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John H. Cundiff

Johnson City, TN-
Korean War Veteran of the United States Marine Corps

"It was a time in my life that I was put to the ultimate test and passed.  All that survived passed.  I found out what I was made of in Korea and I have drawn from that to this day.  No experience in civilian life comes even close to where I once was, and I feel I face life with more confidence."

- John Cundiff


[The following memoir is the result of an online interview between John Cundiff and Lynnita (Sommer) Brown that took place in 2000 and 2009.  John died on December 31, 2014.]

Memoir Contents:

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My name is John H. Cundiff of Johnson City, Tennessee.  I was born January 23, 1930 in Johnson City, a son of John H. and Mae Vaught Cundiff.  I have a brother Wayne D. Cundiff who is 11 years older than me and a sister Verna Blanche who is 15 years older.  Our father was a watchmaker and our mother was a department store clerk.  Father lost his jewelry store during the Depression.  He was a people person and took great pride in making people happy through his work.  He died of a stroke in 1968 but I miss him still.

I attended first grade at North Side Elementary School, and East Tennessee State College Training School second grade through eighth.  I attended high school at Science Hill High, graduating in 1948.  During high school I worked as a grocery store clerk and stock boy, book store clerk and delivery boy, and jewelry store watchmaker repairing clocks and watches.  I was also a Boy Scout for a couple of years.  I advanced to first class (I think).  I liked to camp and hike and at that time we did a lot of projects to help the war effort, i.e., collected paper and scrap iron and worked as messengers during practice air raids.

My brother Wayne enlisted in the Air Force at the beginning of World War II.  On the home front, our school collected materials that were asked for (paper, metal, etc.).  We bought war stamps and sometimes the rich bought bonds on a regular basis.  I was in the ROTC which, of course, was ran by retired military that indoctrinated us daily in patriotism.  We marched and paraded at every occasion.

I had just finished high school and could not find a job paying enough to live on.  I was heading down a path that I could foresee would lead to nothing but trouble and my parents were past middle age and could not give me the discipline that I needed.  I wanted to be a paratrooper but my encounter with the enlistment troopers did not go well.  I am not sure what motivated him to join, but a buddy, Ralph Ruble, talked me into going with him to talk with the Marines, and that did it.  I talked to them on the morning of November 7, 1948, and left the next day for Nashville, where I was sworn in.  (Enlisting was the best decision I ever made.)  From there Ralph and I were on a bus off to Parris Island.  My father said I would never survive the Marines.  My mother just cried mostly.

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USMC Training

Parris Island

Parris Island was a very clean old dump with old barracks.  When we arrived there, a DI Sergeant came aboard the bus and told us how to line up when we disembarked and told us not to talk.  The first day was paperwork and drawing clothes.  I was assigned to my senior DI Neiwodomski.  I do not remember the rest of the instructors.  I think all were World War II veterans in 1948.

I think boot camp training was about eight weeks.  We learned first that our DIs were God and we were there to obey their every command.  After we learned that we learned how to eat, make a bed, wash clothes, drill, and USMC history.  We had exercises in the morning darkness and memorized the Handbook for Marines.  Occasionally we saw what happened to boys who stepped out of line or were not quick enough.  Maltreatment was still used in 1948 boot camp.

The lights normally came on at 5 a.m., along with a bellow from the DI to hit the deck.  If he could get to us before we hit the floor, he threw us out of bed by flipping the mattress with us in it (a favorite game of his).  Our barracks were World War II wooden temporary-type and in September we could feel the cold coming through the cracks.  We moved fast.  We had two small pot belly stoves in each barracks and I remember none of the heat seemed to get to our beds.  We marched to the mess hall about 20 minutes after lights on.  We had about 30 minutes in mess hall so we ate all our meals in a hurry.  There was no talking while we ate our potatoes, meat, veggies, bread and coffee.  We went back to the barracks to dress in dungarees (we had to eat in khaki clothing) and stand inspection every day.  Each individual was inspected for cleanliness, shaving, clothes, and 782 gear (rifle, packs, helmet, etc.)  We were sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by the DI to go on a forced march lasting until breakfast.  The DIs almost insisted we go to church on Sunday, but once in church we were not bothered by them.  Church was a sanctuary.

In classroom training we had to watch hygiene films and World War II combat films.  Out of classroom we had to learn to swim.  If we didn't learn how, we were sent home.

Our drill instructors were very strict and I did not come to appreciate them until maybe the day we left for home.  To be caught dirty at morning inspection could get us put in the shower with a detail that used scrub brushes and strong soap.  Sometimes the entire platoon was punished, so being dirty at inspection seldom happened.  To be caught unshaven was to dry shave while stationary running and singing the Marine Hymn in front of the platoon.  Our DIs used corporal punishment, usually by striking us with an arm or shoulder.  I saw one boy get hit so hard that it knocked him over a trash barrel.  The DI was drunk and did not know that he was being watched.  One DI (not mine) used to drop boys while they were standing at attention by hooking his foot behind their leg and shoving them backwards.  He was so fast it was hard to tell what happened, but someone was always on their back.  We never knew his reason.  I saw several huge holes dug by boys that were caught smacking sand fleas.  Many people were made to run in a circle with their rifle and pack for breaking rules.  If the deeds were certain types, we all suffered.  (The DI had the power and this was a lesson for all.)  I know that our platoon was not allowed to go to the PX until the last week when we bought our suitcases to go home.  We also missed night movies.  We had no troublemakers--only kids that made dumb mistakes.

I was caught once with my hand in my pocket.  I had to fill all my pockets with sand and carry it all day.  The rash on my chest and legs was a while healing.  Once I used the wrong procedure in entering the DI's quarters where I had been summoned.  I was made to pull myself over the eight-inch wall that partitioned off their quarters instead of using the door.  I recall I did it several times before they were satisfied.  The most fun I had in boot camp was watching some poor soul climbing across our ceiling (open rafters) hollering, "I'm a fly" and being chased by another hollering, "quick Henry the Flit."

The physical exercise and being away from home were the hardest aspects of boot camp for me, but I was never sorry that I joined the Marines.  A good fighting force must have teamwork, discipline, and good leadership, and boot camp did an excellent job of laying that groundwork.

