Against the Odds

Card tricks and war camps

Decades after he survived a WWII prison camp, Harold Carter performs card tricks and tells the “stories no one wants to hear.”

By Emily Adams

“Do you wanna see a trick?” Harold Carter says with a devious grin. Pick a card, any card, and watch as he flips, shuffles and spreads the deck. By the time he does his big reveal –– baring the card originally picked –– he has his audience transfixed.

Throughout his 91 years, Carter lived through the Great Depression as a fatherless child, survived a World War II prison camp and was widowed twice. But in a trick more remarkable than the magic he performs in his room at South Hampton Place, he remains positive about his experiences.

Carter learned his card tricks from fellow POWs to keep his mind occupied in the chaos of Mukden Camp in Manchuria, China, where he ended his captivity as a prisoner for more than three years in 1945. Now the veteran resides peacefully in his Columbia assisted-living home. He tells his war stories and wows residents and staff with his magic tricks and jovial personality.

  • A painting of Harold Carter’s younger self hangs on the wall in his room at South Hampton Place.

    A painting of Harold Carter’s younger self hangs on the wall in his room at South Hampton Place.

  • Harold Carter earned a Purple Heart and personal letter from then President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his bravery during WWII.

    Harold Carter earned a Purple Heart and personal letter from then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his bravery during WWII.

  • In 2005, Harold Carter visited the site of the prisoner camp where he was held captive in Manchuria, China.

    In 2005, Harold Carter visited the site of the prisoner camp where he was held captive in Manchuria, China.

Those around him are amazed by how vivacious he is and his willingness to tell his story. But Carter shrugs off these reactions as a misunderstanding of life. Captivity taught him a lesson about survival: move along. “In the war, I learned self-control,” he says. “If I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die worrying. I was going to have the best time I could along the way.”

Carter was born in 1921 in Pocahontas, Ark. His father died when he was 6, and he stepped into his lifelong role as man of the house. He married and was widowed by the two loves of his life. He raised three children to be the people he wishes to see in the world. Congestive heart failure limits his independence, but he still holds the stubbornness of a man who knows no captor. On Carter’s bedroom wall hangs a photo illustrating the determination of a 17-year-old ready to defend his country. The eyes looking up at this faded photograph now belong to a man who knows what can happen when the world falls down, when all that is left is survival.

Carter sits in an eggplant-colored armchair and winces as he wills one leg to cross over the other. He holds the hands of anyone who stops to listen to what he calls the stories that no one wants to hear. He spent his first night of confinement in a tunnel under the watch of the Japanese soldiers who captured him. Accepting his fate was easy; letting go after a long fight was difficult. He lay down on the cold rock floor and slipped into the his best sleep since the war had begun.

He can still remember marching what the Japanese called the parade of shame seven miles down Dewey Drive — completely naked –– while enemies laughed at his humiliation. Carter notes the day before he turned 21 and how he never thought he’d see morning. He still recalls eating rice for five months as his 5-foot-10-inch body slowly whittled from 165 pounds to a starved 130. He recounts when the Japanese flung his body on the stack for burning because he looked so close to death, and the time he gave half of his already starvation-portioned meal to prisoners of the Bataan Death March when they reached the camp. By the time he was liberated, he hadn’t seen America in seven and a half years due to serving in and out of captivity.

The U.S. armed forces sent 16 million of its sons and daughters into the maw of World War II; about 1 percent of those were captured, and 14,072 died in captivity. Only 20,000 POWs were alive in 2008.

According to a 2008 Oxford University study, most POWs endure a variety of physical and psychological disorders, but prisoners tortured by the Japanese normally suffer from an excess of post-traumatic stress disorders due to the extreme levels of deprivation, malnutrition and tropical diseases. However, most individuals who make it out of these circumstances alive are pretty content, says Clydie Morgan, national staff officer for the American Ex-Prisoners of War Association, an advocacy group.

Phil Budahn, the spokesman for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, says the heroes’ resilience has always caught him off guard. “It’s hard to imagine human beings with these experiences surviving with their integrity and values intact,” Budahn says. “Or for that matter, surviving at all.” Former prisoners such as Carter are forced to move on after experiencing cruel parts of history some overlook. After that, as Budahn says, it’s not easy to face the present.

Carter’s story and spirit astound Columbia’s veteran community. His fellow veterans at the VFW Post 280 regard Carter as a hero among them. Veteran Gary Hahn says Carter has seen some of the worst and that it’s remarkable that he survived to share his experience. “He could teach us all a little something about living,” he says.

When Carter drudges up his wartime recollections, he opts for the ones that make him smile, like the time he was clever enough to trade corn for cigarettes, or when he made a friend in the barracks of the prison. His smile darkens slightly, though, at what he says is his happiest memory of all — Aug. 20, 1945, when the Russian military liberated the camp, four days before he was marked to be killed on the camp’s death list. Carter remembers his response upon leaving the liberated camp: “I’ve been in prison for five months. I’m leaving this place.” He walked away from his personal hell for the last time before inventory had even been taken –– or so he thought.

In 2005, Carter returned to the site of his captivity. A museum sits where the prison once did in remembrance and reverence of the people who suffered and died on its grounds. Carter and his wife revisited the place where he became a full-fledged adult and re-met the people with whom he had grown up. It was his long-awaited closure; it was peace. It was the place where he’d been treated the worst and the best in his life because of Japanese torture he endured there and the respect the Chinese government offered him years later, Carter says.

Carter has come from the man whom he wanted to be to the man he is; from the horrors that life dealt him to the cards he deals for pleasure; from the experience that changed his life to the experience that made it worth it.

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