50 years later: The Korean War - East Valley Tribune: News

50 years later: The Korean War

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Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2003 12:52 am | Updated: 2:04 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The little brother who never came home, and the husband who did.

The sweet fog of morphine. The eerie numbness of a bullet in the gut. MASH units. Food so hard you thawed it on a rumbling Jeep engine.

A Bible-preaching buddy shot to Eternity just inches from safety. Risking your neck to fetch the mangled dead. The smoke of burning flesh, every night at suppertime.

And finally, when it was over, a menacing stillness, a peace that never really was a peace, a truce that in recent months has breathed a growing threat of war.

It ended 50 years ago today, but East Valley veterans of the Korean War remember it as clearly as this morning’s eggs and toast.

THE WAR IN A NUTSHELL

The creation of North and South Korea was a post-World War II compromise between the United States and the Soviet Union. The North invaded the South in June 1950 after the United States had withdrawn its forces from the peninsula.

President Harry Truman obtained U.N. permission to intervene, but never sought a declaration of war from Congress — meaning the conflict was technically an international police action and not, formally, a war. Only in recent years have government agencies begun calling it the Korean War, albeit unofficially.

That only makes sense to Cleo Jenkins of Mesa, a medic who served with a U.S. Army field artillery unit. “I got threatened with a court-martial for calling it a war,” he said. But “any time men go and put their lives on the line, by God, it’s a war.”

But as U.S. troops poured into the country that summer and fall, they found themselves in combat no less hellish than in Europe or the South Pacific during World War II. Communist forces rolled to the southern tip of the 350-mile peninsula by August 1950, bottling up U.N. forces in an area called the Pusan Perimeter.

Then the tide turned. Amphibious landings at Inchon and a counteroffensive from Pusan drove the Communists back. By October the Americans were pushing into North Korea.

Then, on Nov. 25, Communist China launched a breathtaking offensive. Mel Harms of Scottsdale was there. “It was just flares and bugles and screaming and hollering and artillery and mortar rounds. They were right amongst us before we even knew,” he said.

The Communists ran out of steam in January 1951 50 miles south of Seoul and U.N. forces pushed back to about the 38th Parallel. Peace talks began in July 1951 and sputtered on for two years. The armistice finally took hold on July 27, 1953.

BABY BROTHER LOST

In the last minutes of the war, 50 years ago today, a Chinese shell blew a permanent hole in Louis Cross’ life.

His baby brother, Harold Cross Jr., then 27 years old, was waiting for the armistice near the front, at a place called Christmas Hill. The truce was to begin at 10 p.m. At 8:40 p.m., a round smashed his bunker. “Cross suffered horrible wounds,” a buddy later wrote, “but never complained because of the shock.”

He died about three hours later.

“He was a fun person,” said Louis Cross, a World War II veteran who now lives in Mesa. “Everywhere he went, he made people happy.”

For years, it was believed Harold Cross was the last American mortally wounded in Korea. Later research revealed that Harold B. Smith of Oregon, Ill., was Korea’s last American combat death. He tripped a land mine only 16 minutes before the armistice, and died the next morning.

Harold Cross was buried with great fanfare in the family’s hometown of Detroit. Louis keeps a scrapbook that chronicles the shock and horror of an American family learning a loved one has died half a world away. “It hurts,” he said. “And you have to hide the hurt from the people around you.”

Clotele Armstrong of Mesa suffered no such loss, but took each breath in fear of it. Her husband, Wesley, flew 75 combat missions in Korea while she stayed home in Idaho with an infant.

“Mail was almost impossible, and I would go for days without hearing from him,” she said. On days without mail, “I would dissolve in tears.”

“His coming home was incredible,” she said, “because we didn’t know whether he was going to make it.”

After he did, the family went to a U.S. Air Force base in New Mexico where preparations were under way to turn the Korean War into a nuclear holocaust. The new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had signaled his willingness to use the atomic bomb — a factor that’s credited with finally ending the war.

“Because the talks had been stalled for some time, they were getting ready to load the atomic bomb on one of the planes there,” Clotele Armstrong said. “They had the A-bomb loaded and were ready to go when the peace treaty was signed.”

ON SHEDDING BLOOD

Most Korean veterans who contacted the Tribune were wounded in combat.

Dr. Donald Schaller of Scottsdale, an artillery observer, took “a lot of shrapnel in my right side and my leg” on June 10, 1951. “Pieces of it were coming out eight years later,” he said. “When they come out they look like little black pieces of coal.”

Jesse Kalebaugh of Apache Junction said, “That damn artillery, that scares you more than anything else.” An artillery round punctured his back and blew him off his feet in May 1952; “another guy damn near had his arm blown off.”

Kalebaugh said the horror of combat gave him nightmares for years; one night, visiting his family and staying in a bedroom with a brother, “I woke up on top of him, trying to kill him.”

Larry Milfelt of Apache Junction came close to dying. “They just about done me in,” he said. An artillery round hit him in the head, chopped off part of a rib and damaged his pancreas, intestines and liver.

