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Ralph D. Fly
Ralph David Fly
"Doctors and corpsmen treated more than three hundred wounded over the next 70 hours." Patients arrived by helicopter, jeep ambulances, and personnel carriers. "We had no sleep during that time. We were so busy: the sun stars, and the moon seemed to race across the sky. When the wounded stopped arriving, I had actually thought only a few hours had passed. But, no, it had been about 70 or 72 hours."
- Ralph Fly
Ralph David Fly was born April 8, 1932, in the front room of a three-room shack of a house located in Cox’s Woods near Joplin, Missouri—a small city that straddles the southwestern edge of the Missouri Ozarks. As many as three families had shared this home for a while. Before the city built a chat-laid road to this house, the only entrance to this house and to a few other dwellings scattered along the edge of the woods was a trail a little more than the width of a modern, mid-size automobile.
Ralph’s parents were Ralph Walter and Agatha Florence Reynolds Fly. At the time of the younger Ralph’s birth, there was the depression. Most of the time, Ralph’s father could not find work. He worked mostly at odd jobs, like painting houses. He also rode the freights to different areas of the country to pick crops. Ralph’s mother was a waitress and received very little money. In those days, waitresses were paid no wages from the owner, so the only money she received was tips from customers.
For the first 17 years of his life, Ralph was an only child. His parents divorced right after World War II, and Ralph’s father had another son (Allison) by a second wife. The two half brothers did not grow up together, but they do keep in touch. Allison lives in Parsons, Kansas.
Ralph Fly attended Washington Grade School, located on the east side (the poor section) of Joplin. He attended Central High School at Tulsa, Oklahoma, for two and a half years, but he finished his senior year at Stadium High in Tacoma, Washington. While in grade school, he sold newspapers to earn ½ cent off of each paper sold. In high school he painted houses in the summer time.
Like so many other Korean War-era veterans, he was in school when the "big" war—World War II—broke out. His father served in the Navy during World War II, as did his father’s brother, Raymond Fly. His uncle, Marion Fly, served in the Army Air Corps. During the war years, the younger Ralph Fly collected tin foil and brought it to class for the war effort. Sometimes youngsters bought stamps, which credited them towards the purchase of a war bond. Ralph also remembered that it was a time of severe rationing of meat, butter, sugar, flour, and other items. His family never owned a car while he was growing up, but people who did own automobiles were allowed only four gallons of gasoline a week.
Immediately after graduation from high school, Ralph David Fly enlisted in the Navy at Tacoma, Washington. He and a group of naval enlistees were sworn in on the stage of a movie theater in Seattle in June of 1951. The theater was having a premier of a Gary Cooper movie called, "You’re in the Navy Now." Ralph and the others were sworn in just before the movie started. When asked why he chose the Navy, Ralph said that he knew he was going to be drafted. The Korean War was already raging, and his parents were anxious for him to join rather than be drafted. "My fathers put pressure on me to join the Navy because he thought it would keep me out of Korea—but, were we fooled!!" Ralph had only lived in Tacoma for a few months, so he did not know any of the men who joined at the same time as he did. He boarded a train from Seattle, Washington, to San Diego, California, for 12 weeks of Navy boot camp training.
You’re in the Navy Now!
Arriving in San Diego late in the evening on June 27, 1951, Ralph and the other recruits were rushed to the chow hall and given about 15 minutes to eat. He was impressed with his first meal as a Navy recruit, because it consisted of one of his favorite "depression-era" foods—cornbread and pinto beans. Later that night, the men were marched to the barracks and assigned their beds. Troop 604 consisted of about 70 men, all of whom were issued bed clothing and a ditty bag. Inside the ditty bag were soap, razor and blades, shaving cream, toothbrush and toothpaste. The men of Troop 604 were assigned to Chief Sharp, who was the Navy equivalent to a Marine drill instructor. "Chief Sharp," recalled Fly, "used terrible language in a loud booming voice to teach us how to make up our beds the perfect military way. Everything had to be perfectly tight. Sheets drawn tight on the bed, blanket drawn tight on the bed, and the pillow case end had to be folded underneath. Next, the Chief issued penny post cards. We had to write a note to send on to our parents saying that we arrived safely. The Chief collected the cards and deposited them in the mail box."
The very next morning, the troops were marched to get their physical exams. "This is a very dehumanizing experience because we all had to stand naked," remembered Fly. "While standing naked, the medical staff walked along the line and examined our penises and testicles for signs of disease. Next we had to bend over and grab our ankles while the staff examined our rectums for hemorrhoids." In another building, the group of new recruits was issued clothes: two or three sets of dungarees and blue shirts, several dress uniforms, one winter blue, several white uniforms for summer, sailor hats, pea coat, several pairs of socks, T-shirts, under shorts, a pair of black dress shoes, a pair of brown high top shoes, brown leggings, and a white sea bag. Next their heads were shaven clean.
Back in the barracks, the men were issued stencils and ink to mark their clothes with their names. The Chief demonstrated how clothing was to be stored away. "Each item of clothing had to be tightly and neatly rolled into a roll," said Fly. "Each roll of clothing had to be held tight with a tie-tie on each end (cords of string about 10 inches long). Each tie-tie had to be tied in a square knot and each dangling end had to be tucked in so as not to show. The Chief also demonstrated how each item was to be laid out on our cot in a certain place for each item for inspections. Last, he demonstrated how each item of clothing was to be stored in the sea bag." When the sea bag was full, a heavy cable was inserted in pre-fabricated holes at the top of the bag, and there was a combination lock. That brought to an end the events of Ralph Fly’s first full day in Navy boot camp—except one other important thing happened. "Sometime during that day we were issued a Blue Jackets Manual," recalled Fly. "It resembled a compact Bible. Some might even say that in a sense this was a sailor’s Bible."
For Ralph, the biggest adjustment to Navy life was "the dehumanization process." He said that there was a complete loss of freedoms and the complete loss of choice while going through boot camp. "For example," he said, "the choice of when to eat or what to eat; to sleep and when not to sleep, and the list goes on and on. The aim of the Navy, or any military, is to destroy the personality—then rebuilt that personality so that the recruit is part of a loyal military unit (or team) dependent on each other. Your hair is cut off and you are stripped naked for intimate physical examinations. The Chief (in this case, the Navy DI) systematically yells at you with the most insulting remarks coupled with the most disgusting, filthy language ever heard."
Days and nights of boot camp were highly regimented, noted Fly. A person on guard duty in the barracks awakened the recruits around 5 a.m. "We only had about 15 minutes to shave, shower and fall in for the morning personal inspection. The Chief examined our clothing, the inside border of our T-shirts for dirt, the inside border of our hats for traces of dirt, and examined our shoes to be sure that they were shined perfectly. Each one of us was graded using the 4.0 system for cleanliness and neatness (4.0 was required).
Breakfast was immediately after inspection. The favorite breakfast was a slice of toast covered with gravy and ground beef (known as SOS). Fly said that the recruits were fed well in boot camp. "I weighed 129 pounds on my 5 feet 9 inch frame when entering boot, but weighed 155 pounds at the end of 12 weeks. It seems those that were underweight gained pounds and those overweight lost pounds. I liked the food very much, although you did not have choices. If you did not like liver on every Thursday, that was too bad. You eat liver or else. Food ranged from T-bone steaks, fried chicken, turkey, and fish. Desserts were cakes, pies, and ice cream. We had fresh fruits, salads, and vegetables every day."
Each evening the recruits had to wash their uniforms and underclothes in a pail of soapy water. After rinsing, each item was hung by means of using tie-ties in place of clothes pins. "Each tie-tie was tied in a square knot," recalled Fly, "and each end of the dangling tie-tie had to be tucked in such a way that the ends were not visible (the process was extremely slow and tedious)." Recruits were then graded on their hanging garments the next morning by roaming inspectors. Next, the barracks and the bathroom and showers had to be cleaned. Barrack floors had to be mopped, "bright work," such as faucets in the head, had to be shined, and toilets, sinks and showers had to be cleaned. The cleaning job was graded by the inspector.
"Every Friday was field day," recalled Fly. That meant that all the walls and ceilings with their fixtures had to be cleaned, and this was also graded by the inspector. "The only free time that we had was Sunday, and we were confined to the barracks. We did have one afternoon off during the middle of our 12-week training. Recruits spent that afternoon in San Diego." "But that liberty, too, can easily be taken away at the slightest whim of the chief," said Fly. "If your shoes don’t shine like mirrors, you are punished in any number of ways: extra guard duty, extra galley duty, extra marching and drills. He recalled that everything a recruit did had to be perfect in every way—or there would be more restrictions of freedom.
"The recruit is watched closely to make sure the recruit brushes his teeth just right, that the shave is close, the clothes and bedding are clean and without wrinkles. There was zero tolerance as far as behavior, cleanliness, and obeying commands. Of course, the Chief would give the recruit some slack on certain things that require physical agility and strength. For example, not every recruit has the ability to do twenty pushups, or swim three laps across the swimming pool. You could be punished with extra guard duty, extra drills, or extra galley duty," said Fly. He once witnessed the chief in another company punish a recruit with corporal punishment. "Evidently the recruit made a poor grade when an inspector inspected his clothing, which was hanging the wrong way," said Fly. This Chief poured a bucket of water over the head of this recruit as he swore at him in the most disgusting language, completely dehumanizing the poor guy."