When boot camp was completed we trooped the colors.  I thought I could lick the world.  I was one hundred percent different than I was when I first arrived at boot camp.  After boot camp I went home for a leave that was maybe 20 days long.  I was proud to wear my uniform while home.  After my leave was up I went by bus to Camp Pendleton, where I stayed from December of 1948 until approximately March 1949.  The trip took several days.

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Camp Pendleton

At Pendleton, a special battalion of men was being assembled for a newly-developed Fleet Marine Force (FMF) school.  FMF was college compared to high school.  Our instructors were all specially picked veterans.  We learned about every weapon the infantry used at this time and learned to fire the same.  This included machine guns, flame throwers, mortars, grenades and satchel charges, as well as all hand-fired weapons.  We had classroom and field instructions on each, and each training segment was followed by tests.  We had no cold weather training, but we did go off base to board ship in some harbor to conduct landing drills into amphibian landing craft.

We first had classroom instruction in the morning on the weapons and the time spent depended on the weapon.  We took tests on these instructions and the best grade got a three-day pass.  Afternoons were devoted to field work.  We fired weapons, had forced marches (our Captain was an accomplished mountain climber and only our youth let us keep up with him), learned compass use, swam in full gear, and disembarked from shipside into landing craft in full gear.  We had retired specialists teach us hand-to-hand combat, stood inspections every Friday, and even put on a dress blues parade and inspection for a group of Royal Marine brass who were checking out the new program.  It was a very excellent FMF program that came in handy in Korea.  It was a personal challenge for me to do my best and I loved it.  As a matter of fact, I got several three-day passes.  Normally liberty started at about 3 p.m. Friday until 7 a.m. Monday.  We did not leave the base during the week without a special pass.

After my training at Pendleton, I was given a job in the ammunition dump at Pendleton.  I was in a "V" enlistment (one year with six years reserve) and stayed at this job until I was sent home.  I was activated again at the start of the Korean War and it was in Korea that I learned what the USMC was all about.

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Hurry Up and Wait

After my enlistment was up I enrolled in college and worked part-time in an office supply store.  The only thing I knew about the country of Korea at the time that I was activated was what I had read in the papers or saw in newsreels.  When war broke out I received notice that I was to report to Camp LeJeune on October 18, 1950.  That gave me approximately three weeks to drop out of school and get my affairs in order before reporting for duty.  I was told by the Dean that I would receive grades for all my classes if I could get a two-week deferment on my report date.  I wrote for, but did not receive, the extension and lost all the credits.  It turned out that LeJeune was not ready for us and we literally sat around with nothing to do for a month or more.  The old military "hurry up and wait" was still well and thriving. For much of the time we were fed and forgotten.

We sat around a lot and left the base every weekend.  I went home every chance I got.  It was during this time that my girlfriend (Mary), whom I had been dating since we were sixteen, and I decided we would marry. We had been going together for five years and had already talked of marriage many times, so I guess doing it was just a natural progression of our relationship.  We had no idea what was ahead at that time.  Mary G. Minton and I were married on December 19, 1950.  Getting pregnant during our honeymoon was not even discussed and came as a shock to two kids 19 and 20 years old.

I guess many decisions in my life would have been different had they been made after the fact.  I suppose at the time I knew there was a good chance of going to war, but I did not actually know that I would be sent overseas.  Most of the callbacks at LeJeune did not go to Korea.  It was literally the luck of the draw.  We were mustered behind some barracks one morning and a Sergeant read off a roster alphabetically.  When he had enough names he asked if anyone that he had not called wanted to be included.  Quite a few volunteered and an equal number were deleted from the list.  All the time we were never told where we were going.  Even after we drew cold weather gear and made the trip to San Frisco we were not told we were going to Korea until we arrived at the port.

I last saw Mary on January 1, 1951.  She stayed with her parents while I was in Korea.  It was a small house, but they managed.  She worked in a bank and her mother took care of the baby when John Alan was born.  I did not see my son until he was four months old.  He now has three girls and lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.  For me personally, not being able to see my wife and new baby was the hardest thing about being in Korea.

Our boat left Frisco on January 23 (my birthday).  The ship was the USS General Darby, a converted transport that was somewhat smaller than the large troop ships of World War II.  I guess it held about 2,000-3,000, all Marines.  The only cargo was our equipment.  I had never been on a large ship before and we all got sick.  Some were very sick.  We had to leave port early to miss an advancing hurricane.  The "potato patch" just out of Frisco got most of us queasy and the rough waters proceeding the hurricane hit hard.  More than a few sailors aboard ship were sick.  We also had to line up for chow and the line went through the machine shop.  The oil and diesel smell in that shop will be with me forever.  I remember the ship was pitching so violently that the screw would leave the water and the whole ship would shudder as it reentered the water.  For three days I brought the boy below me slices of bread.  He was an ex-sailor turned Marine.  He said he wanted to die but he made it, as we all did.

It took about eleven days for the ship to get to Korea.  The only people I knew on the ship were the guys I had met at LeJeune.  One guy, Lynn Cooter, was a boy from my hometown.  There was no entertainment on the trip.  Some played cards.  We had no duty.  Crossing the International Date Line we had a King Neptune crowning and a lot got dunked.  Some dressed like women and it was crazy.

We landed at Yokohama harbor on January 27, but could not leave ship.  I have no idea why we stopped there.  When we made Korea we arrived one day and off-loaded the next into amphibious landing craft via cargo nets.  The sea gave us some trouble with the amphibs bobbing and hitting against the boat.  No one lost a leg, however, and we went ashore at Inje on the morning of February 20, 1951. I found the dates of my departure from Frisco and our arrival at Yokohama and Korea in an address book that I carried on my person at that time.  The time between Japan and Korea is longer than I remember, but the book is probably right.

The shore area was pretty flat.  After we got on shore we walked to trucks for a short ride to the perimeter defense.  In the middle of a lot of confusion was a group of tents, jeeps, supplies, guns, and Marines.  It could have been anywhere.  We couldn't tell we were in a war zone.  No one seemed to be doing anything much but resting.  A few Korean young men were working as helpers and an area was fenced off with barbed wire that housed probably a hundred Korean men, women, and kids.  I do not remember what they had done to be there.  We paid no attention to them.  The forces of the 10th Corps were pushed back from the reservoir and we were the replacements for all the Killed in Action.  We were officially called the 4th Replacement Battalion.

