The easy smile that belied 14 bullet wounds – and visits by the little girl he had to kill

49 years later, Mr. Manring froze, fell to his knees on a rock and said he knew this was the spot….”I hope I’m at peace now.”

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Roy Manring, at 18, recovering in 1950 in this picture from a British newsreel. 

Mr. Manring was a family man, a veteran and a machinist in a factory back in the era when blue collar jobs brought the wages and benefits to support a family and veteran status was naturally associated with being an upstanding person.

I still refer to him as “Mr. Manring,” rather than Roy Manring, because he was one of the adult volunteers for our Boy Scout Troop 54 in New Albany in the early 1970s. The form of address I used then for our adult leaders still seems proper to me.
Yet I was a rebel — then, as now. And when I beheld the green uniforms, the trademark salute and the combat medal-like layout of our merit badges, I would be aware of a contradiction between my like of scouting and my passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Among our troop’s adult leaders, two — including my easygoing uncle Joe — were Spiro Agnew-admiring conservatives and World War II veterans.
Mr. Manring, however, didn’t show his ideological cards. He always maintained an easy smile and although his dark eyes were piercing and handsome, they were wide and innocent. He seemed perpetually to be an uncomplicated, contented, locally immersed average person, untouched by the controversies of the wider world.
But before I make him sound like the kind of person who might not follow the national news, let me recall one day when I was 11 when my mother astonished me by telling me that my very own scout troop’s adult volunteer had in the early 1950s been a national news story.
Mr. Manring was interviewed on the Today Show. That’s the NBC Today Show, with the whole country watching.
And no, this wasn’t one of those chance interviews with tourists hanging out by Rockefeller Center. Mr. Manring was a guest in the studio, telling the nation of a medical miracle, as Mom passed the story on to me. She said that while he was in combat in the Korean War, he was hit with a barrage of gunfire and survived having nine bullets in his body at once.
I don’t recall her giving any more details, except that Mr. Manring seemed homespun during the interview, and I got the impression that he was almost casual talking to the nation about such a hellish experience.
I don’t know which Today Show icon conducted the interview, but I figure a polished and professional Hugh Downs or Dave Garroway sitting with a warm and folksy laborer made for as unlikely an encounter as when the unknown Korean villager and the teenager from Southern Indiana faced each other down for a horrifying moment in a war waged by superpowers so beyond the reach of either.

Flash forward to the era of the internet. I now find out that Mr. Manring’s voluminous wounds weren’t from one-to-one combat.
He had been taken prisoner by the North Koreans and was one of 42 U.S. captives shot on a hillside while their hands were tied behind their backs. It was a massacre.
Records were vague and for decades Mr. Manring had understood that he was the sole survivor. Hence, the solo Today Show appearance.
A historian researching the atrocity in the mid-1990s found that in fact five people had survived — three of whom were still living — and persuaded the Army to give the trio medals to note the suffering of all 42 of the POWs. The Pentagon also offered them a trip back to South Korea in 1999 to let them try to identify the exact spot of the massacre so a plaque could be placed there on the 50th anniversary the following year.