Fly recalled that Chief Sharp never had to use corporal punishment to bring the recruits under his command into line. "He just made you believe that he was capable of violence," "What made our Chief Sharp seem all the more evil is the fact that he very closely resembled Adolph Hitler. This man seemed to be always angry and on a mission to be the meanest man alive." But, recalled Ralph, there was an exception. Midway through the 12-week period, immature mama’s boys began to feel like men, and were much more relaxed with their training program. "One early morning our group of some 70 recruits lined up for the morning muster and inspection. There we were standing at attention. As the chief approached, the recruits burst out with this kindergarten song: ‘Good morning dear teacher, good morning dear teacher. We have bright sunny faces. We are all in our places. Good morning dear teacher. This was followed by all the men joining in with the next song, ‘Oh this is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth so early in the morning¼’. For the first time, we saw a miracle. The Chief had the most beautiful smile you ever saw. The Chief was so tickled; he burst out in the most robust laughing that I have ever heard. For that entire day, the Chief could not get mad at anyone for any reason. I guess we found his weakness because as time went on, he seemed to be more compatible. Today, I can still see seventy grown boys cutting up like a bunch of pre-schoolers and the Chief not being able to keep a straight face."
The twelve weeks of boot camp included one week of galley duty, serving food, washing dishes, and cleaning the galley. Two more weeks were spent in the desert at Camp Elliot drilling with the M-1 rifle. The overall training consisted of classroom courses, behavior modification and personal organization, military drills, weapons training, fire fighting and survival techniques. Ralph said that half the day consisted of inspections, marching, drilling with the M1 rifle, and conditioning (running, etc). The afternoon consisted of classes on the Blue Jackets Manual (all about ships and the duties required to be a seaman), military code of justice (all about military law), naval history, and VD classes.
Classroom lessons included lectures and movies during which the recruits were required to take notes to be tested at mid-term and final. Lectures were on such subjects as Naval History, Naval regulations, and Military Code of Justice. Movies were on VD and hygiene. Ralph remembered, "The movies on VD were quite graphic, showing the physical and mental ravages of Gonorrhea, Syphilis, and Chancheroid. The movie stressed that the sailor who contracted a venereal disease was to report to sick bay and get it treated immediately; and that there would be no punishment for contracting the disease. The idea was that if the sailor did not fear punishment, he would be more likely to seek treatment."
In Naval History class, the recruits studied every battle from the exploits of John Paul Jones to the Battle of Midway. "I don’t remember much about the Military Code of Justice and Naval Regulations," admitted Fly, "except that we had to memorize much of it in order to graduate." Referring back to his comment on "behavior modification," Ralph said that changes came about through inspections of gear and barracks, marching in perfect step with a rifle, and following the orders of the DI (such as ‘to the rear, march," "left shoulder arms," and many more marching drills). According to Fly, "The idea is to condition the recruit to follow orders automatically without thinking. Twelve weeks of this conditioning assures that the sailor will always follow orders without question."
In lessons on fire fighting, the recruits were shown movies on how to fight fires aboard ship. "We learned about the miracle of foam, which was perfected in World War II," said Fly. "Spraying foam on a burning deck of an aircraft carrier immediately smothered most any type of fire." But Fly found the classes in "Survival at Sea" to be the most interesting. "We had to jump into the water from a very high place (always feet first to avoid head injuries). Once in the water, we removed our trousers, and tied a knot on the end of each leg. Then we grasped the top of our trousers and positioned them in such a way over our heads that when we swung our arms forward the pant legs would fill with air. Trousers can make an excellent life preserver. Sailors lost at sea have actually floated for days using this improvised life preserver."
All recruits had to be proficient in swimming, as well as shooting the M1 rifle. To qualify in the swimming test, recruits had to swim the width of the pool. "It didn’t matter how," said Fly. "You could even dog paddle across, treading water to make your way over to the other side. The main thing is to prove you could stay afloat. I passed by dog paddling across." As far as qualifying with his rifle, Fly said that he was not a hunter and had not fired any kind of firearm before. "To this day, I have never hunted, nor do I own any fire arms." On the rifle range, the recruits were each given several clips of ammo. Each of them had their own personal instructor beside them. "I was not crazy about doing this," recalled Fly. "I really don’t care much for firearms. I fired two rounds and almost missed the whole target, hitting the outer edge. The instructor was furious. He chewed me out with his loud booming voice using the most insulting language. I felt like getting up and hitting him in the head. He made me so mad that I felt like I was going to lose control. I was so full of rage that when I shot the rest of my ammo into the target, each round I fired made its way into the bull’s eye. Suddenly he yelled, ‘I never saw such shooting. Son, you did not miss the bull’s eye even once.’ He could not stop praising me. He bragged to all the other instructors that I was going to be a natural-born killer. So in the end, I more than qualified. Also, I ended up liking the guy."
Ralph recalled that training in Navy boot camp at times seemed cruel and unreasonable, but he also admitted, "There were benefits learned that one uses for a lifetime. For example, one develops personal organizational skills; one learns to think logically; and one learns to handle oneself in most any crisis. All help in any civilian job or owning a business." The benefits of boot camp are now understood through experience. But at the time he was a recruit, Fly said that there were times he was sorry he had joined the Navy. "I missed having personal freedom and I missed having choices. You cannot leave the base when you want to leave. You cannot go to bed when you want to go to bed, and so on. And you have no control over where you will be stationed. But you do make an adjustment. For Ralph Fly, the hardest thing about boot camp was being required to obey every order, to salute every officer, and to say, "Sir." "I don’t know exactly why," pondered Fly. "Maybe it made me feel somehow inferior."
Boot camp was hard, but at the end of the 12-week period, only two recruits did not make it. "One wet the bed consistently," recalled Fly, "and the other was so nervous that he often fainted while standing at attention during inspections." Those who made it through boot camp got a report on their grades and checked the bulletin board to find out what ship or to what duty station they would be assigned. Today, recruits can choose a special school before entering the service. "But in our day," explains Fly, "one had no choices. The military placed you where they needed you. When we were tested to see what we would be suited for, Chief Sharp explained that just a few of us would be chosen based on our occupational background, education, and how we scored on the written tests for a special school."
Ralph recalled that his expectations were very low. "I thought I would end up as a deck hand. However, I found out that I was to report to Bainbridge, Maryland, Hospital Corpsmen’s School. I was very happy about that. I felt like a high school kid who was getting some kind of education scholarship—it meant that much to me." The once-raw recruit left boot camp with a lot more skills and knowledge than he had when he first arrived in San Diego. "But in those days, a teenage sailor was not allowed in any civilian bar or night club, so you didn’t feel like you had any adult respect—even though you were a serviceman. Later, when I was in Korea, I couldn’t even vote. It seemed so unfair." Still, for the first time in his life, Fly said he felt like he had a future, because he was going to a prestigious Naval school. "I had not had many successes in my young life and my expectations of my future were very low. But now, I felt I was going to have an exciting career. I knew nothing about a possible assignment to a Marine platoon in Korea."
Wearing his uniform, Fly went home on a 14-day leave. "My mother, stepfather, aunt and uncle thought I looked great. The problem was this: they were people who spent a lot of time in nightclubs dancing, drinking, and having a ball. Even though I was a serviceman, I was not allowed in on the fun because of my age. Even though the Navy now called me a man, I felt left out of the adult world." After his leave, he traveled back to San Diego by bus. From San Diego he traveled by train to Bainbridge Hospital Corpsman School, Bainbridge, Maryland. When his duty and education there were over a few months later, Ralph Fly would be thrust into the adult world in which he longed to be a part; but it was an adult world exclusive to combat veterans. There, Ralph learned how adults fight, survive, and die in war.
Hospital Corpsman School
Some of the students attending the Bainbridge School were pre-med students, nurses, surgical technicians, medical technologists, and chiropractors in civilian life before joining the Navy. Ralph Fly and others, however, were chosen by test scores made during recruit training. Prior to Hospital Corpsman School, Fly (who was just out of high school) had had no medical experience at all. In reflecting why he was chosen to go to Corpsman’s School, he said it might have been because he was strong in the Latin and Spanish languages in high school. "Perhaps that and the tests persuaded those in charge to send me to Hospital Corpsman’s School," he said.
Trainees had all of the regular college pre-medical courses: anatomy, physiology, nursing procedures, pharmacology, bacteriology, laboratory testing, X-ray training, minor surgery, field sanitation procedures, chemistry, biology, and more. In addition, there were laboratory studies that included brief bacteriology lab procedures using the microscope and glass slide staining techniques. Nurses, warrant officers, chief corpsmen, and first class corpsmen were the instructors.
Fly recalled that Corpsman School was in some ways much tougher than any college. "It was cram, cram, and cram for eight hours each day and four hours on Saturday. There was little time for discussions and explaining. The informational lectures were given to us rapidly. I would say one day’s teaching was about equal to a week’s lectures in the same college course. We were required to write everything down the instructor lectured us on—no exception—that was a must. The cramming was so intense that I was in a state of high alertness and anxiety. I think being super alert made it easier to learn. In any case, I spent many hours after class studying my notes." Classes ended on Saturday at noon. Fly spent most of his liberties in Baltimore, Maryland and Wilmington, Delaware. Most of this liberty time was spent at canteens or dance places.
