 6,656 Army prisoners of war in Korea, and 2,662 of them died in captivity, according to the Army Center for Military History.
"You can't train a man to be a POW," said Peckham, who has been in and out of hospitals ever since his captivity. "No one has any idea what it's like, what it can do to you. You're in shock. Nobody just gave name, rank, serial number and date of birth.
"We were marched all over North Korea, going nowhere. We would start at darkness and walk until daylight. We walked 25 miles a night. Most of us were wounded. We got frozen hands, frozen feet. I got dysentery on the march. I was quite ill . . . . Camp Five was a nightmare. People died like flies. I went down to 70 pounds. I almost died." Peckham recalled that on one of those marches, Alley carried on his back another soldier who could not walk because of frostbite.
Wise, a gaunt, 62-year-old man with gray hair and sorrrowful brown eyes, who wore his Purple Heart on the lapel of his suit, said he was punished by the Chinese after he demanded better conditions for his fellow prisoners at Camp Five. "They took me out and put me in a hole in the ground that was three feet deep. I was left in that hole in the middle of the winter with a board over it. I was left there for three days, in my own mess. You're at that point where your mind is going to break. You're helpless. There is no one to back you up. . . . I got pneumonia, beriberi and dysentery all at the same time. I came through it. Spring was coming. I was raised poor, and I knew what to do. I went out and picked weeds. I knew I needed bulk in my stomach. I boiled weeds in a can to feed myself, and I survived.
"There were over 1,200 men in camp that winter. Everybody was suspicious of everybody else. We went five months without baths, without shaves, without haircuts, without a change of clothes. You can imagine the animals we were. Tempers were high, everyone was looking for a scapegoat for the predicament we were in. There's got to be someone. You're so weak and befuddled you can't resist. There was one guy who said, 'I'll give them nothing.' They stood him on a hill in front of us. They made him stand at attention until he collapsed. They brought him back to the room, and he died that night."
After all that, Wise said, "We came back, we're bums, we're disloyal." And though in his voice the bitterness was still strong, 30 years later, he said, "I'm Army all the way through. My father was, I was, I still am. If I were called back today, and if I were physically able, I'd be damn willing to go."
Lt. Col. Walter Mayo, retired, a former POW who was a witness for the prosecution at Alley's court-martial, was questioned at last week's hearing by Williamson, Erna Alley's attorney. Mayo, 57, of McLean, said, "I never saw him or knew of him to do anything detrimental to his fellow prisoners." When Williamson asked Mayo if he thought Alley would be found guilty today, he answered, "In view of the sheer, overwhelming deprivation we underwent, he probably wouldn't be convicted."
Mayo hesitated from time to time before Williamson's detailed questions about what had happened during the Korean War. Williamson was sympathetic. "I know it's been a long time."
"It's been a helluva long time," Mayo said.
Yet his description of Camp Five was as vivid as if he had been there yesterday, not 30 years ago. "The conditions were similar to a miniature holocaust. We were given two bowls of grain a day--cracked corn in the morning, a bowl of millet at night. We had no meat for six or seven months. Occasionally we got soybeans. We had no soap for at least nine months. We got lice . . . . "
Of the three POWs who addressed the military board, it was Wise who came to know the intensely private Alley best during their long captivity. "He was very opinionated. He could be very abrasive. If you didn't get to know him, you couldn't help but dislike him. I got to know Ronald Alley quite well. I liked the man. There was no reason whatsoever to feel that there was anything disloyal about him. This man was a dyed-in-the-wool soldier.
"I was 35 at the time. I had been through the mill. When I heard he was brought up for a court-martial, I could not believe it. There were much worse cases of conduct that were never brought before any board. The prosecutor made it plain to all of us that Alley must be found guilty for the good of the service. I have never in my career seen an injustice done in such a vicious manner."
Alley landed in Korea in August 1950 and was captured by the Chinese at Chosin Reservoir 24 days before Christmas. During his 33 months of captivity, he suffered from tuberculosis and dysentery. He lost 40 pounds. When the war ended, he was flown immediately to Tokyo for medical treatment. Doctors removed a part of his lung. He spent two years in hospitals recovering his health. Twice he was offered a full medical discharge; twice he refused. His widow recalled her husband telling the doctors, "I can give my country 20 or 30 more years."
In early 1955, after he was discharged from Valley Forge Military Hospital, Alley traveled to Washington to pick up his orders for a new assignment. But there was no new assignment. Instead the major was read a list of formal charges filed against him by the Army, and placed under house arrest. Mrs. Alley recalled how her husband comforted her: "He said, 'Honey, don't worry. I have done no wrong. If I am guilty, they all are guilty.' "
Ronald Alley's son Gary, a broad-shouldered 32-year-old papermaker from Lee, Maine, who was six when his father went to Leavenworth, also addressed the military board. "The other kids tormented me. They'd say, 'When are they going to let the jailbird out?' I was scared of a man I could hardly remember. Was my father a criminal? And if so, what horrible crime had he committed?"
Gary Alley said after the hearing that his father's spirit was broken by what the Army had done to him. "He was obsessed with it. He had no hobbies."
The day after the hearing, Mrs. Alley held a press conference in a spacious meeting room at the Holiday Inn in Arlington. The room was all but empty. Two reporters came, one of them from Maine. Gary Alley didn't care; for him the trip from Maine had been a milestone. "Mr. Peckham and Mr. Wise answered a lot of questions about my dad. I know he suffered a great deal. I know now that he was innocent. I was probably the proudest person in that courtroom yesterday."
The board is expected to make its recommendation within the month to the secretary of the Army, who will make the final decision. Nearly three decades after the court-martial, after the conviction, after Fort Leavenworth, Ronald Alley's widow still has faith, as her husband did all of his life, in the United States Army. "I feel that they will do the right thing," she said. "I have a feeling in my heart that my late husband will be found not guilty. They will give him justice."