Joseph DiMeo, 93, ex-Korean War POW

Posted: August 14, 2012

JOSEPH DIMEO was a familiar presence at the Penrose Diner.

Cooks would save bread scraps for him, and he would take bags of it to Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park and feed the ducks.

He was an elderly man with terrible memories.

"I know what it's like to be hungry," he would explain.

Maybe feeding the ducks in the quiet of the park was a way to assuage the horrors he had experienced as a prisoner of the North Koreans and Chinese for more than three years during the Korean War. He had watched buddies die of hypothermia or malnutrition and saw some beaten and shot to death by brutal guards.

One morning he woke up to feel his buddy's fingers on his shoulder. When he moved the hand, he realized his friend had frozen to death in the night.

In the peace of the park, the hurtfulness of such experiences might have softened, although that tough man with Italian blood knew how to endure.

Joseph E. DiMeo, who also survived the island-hopping campaign in the South Pacific in World War II and who eased his bitterness over the "forgotten" Korean War by helping its veterans and taking every opportunity to remind Americans of that brutal conflict that killed 33,741 Americans, died Friday of congestive heart failure. He was 93 and lived in South Philadelphia.

As a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Joe would visit the Atlantic City casinos and collect used playing cards to be distributed to veterans hospitals all over the country. He would also volunteer at the hospitals, offering his services for whatever needed to be done.

He was able to devote more time to these endeavors after he retired from his career as an electrician for the city in 1985. He also had more time for golf, his major source of recreation.

Joe was on occupation duty in Japan with the 24th Infantry Division when the Korean War began in June 1950. World War II had been over for only five years, and America was not ready for another war. His unit was part of Task Force Smith, which was the first to fight in Korea, and the engagement was a disaster. Among the hundreds taken prisoner was Cpl. Joseph DiMeo.

His ordeal had begun.

Soldiers and civilian captives were loaded into trains at Pyongyang and taken to Manpo on the Yalu River. From there, they were forced on a 110-mile "death march" in below-freezing temperatures to Chunggang. The commander of the guards was a ruthless officer whom the captives called "Tiger." Tiger enforced strict discipline on the prisoners and didn't hesitate to personally kill anyone who resisted or simply fell behind due to illness or exhaustion.

Through the next 38 months, DiMeo suffered from hunger and torture as he resisted his captors' efforts to get him to denounce the U.S. He was often held in solitary confinement as punishment. His weight dropped from 185 pounds to 85. He often felt he was near death.

Meanwhile, his family back in Philadelphia was suffering its own hell. They were told only that he was missing, and for months they feared he had been killed. The relief they experienced when it was disclosed that he was a prisoner resounded throughout South Philadelphia. Joe received a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for valor.

Joseph DiMeo was born in a small town outside Rome. He was brought to the U.S. at age 9 by his father, John DiMeo. His mother, Rosa, died as she was about to board a ship to join them. He attended St. Monica's Parochial School. He didn't make it to high school and joined the Army at an early age. He eventually was shipped to the South Pacific with the 77th Division.

Joe was relucant to talk in detail about his war experiences, giving his family only brief glimpses of some of his trials, such as the time he dragged a wounded comrade off the battlefield under fire.

That man was from Hawaii, and he went home after the war, raised a large family and always credited Joe DiMeo with saving his life.

Joe married the former Helen Warner in 1978, but he had known her since 1954. She died last year. They had no children.

Services: Funeral Mass noon Tuesday at St. Richard's Church, 18th and Pollock streets. Friends may call at 10 a.m. at the Monti-Rago Funeral Home, 2531 S. Broad St. Burial will be in Ss. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple.

Contact John F. Morrison at 215-854-5573 or or on Twitter @johnfmorrison.

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