“...a country they did not know and a people they had never met.”
— Inscription from the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The sun had set behind us, and as the jets roared upward and circled, ready to dive again, they could be seen only as dark silhouettes, except for an occasional glimpse of the insignias, tiny at this distance, on the wingtips. For a moment they would hang there, small against the streaks of red and orange that defined the evening clouds, then blaze down over us again, swelling hugely, unbelievably fast.
Extraordinary then that with all this mind-numbing noise I could hear so many other things. Little things, like the mutterings of the men around me and the gently but never-ceasing slap-slop-slip-slap of the waves against the prow of the flat-bottomed LST as it moved ahead, motors muffled, sliding over the water, moving us slowly toward the land. We shivered, not only with the cold but also with the chilling knowledge that we were vulnerable and helpless, totally dependent on others for our protection. We stood close together, waiting for land to loom over the high bulkheads of the LST. There was no rocking, no swell, but only the sliding and the slip-slap-slip and the beat of the motors and the quiet talking under the extravagant violence overhead. Every sound, loud or soft, was clearly heard. Every word, every turn of the motor, every lashing jet shriek — each sound was as penetrating as the next in this strange, unworldly atmosphere.
A jet swooped lower than ever, and the men growled the usual GI imprecations. In the gathering darkness, the glow of the afterburner looked white-hot.
There was firing up ahead. We listened, sweating now in the cold and shivering from the sweat. Sweat ran down the small of my back under the heavy underwear and the GI sweater and the dark-green wool shirt and trench coat. To the east the sky was blue-black with rain clouds. Blacker shapes lay below. Hills. Impossible to see how close we were to shore. The high country we saw over the bulkheads seemed distant, yet it moved in a pattern that defined our direction. Not far, I thought, and shivered again. I couldn’t help it.
The Belgian platoon started whistling. They whistled well; no one told them to shut up. They were whistling “Blue Tango,” the melody reaching out to the jets and the hills and the bloody sunset dying in the west. The whistling sounded as if it would slide along the dark water for a long way. The feel of it relaxed some of the tight fear in the pit of my stomach. The GIs around me listened, waiting, hunching up against the raindrops that started to fall.
I do not recall putting my foot on Korean soil for the first time. I only remember the cold rain, and running, and others running with me.
Forty-six years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Woefully unprepared, the South Korean army wilted before tens of thousands of highly disciplined troops with superior armor, artillery, and air cover. President Harry Truman immediately committed the United States to the defense of our distant ally.
So it was that a million and a half American soldiers, Marines, aviators, and seamen — including me — were sent to a small country on the other side of the Pacific. At that time, only a few of us had heard of Korea; none of us knew anything about its culture, language, or 4000-year history.
World War II had ended five years before, America clamored for demobilization, for peace. Veterans returned home to restart their lives, to be with their families, go back to school, find jobs, to get to know their children, push the horrors they had experienced into the far recesses of their minds. None of them imagined they would soon be asked to return to war.
The world war engendered intense national patriotism. People believed in the rightness of our cause. They sang “God Bless America” earnestly, with no trace of irony or sarcasm. If there were those who took economic or political advantage of such ardent feelings, few among us doubted the strength of our purpose and worthiness of our mission.
That feeling, that pride in country (now looked upon by some as innocent, gullible naiveté), was still strong in June 1950. Veterans were rushed into battle; younger enlisted or were drafted, endured the rigors of basic training, and embarked in crowded troop ships to “a country they did not know” to defend “a people they had never met.”
That the Korean War would be forgotten less than a decade later in the wake of other, different wars could not have been predicted. But some did not forget: the men and women who went there, and the families of the 54,000 who were killed and the 8000 who were missing in action and have never come back.
There are tens of thousands of veterans in San Diego County. Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in the county now report more than 17,000 members. Many fought in Korea. Here are some who did. Their memories are still fresh — dates, places, weather, sounds, names. They clearly remember the bizarre incidents, dreadful sights, terror, chaos, and misery they experienced. Though some may harbor doubts about certain aspects of the conduct of America’s most forgotten war, all are proud to have served their country.
Robert Weishan (El Cajon): “It’s the details you can’t forget,” he says, gesturing intensely. He is a big man with a strong, ruddy face. President of the San Diego chapter of the Chosin Few, a group of about 150 former Marines who were together in several major engagements in Korea, he stands straight and commands attention.