Carl Smith of Tempe took a bullet in the abdomen. “The minute you’re hit it’s just kind of numb,” he said. Morphine dulled the initial pain, but jiggling around in a Jeep en route to the MASH unit was excruciating.

Willis Driskill of Mesa thinks it might have been a land mine that flipped his Jeep in July 1950, and he remembers the agony thereafter.

“Morphine, it’s wonderful stuff,” he said. “It don’t stop your pain but you don’t give a (expletive) if you’ve got it.”

CAPRICIOUS COMBAT

Thomas Schramm of Mesa remembers the boy who led him to Jesus.

“I met this guy who led me to the Lord,” Schramm said. “He asked me if I had ever been saved. I said no, I hadn’t. I’m ashamed to tell it.” So, Schramm said, he got saved right there in the battle zone.

Later, “They were up on the mountain, the Chinese was, and we were down in the Valley. We had to cross about the length of a football field to get to this ditch . . . We ran one at a time, and the boy that led me to the Lord got hit just as he got to the ditch to jump in, and he died right there.”

Former Chandler Mayor Coy Payne, an automatic rifleman, can describe in exquisite detail a hillside battle where the Americans were taking murderous fire and all he could do was try to recover the dead and wounded.

He recalls “bones sticking out, blood running, guys walking but they were crying because they had been hit.”

He went up a hill to fetch a dead soldier. “He was mangled. You couldn’t recognize him hardly.” He and a buddy slung the body onto a poncho and scampered down the hill. The body slipped off and rolled into a ravine. They fetched it again. “We got him all the way down to the foot of the hill.”

Schaller recalls one particularly horrific scene.

“The day I was wounded, one of the young lads — he was a corporal — he was so upset with the fire that was coming from a bunker . . . he took a couple of hand grenades and pulled the pin and jumped in the bunker.” The young soldier died, but the bunker’s guns never spoke again.

HARDSHIP ON THE FRONT

The countryside was pleasant, Schaller said, but it reeked because the Koreans used human excrement to fertilize their rice crops.

“It was a hell of a stinkin’ country,” Jenkins said. “The Koreans didn’t bury their dead, they cremated them.” Smoke from burning bodies “seemed to hit us at mealtime just about every day.”

Many veterans spoke of cold so deep it froze their food. “You would try to thaw it out over the manifold of a Jeep,” said William Smith of Mesa. “You could only get so far. It was like eating ice milk. You stay scared so much you don’t get hungry, but you have to eat to live.

“Anybody tell you they weren’t scared, they were liars.”

Marine Corps veteran Dick Sullivan of Mesa recalled “the night, the snow, the cold, 40 below zero. It would snow over our boots, which made it very difficult because of the frostbite. Some of them lost limbs and toes . . . it was an experience you wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

On the front, showers were as scarce as hot food and a good night’s sleep.

“I had spent over 90 days on line without a shower or hot food when I got hit,” Milfelt said.

Driskill, who landed near Pusan early in the war, said, “I don’t think we slept. I don’t think we slept 10 hours of the 18 days we were there.”

THE END

Jim Kunkle of Mesa spent most of his tour waiting for the truce near the 38th Parallel. He remembers a lone North Korean pilot the GIs called Bedcheck Charlie, puttering down from North Korea in an old, slow plane every evening and dropping hand grenades.

“The gunners couldn’t get their guns down low enough to hit him,” Kunkle said. But as far as he knows, Bedcheck Charlie never killed anyone with his solo bombing runs.

Before the truce, the front blazed every night. “It was constant flashing and rumbling coming from the north,” Kunkle said.

The night of the cease-fire, he said, soldiers sat on sandbags listening to radio announcers count down the final moments of the war. “When the truce was signed everything was very, very silent . . . No planes were flying. Nothing. The rumbling in the north stopped and the flashes stopped.”

That left North Korea and South Korea, both maimed and bleeding, sharing a border that bristles to this day. It left untold hundreds of thousands dead. According to the latest Defense Department statistics, 36,576 of them were Americans.

REFLECTIONS

In the end, what was all the death and suffering for?

Kalebaugh is bitter that after half a century, North Korea remains pregnant with menace.

“I’ve always been upset that (we) didn’t win the war,” he said. “They could have. There was 35,000 GIs that died for nothing, then, because they wouldn’t win it. . . . Too many people gave their lives for nothing.”

But most of the 20 veterans interviewed by the Tribune see the conflict as a shining example of American altruism in defense of a helpless, invaded country, and as a turning point in the Cold War.

Don Maxon of Mesa, a Marine veteran, regrets the lives lost during two years of political dithering after peace talks began in 1951, but said the result was about the best that could be hoped for.

“Our mission was to chase the North Koreans and subsequently the Chinese ... out of South Korea,” he said. “South Korea has since had a booming economy and whenever any of our veterans go over there, there's not enough the Koreans — at least those who were alive at the time — can do to thank us.

“We went over and did what we were supposed to do.”

Harms agreed. “Communism was spreading and we had to make a stand somewhere. I’ve always felt we done the right thing.”

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