ROCK ISLAND -- The five veterans sat around a dining room table on a winter afternoon, talking about Korea, "The Forgotten War" that ended with an uneasy truce 60 years ago.|
But these men don't forget.
They remember, sometimes with a laugh or a sudden burst of anger.
They remember themselves as young men battling Communist forces in a foreign land. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled around them, thousands by cart, personal belongings on their backs.
Troops fought in the streets and in the countryside; others scaled seawalls with ladders in the face of enemy fire.
They remember the extreme elements, the bitter cold, marching along roadsides in subzero temperatures, snow and ice-covered hills and valleys, painful withdrawals and advances, death a bullet or bayonet away.
They remember being dirty and unshaven, hungry and exhausted. They remember loss, close friends who will be forever young.
Now mostly octogenarians, the five men sitting around Bob Fitt's kitchen table in Rock Island casually joked about the changes in each other, young men now in old men's bodies, some wearing veteran's jackets or hats, reminders of their sacrifices.
Eyes light up as the men fit together pieces of their past, offering glimpses of what the Cold War was like at its peak.
The Korean War started on June 25, 1950 when North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea with 135,000 men.
Americans and United Nations forces were initially driven back to the Pusan perimeter in southeastern Korea. A counteroffensive pushed the North Koreans north of the 38th Parallel near the Yalu River bordering China.
China then joined the fight, driving United Nations forces back to the 38th parallel, where the opposing forces faceeach other today, 60 years after a truce ended the brutal fighting without there ever being a formal end to the war.
United States Army combat engineer Dan Foulke, of Geneseo, turned 18 while on a ship to Korea in August 1950.
Back home, Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz" was playing on radio stations, the New York Yankees were gearing up for another World Series championship under manager Casey Stengel.
Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was carrying lists, real or imagined, of Communists inside America's government, on movie screens and hometowns.
All the teenaged Mr. Foulke thought about was arriving home by Christmas. Instead, he was camped on the Yalu River, bordering North Korea and China when China entered the war on Nov. 25, 1950.
The combat engineer of the U.S. Army's 1st Calvary Division remembers enemy screams, thousands of voices shouting in foreign tongues, yelling and running towards him.
"About 4 o'clock in the morning the bugles started blowin' and they (Chinese) came at us in every direction," Mr. Foulke said. "They just come at ya' in waves, blowin' their horns. They were all drugged up, all carried bags of opium on their side. A lot didn't even have weapons.
"About the first three waves of 'em had weapons, then the rest had hoes, rakes, and they tried to pick weapons off the ones killed. They just keep comin' and keep comin' until they just overrun ya'.
"You run out of ammo."
Mr. Foulke carried an M1, used a 30-caliber machine gun, saying American troops kept falling back because, "You couldn't kill 'em (Chinese and North Koreans) fast enough."
He shared a sleeping bag with two other soldiers, sleeping a few hours with one eye open, backs to each other.
"Oh Christ, it was cold," he said as the fellow veterans nodded in acknowledgment.
The night Mr. Foulke was bludgeoned, he was tucked in the sleeping bag. He felt the bayonet tear through his left leg.
"I always slept with my .44 pistol layin' on my chest," he said. "When he pushed that bayonet down in there, and I felt it hit my leg, I just pulled the trigger. It probably knocked him back 25 feet. Right between the eyes."
Mr. Foulke said he never received a Purple Heart for the first of several combat injuries.
"The officers that put you in for it, they didn't survive," he said grimly.
"You close your eyes sometimes and say, 'Good Lord, look over me.' Ain't nobody can tell you, 'Don't get scared.'"
Army infantry Corporal Bill Weber turned 20 two days after he was inducted out of Des Moines.
"I turned 21 in Korea," Mr. Weber, 81, of East Moline, said.
A rifleman, he remembers Christmas morning 1952 on Hill 812. He woke up at 1:30 a.m. holding his neck after enemy attacks, watching the blood pour out, "like someone turned a faucet on."
"The guy next to me, he got killed," Mr. Weber said. "One of our guys, a platoon sergeant, was told his wife had a baby. About a day later, he's layin' dead on a Godforsaken hillside next to us. He never seen a picture of his child.
"There was several that got killed, a bunch wounded on Hill 812."
He remembers Heartbreak Ridge, savage fighting in the hills of North Korea. Attacks, counter attacks. Sometimes, friendly fire.