It’s just like it was yesterday. On November 27  we were in a little village of Hagaru [North Korea]. That was the day the Chinese attacked further north and headed our way. There were three of us on a street corner with a 30-caliber machine gun. Our field of fire was the main street of the town. To our left, to the east, was a building — maybe it was a school — with what must have been a playground next to it. It was snowing, you know, and we laid there all night, waiting for we didn’t know what.”
He hunches forward, remembering, his big hands punctuating every sentence. In that playground there was an old well, y’see, and hanging over it was a water bucket attached to a rope. In some building or other in that main street was a sniper who — I’m not sure why — kept firing at that bucket. I mean, he did it regularly. Over and over. You know, ping! ping! ping! He knew we were there, hunched down on the snow, but he kept pinging away on that pail every couple of minutes. Really strange! And we couldn’t figure out where he was or why he was doing it. Maybe he was just reminding us that he was there or keeping us awake, I don’t know. But I kept thinking, if he can hit that bucket so good, why doesn’t he hit us?
“The next day we went house to house looking for that guy, but he wasn’t around. He could have been a North Korean or a Chinese; there was no way to tell. The point is, I still remember every detail of that night. And just a day or so ago I was talking on the phone with one of the guys that was there, and I said, ‘Hey, d’you remember that sniper that kept pinging on that bucket all night in Hagaru?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ he said. Of course he did. Just like yesterday.”
Walter Linback (South Clairemont): I interrupt Walter at work in his crowded office; he has forgotten our appointment. Apologetically he suggests that he really doesn’t have much to say about the Korean War and cannot imagine that he could tell me anything of interest. Then he starts talking, becoming more and more animated as things come back to him his Swedish origins still alive in his clear articulation. He speaks, almost without interruption, for nearly an hour.
“Well, Korea was not fun,” he begins. “We landed at Inchon and went right up to the front in rucks. It was colder than the dickens. I was given a choice. Would I accept an assignment on a listening post of would I stay back and go on regular patrol” I didn’t know the difference, so I said, sure, I’d go out to the listening post.
“It turned out that I was at that time [January 1952] the furthest north U.S. soldier in Korea. I was down the hill in front of our northernmost outpost. I mean, I was practically in Chinese territory. So if the Chinese attacked, I was supposed to give the warning before I got killed so they could send in artillery. Of course, if the Chinese didn’t get me, the artillery or the machine gun and rifle fire would, since I was right where they were all zeroed in.
“One thing I remember that makes me never want to go back there — the Chinese buried their dead in very shallow graves. During the summer the stench was just awful. It would force us to drop what we were doing and look around for whatever was making this godforsaken smell. Sure enough, here would be a hand sticking up out of the mud, you know. Then later, here would be another.
“During the winter there were rows of dead bodies not 20 feet away from me. Frozen stiff. You couldn’t go out there and move then — there were mines everywhere, you know, and you didn’t feel like taking a chance. I remember there was one guy who must have taken a bullet in his forehead just as he was about to throw a hand grenade. He froze in that position — kneeling, hand up in the air, ready to throw — for weeks. Sometimes when I looked at him at night I could swear he’s moved — you know, the light was different.
“I didn’t think much about the overall picture while I was there, but later I wondered and wondered, why did we have that war? So much killing and suffering, and for what? You know, one time it rained for two weeks, without stopping. Nothing could move, no jeep, no tank, no artillery, no human. No one had a single piece of dry clothing. It was absolutely miserable.”
Donald Murphy (Coronado) served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. “Korea came just five years after the end of the second war,” he reminds me as we sit together in his pleasant living room. “What a lot of people don’t know is that many of the men who were sent there had already been in World War II, had joined the reserves, and were called up again. So they had experience, expertise. Even when we were undermanned at the beginning, leadership was excellent.
“The South Korean army did poorly at the outset, it’s true. Later, however, they were very staunch about defending their country. When I was on line, there was an ROK [Republic of Korea] division on our left flank. I must say, the South Korean soldiers struck me as a bunch of stubborn individuals. They wouldn’t give up.”
