Veterans recall experiences during Korean War
WASHINGTON — Some 50 Korean War veterans, mostly in their 80s, recently attended the opening of the Korean War 60th Anniversary Exhibit at the Pentagon.
Called the "forgotten war" because it was overshadowed by memories of World War II, Vietnam and Desert Storm, the conflict took the lives of nearly 37,000 American service members, and ended in a stalemate, July 27, 1953.
On that date, 60 years ago this month, belligerents of the conflict ended hostilities with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement.
Following remarks by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, two former Soldiers shared a few of their unforgettable experiences on the Korean Peninsula -- one as a prisoner of war, and one as a combat engineer.
Bored in New York
As a young man, upstate New Yorker Robert C. Mount, now 81, was bored with small-town life. At 17, he dropped out of high school and enlisted with three of his buddies.
"We boys decided a nice thing to do was go in the Army," Mount said.
By the time he turned 18, he had earned his high school diploma and attained the rank of corporal.
At the time, he was serving in Hawaii as regimental clerk with the 72nd Combat Regiment Engineers, 5th Regimental Combat Team. By the end of July 1950, barely a month into the war, his unit deployed to reinforce the 8th Army at the Pusan Perimeter.
"When we got to Korea, the company commander called me up to be company clerk, but I didn't want that because sitting in a tent with those officers would have driven me crazy," Mount said. "He put me in a squad, and the only job that hadn't been filled was demolition man. I went to the demolition expert for the platoon and he instructed me on what I needed to know."
The next thing Mount knew, the unit was on the Pusan Perimeter. Both American Soldiers and United Nation's forces held there while reinforcing the line with some 500 medium tanks, and while building the boots-on-the-ground force by a nearly two-to-one ratio over the Korean People's Army, or KPA. Finally, UN forces broke out Sept. 15, 1950, pursuing the KPA northward.
At the same time Gen. Douglas MacArthur was landing an invasion force at Inchon to the west of Seoul, Mount's regiment and the 8th Army were moving north across the Yalu River. This was part of the two-prong offensive push to move the KPA across the 38th Parallel, the border since 1945.
"When we left there and headed north we came to a bridge and our group happened to be last," Mount said. "The platoon leader came up and said take a detail and keep this bridge open in case we have to retreat. I'm thinking, I'm an 18-year old corporal, what do I know about keeping a bridge open? Nothing. That scared the life out of me."
Mount saw on the opposite side of the bridge the bodies of a dozen North Koreans who had been killed when the infantry went through. He thought they should be checked out to make sure there was no life.
He checked them out personally, he said, adding that in retrospect, "not knowing much at the time, I didn't know enough to send some private over there to do it. I went over myself, and well, there wasn't any life there. So it all worked out."
The war's momentum had been working to the advantage of UN forces as they pushed the KPA across the border and into the north. But good fortune began to change by late October, Mount said.
"We got up to the Yalu River, then things got interesting," Mount said. "Since I was with the combat engineers, we worked wherever we were needed. They sent my company up to join a South Korean division. We got there about dark, and the platoon leader's driver tells me that he had driven the platoon leader up to the top of the mountain. He looked down on the river and saw the Chinese coming across in droves."
The next day, before dawn, Mount's division retreated. That retreat gave them about a half-day head-start before MacArthur gave official orders to retreat.
The Chinese, by the hundreds of thousands, had entered the war on the side of the North Koreans. The sheer numbers dominated the unprepared and overstretched Republic of Korea Army and U.S. Army, and would lead to multiple Chinese victories during the winter of 1950-1951.
By June, UN forces were increased enough to organize a defensive line not far from the 38th Parallel. That renewed effort halted the Chinese advance. A series of offensives on both sides resulted in a battle line much like the trench warfare of World War I, with a resulting stalemate.
Finally, the UN passed a resolution for a negotiated end to the war. The first peace talks, between the Americans, South Koreans, Chinese and North Koreans were set for August 1951. Another 23 months passed before an armistice was signed. Both Koreas claimed victory.
The agreement kept the border where it had been since the end of World War II, at roughly the 38th Parallel. More than half the American Soldiers killed during the entire war were lost after the peace talks had begun.
Mount would eventually be discharged after he got home to New York, but he didn't return unscathed.
"I was visiting my aunt in Buffalo and was driving back to my hometown about 50 miles away, when I had a head-on collision," he recalled. "The police thought I was drunk, or on drugs, but my wife convinced them I was having a malaria attack, and I wound up in a Veterans Affairs hospital for a month."