On arrival we were ushered into a small tent that was the Regimental Headquarters.  Some NCOs took our names and asked if we wanted to go into heavy machine guns, mortars, and a couple of other choices I have forgotten.  All were a part of Weapons Company.  I chose mortars since I had a 607 MOS at that time.  I was placed in a squad of Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment, First Marine Division.  It is where I stayed while in Korea.  I was assigned to be an ammo carrier in my squad.  Ammo carrier was not what I wanted to do.

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Committed to Action

We were committed to action on February 20 and passed dead troops along roads and paths.  Marines were picked up as soon as corpsmen arrived, so they did not lie long.  We did not pay much attention to enemy dead, but seeing Marines was never easy to take.  It gave us more resolve to get the job done and inside we were always glad our name was not on the toe tag.  I guess the first enemy that I saw were some prisoners.  Most of them had already been processed and were sent to camps.  Civilian men and the enemy all looked alike.

When we moved out we were on the move almost daily.  We would dig in at times for a few days, but mostly we moved.  Several times we were moved by trucks to different sectors.  Often times we passed refugees on the road and passed through shot-up towns, but mostly we were in the boondocks.  It soon became hilly and later in the mountains we seldom followed roads. Our guns and extra ammo were carried on our hand-pulled  cart.  When there were no trails we sometimes had to take the carts apart and move them and all the gear up the mountains by passing it up one man to another.  The trees in the mountains were small evergreens mostly and offered no protection.  I never saw a trench.  We always dug holes for our guns and ourselves.  Even the officers dug their own holes.

I started working with the 81 mortar right after landing.  A Sergeant Patchett who was on the boat with me was immediately made platoon leader.  He took an interest in me and watched me practice with the mortar.  I got to where I could run a prescribed distance, set up the gun, adjust the sights, and be ready to fire in 30 seconds.  He was so impressed with my ability that he talked the Lieutenant into making me a gunner.  In only a short while I was a PFC doing a Corporal's job.  I later won a fifth of scotch in a regimental shoot off.  I carried a carbine.  As a gunner I carried a .45 caliber automatic as a side arm.

Front lines were not static when we were on the offense.  I remember shortly after being committed that we were directly under the line of fire from the USS Missouri.  The 15-inch shells coming just over our heads sounded like screaming boxcars.  I have never been so scared.  I have never been so close to God as I was that night.  We moved fast after that and even found weapons left behind and fires still burning.  Being new to war I held up okay, but we were always waiting for something and we were always trying to get our minds off the stress when we could.

Most of our orders came from the NCOs.  We were in very little direct contact with the officers.  While marching the officers were always at the front of the columns.  The "old timers" (who were not really old except in their behavior) were always calm under fire.  They told us how the enemy approached and how to counter for survival.  Example: They taught us to take a weapon in our sleeping bag because the gooks would slip in at night and jerk the opening of the mummy sleeping bag, causing the occupant to slide down in the bag.  Then they bayoneted the bag.

One of my earlier Lieutenants was an officer who was not liked, although now I am not sure why.  One day I heard a loud yell and turned around to see a Marine charging off a hill waving a bayonet and heading toward the Lieutenant's tent.  When he hit the back of the tent he made a slit down the tent and charged inside.  I remember the Lieutenant came flying out the front of the tent and the platoon Sergeant and the Gunny Sergeant grabbed the charging Marine.  I never saw the boy again and he was never mentioned.  Later when I was a squad leader I was called into the Lieutenant's tent and he asked me if I would like to be a Forward Observer (FO).  In all my Marine experience I had never been asked what I wanted to do by an officer.  They told us what to do.  I told him no, I liked being a squad leader.  He got mad, but I stayed with my squad.  I never quite respected him after that.

Actual combat does not fit a training very well because it is hard to duplicate.  The skills we learned made us confident and each person relied on the other to form a team.  We bickered and messed around until it came time to get the job done, and then we were a team learning individual things like how to wade streams at -10 degrees and not get frostbite, how to start a fire when it is raining, how to sleep on the ground outside in winter and not freeze, how to mix C-rations together to make them easier to eat, how to dig a gun pit and a fox hole fast so we could heat the rations before it got dark (no fires after dark), and how to make our pack lighter and still carry what was needed.  We were given complete mess gear but we threw away the mess kit and even the knife and fork.  We ate out of the C-ration tins and only used a spoon and bayonet to eat with.  We kept all the socks (frostbite protection) and only the clothes we needed for that season.  The only thing that I carried that was not necessary was a camera and some writing supplies for letter writing.  When we were on foot, which was most of the time, we often piled all the packs and ammo we could on the carts and by twos we all took our turn pulling.  Each squad had a cart.

It was cold when we moved into the mountains.  This first winter we could find straw in the sheds and barns of the peasants and it helped a great deal.  We did not get issued air mattresses until the spring and the straw helped a lot.  The ground stayed frozen all winter.

We got fire, both small arms and artillery, but our job was to shoot over a hill or mountain and this usually gave our position some amount of protection.  There was always a company of infantry (grunts) in front of us.  Our biggest problem came from the South Korean (ROK) troops that would "bug out" and leave our flank open without us knowing it.  We sometimes had to fight behind us.  If we were in the lower land, as happened once, they called in tanks to open a hole and we marched out.  I don't remember it as my "baptism of fire", but I do remember it was from about 3 p.m. until about 5 a.m. the next day.  We came into an Army artillery unit and it was pitch black.  An artillery piece fired just as I was passing under it.  I regained my hearing in about three days.

At the Punchbowl we were set up in a valley.  It was a poor position because the Chinese could look right down on us.  We took heavy fire from flat trajectory weapons, probably recoilless rifles.  They were heavy caliber but we were not sure of the type.  I dived in a hole that was muddy and when the shelling seemed to stop I ran about fifty feet to a small creek to wash off.  I was joined by another Marine and while we were bent over washing, a shell hit a limb about fifteen feet above our heads.  The shell split the limb but did not explode.  Not a small miracle for two Marines.