M.J. “Pat” Padalino (La Mesa): Now in his early 70s, Pat is only slightly slowed by chronic back problems (“It’s only when I’m sitting and try to get up,” he insists while struggling to his feet). He still tends a large Italian-style garden, fixes things around his house, and maintains a big mobile home. He retired from the Marines with the rank of brigadier general. He first arrived in Korea in October 1952.
“That was the most horrible, horrible way to fight a war,” he declares vehemently. “There were so many restrictions place on us as to what we could and could not do. For example, some artillery officers told me they had to go up and down the lines seeing that our big guns were not set to hit beyond the DMZ [demilitarized zone].
“The concept of a limited war began in Korea. The question is, limited to what” It makes you sick when you think of all the fine young guys who died, not just in Korea, but in other more recent wars directed by politicians in Washington, wars in which we were literally not allowed to win because of restrictions. We have not been able to do what we are trained to do.”
There will always be questions concerning the Korean War — still referred to in official documents as the Korean Conflict — a bitter three-year struggle that began without a declaration and ended with a truce rather than an armistice. Few argue with President Truman’s initial commitment to go to the aid of South Korea. Many, however, share Pat Padalino’s concern with the conflicting restraints of a “limited war.”
In my discussions with veterans of all branches of the service in the privacy of their homes or in groups at VFW posts and unit reunions, this thought was often expressed: “We should have been allowed to do what we were sent in to do.” The statement presupposes that “what we were sent in to do” has been clearly defined and agreed upon by everyone concerned and that the equipment and logistical support necessary to do the job will be unstintingly provided. For one reason or another, such preconditions have not always been achieved.
Korea was the first modern conflict in which there was no clear winner. A country that had been politically divided at the beginning of the war remained so at the end. An aggressive, highly disciplined enemy was halted but not destroyed.
My story is not about international politics, however. It is about men who went to war more than four decades ago. It is, most of all, a study in the astonishing acuity with which individuals who went through extraordinary experiences remember the events and feelings that accompanied their ordeal.
Given the relative strengths and readiness of the opposing forces on either side of the 38th parallel in June 1950, it is astonishing that the North Korean people’s Army did not immediately succeed in taking all of the south. As it was, Seoul, the southern capital, fell in three days. U.S. naval and air power, such as was available, was brought into action, harassing North Korean troop movements and supply routes.
Charles Mohn (Vista): Unlike those of us who went to Korea as inexperienced young men, Charles completed his long naval career at the time of the conflict, retiring soon after the truce was signed Now in his 82nd year, he begins by telling me enthusiastically about being on the crew of president Roosevelt’s “Floating White House” during the summer of 1937, as well as several other adventures he had before his stint on a destroyer off the North Korean coastline in the early days of the war.
“We had just returned from the Pacific during the first week in June when the war started in Korea, so we turned around and sailed over again. I was on a destroyer, working in the engine room. Our duty was to help protect U.S. aircraft carriers that were stationed off the coast at Wonsan [many land and sea routes in eastern North Korea came through Wonsan]. We were also to be on the lookout for mines and submarines, pick up downed airmen when they managed to land on or near the water, and harass North Korean troops and supply routes that moved along the coastal road.
“We had five-inch guns fore and aft, so we could cause a lot of trouble. One time we hard they had set up a big theater for the entertainment of North Korean soldiers just over the first hill. We had South Korean guys with us on-board, and they could go in there — you know, infiltrate. They came back with exact information on distances. We zeroes in with our big guns and wiped out several hundred in that theater.” He shakes his head.
“Of course, they were trying to get us, too, any way they could,” he adds. “For example, sometimes we’d see fisherman coming alongside in their little boats. They’d wave and look innocent, but they might be towing mines along where we couldn’t see them to blow us out of the water. Couldn’t trust ‘em.
“We were always looking out for mines. If we heard the sonar make that first ping we counted seconds to the second ping in order to figure how far away the mine was. Then we had to look sharp. Sometimes the mines would bob up so close we had to push them away with our salt-water hoses. Then when they were far enough aft, we dropped a grenade to blow them up.
“We got a sub once. Probably a Russian one; the North Koreans and Chinese didn’t have any. We tracked it in only 300 feet of water. After we hit it — debris was coming up to the surface, you know — our exec said something about ‘our comrades below the sea.’ We didn’t know if they were Chinese or North Korean or Russian. Guess it doesn’t really matter.”
