The iron wagon was as heavy as four jeeps. 20 or 30 prisoners wearing iron chains were needed to drag it. Originally, it had been used to bring rice from Jeongeu-ri Station to the camp kitchen, but it was also used to carry goods in the Logging and Loading Sections.
The iron cart was two meters long and almost as wide, with a handle another two meters long; it looked like an ordinary handcart. However, the body and handle were made of solid iron, which made it extremely heavy. To the security officials, it was a useful means of transportation for which fuel did not need to be found. To the prisoners, however, it was an object of pure resentment, because every year it either killed or seriously injured a number of perfectly good friends.
As if the iron cart alone was not already heavy enough, usually it was piled high with logs or rice sacks as well. For an ordinary cart, one person might drag it and others might be needed to push it from the back. But an iron cart is dragged by up to 30 prisoners in iron chains. In order to keep pace, one person had to shout ‘hey’ and the rest of them repeated ‘hey!’ It was a military operation.
I myself had a very dangerous experience with the iron wagon, and I don’t think I will ever forget it. In the Logging Section’s case, prisoners usually carried the timbers themselves in winter. In summer, they brought the iron wagon out and transported all the timbers at once.
When loading the timbers onto the iron wagon, it was important that the timbers be fixed firmly so they didn’t scatter. One person had to stand on the wagon and pile the timbers one by one. This person later pulled the cart, and took responsibility for guiding its direction. That person was usually me.
That day I was piling the timbers on the wagon as usual, when my right eye suddenly twitched. Personally I don’t believe in superstitions, but usually bad things do happen when my right eye twitches.
My feeling grew stronger when the official in charge cursed me for being slow. I had such an ominous feeling, so I piled the timbers up more carefully than usual, and tied the knot more tightly than I would otherwise have done.
I’d performed that task a hundred times, but had never encountered such a feeling before. It strained my nerves to breaking point, but I overcame the dangerous course, guiding the wagon. The timbers could easily have fallen on us when going up an inclined slope or through sunken spots, but we made it.
After crossing the last stream, I was relieved. From then on, there were no dangerous areas before the gate. However, some 100m ahead there was an incline. Right before it was a slight decline, so we had to speed up in order to go up the hill easily.
”It’s uphill! Everybody run!” the cell head shouted.
I was at the handle as usual; while on either side of me were the cell head and the second branch head, so that three of us together could control the direction. But, at this point, we encountered a serious issue. This time, we had loaded too many timbers on the wagon so that it was too heavy; its speed was way faster than the usual, way too fast.
Generally, three people were hitched to the back of the wagon to control its speed, which was all it required. But when the wagon started to speed up this time they couldn’t keep up, fell down, and got dragged along by it. With the three people tumbling along on the ground behind the wagon, soon those at the sides were affected as well; most of them could no longer move well in their positions.
Eventually, the iron chains of the three people who had taken a tumble at the back came off, so it began to accelerate even more steeply. As the wagon accelerated, people at the sides also fell down. The cell head, second branch head and I could not see what had happened because we were at the front.
Making matters even worse, one person jumped on the wagon to maintain its balance as it sped up. On a downhill road, the wagon’s load naturally inclined to the front, causing the whole thing to put pressure on those people responsible for guiding its direction, like me.
When that one person jumped on the back of the wagon, though, it caused it to stay balanced but also caused my whole body to fly up into the air. At that point there were only three in front, two at the sides and one at the back of the wagon. I couldn’t do anything to control the speed because both my feet were off the ground.
“Hey! Don’t push it down at the back!”
The cell head had shouted out, having understood the situation. The person at the back jumped off the wagon and it inclined slightly to the front once again. My feet reached the ground and I held onto the handle tightly.
At the beginning about 15 people had been controlling the wagon, but by this point only six were left. If the wagon made a sudden stop or flipped over, my chances of dying were pretty high. From then on I started to run, trying to think out the situation.
I was the one in the most dangerous situation. More than anything, I had to decelerate first. I wanted to pull the handle back so that the back of the wagon reached the ground, but it was impossible to do it alone.
Even if I utilized superhuman powers and managed it, the wagon would suddenly flip over as it slowed. If I let go of the handle, the timbers would smash into my back.
So there was no way to stop it. We just kept running. In front of us were seven or eight sentries walking side-by-side. According to the rules, when prisoners saw sentries they had to make way for them and turn so that they could check out our faces. For the first time in history we broke the rules, with the wagon.
”You! Turn back!” they shouted indignantly.
But before the sentry head at the front of the line could so much as finish his words, our wagon ran right by them. They were also frightened after they saw the three of us dangling helplessly from the wagon.
The wagon ran like the wind alongside the prison walls and straight through the gate. It didn’t stop there, our original destination. Using our speed, we could have gone on another 4km to the checkpoint!
However, if we had reached the checkpoint in that manner, the security officials would have screamed their heads off and almost certainly beaten us up. Frankly, after we passed through the gate I became more worried about getting beaten up by guards than being crushed to death by the wagon.
So I was glad to see the plastic greenhouse coming up to one side, on a slope in front of the prison wall.
When I started to turn towards it, the cell head and second branch head soon grasped my plan. We moved the left wheel of the wagon onto the slope, causing the whole thing to totter.
Finally, as the right wheel went down the slope again, the wagon rotated sharply clockwise and blew me away. I was thrown against the walls of the greenhouse and then against the prison walls behind.
I felt pain in my left hip, but fortunately there didn’t seem to be any serious injury. The cell head, who had been at my right, fell into the greenhouse, while the second branch head had the sense to let go of the handle before anything could happen to him. The three who had been at the back emerged unscathed.
“I thought it was going to kill you,” the cell head commented as we dusted ourselves off.
My legs were shaking, but the security officials who passed by just looked to see what was happening instead of cursing us. Although it was all nominally a greenhouse, the “greenhouse” the wagon fell on was an area of uncultivated dirt.
The wagon’s handle was pointing up into the sky, and the rear was touching the ground. Later, the 3rd branch head came along with a crew to right the wagon and take it to the gate.
If that wagon had fallen wrongly or we had reached the checkpoint without stopping, I would have been crushed by timber or gotten seriously injured. There were cases of people being crushed to death by wagon wheels, people breaking arms or legs, people being speared by loaded timbers and more. This wagon killed or disabled many hundreds of people.
This is why we prisoners called the wagon ‘the wagon of spite.’ This primitive tool was a killing machine, but the security officials regarded it as a fuel-free, convenient form of transportation, and sent many the prisoners to their deaths in its service.