At Bainbridge, corpsmen-in-training got the first hints that many of them would be bound for Korea as FMF corpsmen in the near future. Fly commented, "It was here that I learned that after we finished twenty weeks of Hospital Corpsman School and approximately five months internship in a naval hospital, some of us would be assigned to the Marines." And Fly also learned then, and as time went by, that a corpsman’s education never stopped, even after his formal classroom studies did. "Corpsmen were required to attend medical lectures one day each week for an hour or two, providing they were not occupied with other responsibilities such as a combat post. But even in combat, the battalion surgeon would school corpsmen whenever possible. Another fact: Corpsmen on independent duty had the power to give orders in medical matters to any person of any rank—even generals or admirals."
After Hospital Corpsman School, Fly was assigned to Saint Albans Naval Hospital located near New York City. At the hospital, he was assigned to a Surgical Tuberculosis ward, which housed officers, enlisted men, and dependents of officers and enlisted men. "In those days," explained Fly, "the only possible cure for TB was surgical removal of the infected lobe of the lung. I was assigned to that ward because I tested positive for TB without actually having TB. I had resistance because I was raised the first eleven years of my life by a grandmother who had TB." He did not have a single day off during the five or six months that he was stationed at St. Albans. "I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day," he recalled. "Other than that, I had every night liberty. At 9:30 p.m. I showered and left for the St. Albans Canteen."
He stayed at the canteen until it closed. Afterwards, he went out with one of the girls for beer and pizza, returning to his barracks around midnight. "The girls were several years older than I. I was just 19 and they complained that I did not act grown up, and that I looked more like 15. And I admit, I was pretty immature and acted like a silly, fun-loving teenager. Now in New York, you only had to be 18 to drink (but nevertheless the bar tenders asked me for my ID). I wanted to prove to the girls that I was grownup, too. I tried to drink as many beers as they did. But with just two or three glasses of beer, I was hopelessly drunk. These mature, older women could down beers one after another and never show it." While it was true that some of the girls complained about his immaturity, eventually many of those same girls became his loyal pen pals when Fly ended up in Korea.
Back on the job at St. Albans, there were a lot of new procedures for Fly to learn. Most of his training in corpsman school was lecture with not much practical experience, except for giving shots. Fly’s training at St. Albans was another matter. "Here I had to learn new scary procedures like starting IV’s, taking sputum specimens from inside the bronchial tubes of patients by means of inserting a tube through the nose and having the patient breath so that the air passage would open," he said. "Then you could rapidly insert the tube and aspirate a sample of sputum. Also, I got a lot of practice changing bandages and practicing sterile techniques." There was another procedure that he dreaded above all, he recalled. "That was a catheterization (withdrawing urine from a patient’s bladder by means of inserting a catheter in the penis, past the sphincter, and into the bladder). For the longest time, I was able to avoid it. But one day, I was the only corpsman on duty, besides a Navy nurse who was in charge of the ward. I was very nervous about the idea. But finally I decided I might as well get it done. So getting my words all tangled up, I nervously asked the nurse, ‘Do you want me to castrate that guy?’"
By the time he was finished with his studies at Hospital Corpsman School and St. Albans, Ralph Fly was qualified to dispense medications, do first aid, dress wounds, sterilize instruments, do IV’s, do catheterizations, do minor surgery such as suturing a cut, take blood pressures, do some lab tests, and in the absence of a physician, was allowed to do some diagnosis which later had to be confirmed by a doctor. He also had knowledge of most all sterilizing techniques.
Delay En Route
When his internship at St. Albans was over, Ralph Fly found himself on the way to Camp Del Mar, California, for Marine boot training. He said, "My feelings were mixed. Sometimes, I was feeling euphoric. I had heard so much about the wonders of FMF Corpsmen, their training, their exploits, and their bonding to their Marine platoon. But I also had feelings of dread," he explained. He had fear of death and dying, and for being away for a year or more. "Dr. Grillo, the chest surgeon, was very disappointed that I was leaving St. Albans," Fly recalled. "It pleased me that he thought that much of me. Dr. Grillo called me into his office and said, ‘Ralph, you are coming back. Maybe some won’t, but you will.’"
Fly had five days to make the trip from St. Albans to Camp Del Mar. His mother was living in Tacoma, Washington, and he wanted to see her, but he knew that there was not enough time to travel by train to Tacoma and then on to Camp Del Mar. Ralph was inspired to take his first plane trip to visit his mother. He said, "Then I thought, why don’t I fly? I had never been on an airplane. So that evening I traveled to LaGuardia airport. I had no reservation. I just asked the lady at the counter for a ticket to Seattle. The plane was huge and beautiful—a propeller-driven, four-engine Constellation. The seats were wide and very comfortable. I slept all night on the plane. When I awoke, the plane was over the northwest mountains. That plane trip was a wonderful experience." In 1952, Seattle/Tacoma was a very small airport—nothing like it is today. From the airport, Fly took a cab to Tacoma.
During the visit home, Mrs. Fly knew that her son was going to Korea, but it was never mentioned or talked about. "While there," said Fly, "I put going to Korea out of my mind. I don’t think my mother was in denial and that’s why she didn’t want to discuss it," he said. Instead, "we came from a culture in Missouri where it was believed that showing emotion was a weakness," he explained. Still I think she probably felt very sorry about it. Ralph did not follow the news about how things were going in Korea while he was home on leave. "I think I put going to Korea out of my mind," he said. "I just hung around dance places." Ralph divided his $10,000 life insurance between his father in Joplin, Missouri, and his mother in Tacoma. "Otherwise, I had no personal possessions of any importance for anyone to look after," he said. After a short visit home, he left for Del Mar and Marine Corps Boot Camp.
Marine Corps Boot Camp
When a corpsman has Marine boot, coupled with assimilated field medicine and first aid exercises, he is certified as a Field Medical Technician. Corpsmen can have several specialties. "The specialties that I acquired," said Fly, "were Field Medical Technician and Neuro-psychiatric Technician." He acquired his second specialty after returning from the Korean War, training at Tripler Army hospital.
The buildings at Del Mar were similar-looking, drab wooden structures that were used for barracks, classrooms, chow halls, and administration buildings. In the training area were obstacle courses and firing ranges. Doctors and dentists trained alongside corpsmen, and they all took orders from the sergeant. Corpsmen, however, lived in quarters that consisted of rows of bunks side by side. There were wooden footlockers. The camp was mainly for corpsmen and other personnel, so in this area they did not see a lot of non-com Marines. Instead, there were Marine sergeants, Naval medical officers, and chief corpsmen. All of these leaders had already served in Korea, and the men being trained accepted their leadership well. "As corpsmen," said Fly, "none of us really minded our drill and training sergeant. We took all the Marine boot training in stride. We had already been through one boot camp. We were already in good shape mentally and physically. This may sound strange, but much of the training—with the exception of the cold weather training and house-to-house training—was a piece of cake."
At Del Mar, medical personnel underwent Marine infantry training as a combat unit. Training included using the most common weapons, such as M1 rifle, carbine, and 45 pistols. "We had forced marches with heavy packs. We were awakened approximately 4 a.m. to run one or two miles before breakfast. We had cold weather training in the snowy mountains. We had house-to-house training. The Marine DI treated us like raw recruits—the medical officers as well as the corpsmen. But raw recruits we were not. When you have already experienced one boot camp, the second one is not taken all that personally. Actually, we had a pretty good time. Besides, in this boot training we had more privileges than we did at the Navy boot—such as every night and weekend liberty. We enjoyed seeing the sights at LA and San Diego during our times off."
The "house-to-house" training took place at a little prefabricated town of wooden houses and buildings at Camp Del Mar. Blanks were issued for the M1 rifles. "Now shooting blanks can be dangerous when you shoot someone up close," warned Fly. "That is because each blank has a wad of paper at the end of the cartridge. Up close, this wad of paper shot at close range can penetrate the skin causing bleeding. Therefore, we were instructed never to aim directly at a person. In other words, whoever got the round off first meant the other person was dead." A staff of Korean War veterans was the enemy hidden in the houses and buildings during this training exercise. "Needless to say, because of our inexperience, we were all shot up. The hardest part was struggling to climb up to a second-story window, using a rope with a hook thrown in that window. As soon as we entered, loud false grenades and weapons fire killed us off." Later in class, their mistakes were explained. "For example," said Fly, the trainees learned, "never dash from house-to-house one at time. Instead, dash as a group. This is because dashing one at a time gives the sniper time to prepare and aim for the next man dashing to the next house, and he is easily picked off."
Cold Weather Training
There were no incidents of anyone getting hurt caused by getting shot with blanks while participating in house-to-house combat. But this wasn’t true in cold weather training at Pickle Meadows, which was located in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The idea was to do all assimilated combat in cold weather conditions on mountain slopes whose elevation and surrounding terrain most resembled the landscape in Korea where many of the men would eventually be fighting. During the biggest part of the training at Pickle Meadows, Fly and the other trainees did not have to deal with snow on these mountains, and the weatherman predicted there would be none. As it turned out, however, on the last day of Fly’s cold weather training, Pickle Meadows was hit by one of the worst blizzards in its history. Not only that, the officers had made a big blunder, based on that weatherman’s prediction of no snow.