Ben Killingsworth (Mission Valley): “I was stationed off the North Korean coast for six months, doing combat flights to harass the movement of supplies from the north to their lines farther south. I was flying a single-engine Skyraider AD4N from a carrier 50 miles offshore.
“If we saw lights, we’d go down and drop flares to see what was there. The first time out I helped destroy a supply train. I thought it was fun. But the next flight I was shot down. Luckily it was over the ocean, where I could get picked up in a couple of hours. That completely changed my attitude. After that I never again thought it was fun.”
John Warne (Spring Valley): “I joined the Navy in 1946 and had spent some time in China until the Chinese Communists drove the Americans out,” John tells me as we sit together in one of the VFW posts. “By 1949 I was in Japan on a minesweeper, so I was right in position when the Korean War started the next year.
“Well, we swept Inchon harbor before the first landing, then went several other places on our way to Wonsan on the other coast. I was on the USS Pledge on formation with several other ships sweeping the harbor there on October 12, 1950. Just after noon, the ship ahead of us, which had already swept six mines, hit one and started to sink, stern up. North Korean shore batteries opened up on her. We returned fire and radioed for help.
“Our commander thought we could turn around safely and get out of there, but then we hit a mine too. I was at my post in a gun turret and was thrown up in the air by the blast. But I was lucky — of the 76 men on board, 6 were killed instantly, 1 died later, and 41 were injured. I was barely scratched. Real lucky, I guess. Anyway, I was glad to get out of there.”
Erwin Holt (San Diego) joined the Navy during World War II and served in the Pacific area “on 15 or 16 different ships. I was on a radar team from the first, with the old radars that you had to rotate the antenna by hand and had a range of only about three miles. When I was discharged, I was talked into joining the active reserves. Well, when the Korean War began, I knew I might be called. I had two weeks left on a master’s degree in industrial education at the University of Minnesota. They let me finish, but then I was put on the USS Sicily, an escort carrier [smaller than a modern-day aircraft carrier].
“We spent about a year in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of Korea, but I only had my feet on Korean soil for about an hour once when we were docked won at Pusan. I’m sorry that I never had a chance to have any contact with the Korean people.”
Dolph Reeves (Alpine): “When I think back on the Korean War, the first thing that comes to mind is how difficult it was for my family. I’m a career Marine and had been back from World War II for five years. My wife and I already had two small children, the youngest only five months old.
“Things happened very quickly. We were at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when the word came down that we were to go to Korea. We had to join the action as fast as possible, with no time to be with our families, much less help them move and get settled elsewhere. My wife had to do that all by herself with two little children.
“That was June. In November, when we were fighting our way out of the Chosin Reservoir area, the news back home said our unit had been destroyed. For a week my wife didn’t know if I was alive or dead. You imagine what that was like for her and for many others like her in similar circumstances.”
I awakened before dawn in a tent a couple of hundred yards from the front lines. I was nearly frozen. I needed to go to the latrine and couldn’t remember where it was or whether I would get shot at if I went looking. I groped for my boots next to the sleeping bag. It was really cold.
My boots were thick with frozen mud and stiffer than I imagined possible. Don’t attack now, I thought, I can’t even get my goddam boots on. The guy sleeping next to me hard me moving and woke up fast, grabbing his M1.
“Hey, it’s me!” I whispered. “The new guy. I gotta go to the latrine.”
He relaxed. Jeez, now? Shit.” He yawned and looked at his watch. “Shit,” he repeated, “we’ll be gettin’ up in a couple of minutes.” He yawned again. “Show you then. Least it’s not so fuckin’ cold as a week ago,” he added gratuitously.
He asked my name again, then fell silent. I decided not to start any more conversation until we were out of the tent. There were six other guys still sleeping. I ached from the cold and from being in the sleeping bag.
So this is what it’s like, I thought. This is how it feels after the first night and there are 16 more months to go. Something like 485 more nights. If I make it. And I don’t even know where I am.
When we got back to the tent, a little light was beginning to show in the east, and I could see that things were happening in the mess tent. The coffee tasted good. Nothing else did. The powdered eggs were sickening. I squatted down with my mess it, pretending to eat, and listened to the men talking about how we were spread out too thin. If the next attack came right at us.
