Assigned as a military advisor during the early escalation of the Korean War, Major Robert Abbott landed in South Korea on October 1, 1950. Despite his status as a highly ranked officer, Abbott insisted on serving near the front of combat. “He was never satisfied to be in the back directing things,” one of the men who served with Abbott recalled. “He had to be out there on the front lines. He was up there pushing all the time.”
Abbott was among many American soldiers taken captive in November 1950 when the Chinese and North Korean army launched a major counter-offensive operation. Coming in response to an aggressive American-led “Home by Christmas” campaign, the communist counter-offensive was a disaster for American and United Nations forces. Many soldiers were forced to retreat, while others were pinned down and either killed or captured.
Abbott was taken prisoner on November 26, 1950. He remained in captivity for 33 months. As he described in detailed testimony before the U.S. Senate, he was forced to endure “death marches” to several prison and labor camps during his long internment. He also suffered from malnourishment, with his body weight dropping from 200 to 100 pounds, and severe cases of such diseases as palegria, dysentery, and Beri Beri.
Worse, perhaps, was the mental torture inflicted on Abbott. He was forced to endure brutal interrogation sessions and “re-education” programming in which his captors attempted to indoctrinate him with communist propaganda. All of Abbott’s personal possessions were stripped from him. He was initially allowed no contact with his family, and then only very limited (and monitored) communications.
On September 5, 1953, Abbott became one of the last Americans freed during the prisoner exchange known as Operation Big Switch. He returned home physically weakened but mentally unbroken. Abbott's experience at the hands of communists hardened him against that ideology. He brought his anti-communist zeal to bear on Rochester as he received a hero’s welcome upon his return.