Only a couple days later I was sitting talking with five other Marines on sandbags that surrounded our gun pit when an unexpected round came in on us.  It killed one boy, a squad leader named Nolen, and some other boys had small wounds.  I had blood and pieces of skin all over my tee shirt but to my surprise I had no wound whatsoever.  I had good reflexes and was in the gun pit first with everybody falling in on top of me.  We had been discussing whether they (the enemy) would be able to get rounds into our position.  Some had said yes but Nolen was sure they could not.  He had just said, ", they can't and I would stake my life on it."  I am sure it was his conviction that killed him.  The shell took half his face off.  After that we ran to more protected positions and watched as shells hit tent after tent.  These were small shelter-half tents and not big targets.  The enemy had excellent marksmanship on that day.  Although I don't remember his name, I remember that the corpsman who picked up Nolen was relieved for stress problems.  We thought of Navy corpsmen as one of us and treated them the same.  Nolen was not a fellow I knew very well at all.  Boys in his squad knew him much better.  No one ever mentioned his death in talking.  We tried, I guess, to put death out of our minds.

I had two other close calls.  I was sitting on the edge of a rice paddy one day heating some coffee over a fire when a buddy of mine standing on the other side of the fire cleaning his carbine accidentally fired a round that hit between my legs.  It missed me by inches but when the dirt hit me I fell over backwards into the paddy below.  Halgren was a free spirit that was always laughing, but when he looked over that paddy his ashen face was sure he was looking at a dead man.  I think he was more stressed than I was.

One of my most terrifying moments in Korea happened when I took my squad on a reconnaissance sweep of an area looking for civilians who were not supposed to be there.  We were crossing a dried-out rice paddy when I noticed a trip wire strung across the ground about ankle high.  I stopped the squad and on closer examination realized the field was heavily mined.  Not long before that I had sent a new replacement on a detail to pick up rations.  He stepped off a trail to let some Korean workers pass, stepped on a mine, and lost his leg.  All this was on my mind when I had the squad turn around and step only in footprints in making our way back across the paddy.  Mines scare me.

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One Hill After Another

There were other troops in Korea besides Americans.   We replaced some French troops once.  They were dirty and disheveled, but smelled pretty.  One gave me a drink out of his canteen and it was not water.  Even in Korea they had good wine.  I am not sure how well they fought.  I also met a group of Thailanders once.  Nice guys.  I saw British troops formed up on the dock at Yokohama on my return to the States.  We were aboard ship and did not talk to them.

We didn't have much contact with the South Korean military.  We had to pull out of our position once when our flank was left exposed by a bug-out ROK outfit.  Tanks were able to come in and hold our flank so we could walk out.  That was the time we walked all afternoon and all night until about 4 a.m.  The tanks helped save a lot of lives.  Once we were in a reserve position and a ROK unit that interrogated prisoners was set up beside us.  I remember the prisoners were sitting in a line and one by one they were moved to a nearby area where a ROK officer asked them questions.  If he did not like the answers he shot them with his pistol.  As soon as he did that, it seemed they started talking.  I was not a witness to the shooting because it was out of our sight, but I did hear the report of the pistol and I even have a picture of some of the prisoners.  As to non-military South Koreans, we often had Korean women wash our clothes if we were in reserve.  We had two Korean boys about our age who were well-liked and helped us lift, move, etc.  They were only with us in reserve areas, never in combat.  We had one incident where a line of refugees moving down a road through our position were searched.  (We were looking for a soldier spotter dressed as a civilian.)  We found instead a woman with a baby on her back and the baby was sitting on a radio transmitter.

I saw what I considered to be an atrocity twice while I was in Korea, and both involved natives.  Outside of Wonju I saw a family--a father, wife and daughter--with their hands tied behind their back.  All had been executed with a bullet through their head.  I found a girl just barely alive just off a highland trail.  She had been beaten and raped.  I called the corpsman and that evening I saw her in a house with some food, but never knew what happened to her.

It was hard to tell the enemy's age.  They were probably in their twenties.  Most that I saw were captured.  While looking through my binoculars one day, I heard a far-off bugle (the Chinese were always blowing them).  When I looked in the direction of the sound, I saw a brown hillside covered with Chinese in white snow camouflage uniforms.  There must have been five or six hundred running down the hill.  They fought in large numbers but were not well armed and they died in large numbers.  We fought mostly in the day but the enemy sometimes woke us at night by bugles and some firing would take place.  I think it was supposed to unnerve us.  The enemy wore sandals in the summer and what looked like cheap brown tennis shoes in the winter.  They wore padded parkas in the winter and thin jackets and pants in the summer.  They liked to mass their forces and come at us in waves using Russian-made burp guns.  The guns were effective in the dark if they were close enough to move in fast.  They sounded like someone tearing a cloth.  The enemy also had rifles, carbines (just a short rifle), and machine guns.  The machine guns I saw looked like they were from World War I.  We found a poor fellow chained to a machine gun once in a mountain pass.  He must have drawn the short straw.

My one real memory of the US Army near us was not a good one.  We were retaking some ground that had been occupied by the Army when they were overrun by the enemy.  The Army officers that followed us into the position said that the troops had been given their beer ration and it seems they were about all passed out.  After dark they were hit and all but a few who ran were killed.  It was a terrible mess.  Some of the GIs that were on the road had their heads ran over by trucks.  I also have pictures of this.  All the bodies were stripped of their shoes, bayonets, and canteens.

It was living one day at a time that was my concern and one hill looked pretty much like another.  I do remember some terrible fighting on Hill 907.  I am not sure where or who gave the hills names, but at the time we called them what the elevation was listed for that hill as per the topographical maps.  I have September 7 as a date listed in an address book saying we were committed to the "Punchbowl" action.  I remember that one pretty well because my son was born soon after on September 18.  A wire was sent to the Red Cross in Japan and it was almost a month before I received it.  My brother-in-law knew a ham operator in Kingsport, Tennessee, and he had him send a wire as soon as the baby was born.  The radio operator in Kingsport sent a message to an operator in Japan and from there it was sent to me by snail mail.  Of course, I knew the date the baby was due, but we were in some rugged mountain country at the time and it was three weeks before I actually got the message.  We were in the area where the shell split the limb I mentioned earlier.  God was watching over me.  It was a relief to read that the baby had arrived and both my wife and child were okay.