From the British newsreel on the Waegwan massacre   Newsreel Manring
One of the three was not physically up to the trip — so my former scout leader and a fellow survivor, a private first class who had been Mr. Manring’s friend during the war, traveled to a hillside near Waegwan, South Korea. (The friend, who of course had been presumed dead by Mr. Manring for more than 40 years, lived in Cincinnati, just 110 miles away, all that time. When Mr. Manring learned that his buddy in fact had not been killed in the massacre, he jumped in his car and drove straight up I-71 to reunite with him).
In 1999, the return trip to Korea commenced, and a Boston Globe reporter accompanied Mr. Manring and his Cincinnati friend all the way to Waegwan. She reported that Mr. Manring had taken not the nine bullets I recall in my mother’s telling, but 14 — including five from what we call “friendly fire.”
The Globe, detailing the horrible events on the hillside in 1950, said that after the North Koreans left the 42 Americans for dead, the bullet-ridden Mr. Manring began to hobble away from the killing site, only to be shot at by a U.S. unit which was unable to identify his tattered uniform.
Ravaged seemingly beyond hope of survival by both sides in a war euphemistically called a “police action,” he spent 18 months in hospitals in Korea, Japan and the United States. Amazingly, as a boy scout, I never recall detecting a limp or a stammer or any other indication that this happy and laid back man could ever have been victimized by violence on such an historic scale.
For a long time, even some of those closest to Mr. Manring didn’t fully know either.
He told the Globe reporter: “My kids knew I was an ex-POW, but they didn’t know what I had been through…. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, except my wife.”
The reporter watched Mr. Manring and his buddy examine the terrain around Waegwan for hours, patiently trying to match what they were seeing with 49-year-old memories. Then, in one instant that brought back an anguish the opposite of the mood familiar to his New Albany piers, Mr. Manring froze, fell to his knees on a rock and said he knew this was the spot.
Shuddering, he described to the Globe how on that day in 1950 his grandfather appeared to him in image just after the North Koreans pulled out, put his arm on the shoulder of the bloodied 18-year old and warned him: “They’re coming back, get out of here.”
The reporter and others in the entourage then allowed Mr. Manring and his friend a few minutes each alone on the hillside.
Mr. Manring returned, the Globe reported, then whispered:
“I talked to the boys. I hope I’m at peace now. I begged their forgiveness. I have dreams about them all the time. I feel guilty that I survived.”
There was one more profound memory the visit brought out, one which the reporter said caused Mr. Manring to be overcome with emotion.
Speaking softly, he said to her: “I’m going to tell you something I’ve hardly told anyone…. I shot a little Korean girl — she was maybe 8 or 10 years old.”
Mr. Manring then recounted a kill-or-be-killed moment in the early days of the war. His platoon was approached by a group of refugees, but when he took out his binoculars, he saw a girl among them holding a grenade — with the pin removed — forcing him, with no time to think, to become a killer in order to be a lifesaver.
He shot the child, resulting in the grenade exploding at her feet, killing many of the refugees, rather than her intended targets. Even though some of the refugees were found to be wearing North Korean uniforms under their civilian clothes, Mr. Manring, almost a half century later, thought of the person who nearly lobbed a live grenade at him and his colleagues first as a little girl, not a guerilla.
“I put a bullet in between her eyes,” he told the Globe, sobbing. “She bothers me to this day.”
Also around the 50th anniversary of the war, Mr. Manring discussed the incident with a student historian from Indiana University Southeast, who quoted him recalling the little girl on a website: “She comes and sees me every now and then. She asks me, ‘Why, why did you do this to me?’ I told her, ‘I’m sorry honey, but I had to.’ ”
After describing to the student the wartime policy of a ruthless North Korean government of using civilians of all ages as homicidal infiltrators, Mr. Manring added that he would again respond the same way to seeing the child pull the pin.
Reading the full story of the anguish in our cheerful scout volunteer’s past opened my eyes to the dual role of soldiers as victims and offenders in war.
This has always complicated peace activism by rendering expressions of appropriate sympathy for them vulnerable to being twisted into pro-war spin.
Hesitating to kill in a combat situation because of awareness of the enemy’s humanity is precisely what combat training is designed to prevent, as though such a moment is a fatal weakness. It is in fact our greatest strength.
Regarding the two directions from which the gunfire came that ravaged the teenage Mr. Manring, I was socialized during my childhood to see being shot by the other side, or one’s own, as polar opposite phenomena.
One is heroic and noble, the other an absurd boondoggle.
Yet if we accept the overriding principle of our religiosity that we are put in this world to love one another, are not all war wounds from friendly fire?
“Accidental” describes not just the five American-made bullets that hit Mr. Manring, but the whole scenario of a young man from New Albany and counterparts from equally insular villages on the Korean peninsula being whisked from lives of community involvement and small scale economics not to meet and interact, but to kill or be killed.
Roy Manring donated many hours to help our scout troop’s leaders help me and my young colleagues learn to work together pitching tents, preparing food, hiking, telling folk tales – fitting his volunteering in around the customary 40 hours a week of conscientious factory work when American industrial jobs were in their prime. Precisely the day-to-day mundanity which boys of my youth turned to war comics to escape in pursuit of a glamorous warrior narrative we believed was at the heart of our gender’s identity.
We did not see that the time spent quietly adding to lives by one’s own initiative – rather than imperiling lives, one’s own included, by robotically adapting to an arbitrary and unnatural state of enmity – constituted Mr. Manring’s true moments of valor.

This story also was published in Brian Arbenz’ book “Lost And Found in Louisville,” available by contacting the author at http://www.brianlostandfound@gmail.com. 

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John Hollinden: at 7-foot-7, he was forever deftly rebounding from misfortune just as giant

As a junior in high school in Southern Indiana in 1975, I was baffled over how a visiting basketball player who was 7 feet, 2 inches tall could have left our New Albany High School gym one night with only two points to his name.

