Korean War veteran B.J. Johnson said if he even thinks about being cold he has to go find a faucet and run warm water over his hands.
It’s a byproduct of his experiences in the snow-filled trenches of the “Forgotten War,” fought more than 50 years ago over control of the Korean peninsula. Johnson was part of the U.S.-led United Nations “police action” that included support from 21 other countries in resisting a North Korean military invasion of South Korea.
Johnson said many soldiers he fought alongside at the Chosin Reservoir suffered from frostbite, with temperatures at times dropping to 40 degrees below zero.
“I’ve never touched snow since,” Johnson, 77, said Wednesday at a ceremony for Korean War veterans. “I can’t stand the sight of it.”
Fifty-three years after the two sides signed a truce agreement and fighting stopped, Johnson and his wife, Arlene, stood side by side at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center to honor veterans of the Cold War conflict.
Wednesday’s event was part of a monthlong campaign by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to highlight the sacrifices of those who fought in Korea. More than 33,000 Americans died during the three-year conflict that ended with a cease-fire along the 38th Parallel.
Even today, the peninsula remains separated by a heavily armed border. Tensions rose in the region and worldwide this week as North Korea announced Monday it had tested its first nuclear bomb, drawing global condemnation.
Nick Gervase, a Scottsdale resident who fought in the Korean War, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio joined other veterans in speaking at the event.
Daryl Trujillo, a federal postmaster, announced that the U.S. Postal Service will reissue a stamp commemorating the Purple Heart medal, awarded to personnel wounded in action.
B.J. Johnson said he sent his wife more than 300 letters while he fought in Korea. He wrote her almost every day, except for two weeks in late November and early December of 1950, when about 20,000 allied troops at the Chosin Reservoir fought against nearly 120,000 communist soldiers, according to a fact sheet distributed by The Chosin Few, a group of veterans who participated in the battle.
When the letters stopped coming, Arlene Johnson worried that she would never again see her husband.
But she said relief came the day before Christmas — weeks after the fighting at the Chosin Reservoir ended — when three backlogged letters arrived from her husband.
“Then I knew he was all right,” Arlene Johnson said.
The Korean War broke out when Gervase, 72, was only 17 and was too young to enlist.
Gervase left for Korea in 1952, after joining the U.S. Marine Corps on his 18th birthday. He said all he could see was snow and ice as his troop transport approached the Korean shoreline.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I in for?’ “ he said.
Gervase was wounded by shrapnel a few months later as he led a machine-gun crew at the battle for Strategic Hill. Forty-eight others in his unit had already died in combat.