We owned the air.  The Marine Air Wing gave us close support.  They mostly flew Corsairs and one of their pilots was always on the ground with the troops to act as FO.  We had colored panels we wore on our packs to identify our line, and sometimes they came so close to us that the spent shell casings and links would land all around us.  If they hit us they were very hot and heavy when falling.  (They were .50 caliber.)  Sometimes we could feel the heat off napalm, which they liked to use.  We also had an African group that flew P51 Mustangs.  They were good and slightly crazy.  Sometimes I think they wanted to trim the grass.  After every mission they gave us an aerial show of loops and rolls.  We saw a lot of destroyed vehicles along roads.  Most of it was our own.  When equipment was ever left behind, the planes came in and destroyed it.  Artillery was always somewhere, but we never saw them much unless we were in the rear.

The boys of Charley, Dog, Easy and Howe companies were taking the hits and we were just behind them, but that made a world of difference in casualties.  We had a few, but we were lucky.  I remember seeing lines of bodies covered with ponchos at one time, but do not remember exactly where or when.  I did see the name on a toe tag of a fellow I used to ride from East Tennessee to LeJeune with.  We had many small one-seater copters carrying wounded in stretchers on their skids.  I saw some larger copters, but they did not move troops in them to my knowledge.

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Daily Life

To keep clean we washed out of our helmet mostly, unless there was a creek or river nearby.  When we were on line, washing often had to wait.  In winter it was a 30-second bath out of a helmet.  We washed as often as we could.  Shaving was easier and took less water, so we shaved more often.  Teeth brushing was most often.  We washed clothes some, but had it done if any Koreans were available.  New clothes came in once in a while and we threw our old clothes away.

We ate nothing but C-rations on line.  (I missed those stateside eggs, milk, and fresh meat.)  Later a bakery was set up behind us somewhere and they brought bread to us if there was a road nearby.  I sent a man out of my squad to bring the bread to us.  It was good, but the crust was like a brick.  In reserve the food was not much better.  Sometimes we had meat that was fresh, but mostly everything came from cans.  Powdered eggs, etc.  Sometimes the mess had a time getting food and we had C-rations they mixed together and served.  It was still C-rations.  Our body burned everything we ate.  I went about six weeks without a bowel movement one time.  There were Korean workers who fixed a big pot of fish heads and rice near us once in a while.  I tried the stuff, but it was awful and stunk like fish.

We got packages from home that we shared, so we ate a little something good fairly often.  Mostly we got canned meats and venires along with cookies.  The cookies were usually stale and all crumbs, but we never told that.  Even stale they were good.  The baked goods were a mess, but things that came in tins were okay.  We liked to get canned meat, venires, film, and candy.  My wife and family sent them.  Mail came in bunches.  I think they tried to get it to us, but we were moving the early months and the mail came in trucks that had to catch up when it could.  I sometimes got ten or twelve at a time.  My new wife and family wrote most often.  Besides the food we mostly only got small stuff like a religious symbol, sun glasses, etc.  Sometimes a guy got a Dear John letter from a wife telling of an affair.  We gave the receiver of bad news all the space he wanted.

One time I found out through my wife that the Johnson City buddy I joined up with was about twenty miles to the rear of where we were in reserve.  He was in Shore Party.  I hitchhiked rides back to see him.  He was living in a big tent with a cot and electric lights, and there was a tent full of beer right beside his tent.

I asked my father to send me an air mattress once.  It was my first winter and we couldn't find straw as time passed.  I got an air mattress that was the only one in the outfit at that time.  The cold in the ground was not pleasant.  After two or three months we were issued mattresses for the first time and I felt better not having the only one.

When we were on line we always had a fifty percent watch, meaning we slept half a night.  Sometimes no one slept if the situation was bad.  In the winter we sometimes just sat up in our sleeping bag with our pistol or carbine in the bag with us.  It was too cold to get out.  Our buddy was close by--it took only a whisper to wake someone.  When we had new replacements I warned them time and again not to shoot our own.  I was still afraid of getting shot by some scared replacement.  In the summer we moved to watch positions rather than dig our foxhole there and we never touched anyone.  We just whispered.  Usually our walking had him awake already.  We slept very lightly.  We sometimes hung ration tins on bushes and wires and also had listening devices we sometimes put out in defensive positions.

I slept in a farmhouse once.  The Koreans had clay houses with tunnels under the floor.  A fire at the outside end of the house served as a kitchen and heated the house from under through the floor tunnels.  We built a roaring fire and around 2 a.m. we woke up with the floor so hot we had to run out of the house and sleep outside.

We never had a bunker as such.  When we stopped just above the 38th Parallel and went into a defense mode, we set up our mortars behind a hill that gave us protection.  We made more elaborate holes, i.e., bigger, covered with shelter tents, sand bagged, etc., but not actually bunkers.  The "grunts" (riflemen) on the line was where the bunkers and trenches were.  Any hole made us safer, and a straw mat or just grass on the floor helped dryness.  Furnishings were a pack and sleeping bag and mattress.  I was never in a bunker, but was well acquainted with a foxhole.  We could tell how much time a G.I. had left by the depth of his hole.  Short-timers dug deep holes.  Once in winter we were moved to the rear and were put in large tents holding about 40 or 50 people.  We all got sick with the flu and could not wait to get back on our own.  Another time a boy in our unit came down with some jungle-type fever.  He died within a few hours from it.

It got very cold during the wintertime in Korea.  Most of our time was spent outside so cold was a constant, made worse because of frostbite.  Crossing creeks in winter was dangerous to our feet and we could lose them in a short while.  To keep warm we wore long johns, wool shirt and wool pants, and a parka or field jacket, depending on the cold.  Our gloves were wool with leather covers or wool mittens.  I always had two pairs of socks wrapped around my chest and stomach next to my body.  In the summer we wore dungarees and boots. We wore mittens but they were a pain to hold or work anything, although they had a trigger flap for firing.  The cold temperature did not affect our weapons.  The summer seemed short, but the temperature was pleasant.  The monsoon rains were bad.  Everything was wet and the rain never let up.  I saw one boy get washed out of his tent on an air mattress but he did not wake up until morning.  He slept right through it.  Our poorly-made sleeping bags were mummy-shaped and quilted with feathers.  Some had areas where there were no feathers.