According to Fly, the men’s backpacks carried everything they needed to survive at Pickle Meadows. There was a shelter half, blanket, sleeping bag, inflatable air mattress, clothing, eating gear, entrenching tool (a small shovel for digging fox holes), canned rations, and much more. Fly recalled that not only did the corpsmen carry the same weight in general supplies that the Marines carried in their backpacks, they also had extra weight in the form of medical supplies. "The corpsmen had their Unit 1 (medical gear), which consisted of bandages of various kinds and sizes, minor surgery kit (scalpel, suture thread and suture needles, probes for extracting shrapnel, hemostats for clamping veins and arteries, and scissors for cutting away clothing), rolls of tape and ace bandages, morphine for pain, and basic medicines such as APC’s (Aspirin complexed with caffeine), iodine, and most important of all—two bottles of serum albumin for transfusions."
With everything in this pack extremely compact so that the pack would balance perfectly on the back, it was very heavy. "This took teamwork," explained Fly. "Two buddies working together used their strength rolling the big items (such as the shelter half and sleeping bag) tightly. Then your partner placed the pack on your back; and you did the same for him. All that was left was tightening the straps in the front to hold the pack in place. If your pack was not balanced perfectly, a terrific strain was felt on your back and shoulders, and this made it very difficult to march to your destination without tiring. Also, you carried your M1 over your shoulder," he added.
But what was really significant in this training session was the gear that the officers decided that they would not need. Said Fly, "Officers reasoned that since there was no snow and the weather at this time was mild, the heavy duty cold weather gear would not be needed. That turned out to be a big blunder." When the blizzard hit, the men had no thermo boots for sub-zero weather, and they had no parkas to keep them warm. Their only "coat" was a field jacket with a warm liner insert.
The group of trainees was bused to the foothills of the mountain that they were to climb that day. It took them about two or three hours to climb to the top of the mountain where they then made camp. Two corpsmen were assigned to each platoon of Marines. "My corpsman buddy and I set up our pup tent, which consisted of two shelter halves, his and mine. This was our shelter to sleep in. There was a spring nearby, and from this spring of naturally pure water we drank; used this spring water for cooking our rations; used cold spring water for shaving and bathing. We used our helmets as basins to shave and we used our helmets as basins to bath, also."
Near by, on a lower elevation, was a small river. On a flattened area, the river formed a wider, slower-moving stream of deep water. "Here we had some pretty rough training," Fly recalled. "Stretched across the wide stream was a rope. The ends of the rope were tied about three feet above the ground to a tree on each side. We were required (with our M1s on our shoulders) to monkey across the stream, hand over hand and leg over leg. I could see right away that this took a tremendous amount of energy and strength. Troopers crossing the stream by means of the rope were falling into the very cold water. Some made it and some didn’t. It was a very scary situation. I remember the highest-ranking officer leading the way. He yelled, ‘Gun Ho.’ Then about a third of the way he fell in the pool of icy mountain water. My corpsman friend said he was not going to participate and he didn’t think he had to because, after all, he was a corpsman. But he was wrong, of course."
Fly knew what they were in for, and that they had no choice. "I psyched myself up like I used to do when I was a little boy that had to go to the dentist. I remember telling myself, ‘Sure it is going to hurt, but remember no matter how much it hurts, it won’t kill you.’ And that’s the pep talk I gave myself as my turn was nearing. ‘Sure that was chilling cold water to fall in, but it won’t kill me,’ I said to myself." When his corpsman buddy’s turn came, he refused. The sergeant said, "Oh yes you will," and two Marines grabbed him and placed him on the rope. "He didn’t get more than two or three feet before falling into the water," recalled Fly.
"When my turn came, I was already in the tree on the line ready to go," said Fly. The sergeant was pleased to see me ready to go." The sergeant said, "Doc, let me give you a tip, monkey across this rope as fast as you can. Move the hands and feet as fast as you can. Do not stop, no matter how exhausted you think you are. Now go." Fly said that he traversed the rope as fast as he could, quickly becoming exhausted. "But I heard cheers from the Marines. ‘You’re doing great Doc, keep going,’ they yelled with a lot of enthusiasm. Finally, I could hang on no longer. I dropped and was surprised to find myself on dry land on the other side of the river. I had made it. The sergeant had taught me an important life’s lesson: ‘When you think you have done your very best and you think you can do no more—do more.’"
Later that evening, Marines and Corpsmen settled into their sleeping bags for the night, two men per pup tent. The next day would be the long march back off that mountain to the staging area where they would board buses. Two guards were posted outside the tents for camp security. Every two hours, the guards were relieved by two more men, and so on through the night. "Once during the night I heard the wind howling," recalled Fly. But he was tired, and dropped off to sleep again. Later he awoke and noticed that the roof of the tent was slowly caving in from the snow and wind. "But I was warm and snug in my sleeping bag, and fell back to sleep." Later, the guard woke him up and said, "Doc, it is snowing like crazy out here." But Fly responded that he didn’t care too much. The guard told him that he would knock off some of the snow so the tent wouldn’t cave in so much. Again, all Fly wanted to do was go back to sleep.
Through all this, Fly’s corpsman buddy was fast asleep. What Fly didn’t know about his tent partner was that he was severely claustrophobic. The other corpsman woke up to find the tent almost caved in and a blizzard outside. Not being able to stand being in a closed-in area, the other corpsman began to panic. He started to tear his way out of the near collapsed tent still wearing his skivvies. Fly told him to stop and put his clothes on so he wouldn’t freeze once he got outside the tent. "My partner hastily dressed, and he was out of the tent. I did the same. As we stood, we could hardly see anything more than twenty feet away. We heard orders yelled out from somewhere in the night, ‘Fall in twenty minutes.’"
The teamwork so necessary in getting the backpack contents rolled and balanced on the back came into play at this time. Fly helped his buddy roll his shelter half and sleeping bag and assemble his gear into a neat backpack. "As I was helping my partner secure his pack on his back, placing his helmet on his head and handing him his M1, we heard the words, ‘Forward march.’ The company was leaving us, and in a single column of men, they were fast disappearing down the almost invisible mountain trail. I thought my partner would now help me, but he took off hurriedly to catch the end of the column, and they were soon out of sight." Fly was left to fend for himself. "I was cold and I was damp, for we were not issued the usual cold weather gear. I began shivering. I just had a field jacket and high top shoes and the snow was already getting knee deep. I hastily did the best I could assembling my gear. My pack was in terrible shape, but I struggled until I had it on my back. It hurt so much; my shoulders were aching. Next I grabbed my rifle and unit one." By that time, the snow was worse and visibility was zero. "As a child growing up in the woods of the Ozarks, I used to practice for fun getting lost just to see if I could find my way back home," said Fly. "Once I was lost in a severe thunder storm. I found my way back following a familiar creek. My family had been worried, but not my grandfather," said Fly. Grandfather said, ‘You can blind fold and spin my grandson around and around, and he will always stop facing north.’ I have always had a wonderful sense of direction, but I never thought in my wildest imagination that I would have to find my way out of a snow storm."
He said that he picked what he thought was a westerly direction where he knew the buses would be waiting. He recalled, "I marched on—and on, and on for an hour thinking that I had picked the wrong direction and was hopelessly lost. But I started seeing things lying in the snow. I saw pieces of gear. Marines were dropping parts of their packs along the way to make their packs easier to carry. This gave me a trail to follow (like when I was a kid in the Ozarks following a creek). I started moving quickly, and finally I saw a shadow ahead of me. I had caught up with the end of the column."
At the bottom where the buses were to arrive, a big fire was blazing away, and hot coffee and food were awaiting the cold, hungry Marines and corpsmen. Marines and corpsmen coming down from the mountain slowly made it in to this location. They were coming in 20 to 30 minute intervals all day long. "I had just arrived at this camp, when I heard a loud noise. Someone’s M1 rifle had gone off. As I looked around, I saw this Marine bleeding from his neck, a paper wad from a blank cartridge sticking out of his neck. Luckily, the wound was not serious. I bandaged his neck. That was my first casualty—and I wasn’t even in the war yet," recalled Fly.
As to the fellow corpsman that left him to fend for himself in the Pickle Meadows blizzard, he was not reprimanded. Fly did not turn him in. The other man did not apologize to Fly for leaving him, so Fly didn’t associate with him after that. The cold weather training was the last of his eight-week training period with the Marine Corps. During that time frame, he had had extensive training in weapons, marching drills, rifle inspections, and forced marching with heavy packs. Eight weeks of Marine boot camp training coupled with field medicine training (the practical applications of what he had learned in Hospital Corps School) and cold weather training, twelve weeks of Navy boot camp, and twenty weeks of medical training at Hospital Corp School were behind Ralph Fly. The US government had now deemed him ready for overseas duty in a combat unit.
Before leaving the country, Fly and one of his Marine friends left on a two-day liberty in California, where they spent most of Saturday at a Hollywood Canteen dancing with a number of girls. Reflecting on his weeks and months of training stateside, Fly said, "What was stressed to us is that the most important skill that a corpsman must develop is the ability to improvise. For example, you always run out of medical supplies—so you make do with a piece of clothing for a bandage." What he learned in Korea was entirely another matter. "What I learned in Korea is that no matter how well-trained you are, survival is a matter of luck," he said. His combat training served him well in Korea, but he said there was no way to train for protecting one’s self against the random hits of incoming. "Marines used to say, ‘I don’t worry about those that have my name on them. I worry about the ones that say, ‘To Whom it May Concern.’"