While hospitalized he was counseled on his military benefits and getting more education. He took them up on the offer, and enrolled in college, where he studied finance. Married for 61 years and long since retired as vice president and senior audit manager for an international bank, he said, "you can say life has treated me pretty good."
Mount said he'd lost contact with his fellow Soldiers until he joined Chapter 142 of the Korean War Veterans Association in Frederick County, Md.
"We started getting back together and having reunions -- it's wonderful to get together with those guys back from Korea," he said. "Being at this ceremony is more evidence that the war is not going to be forgotten and that we're not going to be forgotten."
The trip to the Pentagon wasn't Mount's first. He said he's come down from his home in Frederick, Md., on several occasions to greet wounded warriors when they come to visit the Pentagon.
"It makes me feel sad that people get shot up like that, but it's good that they're living," Mount said. "In one skirmish that we had in Korea, one of my friends, a sergeant, got shot in the cheek and lost an eye. [He] spent 23 months in VA hospitals getting his face rebuilt. But while he was in the hospital he met a nurse and they got married, had children and then grandchildren. So out of that bad a lot of good came."
Saved by the Good Book
For Edmund L. Reel, 84, of Northfield, W.Va., the war went vastly different than it had for Mount. Instead of being able to retreat before thousands of Chinese troops poured across the Yalu River, the young heavy weapons infantryman was captured and made a prisoner of war.
Reel had joined the Army after seeing Soldiers returning from World War II. He too left school and in September 1947, signed up with a buddy who was already a World War II veteran. He said he was motivated from the start and wanted to "get them stripes there," pointing to his left sleeve, which sported the chevrons of a sergeant major.
In 1948, Reel found himself in Korea for the first of what would end up being two tours on the peninsula. He recalled the thick tension there during his first tour.
"It was very interesting because I had to stand guard duty on the 38th Parallel for about six months -- it was just very scary thinking about it all," he said.
After his first tour concluded, Reel returned home to West Virginia. While there, he retrieved a small pocket Bible with his name engraved on the cover. His eighth grade teacher had given it to him. It would prove important to him during his second tour.
It was during his second tour in country, Nov. 2, 1950, that Reel and about 150 fellow Soldiers were captured. The Chinese captors then turned the Americans over to the North Koreans.
"The morning that I was captured, the North Koreans took me, two other G.I.s and three South Korean Soldiers and put us in a barn and began searching us," he recalled. "They jerked the dog tags off the two other G.I.s, but when they got to me they didn't take mine -- I still have them.
"I pulled out my Bible, which had a little paper cross and a picture of my fiancée right where there was a depiction of the Lord's Supper. The guard let me go to my knees and gave my Bible back to me," he said. "I was able to keep it the entire time and I carry it with me every time I speak at schools and churches about my experiences in Korea."
During his time as a prisoner of war, Reel and his fellow prisoners endured hard labor, lice, no medical care, little food and various forms of torture.
"The worst torture I had with the Koreans [happened] one morning while trying to get the fire started -- I did the cooking for our little bit of the compound. I couldn't get the green wood to burn. I decided I'd get old wood shingles off the roof, but the guard caught me," Reel said. "He took me out on the point of a hill and made me hold a 20-pound rock over my head for 30 or 40 minutes at gunpoint."
The experience of that bitterly cold day left him with permanently damaged hands.
Then Reel came down with black pneumonia. With no medical treatment, Reel sweated it out, lying on his cot for two weeks. But fate wasn't done with him. Later, while loading barges, he stepped in a hole which "mashed me to the ground." He's used a cane ever since.
Finally, after eight months, the North Koreans turned the POWs back over to the Chinese, who could care for them better. Reel said the Chinese tried to brainwash the men by forcing them to study communist reading material. Then, he said, he got "this mental block, and that's when I began living day-to-day ... the good Lord kept me going."
On Aug. 24, 1953, the day U.N. forces unlocked the POW camp gates, there wasn't any yelling or shouting. Nobody said anything, said Reel, adding that the prisoners figured they were going to be marched down to headquarters to pick up rations.
"When we got there they got us out on this big field and then we figured something was coming off because there were all these other prisoners from other camps lining the river just sitting there all very quiet," he said. "Then they told us the war was over and marched us back to our compounds where we stayed until it was our turn to go.
"After we went through Freedom Village, they put us in another compound there, deloused us, gave us good hot showers, haircuts and an old pair of Army fatigues. It was a wonderful walk across to freedom," he said, adding that what he had really craved at the time was a banana split -- but was told that would be too rich for his stomach.
"We lay in our bunks until the helicopter came and took us to Seoul, then right out to the ship," said Reel, who would remain in the Army until retiring in 1975. "I got back on the same ship three years to the day that I got off it."