The initial North Korean offensive pushed the American forces and their United Nations allies into a tiny picket around Pusan at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. With them were several million refugees living in desperate squalor. Although the situation appeared hopeless, General Douglas MacArthur conceived of a plan whereby the advancing enemy would be trapped. He determined to make a surprise landing at Inchon on the west coast, well behind North Korean lines. Kimpo airfield and Seoul would be recaptured, then another landing at Wonsan on the other coast would create pincers from which several hundred thousand North Korean troops could not escape.
The initial portions of the risky plan worked splendidly. However, subsequent operations, especially when Chinese troops entered the war, did not always have such a positive outcome.
Robert Weishan made the famous landing at Inchon in September 1950. “There were terrible problems with high tides — at Inchon they ran 18 to 20 feet. Ships coming in with supplies had a rough time unloading. We pushed from Inchon over into Seoul. The landing was a complete surprise, se we didn’t have too much resistance until we got to Seoul itself. That was another matter. It took several days of house-to-house fighting to clear the city.
“After Seoul was secured, we went back to Inchon. From there we embarked for a trip around the peninsula to the east coast, landing at Wonsan, which by that time had been captured by South Korean troops. From there we pushed up through the port of Hungnam and beyond. Again, there was little real resistance at first.
“Our initial objective was the Chongjin Reservoir, sometimes called the Chosin Reservoir. That’s where things started going against us. We were moving north fine until winter set in and the Chinese attacked. Suddenly we were outnumbered ten to one or worse, and the temperatures were far below zero. We were surrounded. The odds were against us, but we managed to escape. Well, some of us did. Our losses were very heavy.
Robert Slagle (Clairemont Mesa) remembers going into Seoul under a lot of fire. “There were snipers everywhere in the houses; so while our tanks were going up the main street, we lay off to the side of the road, trying to stay covered. A couple of the guys were hunkered down in a shell hole in the street.
“Well, there was a North Korean anti-tank gun about seven blocks away trying to blast our tanks. One time it sent off a round that caromed off a telephone pole and then bounced along the street and into that same shell crater! Should have killed us all, I suppose. In fact, it actually hit one of the men in the head, but by then it was going so slow that it didn’t explode. After that we kidded him a lot about how hard his head was.”
Dolph Reeves: “After Seoul, we made the Wonsan landing and moved north. When we got to Sudong, a town at the end of the rail line that runs up the Chosin Valley, we set up our battalion perimeter right on the road.
“No sooner were we set up than here came a Chinese tank right through our command post! The Chinese didn’t know we were there, of course, and we certainly weren’t expecting them.
“I was radio chief at the time. I had a wireman out behind us getting wire in place — in those days we communicated over wire, you know. The story I heard later was that this fellow saw something coming down the road toward him with only one light on it. He didn’t know what it was, so he stood out there with his carbine at port arms shouting for the thing to halt. When he finally saw that it was a tank — he knew we didn’t have any around — he dove for over, wire, carbine, and all.
“Meanwhile, the battalion CO was telling us at the CP [command post] that the Chinese tank crew would soon figure out they needed to get out of there fast, and the only way they could do it would be by coming straight through our CP again in the other direction, so we should watch out. Sure enough, there they came. They could have done a lot of damage with their machine guns, but like our CO said, they wanted to get out of there and went right on through.
“One of our men had his 3.5 rocket launcher ready and hit the tank as it was going down toward the river, disabling it. The tank went into the river, but by the time we got down there the crew had scrambled out and escaped.
“When the Chinese attacked in force, we had to get out, taking lots of casualties. There was a blizzard, and the wind made –42 degrees seem like –70. One of the hardest things we had to do was to get our wounded out. To keep them from freezing, we put them in sleeping bags and zipped them up. I tried to carry one big guy in a bag like that. He was dead weight, you know. It was physically the hardest thing I ever did in my life.”
Marvin Cherry (La Mesa), like every Marine with whom I spoke about the Chosin Reservoir operation, remembers the name of each hamlet through which he passed as if he had been there just a few days ago.
“From Hamhung we went up the road to Sudong and Kotori, then north to Hagaru. From there we had to go in the snow over the Toktong Pass to Yudam-ni, which is where the Chinese attacked. We got caught, surrounded, with no supplies except for air drops that often missed and landed in the Chinese lines.
