Memorial Day is for remembering the military dead or wounded. In the United States, we commemorate the day by visiting the graves of not only our servicemen and women, but of family members and friends. It is also a time of welcoming summer and of having a barbeque or picnic. Although it can be a very solemn day, it is often interwoven with fun activity. Such will be the case in my own family.
In 2003, when I found myself teaching a senior high school American History class, I did an interview with my father on his Korean War Service. This was to set an example for my students whom had received an assignment (from me) to find a veteran and interview him or her. What a profound experience it turned out to be for all of us. If you ever have such an opportunity, grab it!
My father wishes to forget these events. In fact, when I asked him for permission to share the interview here, he said that it was better to forget. I assured him that it is better to remember. It's always better to remember. We, he and I, have purposely skated past the more troubling parts of the story, but I hope that you might find this little interview with one of the three million who served in that war of value or interest.
Interview with My Dad on His Korean War Service
What dates did you serve?
September 15, 1950 to November 6, 1951
How old were you then?
20 to 21
What branch of the service were you with?
The United States Marines. I had been serving with the Second Marine Division in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina when the call came to go to Korea. There was not enough man power in the Division so we were sent to Camp Pendleton in California to get reserves and build up the man power. We weren't all ready to go. Some of the guys were not even finished with boot camp yet. I saw some guys break down while trying to pack their seabags because they hadn't been trained to do even that. I was switched to the First Marine Division. We were part of the Inchon landing.
You were part of the Inchon landing?
Yes, I landed on an island off Korea called Wamedo and we went running and zigzagging across a causeway into Inchon. There was plenty of gunfire. The Seventh Time Division, they had an hour glass as their insignia, was with us. (Army)
What was your spiritual condition then? Did you ever pray?
Not very much...no time to pray. I didn't know nothing about religion or the Lord then. I went to church three times. There was a chaplain with us all the time. I knew about four Christian guys. I knew that they were Christians because they witnessed to me all the time. They were all killed and I wondered why the Christians would be killed. Now I think I know the answer. They went because they were ready to go home; a lot of the rest of us weren't.
What kind of equipment was issued?
We were issued summer gear the first year and we went through the winter with only summer gear except for winter socks, mittens, and caps with earmuffs. We had a lot of frostbite casualties. We had summer sleeping bags that did not break away. That's why 37 men had their throats slit in Kojo while still in their bags sleeping in the trenches. The bags did not release them. They were cold and bundled up tight; they were sitting ducks. By the way, Truman issued an order that no one who had served in the first winter in Korea would serve a second one so that is why I was out in November.
What was the climate and terrain of the country like?
The 38th parallel is equivalent to the middle of Maine, the same sort of climate and terrain. A few times in the mountains it got to be -40 and -50 degrees at night. If we got a sore throat or something the medic would just give us a shot of penicillin. I became allergic to penicillin in Korea.
Where did you sleep? Were you actually fighting from trenches?
Yes, part of the time, sometimes fighting on our feet. Some men saw hand to hand combat, but I did not. Yeah, I saw combat, but it didn't go like you think. The fighting was not constant. It would come in spurts. You'd never know when. A major attack could mean a pounding of 36 hours.
What kind of food did you eat?
Sea rations and every two weeks you got a chance for a hot meal and a "hot" shower.
Did you ever run out of food or ammunition?
No, but I was hungry and without food for a day or so when we marched out of the Chosin Reservoir to Ham Hong to board a ship to Pusan. They did not have enough food on the ship to feed us so we were really hungry when we got off the ship in Pusan. We were very happy to see the Red Cross there with hot coffee and doughnuts, but they were not free; they were for sale. None of us had any money. It was very disappointing. Then we walked a little further and there was the Salvation Army with hot coffee and doughnuts for free. [To this day, my father will not donate to the Red Cross; although, he will always support the Salvation Army. The reason for the Red Cross' decision to sell coffee and doughnuts has been widely documented.]
How did you and your family feel about being in a war with North Korea? Did you see it as a just cause? (Dad grins) Well, I didn't have much to say about it. I think the country accepted it because North Korea was Communist and China supported them.
What was your opinion of General MacArthur?
Didn't like him. Most Marines didn't like him. He was a show-off. He was dressed up in a leather jacket with clean khakis, sunglasses, and a corn-cob pipe. He never looked like he did anything and I don't think he was a very good commander. General Matt Ridegway was a far better leader. [Ridegeway replaced MacArthur.] When we landed in Inchon, I could have reached out and touched him [MacArthur]. He bounced us Marines around a lot. Truman was right to fire him because he usurped Truman's authority by purposely going beyond the 38th parallel three times when he had been ordered not to. This is what we used to say about MacArthur:
With the help of God
And a few Marines
MacArthur will retake the Philippines
Hey, (my dad says brightening) this is a funny story! Bob Hope beat the Marines into Wan San! No, I didn't get to see the show because I was sent off to secure Kojo. [My father found Mr. Hope's beating the Marines to Wan San highly amusing.]
What kind of fighters were the North Koreans?
We said that that they were 'killers [killas] by day; guerrillas by night.'
What did you do with your dead and wounded?
The Marine Corps had a policy that you never leave your dead for two reasons: 1. The morale of the men stays up if the dead are gathered and 2. The enemy never knows how many have been killed. The Chinese never left their dead either. (Marines don't believe in retreat — we just advanced to the rear.) We saw lots of blood, but no dead. The wounded were usually helicoptered out just like in the tv show MASH. I liked that show because it was pretty realistic and they had all the correct equipment.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Well, yes, it doesn't appear that we accomplished anything, but at least we held on to what we had against tremendous odds...China had become involved. We even heard that Russian pilots had bombed...after all, we were only 38 or so miles from the nearest Russian city. Maybe they were worried for their own country. What would we do if that was going on just 38 miles from us?
My father went on to serve his country for a total of nine years. He was in Okinawa when I was two and three. Thank you, Dad, for your service to your country. I honor you for it.
Hope that you will find someone to thank, too. Maybe he or she lives at your house, in your town, is your neighbor. God bless them all!