The “Forgotten War” of Korea is also referred to as the war “orphaned by history.” The catchphrases ‘forgotten’ or ‘orphaned’ may appease intellectuals or the power-players of that era, but for the soldiers who suffered and sacrificed in the hell called Korea their war will never be ‘forgotten.’ As for being ‘orphaned by history’, Korean veterans knew from the outset that the diplomatic philosophy of the day guaranteed they would indeed feel orphaned if not blamed for America’s first war without a victorious outcome.
The “Forgotten War” of Korea is also referred to as the war “orphaned by history.” The catchphrases ‘forgotten’ or ‘orphaned’ may appease Intellectuals or the power-players of that era, but for the soldiers who suffered and sacrificed in the hell called Korea their war will never be ‘forgotten.’ As for being ‘orphaned by history’, Korean veterans knew from the outset that the diplomatic philosophy of the day guaranteed they would indeed feel orphaned if not blamed for America’s first war without a victorious outcome.
The Cold War abruptly became a hot war on June 25, 1950 when Kim Il Sung’s 90,000-man North Korean Army stormed across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. In the war’s early days, President Truman referred to the conflict as a ‘police action’. After the Chinese entered the war and were thought to be on the verge of devastating American soldiers and Marines, the so-called ‘police action’ suddenly became serious enough that the President of the United States refused to rule out the use of atomic weapons. SAC (The Strategic Air Command) was instructed to organize bomber groups carrying “atomic capabilities” for deployment to Asia.
The implied use of an atomic weapon sent other nations and the U.N. General Assembly into a tizzy. British prime minister Clement Attlee, so distraught by the implication, made four separate trips to Washington to dissuade the President from using nukes. As humankind tottered on the edge of a nuclear war, soldiers and airmen from America sailed into ground zero, into the land dubbed “The Hermit Kingdom.”
Newton County resident James Verda was one of the potential guinea pigs for ground zero. Born in 1930 and a native of Illinois, James lived through the Great Depression, recalled in detail the ‘Day of Infamy’ at Pearl Harbor, and his first .55 cent per hour job at Westclock. He also remembers the day in 1950 that a draft notice arrived inviting him to leave his job at Westclock to work for Uncle Sam.
James recalled, “I took basic training at a former German POW facility, Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky. After 8 weeks of training I received a two week leave then boarded a train for San Francisco. Talk about a long train ride, we thought we would never get there.”
The ship James sailed to war on was so small the vessel had to hug the western coast of the U.S., Canada, Alaska, and down to Japan. “I was lucky,” James said. “My bunk was in the middle of the ship and didn’t sway with every wave. But the other guys, man, did they get seasick.”
“From Japan we flew into Korea on a B-29 (a C-97 transport version of the B-29 bomber in WWII). I was supposed to be a quartermaster but once on the ground I was handed an M-1 rifle and assigned to the 25th Infantry. I joined a recon outfit with tanks and modified tanks without a gun turret. They were used as APCs (armored personnel carriers).” Note: Research and photos identify the tanks and modified APCs as most likely the M-24 Chaffee light tank. The Chaffee was not a match for the heavier built soviet tanks but proved useful for reconnaissance and scouting missions, along with the modified APCs.
Stationed near Inchon and north of the South Korean capital of Seoul, James stated, “You know, it’s been almost 65 years since I was there and I don’t remember names of towns or villages, but we were always behind the lines in a blocking position when not sent out into enemy territory on scouting missions. For the first six months I was part of an APC team. The APC was a tank without a turret. Fairly safe unless you took a direct hit in the open turret from a mortar round, then that’s all she wrote.”
“The Deuce-Four (24th Infantry Division) was an all-black outfit on our right flank. The enemy continually hit them hard which took a lot of heat off of us. I remember one day our lead tank hit a land mine and lost a track. We called for a tank retriever but had to sit on the narrow mountain road for the better part of a day. We saw an enemy bunker on the next hill and one of our tanks zeroed in on it just to be safe. All of a sudden two guys from the Deuce-Four nonchalantly walked up the side of the hill in the open. Before we could warn them, one got hit in the neck then the other guy ran to us. We cranked up and rescued the wounded soldier while our tank took out the bunker. Just one of those things, I guess.”
On the notorious Korean winters: “Man, talk about cold. You couldn’t get warm. We had a small heater in our tents but it didn’t warm very much, not at 20 below zero. Cold C-rations didn’t help. Everything was cold.”
James spoke of a narrow escape due to gung-ho leadership. “We had a new CO join the outfit who chose us for his first patrol. Once in enemy territory we came to a stop on a hill opposite an enemy occupied hill. Nothing but hills in Korea, gloomy, ugly hills void of foliage but blessed with plenty of rocks. Anyway, we spotted enemy activity and this new CO ordered us to open fire with tank guns and our .50 caliber machine guns. Well, we did, then the CO ordered us to, ‘cease fire.’ Well, we did. Then the enemy hit us with everything they had. Plop, boooom, zooooom, the mortar rounds whistled in. The first round was close but the second one landed right where I had been standing. I was already on the other side of the hill hunkered down.”
The new CO had a lot to learn. “On our next mission we escorted the Turks….talk about tough soldiers, the Turks were hard-hitting. Anyway, the CO got lost and we attacked the wrong hill. I guess it didn’t matter because the Turks found enemy soldiers atop the wrong hill and wiped them out.”
“We had a big guy in our outfit from Texas we called Tex. Tex was very nervous and scared all the time. He puffed non-stop on a cigarette; I’d seen him smoke two at a time, one in each hand. Well, the Turks were amazed at how big Tex was, so we told them he was like a super hero, did all kinds of brave stuff, he scared the enemy to death. They treated Tex like a King, brought him food and extra bedding. They even pulled guard duty for us.”
James talked about a sergeant, a ‘swell guy’ from Missouri. “He already had 26 years in the Army, fought in World War Two, and just wanted to retire and live on his small farm in Missouri. We had a dog in camp, like a mascot. The dog followed the sergeant and his squad on a patrol and triggered a road mine. The sergeant was the only one killed. He was 45 years old and swell guy. I still think of him often.”
After six months scouting and patrolling in a modified APC, James took over the reins, actually the steering controls, of a tank. “They wanted a tank driver so there I was. I was just a corporal but they guaranteed me sergeant stripes. I never got them, but I was still lucky. I survived crazy tank drivers on narrow mountain roads, mined rice paddy dikes, always expecting the worse. But we never got hit and we never lost a member of our crew. Yeah, I was one of the lucky ones.”
Recalling his scariest mission, “The scariest mission was my last mission because I was going home the next day. We were called out to rescue a soldier in enemy-held territory. The guy had fallen down a well, can you believe that? So, there I was, in enemy territory rescuing a soldier from a well with only one day to go.”
James Verda made it home. “I served a stint as instructor at Fort Knox with another promise of sergeant stripes. I never got them. Gotta love the Army.”
His final thoughts: “You know, I think the country was in better shape in 1950 than it is now. Don’t like what’s going on. But, I’m 84 years old and still kicking. I never thought I’d live this long. Quite frankly, I never thought I’d live through Korea.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.