Upland Chronicles: Otha Emert was POW during Korean conflict

May. 20, 2013 @ 11:04 AM

Saturday, November 7, 1953 was Otha Emert Day in Sevier County.

An estimated crowd of 3,000 gathered in Sevierville to welcome hometown hero Master Sergeant Otha Emert who had recently returned after spending three grueling years of incarceration in a Chinese Prison Camp.

Born September 19, 1917, Otha Ernest Emert was one of 11 children of George Emert and Bessie Lucinda Maples Emert. As a young boy growing up on a farm, his favorite pastime was playing a guitar and singing with his brothers and their friends. They often performed in local schools and churches.

Otha joined the Army when he was 19. While stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, he was joined by his younger brother Stanley. There the Emert brothers began to play music together entertaining in the surrounding area.

It was during this time that Otha met Annie Mae Ford at a church service. They married on June 14, 1941 in Columbia, South Carolina. Otha was 23 and Annie Mae was 18.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Emert brothers and their outfit were assigned to Hawaii. It was during his Hawaiian assignment that Otha and Annie Mae’s son Johnny was born.

In August 1942 Otha enrolled in Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He graduated as a second lieutenant. He was then assigned to the 100th Infantry Division and soon received orders for overseas duty.

After serving combat duty in Northern Africa and France, Emert was severely wounded when a sniper’s bullet shattered his shoulder. He was then sent to several Army medical facilities for treatment. After a year of rehabilitation at Daytona Beach, Florida, he received a medical discharge with a rank of First Lieutenant.

Upon returning to Sevier County after his rehabilitation, Otha tried his hand at farming but soon discovered he couldn’t find contentment as a farmer. Otha re-enlisted in May, 1950. He was accepted back into military service as a Sergeant with three stripes.

Shortly before leaving for duty in Korea, the Sergeant was presented the bronze star for meritorious achievements in grand operation against the enemy in the North African Theatre of Operations of World War ll.

On November 30, 1950 the 2nd Division lost 3,000 troops. Among those listed as missing in action was M/Sgt. Otha Emert, a machine gun platoon leader in the 38th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division.

For two months, his wife and 8-year-old son in Tacoma, Wash. and his family in Sevier County wondered if Otha was dead or alive. On February 1, 1951, an enlarged picture from AP wire image was published in the Tacoma News-Tribune.

Annie Mae identified Otha as one of the soldiers in the picture who was being held captive in a Chinese Prison Camp somewhere in North Korea. On July 28th Annie Mae received two letters from her husband confirming he was a prisoner of the Chinese.

One advantage Otha had was his ability to subsist on food found in the wild during work outings. He later said he was always thankful he was raised on a farm; it taught him how to get by. And had it not been for the garlic and onions pilfered from local gardens he probably wouldn’t have survived.

A ceasefire stopped the fighting on July 27, 1953. After three years of unimaginable, inhumane treatment Otha Emert was repatriated. He arrived in San Francisco on September 20, 1953.

Otha Emert returned home to a jubilant crowd who included his mother and ten siblings along with state and local dignitaries and ordinary citizens eager participate in the homecoming celebration.

The parade began at 10 a.m. Marching in the parade were members of VFW Post 5123, American Legion Post 104 of Sevierville and Post 202 of Gatlinburg along with the Sevier County High School Marching Band. Otha rode in an open-top car with his wife, son and mother.

The ceremony took place in front of the Courthouse where a stage was erected in the middle of street at the intersection of Court Avenue and Commerce Streets, near the Park Theatre.

Tennessee Gov. Frank G. Clement spoke as did Sevierville Mayor Ronald Ingle, State American Legion Commander John Duncan and VFW Commander James Hardin.

Sergeant Emert told the exuberant audience that when he retired in 7 years he planned to return to Sevier County and live happily ever after. Among the gifts presented to the honoree was an eight-piece set of luggage.

Although Emert vowed to return to Sevier County when he retired, he bought a farm in Blount County in 1959 and settled there after leaving military service. On January 1, 1961 M/Sergeant Emert received his discharge and moved to the new home they had built in Blount County.

Twenty years later Otha and his brother Stanley decided to perform as the Emert Brothers. They were popular entertainers at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris for 16 years. They also performed at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Woldtrap Foundation for Performing Arts near Washington, D.C., Florida State Fair in Tampa and Dollywood.

On March 5, 1996 Otha Emert died suddenly at his home where he had lived for 35 years. He was 78. Otha is buried in Sherwood Memorial Gardens in Alcoa, Tennessee.

42 years earlier during the Otha Emert Day festivities he remarked,” during my years of service I tried not only to represent my native county but this whole great country. I have done my best.”

Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.