John Hollinden of Central High School in Evansville was described in a newspaper story as “frail” at only 198 pounds – that’s about 40 pounds below the ideal weight for 7-foot-2. A staffer on our high school radio station which broadcast the game said the towering 16-year-old looked uncoordinated and lost on the court.

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Cutting the nets flatfooted was easy for the nation’s tallest player.

That seemed to me out of synch with an era when 7-foot-2 meant awesome dominators like Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Artis Gilmore, who would shortly power the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA championship across the river in Louisville.

Moreover, this was Indiana – where even being 6-foot-5 or so generates expectations that you will be savvy at hoops.

A Hoosier over seven feet tall not being good at basketball? That’s like a member of the Cousteau family being afraid of the water!

So, I put thoughts of John Hollinden and his sorry predicament out of my mind, until a year later when, as senior, I picked up the newspaper to read about that year’s Central-New Albany game.

There was the name Hollinden in the box score – well what do you know, the frail can’t-do toothpick-shaped klutz didn’t go away. Then I looked at his point total – 26, whoa!

Welcome to Hoosierdom, John Hollinden. And my apologies for writing you off early. It was a lesson to my 17-year-old self not to be dismissive or belittling toward an endeavoring person just because their obstacles at first appear immense.

For John Hollinden, his pitiful performance the previous year contrasted with 26 points as a senior was to be a lifelong pattern of extraordinary height alternately being a curse and a blessing.

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John’s 1976 senior picture at Evansville Central High School

By graduation time he was 7-foot-4, and was offered a scholarship at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Ok. There, though still an underweight 220 pounds, he impressed coaches with his stamina and coordination, which bespoke that John Hollinden was forever past his days of struggle to catch up with growth spurts. And that was fortunate, because he wasn’t through: John was 7-foot-5 when his freshman season at ORU started in late 1976 and he reached 7-foot-6 by the spring.

And that caused more problems. John, not yet suitably strong for the physical college game, didn’t get much playing time his first season, and fans who packed opponents’ arenas to see a person now billed as the tallest college basketball player in the nation sometimes booed and shouted insults at the giant they felt should have made their cost of admission pay off with a superhuman performance to tell their grandchildren about someday.

Long used to people – like me back in 1975 — being initially unimpressed with him, John was undeterred. Still, it was becoming taxing for him just to leave campus, as every single person he would encounter would stop in their tracks and ask the inevitable questions about his height and avocation.

For such occasions, John printed up a t-shirt bearing the words: “My name is John Hollinden. I’m 7 foot 5. I do play basketball.”

Such resourcefulness is typical of giants, who must custom order their clothes, beds and shower stalls. The sense of humor displayed by his informational shirt, however, showed that unlike many 7-foot-plus basketballers who dislike constantly drawing notice away from the court, John was comfortable being a spectacle.

“I enjoy meeting people, especially when we’re visiting different cities,” he told his hometown paper the Evansville Press in 1979. “The attention doesn’t bother me.”

After two years of less than abundant playing time at Oral Roberts, John decided in 1978 to transfer to Indiana State University at Evansville, delighting fans in his hometown still reeling from the deaths of the entire basketball team of the crosstown University of Evansville in a plane crash en route to a game months earlier.

In a city where the name John Hollinden had been a household word since he was a 9th grader, he could put away the t-shirt explaining himself, but had he needed it, the height listed would require updating: John, after the one-year off from playing sports the NCAA requires of a transfer student, was 7-foot-7 as he joined the ISUE Eagles roster in the fall of 1979.

His constant weight training and protein diets had been adding needed bulk, but his body’s refusal to stop growing kept John’s weight at about 25 pounds under where the sport demanded it be.

“He’s not an NBA-type dominant center,” cautioned Wayne Boultinghouse, coach at ISUE (now called the University of Southern Indiana). “We don’t want to be overly optimistic…. It’s difficult to measure what John will mean to our team, but I’m sure he’ll be a plus.”

Evansville Press staffer Mark Tomasik wrote: “Wayne Boultinghouse believes the attention Hollinden attracts will help promote the Eagles program. And he’s certain Hollinden can handle the demands on his time.”

Indeed, John happily accepted ISUE public relations as an extra duty.

“If reporters want to talk with me or photographers want to take my picture, it’s all right,” he told the press. “I just put myself in their position. I’d want to do the same.”

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Constantly being photographed, even to poke fun at his height (such as here with the team dentist), was all in fun for the good natured giant John Hollinden.