“The Chinese would keep us up all night blowing their trumpets and shouting over their loudspeakers things like, “Marine, die!” No one could sleep. Then they would attack. We would mow them down, but there were always more coming. They figured on losing a of of men, I guess, because when their reserve units attacked, they didn’t have weapons, they just picked up the rifles of the men ahead of them who had been killed. They weren’t feeling much pain, you know; they all had this string around their necks with a bag of opium on it.
“I remember one night I was standing next to a young private, watching and listening in the cold. He heard something and said, “Sergeant, they’re comin’!” I said to him, “Be quiet, they ain’t comin’.’ He said again, ‘They’re comin’!’ and then, by God, here they came! After I lived through that, I always said, ‘Listen to what a private says. Maybe he’s the one who knows what’s goin’ on.’
“Well, we had to get out of there, so we had to destroy everything we couldn’t take. And of course we tried to get every one of our people who had been killed out — any way we could. Every vehicle was loaded with bodies tied on. And you heard about the cold weather? Some say that kept a lot of men from dying, by freezing their wounds and keeping them from bleeding to death.”
The numerical superiority of the Chinese armies made it extremely difficult to halt their offensive. Early in January 1951, they captured Seoul, and it was only after fierce fighting that the city was recaptured two months later. Eventually battle lines were established very near the 38th parallel, just as they had been politically drawn prior to the North Korean invasion.
For more than two years, as truce talks proceeded in painfully show fashion in Panmunjom, a deadly stalemate continued with thousands upon thousands of casualties on both sides.
George Lawler (South San Diego): “I arrived in Korea in mid-July 1953, only a few days before the truce went into effect. At first I thought the shelling by the Chinese was not so bad, but then when it became quite evident that the cease-fire was going to be signed, they dumped it all on us just so they wouldn’t have to lug it back.
“I was wounded twice. The first time was in the arm so that I couldn’t use my right hand, but it wasn’t so bad that I had to be evacuated. The second time was during a counterattack.
“I could see the Chinese from the top of the hill. Actually they were in our old trenches — they had pushed us out just before. We had replacements coming, but with all the artillery the Chinese were relieving themselves of, they were pinned down, unable to get to us.
“We really wanted to know out some of the people who were doing a lot of damage to us from one of those bunkers down there. There was a young soldier who brought up a 3.5 rocket launcher. One of the lieutenants grabbed it away from him and fired at the bunker, but he did it too quickly and from a prone position — I couldn’t really blame him, we were all trying to pull our helmets down around our ankles, it was that bad — and he missed completely. The kid took his 3.5 back, saying something like, ‘I can do that.’ He stood up, I mean, he stood straight up, aimed carefully, and sent a rocket right into the aperture of that bunker!
“I wish I could tell you his name, but I don’t even know if he survived, because then a mortar hit real close to us. That was the end of Korea for me. And it was only two days before the cease-fire.”
Joe Yaffe (San Diego): “In February 1951, we went on a Japanese ship from japan to Pusan. This was at the time of the second push north, through Taejon and on up to Chunchon, east of Seoul. I was on line a lot. One time for 153 days straight.
“We had our hardest firefight at a place called Hill 902. I’ll never forget how someone came into our lines and — you know, it sounded like perfect English — gave the wrong password, it was from the day before. We started firing. They kicked us off the hill around 2:00 a.m., we went back up at 6:00. I remember being totally exhausted, but we made it.”
Donald Murphy: “I stayed on line until the cease-fire. I was a rifle platoon leader, replacing a man I had known who had just gotten killed. He was from San Diego, you see. His name was Bryan McGlynn. There’s a memorial to him here in Coronado, under one of those pine trees on Orange Avenue that we decorate at Christmas time.”
Before Enlisting I was in college. Many of my friends there were older vets, just returned from World War II. I really looked up to them. After I came home from Korea I went back to school. Now my classmates were younger than I. To me they were like kids. They didn’t seem serious enough.
No one knew I’d been in Korea. There wasn’t any way to bring it up, even if I’d wanted to. I tried hard to get it out of my head. I guess I secretly wished I could talk about it with someone who would understand.
Once or twice somebody asked where I had been the year before. Had I transferred from another school?
“I was in the Army,” I’d answer.
Walter Linback: “I remember when I returned to the States. We were at the airport in San Francisco, and I was still in uniform. There was some fancy football team there, and they looked down on me like I was some kind of lowlife. I had been risking my life so these idiots could play football, and they were really putting me down.”