Into the Fray
Although he doesn’t recall the name of the ship that took him to Korea, he remembered that it was like a warehouse of bodies. "It was extremely crowded, even when troops were in their bunks, Fly recalled." The bunks consisted of canvas tied to narrow slabs that were several bunks high, maybe five or six high. There was not much room at all. "It was so crowded," he said, "there was hardly any room to move around." Never having been on a large ship before, Fly, like so many of the other passengers, got seasick. In fact, "I believe almost everyone was sea sick," he said. "I remember one Marine too sick to leave his bunk asking me to bring him some bread from the chow hall."
He and other personnel on board mostly whiled their time by standing in extremely long chow lines three times a day. Also, he said, "You could admire the ocean from the deck. And one night they showed a movie called High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly." The only corpsmen on the ship with him whose names he can now remember are Harvey Fine, Alfred Freda, Sterling Forman, Bradley, and Erick. "I believe Harvey had duty in the ship’s sickbay," recalled Fly. "Freda was in a bunk underneath me." The ship made a short stop in a little port in Japan, but it was only docked for a few hours before it sailed on for Korea.
In November of 1952—just before Thanksgiving—Ralph Fly arrived in Korea sometime during the night at the port of Inchon. Ralph’s first impression of Korea was experiencing the cold. "As I recall," he said, "we immediately started to disembark, but were delayed standing in line on the deck for an hour or so. (I don’t know why.) It was very cold and our feet were very cold standing in one place so long." In a nearby place called "Ascom City" (nicknamed by veterans "Ashcan City"), the arriving men checked in their sea bags, which had all of their possessions. They were then issued cold weather clothing in the form of a warm parka, a warm sleeping bag filled with down, thermo boots, thermo underwear, and mittens with a special finger glove for pulling a trigger. Fly said that the down in the sleeping bag could keep a man sleeping comfortably in weather that was twenty below, and the boots could keep his feet from freezing in the below zero temperatures.
When he first arrived, Fly saw no combat action. The fighting was going on about fifty miles to the north. In fact, he was not even assigned to a regiment or company until about a week or two after he arrived in Korea. He spent his first night in Korea in a large tent that slept as many as eight persons. The next morning they boarded a train heading north. "We were issued loaded carbines as there was always the possibility of guerilla attack on the way to the front," he said. "There were no incidents. Off the train, we loaded onto trucks called six-bys. When we arrived at our destination, we saw this huge sign board with these words: ‘Have no Fear, the 5th is Here."
He said this indoctrination area was about a mile behind the lines. "We were issued flack jackets (a kind of bullet proof vest). Carbines were turned in. Marines were issued M1s and Corpsmen kept their carbines and also were issued a 45 pistol. Here we were lectured on how to stay alive. For example, a captain explained, ‘If you stay off the ridge-line and keep to the trenches, your chances of going home will be very good.’ He showed us the enemy’s favorite automatic ambush weapon, the burp gun. It was so named because when it fired, it sounded like a burp. The burp gun fired bullets that looked like BBs, and was only effective at very close range. Our flack jackets could stop such shots, unless the burp gun shots entered the side where the flack jacket offered no protection. We learned that the war had settled down to mostly trench fighting with occasional raids on enemy outposts, and the enemy raiding our outposts. Also, there were occasional night patrols."
Fly and other corpsmen were sent to what he remembered to be an aid station. There, Chief Corpsman Anderson gave them their assigned platoons. Fly was assigned to the 5th Regiment, 1st Battalion, Weapons Company. Weapons company, a reinforced company, had one extra platoon. "This extra platoon of marines were mine clearance men, and men who specialized in setting mines and booby traps. Now, usually there are two corpsmen assigned to each platoon. But for some reason, I was the only corpsman assigned to this specialized platoon, he said."
Fly’s assigned regiment was located in the region of Carson, Reno, and Vegas outposts. When he finally arrived to the front, his battalion, company, and platoon was leaving for the rear for three or four weeks to be in reserve. His duty was to accompany his platoon on mine clearing missions. "Korea had a million miles of uncharted land mines," said Fly. "My platoon spent a lot of time going to areas to disarm mines so innocent farmers and children would not be accidentally killed or wounded." At this time Ralph began to see natives at a distance. "I was so overwhelmed by how primitive natives looked. They seemed to be poorly-clothed and malnourished," recalled Fly. Also at this time, he met a corpsman who had just finished his time on the front line. His name was David Mathias, brother of the Olympic Gold Medalist, Bob Mathias.
It was only a matter of a few days in Korea before Ralph saw his first dead Marine. He was a forward observer who had been killed by a sniper. The bullet entered the bunker slit and destroyed his head. Fly was not present at the bunker when the incident happened. Instead, the Marine was brought to the corpsmen’s indoctrination area. "My first impression was how inhuman the body looks in a slaughtered condition," recalled Fly. "I think I was pretty numb." Also during his first few days in Korea, Fly recalled that Corpsman Bradley was hit by a 75 mortar round. The enemy constantly harassed the Marines with this type of deadly fire. Shrapnel hit Corpsman Bradley in the lung and Fly believed he was evacuated to a hospital ship. Fly never heard what ultimately happened to Bradley.
One Great Marine
Like so many other green troops, Fly said that he was apprehensive about his tour of duty in Korea. "From the very first day I arrived in Korea, I felt extremely insecure wondering if I would be alive tomorrow. Each day seemed like a week, each week seemed like a month, and each month seemed like a year," he said. "My year in Korea seemed like a lifetime. And there were moments that I was petrified. But in spite of my emotional insecurity, I was somehow able to function." He said that for a short time, he did manage to lose his daily fear and gain some confidence. He gained it by being in the stoic presence of a man who was considered to be one of the greatest Marines in the division—both by his officers and the enlisted men.
"He was a very big man of Italian heritage (not big like John Wayne, but more like the comedian Jackie Gleason)," said Fly. "He had what the officers called a charismatic personality. And he had absolute self-confidence in his purpose and his ability to lead. Yet this World War II veteran was a gentle giant who led mostly with kindness and example. Gunny Lupo [Donald Joseph Lupo] did not boss with a strong commanding voice—but mostly with human understanding."
Lupo sometimes would stand briefly on the horizon of the MLR, Fly said. Sometimes he would casually walk in no particular hurry near the horizon of the MLR. "Seeing this man demonstrate such self-assurance gave each one of us a sense of security and feelings of great hope in returning home safely one day," explained Fly. "His example was so inspiring that I found myself accompanying Lupo on these walks. Our fate, our well-being, seemed to be connected with his. Gunny Lupo and I for some reason became connected as best friends." Fly doesn’t recall the names of any Marine officers in his platoon, not even the lieutenant. "The Lieutenant, Gunny Lupo, and I shared the same bunker, which was the platoon command bunker. I do recall the Lieutenant pleading with Gunny Lupo to always wear his flack jacket. Gunny sometimes would leave it behind in the bunker," said Fly.
Gunny Lupo started to teach Fly how to use some additional weapons, including the light and heavy machine gun. "He would affectionately say, ‘Doc, I am going to make you my star Marine.’ I took my turn standing watch at a machine gun position during the night just like the Marines. You see, Corpsmen are not required to stand watch, but it made me feel good to take part. He also taught me how to read military maps, locate positions on those maps, and how to communicate with those positions using the intercom system between bunkers and higher commands."
Fly was not only learning the ropes as a newcomer to combat situations, he was also experiencing the cold of Korea for the first time. While his company had the latest in cold weather gear, the men still got very cold. Shortly after Fly joined his company on the front line, the company began its march to the rear to be in a reserve area for a few weeks. It was a march that remained fresh in his memory for decades. "During that march, late at night (so the enemy would not be aware of our movements), we had a snow storm every bit as bad as our Pickle Meadows experience stateside," Fly recalled. "During the night, I had to drop my backpack and run to answer a call for corpsman, thinking someone might be hurt. For example, just before the snowstorm started, two men were getting very thirsty and dehydrated. The officers asked for permission to use chlorine tables to purify ditch water. I decided that the water was just too contaminated and the chlorine tabs would not kill all the pathogens. The ditch water in Korea was more lethal than any sewer waste you can imagine. I respectfully said, ‘No Sir.’ As I walked back to get my backpack, the snow started flying furiously. And as I placed my backpack on my back, the Marines were already out of sight. Though the snow was getting thicker and deeper, I followed my sense of direction, which had never failed me. As day broke, I was extremely thirsty from the long march. I spotted the reserve campsite and was looking forward to drinking some cold water, for in spite of the snow and cold, I was sweating. But all I found was hot coffee. I drank a pot full, spread my shelter half on the ground, placed my sleeping bag on top of the shelter half, got in and slept till noon."
While in this reserve area, which was located somewhere between a mile and three miles behind the lines, Fly accompanied the whole platoon to search for the many uncharted mines in the fields so that innocent civilians would not accidentally get killed or wounded from stepping on one. "I remember these fellows walking and looking down as if they were taking a stroll in the park," Fly said. "I was scared to death with each step I took, but these mine clearing men were very understanding. A Marine would say, ‘Step here, Doc. You’re OK if you walk over here.’ Later, when I got the hang of it and knew what to look for, I was more comfortable on these mine-clearing excursions. In fact, one day I was the only one who found a mine (but I didn’t dare to try to disarm one). The platoon back at camp bragged about how their doc found a mine. I also found duds—mortars stuck in the ground that did not go off," he said.