I remember that we had a "no shoe platoon" at one time.  It was made up of people whose shoes wore out and we could not get re-supplied.  There was also a time when we had no rations and my buddy Crawford and I got caught stealing C-rations from an Army depot.  Both of these were caused by some jerk somewhere.

We had one air drop which was dropped from what we called a flying box car.  The supplies apparently were set on four foot by four foot sheets of plywood.  The plywood came out with the supplies, but they dropped free.  We had these big sheets of plywood falling like crazy on us and we had no way of knowing their zig zag path.  It is a wonder that someone didn't get killed.  I don't remember much about the supplies, but we used everything we could get our hands on.

I became friends with one buddy in particular.  I met Eulas Crockett at LeJeune and we became good buddies.  He was from Jamestown, Tennessee, and was a fellow I could depend on and trust.  When I made gunner he was my second gunner.  It took both of us to fire the mortar.  We shared the same tent and were together until we both became squad leaders at the same time.  We were still close, however, and when I was evacuated I never got to tell him goodbye.

I remember that once Crockett asked me if I had ever raised turkeys.  He was interested in an advertisement that wanted to sell him the information on starting a turkey farm.  I told him I knew nothing about turkeys, but to go ahead and send for the information.  We had forgotten about it until one day at mail call Sergeant Patchett called Crockett and announced, "My God.  It's from the American Turkey Institute."  After that his name was Turk and when he walked by someone would give a turkey gobble.  He got fighting mad, but could never catch the culprit.  Finally one day I convinced him to become deaf and most of it slowly faded.  I have been looking for Crockett high and low since Korea, but to no avail.  I know that he made it back but later moved from Tennessee and I have never been able to find him since.  Via the internet I traced a Eulas Crockett to Evansville, Indiana years later.  I called the number and left a message but never got a return phone call.

When we were in reserve we could play football and cards.  I saw guys wrestle for fun, but never saw a fight that I remember.  I think we knew that fighting could end badly, so we avoided those situations when we could.  I liked to shoot.  We took a Korean boy with us to load our magazines and went off in the hills to shoot at cans, etc.  Halgren was a jokester who always wanted to get drunk.  All we got was a beer allowance, which was not that much.  I told him I knew how to make raisin jack and that all I needed was some raisins and  yeast.  We were in a reserve position eating at a mess.  This was a couple of tents about a mile from our bivouac.  One day we were eating when we started getting incoming rounds hitting near the mess tents.  All the mess men ran out and dived in a big trash pit nearby.  When Halgren saw this he comely walked to the supply tent and came back with a gallon can of yeast under one arm and a gallon of raisins under the other arm.  We made the jack and had enough to get about twenty people high.  Halgren was in heaven.  (He is the same guy that almost shot me.)

I drank beer when we got our ration.  I played poker every pay day.  All my money was sent to my wife except $10, and I played poker with that.  There was nothing to spend money on in Korea.  One time I sent winnings of over $300 home, but all the other times I lost.  I smoked cigarettes, but they came in our rations and we did not buy them.  I saw a couple of USO shows while I was in Korea.  They were not shows with major stars and I only have a snapshot to remember.  I was in a rear camp once when President Rhee landed and met with some brass.  I saw them from a distance.  I don't remember spending American holidays in Korea.  I spent my 21st birthday aboard ship in Yokohama harbor.  It was just another day.  Church was offered in reserve when a Chaplain came up and held service, but on line Sunday was only religious if we did our own prayers.  We were given small Bibles to carry.

Our outfit was all white.  We got a black replacement once, apparently by mistake, and I remember he slept alone for almost a week until he was transferred out.  He disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared.  At that time the Marine Corps was still segregated in reality, but not officially.  There were no blacks in any of the combat units that we worked with.   I do not remember anyone being unkind to him.  Most of us felt sorry for him.  He was a nice kid.  The USMC did not mix back then except in transportation outfits.  I am sure there are some articles that give some details on this, although not many since this still is a sensitive subject.

We had an American Indian in our mortars and also a fellow we called Pop Orr.  They were both "old salts" about 30 years old and both were jeep drivers.  I remember guys doing their jobs without complaint, but then that is what Marines are trained to do.  A hero is someone that goes beyond his job and puts himself in harm's way.  I am sure we had men that would have been heroes had they been put in a position that tested them.

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We were relieved off the line September 24.  I was sick and went on sick call.  The corpsman took my temperature and sent me to a field hospital.  I thought I would be right back, but I didn't return.  I did not even get to say goodbye to my buddies.  I never saw them again.  I had contracted hepatitis.  On October 2, I was evacuated from Korea.  I left my unit in a jeep and spent the night in a field hospital lying next to a Chinese prisoner.  I took an ambulance from there to another rear hospital.  From there I was transported as a stretcher patient (by this time I was really sick) by ambulance bus to a hospital ship.  From there I went by ambulance airplane to a Japanese ambulance train and then onto another ambulance to an Army Hospital in Osaka.  After a few days I was sent to the Naval Hospital at Yokosuka.

The only American female I saw in Korea was an Army nurse that was overseeing the loading of an ambulance cargo plane I was put in.  She was very nice and fixed up real pretty.  She was some sight to see.  I ran into two mortar men in the hospitals as I passed through.  One had frostbite.  The other I thought was dead from a mine, but there he was--on crutches, but alive.  The Red Cross was at dockside where the hospital ship I was in was tied up.  I was able to walk so I made trips down to pick up trays of doughnuts and pots of coffee for the boys in my little ward.  There were also Red Cross workers in the two main hospitals I was in, and I saw them aboard a hospital train I was in.

I was never on R&R from Korea, but did get R&R from the hospital in Japan when I was released.  I went to Kyoto, Kamakura, Otsu, and other small towns.  I was interested in how the people lived.  It was hard to forget the atrocities committed by the Japanese army against Americans, but the people were very respectful of our uniform.  I never met a Jap that was not nice.  I shopped, sent some things home, and made the rounds of the restaurants and bars.  I remember we stayed in a great hotel for $1 a day.  It was nicer than any four-star hotel I have ever stayed in.