He shakes his head, remembering other feelings, but says only, “You know, when guys who were in Vietnam came back and got into some...well, some difficulty, everyone said it was the fault of the Vietnam War. But not Korea. Somehow it didn’t work that way.”
George Lawler: “The attitude of the troops and the public during the Korean War was similar to that at the end of World War II. You went and did a job and then came home and went on with your life. That’s what a professional Marine does, you know.
“Still, when you ask me if I was affected…” Lawler pauses, looking at the several dozen pictures he and his wife, Pat, his high school sweetheart, have arranged carefully on one wall of the attractive living room. “We had our first child while I was on my way to Korea. As I told you, I was wounded there, twice, the second time pretty bad. Now, I’m happy to say, we have 11 children. And 19 grandchildren, going on 20, he adds with a big grin. “If I hadn’t made it...well, I don’t think about that anymore.”
Robert Latherow (San Diego): “I was on line for almost a year. For me there was one major aftereffect. Usually I don’t think about it, but I know it’s still with me and always will be.” He pauses to look out the window at the ocean. “After living like that, like an animal, in horrible, indescribable circumstances, I became determined to do everything in my power to live as best I could thereafter. To stay clean, you know? Comfortable if possible. Before I went there, I didn’t think about such things, but those miserable, godforsaken months made the quality of life all-important.”
Robert Slagle was a front-line medical corpsman in the Navy who was attached to the Marines, attending to hundreds of badly wounded American soldiers, North Korean and Chinese prisoners, and civilian refugees. During our first meeting he appears to be calm and graciously matter-of-fact.
“The effect on me?” he asks, tilting his head in thought. “Not much. Nothing out of the ordinary. I was always around military people, you see.
“Oh, certainly, it affected some men badly, permanently. I remember how the war ruined at least one of my corpsmen. He went ‘booby hatch,’ as we called it. Never recovered. That happened to quite a few.
“But not to me, no. Of course it hurt a lot from a sentimental point of view when friends were lost, and I worried about all the Korean civilians who were injured and killed, but I don’t feel that it affected me physically or mentally.”
A few days later we again talk briefly at a meeting of several dozen veterans. He takes me aside. “I have to apologize for getting so emotional in that interview at the house the other day,” he says quietly. “It’s just that I hadn’t thought about those things for a long time, and it got the best of me. I’m sorry about that.”
I tell him not to worry about it, meanwhile marveling at how completely he had been able to hid his feelings from me. Or perhaps he hadn’t become aware of them until after I’d left, I said to myself. I tell him about some of my own tough times when suddenly I had to wrestle with buried remembrances from Korea days. He nods, understanding.
Ben Killingsworth seems puzzled when I ask what it was like for him when he came back fro Korea. “It was so long ago,” he says, after a pause. He is a big, tall man, but his voice becomes so quiet I can barely hear him. “When I came back, I didn’t talk about it much. I don’t recall people being that interested. That’s it. They just weren’t interested. The war wasn’t over, but it had already been forgotten.”
Marvin Cherry: “After Korea it was a better coming home than after World War II. But it was still difficult, especially in the south. Restaurants wouldn’t serve my wife and me, even when I had a uniform on. We’d get gas at a station and then ask if they had a bathroom. ‘No colored bathroom,’ they’d say. So I got so I’d ask for that first, and if they said no, then I’d drive on to get gas someplace else.
“The situation is better now, but I see signs that things are turning backwards, with the skinheads and neo-Nazis and such. I hope for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren that it doesn’t get worse, goin’ back like it was before.
“Korea was special for me. I joined the Marines when I was 18 years old, back in January 1944. The first black Marines had only been allowed to enlist two years before, and we were still segregated. All we could do during World War II was work in ammunition and depot companies. I wanted to be a real Marine, you know, but all I did then was unload ships. Yes, you can say I was like a slave.
“By 1949 desegregation was being taken seriously in all of the armed services, and when I went to Korea the next year, I knew that I would be a Marine’s Marine. I knew that I would be going over the side of the ship and down the netting to make the landing along with everyone else of whatever color. I was so proud to do that!”
Not every veteran I approached agreed to be interviewed. “I’m just not going to talk about that,” said one man gruffly, turning away. Numerous telephone messages were not returned; I accepted this as a statement to be respected.
