CEDAR FALLS –Norman Earl Duquette had everything planned out.
As a U.S. Air Force pilot flying over North Korea in 1952, he would be rotated back to the states after 100 missions. With any luck, he could make it back to Iowa for the birth of his third child anticipated for early April.
“I would have finished just about in time to get home. But it didn’t work out that way,” Duquette told a Grout Museum historian in a 2003 interview.
On Duquette’s 87th mission, a reconnaissance job to photograph an airfield near the Chosin Reservoir north of enemy lines, a North Korean proximity flak round detonated near his RF-80A jet as he was descending toward his target through cloud cover on Jan. 26, 1952.
Some of the shrapnel pierced the canopy and hit him in the head, and the plane started smoking.
The aircraft, which was designed during the tail end of World War II, didn’t have auto ejection, so he tried the hand crank to open the cockpit.
“I tried to get the canopy off, and it wouldn’t come. Apparently it jammed when I got hit,” he said. Next, he unbuckled and tried to open the cockpit with his shoulders, but that, too, failed.
Finally, he pulled himself back into his seat as the plane spiraled toward Earth and was able to bring the jet under enough control to bring it down in a clearing. Duquette hadn’t re-buckled his harness, and he slammed forward and lost consciousness.
“The first thought that occurred to me was that being dead is not that uncomfortable,” said Duquette, who suffered two broken vertebrae in the collision. When he awoke, and climbed out of the cockpit, he dropped into 3 feet of snow.
He was taken prisoner by a squad of North Korean soldiers and almost executed on the spot had it not been for an officer who stepped in and took him prisoner.
After being marched through a village where residents cursed at him and threw rocks, he was whisked away to a facility in Hamhung, North Korea, and eventually transported to an interrogation center north of Pyongyang.
He lived in an 8-foot-square room with seven to 12 prisoners of war. It was the coldest winter on record for Korea, and everyone’s breath condensed on the mud walls, Duquette said.
“It was so cold that the mud walls on the inside, it was like the inside of a deep freeze with frost on the walls,” he said. He got callused hips from sleeping on the dirt floor, and recalled the smell of up to a dozen men packed into close quarters.
They were fed sorghum grain with kelp seaweed. Maybe once a month they had rice, which was a treat, and there was an occasional potato.
They were eventually taken 10 miles north to what Duquette and his fellow prisoners called the “slave camp” where they unloaded gasoline, rice and other supplies into and out of bunkers.
For water, they had to drink from a rice paddy and soon developed dysentery.
After another stint at the North Korean interrogation facility, they were taken some 200 miles to the north and handed over to the Chinese. There, Duquette was put through a system of solitary confinement and interrogation as the Chinese tried get them to sign confessions —sometimes at gunpoint — alleging they had been involved in germ warfare in Korea. The interrogators accused him of being a war criminal and told him he wouldn’t be returned to the states.
After awhile, Duquette was housed with a group of 13 other “non-confessors” who were later rotated back to the interrogation program.
The rotations didn’t stop when war ended in July 1953.
Duquette recalled a last-ditch attempt to get him to confess to germ warfare in August 1953. When he again refused, he was told the war was over and he would be repatriated.
He was returned to his solitary cell and scratched “The war is over” into the wood. He figured other non-confessors who were unaware of the developments were likely going through the same interrogations, and he felt it would keep their spirits up.
“I thought the message might do them some good,” Duquette said.
Duquette’s Korean service was actually his second time fighting in a war.
The Plattsburgh, N.Y., native, had signed up for the U.S. Navy immediately after graduating from high school in 1943 during World War II. He flew TBF torpedo bombers looking for enemy submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. In 50 missions, he was involved in one sub attack that lost two aircraft from his unit.
After World War II, there were questions about the future of the Navy’s flight program as the U.S. Air Force was founded.
“The Navy flight training program got pretty well bogged down. They didn’t know whether to finish off the people who were in flight training to get their wings or just what they were going to do,” said Duquette, who returned to civilian life in 1947.
He had met his wife, a Traer native, while studying at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and he returned to the East Coast to study engineering.
Then a movie called about fighter pilots came out, and Air Force recruiters were in the lobby. They were offering a deal to allow married men into flight school.
Duquette signed up, and he graduated from the program with Gus Grissom, who would later go on to become a NASA astronaut.