I should explain why I was not sent back to Korea at this time.  After my stay in the hospital I still needed a month or so before my rotation date came up.  They told me that getting me sent back to my outfit would take about that much time because it was a lengthy process.  It was decided that my remaining time was to be spent in a camp in Yokosuka.  It was not really much of a camp.  I had made Corporal in Korea but by this time I was a Sergeant and was put in charge of some KIA clothing reclamation.  Then one day I was just told that I was going home.  I was called into an office where I was given a packet containing my orders and health papers.

I left Japan for the States on the General Patrick.  I had a sailor friend that I ran around with while in the hospital.  His name was EM1 Fay Mullinax.  He was a great guy and was on the ship going home to the States too.  All of the ship's passengers were Marines and Navy personnel.  It was a mixed bunch.  Some were combat troops, but as many were people that had had jobs in Japan and rear jobs in Korea.  We could tell the difference.

Being a Sergeant I had no duties on the trip.  (Being a Sergeant gave one many privileges in the Marines.)  The return was without incident.  The seas were not calm, but just easy rolls.  We returned straight to San Francisco, but I do not remember how long it took.  We arrived in Frisco and from there we went to Treasure Island.  No one except a few Navy wives and possibly a few wives living in the California area was there at the dock to meet us.  Seeing the mainland as we approached was a very good feeling, but emotions were mixed.  After docking we lined up on the dock and made our way aboard busses when our names were called.  There was no fanfare or kissing the ground that I can remember.  By the time we got liberty to leave the base we had been on Treasure Island for several days and had filled up on stateside food and milk.  I went into town with Mullinax and another sailor and we ate a big meal with lots of beer.

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Civilian Again

I finished out my time in the Marine Corps at Camp LeJeune.  I was made squad leader of a squad that was in training of some kind.  I say that because I was Temporary Duty waiting for orders that would send me home.  I reported for sick call every day and after sick call I went to the beach or hung out at the NCO club for the rest of the day.  One day I got caught in the squad bay when the squad came in and had to stand inspection with them.  The officer was surprised to see me for the first time.  I did not even have a weapon and he was upset until I told him I was just passing through.  I was not there long before going home.

For a while I had trouble adjusting to civilian life, but becoming focused on an objective leaves little time for the past.  I will always have trouble getting too close to people.  I learned that to keep some distance makes it easier when you are torn apart by whatever means.  I still have trouble making close friends.

It took me a while to realize that I was a father with responsibilities.  But I never "lost it" and went wild like some others did after returning from Korea.  My loved ones bought Christmas presents for me and we had Christmas in January.  It was good to be home.  Re-enlisting never entered my mind.  I was ready to get on with my life.  After coming back to LeJeune it seemed as if the base was a military school for children.  I could not adapt to the spit and polish and it turned me off.  I came back with some time left to serve in a six-year reserve commitment.  I stayed in the local reserve outfit until I was discharged in April.  I have a regular discharge dated September 7, 1949 and a reserve discharge dated April 20, 1952.

When I first got out I found a job working in a defense plant for $1.10 per hour.  It was shift work and a terrible job.  I did not really want to go back to school, but a boy I was working with talked me into signing up for the G.I. Bill.  The thought of getting $160 per month and getting out of the defense job was all it took.  I took the maximum hours allowed and went to school every quarter, including summers.  I graduated in 1955 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Arts.  After teaching in Orlando for fourteen years I went back to college and got my Master of Arts degree.  I took a lot of classes in between at Clemson, University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida and Eastern Tennessee Stat University, so going on and getting my MA was really a short hop.

My life was changed because of Korea, but I am not sure how different I was from the other students in college.  I was more mature maybe.  I was not afraid to try anything.  By the time I was 25 I had two children, had finished college, had traveled "around" the world, and was buying our first house.  I guess others noticed a change in me, but my peers never talked to me of it and my parents and siblings were not living with me.  When I was around them they never mentioned it.  My wife insisted that Korea had changed me.  She said I was more carefree and easier to get along with before Korea.

In all the years when I was working and raising our children I seldom ever thought about the war--and if I did, I kept it to myself.  The interview for this memoir was the first time anyone had ever asked me about Korea, and it seems strange to read my words.  I probably would never have gone back all those years, much less written about it, if I had not been contacted for the interview.  Someday my grandkids might ask what their granddad did in the war and they can read about it after I am gone.

Mary and I had children John Alan, Mary Lee, Kathy Adair, and Gary Stephen, and now we have grandchildren.  I worked all the way through college at various part-time jobs.  At one time I worked for the City Engineering Department and worked for a surveying outfit while attending weekend USMC reserve meetings all at the same time.  Nothing paid much in those days, so it took volume to make up.  I remained as a teacher in Florida until I retired in 1984.  I started an upholstering business in 1980 and stayed with it until 1988, when we decided to leave Florida.  I designed and built our home on Alligator Lake in St. Cloud in 1974 and had every intention of never leaving.  "Never" is a word you should never use.

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Final Reflections

My time in the Korea War was an experience in brotherhood with no equal, but I hope none of my grandchildren will ever have to go to war.  At the time I was there, I never questioned the fact that the United States sent troops to Korea.  But now, I think it was a mistake.  Even Truman had to refer to Korea as a police action.  All the while thousands of boys were being killed and their parents and loved ones were left to wonder why.  If North Korea had taken over all of Korea, I wonder if there would have been any lasting change in world politics.  I think not.

Many of the things asked of me in the interview for this memoir I have never thought of since they happened.  Some things are indelibly etched and others are cloudy when I go back so many years.  Unlike the Vietnam generation, we were more like the GIs of World War II.  We did our job and came home and tried to forget.  We fought for our lives and could have cared less for Korea.  It was Truman and the politicians that kept us from winning the war.  General MacArthur promised us that we would be home for Christmas, but we stopped at the 38th and waited until they hit us with everything but the kitchen sink.  When we stopped at the 38th we had the Chinese in a rout and could have finished the job with very few lives lost.  We found rifles left behind and food still on fires we were moving so fast.  After stopping they hit us with artillery and a mass of troops.  We were very discouraged and then we wanted out.  I was never an admirer of MacArthur, but he fought the war to win, as should be the objective in all wars.  We had the war won when we were driving north and it was politics that made us stop and dig in.  The final outcome was what the politicians wanted.  Our mistake was being there in the first place.  We would have very few killing fields if our politicians were the leaders on the battlefield.