Without exception every person I interviewed was surprised that someone was actually asking about the “forgotten” Korean War and their participation in it. Almost none had been questioned previously on the subject, or if they had, it happened 40 years ago, when they first returned. Nearly all expressed the opinion that “it’s about time.”
Even the youngest Korean vet is now over 60 years old. Many are in the 70s and 80s. What have they done with their lives since leaving the service?
Joe Yaffe’s story is a good place to start. A veteran of Korea and two tours of Vietnam, he now coaches boxing to kids aged 8 to 16 for the Junior Olympics.
“It’s one of the best ways to keep them off the streets,” he says, eyes glowing. He is a powerful man; one can easily imagine that at 67 he still inspires (and intimidates) his young student sin the ring. “If I can keep them in the gym for three or four months, they’ll stay off the streets,” he insists. “They will have learned self-discipline and self-control. They will have enhanced their personal and physical lives. They will have bonded with others, and they’ll be able to make a success of themselves.”
Returning to San Diego in 1954 after 20 years in the Navy, Charles Mohn went back to school to get a master’s degree in education at SDSU. After that, he spent 22 years teaching and counseling in a continuation school, helping kids with their problems.
“All kids of problems — mother drunk in bed, father having sex with them. We talked about everything. I knew every student in all my classes, and I made it a point to talk to each one privately. They knew and respected me.”
Erwin Holt came to San Diego after serving in World War II and Korea. He taught industrial arts at Grossmont High School and later at El Cajon Valley High School.
“I’ve taught everything: woodworking, metalworking, drafting, auto shop, and so on. After I retired from that in 1987, started teaching two days a week at Otay Mesa Detention Facility, working directly with the inmates, teaching them about offset printing. They are very enjoyable to work with. And no discipline problems,” he adds with a smile.
John Warner takes a lot of time to tell me about the VFW, in which he has been active on both the local and national level.
“When I retired from the Navy, I went back to school at Mesa College and eventually began my own nursery and landscaping business in Spring Valley. I maintained it with considerable success for 15 years, until a family tragedy caused me to retire again.
“Then I got involved in the VFW. At the present time I am chairman for post development in California. Every year for 20 years I have gone back to Washington to speak to our representatives there concerning veterans’ causes. Last time I had a good talk with Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example. She and other politicians need to be informed concerning what is going on with veterans.”
I attend one of the quarterly meetings of the San Diego chapter of the Chosin Few at the invitation of Robert Wishan, one of the national organization’s founding members.
“One of the aims of our group is to locate and bring back remains of MIA/POWs form Korea,” says Weishan. While recently in Korea arranging for a reunion, he was asked to speak to the United Nations Command as a representative of the Chosin Few.
“I also worked hard to find members of my old Marine Company and arranged a reunion of them in 1977,” he says. “It was a highlight of my life to get together with them again. We’ve been meeting regularly ever since.”
Last summer many of the members of the Chosin Few were in attendance at the dedication of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. “The feeling of camaraderie was beyond belief,” comments Weishan with emotion. “There were a lot of tears...including my own.”
Every wall in Marvin Cherry’s home is filled with framed certificates of service, photographs, newspaper clippings, poems, documents — all related in some way to his military service. All are carefully identified with typewritten captions.
“I have got to finish my book,” he declares, carefully opening a large loose-leaf picture album filled to overflowing with hundreds of typewritten pages detailing the history of African Americans in the U.S. Marine Corps. There are dozens and dozens of photographs and clippings. “I’m about two-thirds through here,” he says, leafing through the pages, “but I need help, I guess you’d say I need a ghostwriter,” he adds, wryly. “You know, to make it more acceptable for a publisher. People don’t know about this and they should. Maybe you can help me.”
He insists I take the album with me. I refuse at first, saying it is too valuable to be allowed out of his sight. Finally I agree to take it long enough to make a copy of the text. Carefully I place it in the trunk of my care, and we go out to have lunch at his favorite eating place, Hometown Buffet. While eating he talks about his family — he has a granddaughter and five great-grandchildren in San Diego — and says he will be going to a family reunion this summer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
I ask how big an affair this will be. “How many of us will there be? Oh, more than a hundred,” he says, smiling, and digs into his dessert.