During their stay in the reserve area, platoons of men not only cleared away land mines, but also the company held classes for Marines in the use of weapons, and there was a practice amphibious landing. Fly’s only memory of this training exercise was that they all loaded up on ships and then landed on a small island. As the platoon’s only corpsman, Fly held first aid classes for Marines. He also sometimes accompanied Marines back on line to lay barbed wire. "While we were laying barbed wire," he recalled, "we received some incoming—but fortunately no one was hit."
The cold weather in Korea caused a bad outbreak of flu among the Marines who were "resting" in this reserve area that winter. "Some Marines ran high fevers," recalled Fly. "I was busy taking temps, forcing fluids and giving them APCs. Antibiotics did very little good. One Marine always had terrible headaches. I tried to get him to the field hospital for treatment, but I could not. The company had what you call a senior corpsman. I had to get permission from him first, but he never granted permission. I also had one man who had an inflamed prostate. I sent him to battalion aid for treatment."
God Made Honky Tonk Angels
Growing up in Missouri, Ralph Fly was used to seeing hills. When his outfit left the reserve area two to four weeks later to go to its assigned positions on the MLR, they came upon a region that was made up of bare, medium-sized mountains with small valleys in between. "The size of the mountains were comparable to the size of mountains one will find in the Missouri Ozarks," he said. "The Ozarks are one of the most beautiful regions on earth. In contrast, these Korea mountains were the ugliest imagined: scarred with trenches and marked with moon-like craters. Some bunkers were within the trenches, but our platoon command bunker was just over the ridgeline facing away from the enemy. I am sure there must have been some vegetation, but I don’t remember seeing any. I do remember that the soil consisted of red clay and had a continuous rotten-egg odor."
Gunny Lupo, the Lieutenant, and Fly resided at the Platoon Command Bunker. Even these many years later, Fly has some very strong memories of life in and around this particular bunker. Just a mere three feet by seven feet, this underground safe haven was near the top of a mountain. According to Fly, it had places carved out of both sides of the walls, where they placed their air mattresses. "We had an intercom system where we could communicate with the Marines in other bunkers and positions, and to also communicate with higher command along the line and behind the line." Fly learned how to stand by the intercom system, receiving and sending messages to the different positions in their area.
One day while in the trench, Fly heard someone singing the tune, "I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels." He left the trench to the safe side of the ridge looking for, but failing to find, the Marine who was singing the rendition. "Then I spotted a Korea Service Person," he said. "Korea Service People sometimes came to the MLR to help dig trenches and fox holes. They had a nickname of ‘Chiggie Bears.’ Why they were called that, I don’t know. But Chiggie Bear was singing in the most beautiful western style. I found out that he did not know a word of English. Some Marine had taught him to sing the song, or maybe he just imitated the words, and I doubt that he knew what the words meant," said Fly.
Fly also remembered that darkness and the still of the night sometimes provided fireworks to watch, as well as sounds of war that could actually lull combatants to sleep. "At night," he said, "sitting in the machine gun position you could see flashes of light and distant thunder rumbling as if it were a rain storm approaching instead of distant artillery at work. Bedded down in the bunker, the distant thunder could put one soundly asleep."
Some of the sounds, however, did the opposite. Fly recalled the first time he was subject to "incoming." During some very cold weather, he was with some Marines in front of the MLR who were laying barbed wire to make it more difficult for the enemy to penetrate. "The enemy would harass us with an occasional 60 caliber mortar round. The trouble with 60’s is that you don’t know that they are coming until they are almost upon you. They don’t make much of a sound until they hit. People that can hear them say they sound like wind gushing through the limbs of a tree. None for the next two days came even close to hitting anyone. But it made you alert, nervous, and insecure in your work," explained Fly.
During the first three months that he was in Korea, Fly’s company stayed in the same place, but there were night patrols. "Each night a squad was sent on patrol," he said. "The platoons would take turns furnishing a squad and a corpsman from that platoon. My platoon of mine-clearing men did not furnish a squad. Instead, it furnished one mine clearance person. This person would lead the patrol searching for mines to disarm along the trail. In addition, this mine-clearing person would set mine traps as cleverly as he could to wound or kill the enemy. I was never asked to go on patrol. I think the reason was that I was the only corpsman in my platoon of mine-clearance people, and they could not afford to have the platoon be without a corpsman."
The Death of Gunny Lupo
Fly described his experiences as a corpsman while in reserve and on line as "pretty routine medical-wise." On the MLR, most of the time he was treating no wounded, with one exception. He said they had mortar rounds landing in their area several times a day. His platoon drew a lot of mortar fire because in the mornings a tank would arrive near their bunker. "The tank would fire a lot of cannon rounds and then would retreat, leaving us to receive the return enemy mortar fire. Most of the time we were safe—Marines hidden in bunkers or laying low in the trenches." In between the incoming rounds, it was the corpsman’s duty to leave the safety of the bunker and run to the positions where incoming had struck to see if there were any casualties. Sometimes Gunny Lupo would accompany the corpsman, because Lupo wanted to quiet the nerves and jitters of his troops.
On one occasion, under what seemed to be light incoming, Gunny said, "Wait here, Doc. Let me check on the men. I’ll call you if I need you." And Gunny Lupo hastily left the bunker, leaving his flack jacket behind. "Within seconds after Gunny left the bunker, there was a very heavy barrage. Then I heard Gunny’s voice, ‘Oh Doc, I’m hit.’" Fly left the bunker to see only smoke and dust. Where was he? "Then when the cloud of dust and smoke began to lift, I saw him about 25 feet away from the bunker lying on his back," said Fly. "I ran to him. Shrapnel had stabbed him throughout his body from his shoulders to below his knees. Both arms had severed arteries. A Marine ran to where Gunny and I were to see if he could help. As I began applying tourniquets, I called out to the Lieutenant in the platoon command bunker for assistance, for there were too many bleeding wounds. After a moment, I wondered why he did not respond. Then I realized that I had been unaware of the high pitch whistling sounds of missiles sailing just above our heads. One could not be sure where the next one might light. Again, I yelled out at the very top of my voice: ‘Lieutenant, call for a copter. We need to evacuate Lupo immediately.’"
While this was going on, Gunny told the corpsman, "Doc, I am dying." Fly replied, "No, you will live. I promise." As luck would have it, one of the battalion surgeons arrived by jeep right at that moment. "I thought this unusual and against regulations for a battalion surgeon—so important for the welfare of the battalion—to come to the aid of a front-line medical corpsman. We called him, ‘Doc Dave.’ I believe the Doctor was there because he realized how important it was to save this sergeant. Now, I had real hope that my friend would survive."
In the distance, Fly heard the sound of the swishing blades of an evacuation helicopter. The front part of this small aircraft was shaped like a bell. And outside of this bell, there were two narrow platforms provided to attach stretchers, with one stretcher on each side. "Soon I saw the bell flying low in the valley, hugging the sides of distant mountain slopes so that it could hide from harm. The copter landed on a flat dirt surface just down from our position. I was so thankful that by this time the incoming had stopped." Doctor Dave and Ralph Fly worked together to save Gunny Lupo’s life, the Doctor giving as much reassurance as possible to the gunny sergeant.
Fly remembered a poignant moment when his injured mentor and friend was placed on the stretcher and readied for a direct flight to a hospital ship just off the coast. "Gunny said to me, ‘Doc, I love you.’ This took me by complete surprise," said Fly. "I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I had never heard of a man saying to another man, ‘I love you.’ I had no idea that I had meant so much to him. Maybe because I was so young and he was much older that he thought of me as a son. I found myself responding, ‘I love you, too!’ Then he said to me, ‘Doc, kiss me goodbye.’ By this time, I was a total mental wreck. I couldn’t seem to say anything. But finally I mumbled, ‘Later Lupo, when I see you at the hospital—then I’ll kiss you so that you can get well.’ But his last words before taking to the air were, ‘Too late, Doc. I’ll be dead by then.’ And gunny was right."
Ralph and the rest of the men in Lupo’s company did not know for some time that Lupo had not survived his massive injuries. "After Gunny Lupo’s evacuation directly to a hospital ship," explained Fly, "I did not hear anything for a while. But when I was rotated back to Battalion Aid, Doctor Davis broke the news to me that he had died. The news spread quickly throughout the regiment, for Lupo was the most respected Marine. I don’t know how long he lived." The whole battalion mourned Lupo’s death, for he was recognized as the greatest of all Marines. Everyone was so sad—officers and enlisted men. His death was everyone’s loss. "In the meantime," said Fly, "I felt that I had failed so miserably. To me, it was a failure of cosmic proportions. I felt like I had let the whole division down. For a few days I was completely silent, speaking to no one. In time I did recover my composure, and for the most part fulfilled my duties for the remainder of the war."