In fact, it was more than drawing cameras that John Hollinden soon excelled at; he finished the 1979-80 season the 2nd best shooter (56 percent) and the fourth best rebounder (8.3 per game) in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. John’s towering defensive presence, Boultinghouse said, was a major reason ISUE gave up the least points per game of any GLV team.

“When I talk to other coaches, they always mention the influence of Hollinden,” Boultinghouse said. “His intimidation can’t be measured by statistics.”

Back home again on the banks of the Ohio River, the once frail high schooler and target of insults as a collegian now had hit his long-awaited stride. John Hollinden made the All Great Lakes Valley Conference team.

As his senior season ended in 1981, though John was primarily interested in playing in the European basketball league, he put his name in the draft of the NBA, that league for which coach Boultinghouse had figured his 7-foot-7 star was not dominant enough. The Dallas Mavericks drafted John in the 11th round, but he signed a contract with a Swedish team in the European league.

Days before his scheduled departure for Sweden, John Hollinden looked the picture of a man comfortable with himself, an accomplishment that was as towering as his physical stature, considering his awkward beginnings as a Hoosier hoopster. (Evansville Press columnist Tom Tuley recalled a stiff and jittery 14-year-old Holliden giving one word answers while doing his first interview with media as a 6-foot-9 freshman at Central High.)

Now, gymnasiums full of sarcastic doubters were behind him and life in Europe’s great cities was ahead for the musically talented, athletically gifted and bright young man from Evansville.

It never happened.

The day before he was to leave for Sweden, John was driving alone for pleasure on a road outside the city when his car crashed. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Days later, doctors said the 23-year-old would never regain movement or feeling in his legs.

The 7-foot-7 John Hollinden, listed among the 20 documented tallest people in history, would permanently be at eye level with the rest of us, from his wheelchair.

Don’t think for an instant that bitterness or anguish entered John’s life, even though it’s true, here was a guy who was going to be the marvel of Europe’s fast spreading fascination with basketball. And now he can’t walk because he, as it were, missed the plane by a day. No, in the years to come he wouldn’t be dunking, blocking and passing to cheers in Stockholm, Barcelona and Brussels, nor politely posing for 10 times the press pictures, nor cheerily telling inquiring passersby in seven languages how tall he was.

John Hollinden’s unmatched ability at overcoming the roadblocks that seem always to come with his extraordinary endowments would now go into overtime.

He became a speaker at schools in the Evansville area. He helped out with the Tri-State Food Bank and the United Way. An accomplished musician who played several instruments, John joined the Mid-America Singers at his renamed University of Southern Indiana.

His friends and former coaches described John as a good Christian, in the sense of Christian as caring about others and seeking a peaceful outlook.

He was still the center of attention, with his niceness, glibness and busy civic involvement drawing raves, as the name John Hollinden immediately prompted admiration and gushing among Evansville-area people. Before, they considered whether they could do as much as he did if gifted with a 7-foot-7 frame; now it was his giant resilience that left fans wondering if they would be capable of John Hollinden’s strength in the face of such terrible misfortune.

Despite his undaunted resolve and good cheer, John’s condition was straining him. Leg infections, common among paraplegics because of their inability to position their legs properly to avoid physical stress and bedsores, began plaguing him in 1985, four years after the car crash.

By early 1990, “he knew his time was coming,” John’s former high school coach John Wessel recalled in an Evansville Courier interview.

The infections worsened and John had both legs amputated in January 1991. “I went to see him in the hospital after that operation, and he had more grit and determination than the law allows,” Wessel said.

In October 1992, however, John Hollinden died of cardiac arrest brought on by complications from infections. He was 34.

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USI students still celebrate John.

In the obituary story, Wessel recalled the trying days when his young Central High prospect’s unaccommodated rapid growth left most of us in the stands dismissing John Hollinden as a sideshow.

“There was a game during his sophomore year when he got ridiculed pretty good,” the coach said. “I tried to console him afterwards, but he said, ‘It’s OK, coach. Someday, they won’t.’ ”

Southern Indiana folks watched as a young man given the greatest reach ever in our near-religion of a game more than once found himself in that age old fix of his reach exceeding his grasp. While the more cynical among us kept giving up on him as a failed star, John Hollinden — when towering above us and then confined below — just kept figuring out how to reach in new directions.

Brian Arbenz, who once dreamed of being over 7 feet tall, today is contented to be a foot shorter than that while recalling the inspirational life of John Hollinden. Arbenz formerly worked as a sports writer in Southern Indiana.