I have some ribbons from the Korean War, but I only remember what a couple of them are.  I guess they authenticate my service, but it is the memories that stay with me, not ribbons.  It was a time in my life that I was put to the ultimate test and passed.  All that survived passed.  I found out what I was made of in Korea and I have drawn from that to this day.  No experience in civilian life comes even close to where I once was, and I feel I face life with more confidence.

I think the Korean War carries the nickname "The Forgotten War" because the politicians wanted to forget it.  Maybe after the cemeteries claim the last survivors of this war, then the history books can explain it as a "police action."  This was probably the last war that will ever be fought by Americans who had tunnel vision.  We were called upon to do a dirty job and we put our lives and trust in our leaders' hands and never doubted that what we were doing was for God and country.  We came home and brought our dead out with us.  Those of us that could went back to put our lives together.  We never asked for compensation or a commemorative wall in Washington.  We just came home and put the war behind us.  We did not fill the VAs with stress disorder patients, although I guess we had many.  We are a nation of hype and sound bites and I doubt that the Korean War with its meaningless killings will ever take more space than a paragraph or two in the history books.  The much heralded 100-hour Desert Storm war will get more attention.  Korea was a different war.  All Americans were involved with World War II, so it is easy to understand what that war meant to the people.  If the Korea issue were to arise today for the first time, I doubt that any sane politician would back it.

I do not really know the extent of our government's efforts to locate and return Korean War Missing in Action.  I think we have a government that tells us what we want to hear instead of hard truths.  I do not think the North Korean government would do anything unless they were paid, and then they would manufacture almost anything to appease us.

I have told my children very little about Korea.  They have never asked and I do not think they are really interested.  Their understanding of war comes from the movie "Private Ryan."  I saw the movie and it was a very good movie.  Very entertaining.  However, I am afraid that if Hollywood made a movie exactly the way a war is really fought, it probably would be a sinker.  I heard war described once as "days and sometimes weeks of sheer boredom interspersed by moments of sheer terror."  Most of the time the fighting takes place at a greater distance and with much more confusion.  I will say that for some GIs they may have been in circumstances much like that in the movie.  The business of sending men to look for a lost GI, however, does not make much sense.  No matter how messed up things were, they always can find you without sending troops out looking for you.  We always got mail.

It is true that once a Marine, always a Marine.  I know I never shrink from adversity.  If any part of what I have to do is bad, I face it head on and do it first.  When I meet ex-Marines, I always find we have a lot to discuss.

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Obituary - John H. Cundiff

Mr. John H. Cundiff, Jr., 84, of Johnson City, passed away Wednesday, December 31, 2014, in the John M. Reed Nursing Home, Limestone.


Mr. Cundiff was a native of Johnson City. He spent his working years in Orlando, Florida and returned to Johnson City after he retired. He was the son of the late John Harrison and Ruby Mae Vaught Cundiff.


Mr. Cundiff was a U.S. Marine veteran of the Korean War. He retired from Boone High School in Orlando, Florida.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by one sister, Verna Wayman and one brother, Wayne Cundiff.


Survivors include his wife of sixty-four years, Mary Gordon Cundiff; two daughters, Kathy Adair Herington and her husband, Tom, and Mary Lee Cundiff; two sons, John Alan Cundiff and his wife, Karen, and Gary Steven Cundiff and his wife, Becky; nine grandchildren; twelve great grandchildren.


The family of Mr. John H. Cundiff, Jr. will receive friends from 12 to 2 PM Saturday, January 3, 2015, in the Morris-Baker Chapel. The graveside committal service will follow at 2:30 PM in the Monte Vista Memorial Park. The Boone Dam Post # 4933 and the Tennessee National Guard will accord military honors.


In lieu of flowers the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the charity of your choice.

- See more at:
Mr. John H. Cundiff, Jr., 84, of Johnson City, passed away Wednesday, December 31, 2014, in the John M. Reed Nursing Home, Limestone.


Mr. Cundiff was a native of Johnson City. He spent his working years in Orlando, Florida and returned to Johnson City after he retired. He was the son of the late John Harrison and Ruby Mae Vaught Cundiff.


Mr. Cundiff was a U.S. Marine veteran of the Korean War. He retired from Boone High School in Orlando, Florida.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by one sister, Verna Wayman and one brother, Wayne Cundiff.


Survivors include his wife of sixty-four years, Mary Gordon Cundiff; two daughters, Kathy Adair Herington and her husband, Tom, and Mary Lee Cundiff; two sons, John Alan Cundiff and his wife, Karen, and Gary Steven Cundiff and his wife, Becky; nine grandchildren; twelve great grandchildren.


The family of Mr. John H. Cundiff, Jr. will receive friends from 12 to 2 PM Saturday, January 3, 2015, in the Morris-Baker Chapel. The graveside committal service will follow at 2:30 PM in the Monte Vista Memorial Park. The Boone Dam Post # 4933 and the Tennessee National Guard will accord military honors.


In lieu of flowers the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the charity of your choice.

- See more at:

Mr. John H. Cundiff, Jr., 84, of Johnson City, Tennessee, passed away Wednesday, December 31, 2014, in the John M. Reed Nursing Home, Limestone.

Mr. Cundiff was a native of Johnson City. He spent his working years in Orlando, Florida and returned to Johnson City after he retired. He was the son of the late John Harrison and Ruby Mae Vaught Cundiff. Mr. Cundiff was a U.S. Marine veteran of the Korean War. He retired from Boone High School in Orlando, Florida.

Survivors include his wife of sixty-four years, Mary Gordon Cundiff; two daughters, Kathy Adair Herington and her husband, Tom, and Mary Lee Cundiff; two sons, John Alan Cundiff and his wife, Karen, and Gary Steven Cundiff and his wife, Becky; nine grandchildren; twelve great grandchildren.  In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by one sister, Verna Wayman and one brother, Wayne Cundiff.

The family of Mr. John H. Cundiff, Jr. will receive friends from 12 to 2 PM Saturday, January 3, 2015, in the Morris-Baker Chapel. The graveside committal service will follow at 2:30 PM in the Monte Vista Memorial Park. The Boone Dam Post # 4933 and the Tennessee National Guard will accord military honors. In lieu of flowers the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the charity of your choice.


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