Many times over the years Fly thought about Lupo. "I know now that there was nothing that could be done to save Lupo," he said, "but it took decades for me to stop blaming myself. A friend like Lupo only comes once in a lifetime. That’s why it was such a loss." Just in the last year (2000), the Lupo family was found by Air Force veteran Larry Austin. Some of the guys (Karl Gross, Jerry Merna, and Ralph Fly) began a chain of Internet communications about Lupo that culminated in locating Lupo’s sister. Lupo’s niece, Christine Vetter, got in touch with the Korean War veterans who were trying to establish communication with the Lupo family. In conversing with her on the telephone, Fly said that Christine was so close to her uncle she often felt his presence. She said that it was no accident that two Marines, one Navy Corpsman, and an Airman—all of whom also felt Gunny Lupo’s spirit—were joined together in locating her uncle’s family. She told them that her mother woke up crying from a dream one night. When Christine’s father asked her mother what was wrong, she said, ‘Don just got hit and he is dying.’ Christine thinks that her mother had that dream the exact time that Ralph Fly was tending to Lupo’s fatal wounds.
In Peril at Battalion Aid
Fly spent the remainder of his time in Korea on the front lines behind the hills of Vegas, Carson, and Reno, not far from where the peace talks were taking place at Panmunjom. After his duties with the mine-clearing platoon came to an end, he was rotated back to Battalion Aid, just one mile behind the MLR. A battalion aid station, explained Fly, was a place for Triage. "On a routine basis, doctors and corpsmen treated Marines at ‘sick call’ for routine health complaints. In a combat mode, when casualties were brought in by jeep and helicopter, the battalion surgeon and corpsmen finished the treatment of wounds that the front line corpsmen did not have time to complete. The surgeon determined where the casualty would be sent next. If the wounds were extremely serious and needed the highest tech attention possible, the patient was forwarded by helicopter to a hospital ship. If the surgery needed could be handled by a field hospital, then the patient was sent there.
After Fly was rotated back to Battalion Aid, Doctor Davis and Doctor McCormick were his supervisors for the next three months. For most combat veterans, the words "rotating back" signify moving to an area which is generally a little safer than being right on the front line. However, it was while stationed at the Battalion Aid that Ralph Fly had his most frightening experiences in Korea.
Fly continued, "On the evening of March 26, 1953, the outposts of Vegas, Carson and Reno were overrun with thousands of Chinese. At the time, I was on duty at the Battalion Aid Station, one mile behind the MLR. While getting ready to treat an old gunny sergeant’s festering wound on his back with an improvised ointment of furicin salve mixed with the yellow powder of a broken Aureomycin capsule, I heard loud yells from the outside: ‘The Gooks have jumped off.’ This meant that the Chinese were overrunning our outposts and were now bombarding our front line." Fly recalled that he ran to the top of the hill. "There I could see it all—one mile down the slope—hundreds of exploding missiles that looked like one continuous flaming, smoking wall of fire along the MLR. It looked like the greatest of all 4th of July displays. These bursts outlined our front line clearly against the darkening, evening sky as the sun set. I wondered just how soon our first aid station would be overrun with incoming. Then the ‘exploding, flaming bursts of smoke and fire’ began to move closer and closer to our exposed positions."
At battalion aid, the men only had foxholes to jump into, but Fly said, "jump in we did. The Marines and corpsmen on line were in their bunkers and were relatively safe for the time being from the exploding missiles. We were in much more immediate danger. We had no safe place to conceal ourselves, except for our pitifully open foxholes. It seemed like the 155 missiles burst like lightning bolts striking the ground all around us. The concussions moved the earth like quakes of the severest magnitude. Myself, a sergeant, and another medic huddled in the same hole. One missile landed right next to our fox hole." The concussion and shrapnel blew up the living quarters that were right next to this hideaway. "I shook uncontrollably with fright, certain that death was here," admitted Fly. "The 155 (caliber of missile) has a loud, whining whistle which makes human ears pound with pain," he said. "The more intense the whine, the closer it might light. Many did land right within a few feet. Someone said later (though I really don’t know that for a fact) that the missiles were landing in the battalion area at the rate of 80 a minute."
After they landed, the inevitable happened. From out the darkness came the sounds of moans and cries for "Doc." "This is the time that a corpsman has to leave his shelter when everyone else can stay under cover," said Fly. "I was completely terrified and shaking uncontrollably—but I made myself move out of the hole until I was belly-crawling foot by foot across the ground where I found my first wounded. Missiles were landing nearby as I was attending to this wounded man. Each time a missile was likely to light, I hugged the ground as flat as I could so that the shrapnel would fly over and past me. Trembling, I examined the Marine, assessing his wounds to see if it was safe to give him morphine. I wondered if I could carry this man to the aid station just several yards away."
But the next thing he noticed was that there was a person next to him asking if he could help. The incoming was gradually going away, so Fly accepted the man’s offer of help to carry the wounded Marine to the aid station. "And we sought after more wounded and took them back to the station where the battalion surgeons were already at work," said Fly. "Then I realized that I did not recognize this person. Although in combat fatigues, he was outfitted a little differently. ‘Who are you," I asked. He replied, ‘I am a correspondent covering the war.’" Fly was surprised at his answer. "I thought, here is this person—this civilian—who didn’t need to, but was risking ‘all’. He was not a Marine or corpsman. Yet, he was so good in helping me. Today, when most people bash the media and condemn the correspondents, I will always respect the people who go out and get the news under the most stressful conditions. I never saw nor have heard from this correspondent again," said Fly.
Fly recalled that the next three days seemed surreal. "Doctors and corpsmen treated more than three hundred wounded over the next 70 hours." Patients arrived by helicopter, jeep ambulances, and personnel carriers. "We had no sleep during that time. We were so busy: the sun stars, and the moon seemed to race across the sky. When the wounded stopped arriving, I had actually thought only a few hours had passed. But, no, it had been about 70 or 72 hours." Though the wounded had all been treated, there was still no rest for Corpsmen Fine and Fly; because they had to race (in a personnel carrier) to the base of Outpost Vegas to pick up and identify the dead (Marines never leave their wounded or dead behind.). "The Chinese snipers could have easily picked us off—but they didn’t. There seemed to be a big pile of unrecognizable bodies and body parts. I began to search for identification. Immediately I found that I personally knew many—too many. My legs became weak and involuntarily I sat (or you might say, I just collapsed physically and maybe mentally) while Corpsman Fine and the personnel carrier driver finished the job of identification and loading the bodies. When finished, the carrier, with us, the bodies, and the body parts, raced across the valley back to friendly lines without incident." Many years after the war, former Corpsmen Fine and Fly talked about what happened at Battalion Aid on March 26, 1953. Fine told Fly that, besides the battalion aid area taking many hits that night, "There were five hits on the sergeant major’s office, mess hall, munitions storage, and the officer’s quarters."
And during major battles was not the only time that hits were made and Marines died in Korea. One of the mine-clearing experts in Fly’s platoon was killed by an "experiment." Personnel behind the lines had invented a new land mine that supposedly made it disarm proof. "I don’t believe the invention was tested properly," said Fly. "Our mine clearance men were always insecure about some new invention to try. They gave this mine to our Marine and said to him in theoretical terms, ‘This should work.’ On a night patrol, the Marine set the mine on a known Chinese trail. While arming the mine, it blew up. It killed the Marine instantly. In my opinion, that was an accident that should not have happened," said Fly. "The inventor should have been made to prove his own theories, and that the mine could be armed safely under nighttime conditions."
Sometimes Fly would learn the fate of his Marine friends only when they were brought to Battalion Aid for treatment. "One of the wounded explained to me that one or two Marines were taken prisoner. I discovered that many in my platoon were killed and taken prisoner while occupying one of the outposts."
The first treatment of the wounded took place on the MLR. There, the corpsman in the platoon would administer first aid. First priority was to stop bleeding from veins and arteries, usually with pressure bandages. It was also important to bandage sucking chest wounds properly, making them air tight so that the lung wound not collapse. "Next," said Fly, "you must determine if it is safe to give morphine. You cannot give morphine to a person who has a serious chest wound because morphine is a depressant and affects breathing." If the wounded man’s breathing is okay, the patient can receive morphine. Then it must be determined whether or not the wounds are serious enough to call in a helicopter. If not, the patient is taken to Battalion Aid by jeep ambulance. Lastly, before evacuating the patient, the corpsman writes on a tag the diagnosis and the treatment he has given.
Once the patient arrives at Battalion Aid, he is given penicillin and other injections. "The Doctor looks over the wounds to determine if further first aid treatment is necessary," explained Fly. "Sometimes some emergency surgery or treatment is required. Next, the patient is transported to a field medical hospital (like Easy Med), where more surgery is applied if necessary. Some wounded rest and recover at the field hospital. Some are transferred to a hospital ship for further treatment and recovery." Fly said that he believed the Navy’s system of treating the wounded was vastly superior to the Army. "I believe we saved 90 percent of our wounded," he said. "I think the Army’s rate of mortality was higher." Frequently patients were brought in to the Battalion Aid area one by one, but also, they often arrived in bunches after fire fights.