"One time, in the middle of the night at Heartbreak Ridge, we had two patrols shootin' the hell out of each other in the middle of the night," Mr. Weber said. "Carrying a stretcher up a snow-covered hillside was no easy task by any means.
"Fighting was all around us. It scared the livin' hell out of us. You're trying to make it one day at a time."
Marine Corps Sgt. Major John Hernstrom, 86, of Moline, had already spent five years in the Marine Corps before being sent to Korea.
He landed at Inchon on South Korea's west coast, on Sept. 15, 1950, where Gen. Douglas McArthur landed forces behind Chinese lines. A gunnery sergeant at the time, he entered the Marines as a 16-year-old rural Rock Island farm boy.
"It was combat the whole time," Mr. Hernstrom said of the Korean War. "I was with the 1st Division, 7th Marine Regiment, which was an infantry regiment."
Mr. Hernstrom remembers the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950, where about 30,000 UN troops were surrounded by about 120,000 Chinese troops. With temperatures hovering at 30 below zero, Mr. Hernstrom and other Marines had to fight for their lives.
There were 8,954 American casualties.
"I pretty well seen everything going on at the time," he said.
Medical supplies were in short supply; blood plasma was frozen and unusable, he said.
Severe frostbite, thousands killed and thousands more wounded, Mr. Hernstrom said he and fellow Marines fought through, carrying their dead, carrying their wounded and equipment, until the battle ended Dec. 11, 1950.
"What it amounted to was a battle to survive," Mr. Hernstrom said. "Trying to get something to eat. It didn't make much difference what direction you was going, really. You were trying to stay alive.
"The first parachute drop they made to us, we needed ammo and medical supplies. And they dropped Tootsie Rolls and barbed wire."
Mr. Fitts, 82, of Rock Island, was an Army staff sergeant. He was also on the front lines, making sure jeeps kept running and never abandoned.
"We always told the drivers, don't make any dust," Mr. Fitts said. "If you make any dust by gettin' scared and taking off, you drive real slow,because they'll get ya'."
Mr. Fitts remembers jerry-rigging engines in the cold, using Permatex to repair head gaskets. Constant maintenance, he said.
Once, Mr. Fitts sent one of his men, Jim, to fix a jeep. Jim was his friend and was going to get married and become a doctor one day.
"A shell hit on his jeep and blew his head off," Mr. Fitts said, slamming fists onto his dining room table. Silence ensued around the table.
"You don't forget," he said. "You sent those guys out.
"But when you get to our age now, you say to yourself, 'What's the difference between Jim and me?' You think about it. Over there, you don't have time to think about it.
"You do once you go home."
Bob Berry, 82, of Bettendorf, was part of the 187th Airborne, guarding prison camps, quashing unrest. He remembers using tear gas and smoke grenades to quell the violence, carrying a flame thrower.
He recalls many of the North Koreans were pushed into war.
"They were lucky to be alive, and they knew it," Mr. Berry said. "When we had prisoner exchanges, I think about two-thirds of them stayed in South Korea."
The war ended in July 1953. Most came home, others, like Mr. Hernstrom, spent a 30-year career with the Marine Corps.
Sixty years later, they have mixed feelings.
Mr. Hernstrom was shot in both knees and suffered from shrapnel wounds throughout his upper body during the war.
He was awarded two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and five Battle Stars.
"If you lose 30,000 or 40,000 men, I don't think that's the best thing in the world," he said. "It's all up to you how you look at things.
"When I left Korea, I ended up in a hospital for about a year. I come home, took over my dad's excavating business, and stayed with that for another 30 years," Mr. Hernstrom said.
Today, he visits his wife each night at a local nursing home, a thoughtful man who carries hard memories.
After the bayonet assault, Mr. Foulke was subsequently injured by shrapnel to his shoulders and his groin on two separate occasions. He doesn't believe his fellow soldiers died in vain.
"We stopped Communism from taking over South Asia," he said. "Look at South Korea today. It's one of the leading nations in the world."
Mr. Fitts said the war still resonates a "deep feeling" inside. Visiting the Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C. a few years ago, he felt the memories take him back.
"I'm not a crying person," Mr. Fitts said. "I just lost it. I was sobbing. It is the 'Forgotten War.' But, it was a significant war, a significant stop of Communist aggression in that part of the world."
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