fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

History Snoopin’: The Black Tornado and the Chinese ‘Reds’

The Communist interrogator touched the pistol on his belt. “You lie!” he screamed. “Go back to your cell and think!”

Dick Applegate didn’t know what he was supposed to say, but he was sure if he didn’t say it, and say it soon, he would either rot in prison or be shot.

He sat on the bed, scraped his finger against the concrete wall, and thought, “It must have been whitewashed once. It’s hard to tell under this layer of dead bugs.”

He lay back on the hardwood “mattress” and cushioned his head on his wadded up shirt.

From tiny windows high overhead, a few beams of light cut through the dust. “Rule number one,” the guard had said. “Never look out those windows.”

Dick thought of the others and wondered if they were still alive.

He was descended from pioneer royalty. Lindsay Applegate, a pathfinder for the early immigrants, was his great-grandfather, and Oliver Cromwell Applegate, who knew Captain Jack, Winema and all the other Modocs, was his grandfather.

Born in 1912, Dick didn’t make much of a mark in the world until high school. By then, he was keeping his given name, Marion, a closely guarded secret. Officially, he preferred his middle name, Richard.

Back when Medford’s football team was rushing through opponents so quickly that fans began to call them the Black Tornado, Dick was the hero of the 1929 season, coming back from a broken ankle to star in the game against rival Ashland.

Before graduating in 1931, he spent four years writing for the school newspaper, and in 1933 he began writing columns for the Mail Tribune, eventually becoming sports editor.

Beginning in 1936, he left Southern Oregon and, except for 3½ years in the Navy during WWII, continued his journalism career.

A war correspondent from the front lines of Korea, his personal reports brought the horror of war back to the homeland.

“The boy was bleeding from the eyes and he was crying when I found him,” Dick wrote. “‘What are the guys going to think about me?’ the soldier asked. Then, he raised himself on one elbow and shouted, ‘Here they come again!’ And then he was dead.”

Working as an NBC radio correspondent in Hong Kong, Dick purchased a 42-foot yacht and began to outfit it for a round-the-world cruise.

His shakedown cruise in March 1953 along the Chinese mainland was dangerous. Chinese nationals blocked any ship headed for Communist China, and the Communists considered this water their personal territory.

Six miles from shore, with five others on board, the sails drew no wind. “Not the best time to have a Chinese gunboat off your bow,” Dick would later say.

Accused of intruding into Chinese waters, they were arrested, handcuffed and blindfolded; their boat towed to Canton.

When Dick’s interrogator found out he had been a Korean War correspondent, the “stupid, and bewildering questions” ended abruptly, replaced by the interrogator’s new demand, “Tell me about U. S. germ warfare in Korea.”

“I’ve been frightened many times in my life, but never like this,” Dick said.

He lied. “I used the name of a retired Medford doctor as the originator of germ warfare and the name of a buddy from New York as the chief of all U. S. espionage.”

After 18 months of captivity, the Americans were “deported” out of China.

Dick, 50 pounds lighter, returned to Medford on his mother’s 74th birthday. The town gave him a “key to the city.

He returned to NBC, eventually reporting from Boston, where after years of fighting against the Chinese Reds, the Black Tornado’s mission was complete. Marion Richard Applegate passed away in February 1979.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.