This veteran and CarmelFest Parade marcher walked a long, dark road to be able to tell his story of survival
By Joseph Knoop
For many people, seeing an older veteran marching in a parade seems commonplace. But one veteran marching in this year’s CarmelFest parade knows that’s he’s lucky to be there. And he has quite the story to tell.
It’s pinnacle occurred after spending roughly 17 weeks as a prisoner during the Korean War –that’s when Charles Layton promised himself a different path.
“I said to myself one day that, when I got out – and when, not if – that I would someday, everyday do something kind for people, even if it only meant a smile,” said Layton, now 85 and a resident of Noblesville.
Layton, who grew up as a “Depression baby” in the late 1920s and early ’30s, often was shunned by his family and sent away for the summer.
“I was the fifth wheel out and my sister was the (beneficiary),” Layton said. “That wasn’t a great surprise. When you get sent away every summer and have to fend for yourself on the streets of Chicago, you build up a crust. In my personal opinion, I think the man up above prepared me for that duty in the prison camp and allowed me to digest it.”
His parents, who moved to Chicago from Frankton, Ind., after their dry cleaning business failed, had a “cult like” religion, disbelieving in the act of war and the use of doctors, he said.
Joining the Army
Layton was hired at 12 years old to ride and break wild horses in a Chicago stockyard. Breaking one carload of horses would earn Layton $10.
At 16, he was hired to work with 11 horses on the set of MGM’s film, “This Time for Keeps,” starring Esther Williams and Jimmy Durante.
Drafted just before his 22nd birthday, Layton went through basic training at an accelerated pace to supplement the forces in Korea. Layton remembers waking up on his transport ship, bound for Japan, to the sounds of a loudspeaker blaring, “Prepare to abandon ship.”
The vessel had crashed into a tanker.
Layton and one other Army Ranger leapt overboard, much to the chagrin of fellow soldiers who knew that preparing to abandon ship wasn’t the same as actually doing so.
Despite these setbacks, Layton served as a forward observer for the 2nd Infantry Division and 7th Armored Division, scouting and calling in artillery strikes ahead of troop movement.
‘I was so guilty’
As history shows, North Korean forces eventually were able to drive a wedge into forces like Layton’s. With the decimation of U.S. Marines’ forces on his flank, Layton and his men were forced to retreat and hide in the craggy, cold mountains until their eventual capture.
Layton and 36 other men were crammed into a hut made of mud, dirt and hemp roofing. In the below-freezing temperatures of North Korea, the men were forced to either all stand or lay, with no means of staying warm except their clothing.
Layton often took beatings for soldiers who were close to breaking. To this day, he is unable to walk barefoot and his hands sport black spots where Korean soldiers burned him with grease.
After noticing the Korean soldiers shipped in alcohol and women to entertain themselves every three weeks, Layton and the others hatched a plan to break out on the 18th week. Unfortunately, their plan was hastened when the Koreans’ schedule jumped forward a week. Layton killed the two drunken guards posted outside his hut, and the prisoners escaped the camp.
They marched in single file until a friendly aircraft spotted them and lead them to safety.
“I just got down on my knees because a black cloud of guilt came over me,” Layton said. “I was the one that had taken the two guards’ lives. I was so guilty. Not necessarily for the soldiers, but for their parents. They would never know where their sons were killed or how they were killed or where they were buried.”
‘Nobody needed to know that hurt’
Upon returning home, Layton’s mother inquired as to what he had done while in the war. When he told his mother the things he was forced to do, she kicked him out. Layton still doesn’t know when either of his parents died or where they are buried.
Layton’s shame kept him quiet for 60 years. It wasn’t until he volunteered for Meals on Wheels of Hamilton County and became friends with Tammy Elmore, director of marketing and volunteer services, that he began to reveal his story.
Not even his wife and kids knew the whole story.
“Nobody needed to know that hurt,” Layton said.
Elmore, who had heard the story, insisted he write a book about his experiences.
Two years and four months later, they had an outline and a manuscript, and eventually published under Wine Press.
Layton continues to volunteer for Meals on Wheels, often delivering meals to residences himself.
“I get to know people. Sometimes I’m the only person they see all day,” Layton said. “People think doing something kind is all about the other person, but we’re receiving just as much in return.”