On occasion, medical personnel from Battalion Aid were sent on missions that were somewhat out of the ordinary. Just a few days after the Chinese overran the outposts Vegas, Carson, and Reno, four corpsmen were selected (by drawing the lowest cards in a deck) to go to the rear to plan and practice for a massive attack on the Chinese. "So here we were, out of battalion aid with an attack regiment ready to go in with Marines to push the Chinese back," said Fly. At this point in time, Fly attended his one and only church service in Korea. "Reverend Kelly, who was a regular guy and the best minister I have ever known, held a service I will never forget. It was all about how historically troops were faced with the same situation. He gave examples from the Revolutionary War—how George Washington’s troops faced the gloomy task of recovering ground. Somehow the sermon gave me peace and great strength," said Fly, "and I was ready for whatever it was. We prayed, and shortly thereafter, there was a miracle. It is not clear to me what happened next. Maybe it was that the Chinese withdrew their forces. The Chinese did not like to fight Marines, and often tried to avoid it. Or maybe it was the Marine forces in place pushed them back. I don’t recall. In any case, the attack was called off. Maybe those prayers helped. Otherwise, it surely would have been a blood bath."
On the Front Line – Dealing with the Enemy
Fighting was in the daytime and nighttime during the Korean War. Both Marines and the Chinese enemy set up ambushes on the trails at night. During the daytime, there were air strikes and artillery rounds fired back and forth. Once in a while, there was a raid on an enemy outpost in the daytime.
The enemy fought differently than Americans in that they fought in much greater numbers. "The enemy attacked in mass," explained Fly. "But we had much better and more powerful weapons that could annihilate large numbers of Chinese. For example, napalm dropped from the air." The standard weapon of the enemy was the burp gun. "It could fire many rounds," remembered Fly, "but it was not a powerful weapon. The Chinese also had concussion grenades. They could knock you over, but were not as powerful as ours."
The Marines in Fly’s company regarded the fighting skills of their Chinese enemy with a lot of respect. When he was serving in Korea, Fly noticed that the Chinese fought mostly from ambush when attacking patrols. They also sent many mortar and artillery rounds their way. In retaliation, Navy Wildcat fighters bombed the Chinese MLR, and American troops harassed the Chinese with rockets and artillery as well.
On the Front Line – Surviving Each Day
The amenities of daily showers and regular hot meals were non-existent on the front line in Korea. Instead, combatants and support units had to survive the best ways they could. The platoon command bunker felt very warm in the dead of winter, and Fly said he felt safe from incoming while he was inside of it. "We slept on improvised cots, always sleeping with our clothes and shoes on. Corpsman Fly and his bunker buddies were fortunate to have a portable Bunsen burner that they used to heat water in their helmets. "Using the helmet as a basin," he said, "we first shaved, then sponged off our bodies with the shaving water. About once a month, we could go to the rear for a shower and a change of clothes. This place was called ‘Changie, Changie’ because you changed into clean clothes after the shower. I remember the first time going back to the rear for a shower. Showers were set up in tents. It was the dead of winter and something like ten below zero. They ran out of hot water, and coming out of the showerheads was cold, cold freezing water. Marines and Corpsmen are brave—but not that brave. We bypassed the showers and changed into clean, dry clothes."
Hot water was not the only thing in short supply on the front line. Most of the time, Fly’s platoon was allowed to have only one hot meal a day. "You were allowed to leave the line a couple at a time to go the rear for a hot meal," he said. The "rear" where the hot meals were served was very close by the "front" (perhaps the length of two city blocks). All other meals were made up of C-rations. "I liked the C-rations a lot," said Fly. In the command bunker, Fly and his buddies used the Bunsen burner to heat the C-ration cans. "The can had to be taken off the burner every minute or so, and shook vigorously. Otherwise, steam pressure would build up inside the can and explode." Not surprisingly, for this typical beans and cornbread Missourian, his favorite C-ration was lima beans and ham. As with most of the men trying to find something palatable to eat in Korea, Fly did some trading to get what he wanted. "I would trade my hash and other rations for lima beans and ham. Also among the C-rations, we had canned fruit: my favorite was pineapple. Also, the Red Cross issued free candy and cigarettes. I didn’t smoke—so I traded my cigarettes for candy. In reserve, you had three hot meals a day. I thought the food was very good. You were issued a meat, green vegetable, potatoes, and a fruit for dessert for lunch and dinner. For breakfast, you had powdered eggs, which I didn’t like."
Fly recalled that the best thing he ever ate in Korea was fresh eggs. "At Battalion Aid," he said, "one of the corpsmen in our eight-man tent made a trip to an Army chow hall (the Army always had better food). He stole fresh eggs, bread, and butter. The next morning, I fried the eggs, toasted the bread on an oil stove in the tent that we used to keep warm. I served everyone fried eggs and buttered toast. Everyone was so pleased with my cooking. Corpsman Marhburn said, ‘Fly, you are a good cook. You remind me of my wife.’ But the fresh eggs that he served that day did not make up for Fly’s yearning for the stateside food he missed the most in Korea: fried chicken. "When I had R&R in Japan," he said, "I ordered a whole fried chicken and ate the whole thing. In fact, I ordered fried chicken at every meal while I was on R&R. I couldn’t get enough fried chicken."
The incident stealing and serving fresh eggs was one of Fly’s better memories of Korea. Some memories—such as his last minutes with Gunny Lupo—are painful, but cherished. "And there were real moments with Marines, doctors, and corpsman," he added. Corpsman Fred Mooney had a wonderful sense of humor, and he could come up with some good one-liners that broke the monotony and seriousness of war. Giving each other nicknames lightened things up a bit for the men on the front line. Fly had the opportunity to see a spectacular musical USO show once—the Horace Heath Show, which featured plenty of show girls.
Receiving packages and letters from home helped relieve the boredom of Korea as well. "There was this corpsman who received hot, sexy letters from his wife," he recalled. "He would read them to us and we would just be mesmerized with his love letters." At the beginning of his tour of duty in Korea, Fly only received the occasional letter from his mother and dad. "The first couple of months I used to envy the fellows who had wives and girlfriends who cared about them. You see," said Fly, "I didn’t date until I was a senior in high school or much afterward. Instead of dating, mostly I liked to dance and I went to many dances. I learned many dances and I became especially good at the Tango. In fact, I was recognized as the best Tango dancer at the St. Albans Canteen. At the time, the Tango was the rage. When I was stationed at St. Albans Naval Hospital, New York, I visited the St. Albans Canteen as much as possible to dance. What happened was after about three months, I started receiving letters from the girls that I had danced with at the canteen. I received letters almost daily. I loved every one of those letters, and I stopped feeling sorry for myself." He also received packages of candy or cake from the girls at the Canteen. He received a package from a girl he had met only once at the Hollywood Canteen in California. "In the package of candy was an attractive picture of her in a bathing suit. I kept that picture until I met my wife—then I discarded it. I thought it only right that I not keep any pictures of other girls when I was married."
During his time in Korea, Fly only saw one American woman. She was an Army nurse who made a brief stop at Easy Med to visit one of the doctors there. But though there were no American women to see, much less spend time with, there were plenty of Korean women around. They were not likely to be on the main line of resistance, but they could always be found in reserve areas. "All Marines and corpsmen (including myself) that I know of were involved with prostitutes at least once. There were two married corpsmen who tried everything in their power to stay faithful—but eventually they caved in too. There was just too much temptation," Fly said.
He hesitated to use the word "prostitutes" when referring to the girls who offered sex in exchange for food or money. "These poor people were just trying to survive," Fly said. "The only time that these girls were able to get in our Easy Med area was when we moved Easy Med to a different location. Easy Med was moved to three different areas while I was there. When setting up a new E-Med site, several corpsmen and Marines were assigned to set up hospital tents, clinics, and sleeping quarters. This took several days. I was never assigned this duty, but those that were told me that in this open and unsecured site, village girls tagged along constantly with the workers, and slept with them at night."
Young and innocent American men often came back from Korea a whole lot more worldly than they were when they left stateside USA. "On my first day on the new site, which was not yet secure, a corpsman friend of mine wanted to go to the village across the creek. He definitely had sex on the mind. I had never experienced sex, and I was very insecure and nervous. At the same time, I was very overheated at seeing the girls in the village. While there I decided that I was not going to have sex, but the girls were all over you and they kept begging. My friend pointed at me and yelled, ‘He’s a virgin, and he’s a virgin.’ The girls started rubbing up against me, and I caved in." The girls and the two corpsmen had kind of a little party there. Two of the girls started singing one song after another, and they sang China Night—one of the most beautiful songs that Fly had ever heard. "China Night was played on the radio often in Korea," said Fly. "Listening to these girls sing China Night was a real moment that I will always cherish." But after that night, Fly never returned to the village.
The Quality of Medical Officers
Ralph Fly said that he served under many good officers. "Dr. Davis and Dr. McCormick were extremely good men," he recalled. "These officers, unlike Marines, socialized with the corpsmen and took part in corpsmen celebrations. We would get together and drink together sometimes," he said. "One time a Marine officer ordered the corpsmen of Battalion Aid to fill sand bags and stack them in the form of walls around sleeping quarters. (Many of the sleeping quarters were eight-man tents.) Even though these medical officers were not required to do any of this work, they joined the corpsmen and helped build these walls of sand bags."
Occasionally, a corpsman would have to go back on line for a patrol or be a replacement, and somebody would have to be picked. "Traditionally," said Fly, "the medical officer brought out a deck of cards. Each corpsman had to pick a card. The corpsman that picked the lowest card had to go back on line on a patrol or be a replacement on line. One particular time, Dr. Davis did not bring out the deck of cards when it was requested a corpsman be selected for a patrol. Dr. Davis disguised himself as a corpsman and went up on line to go on patrol. The people on the MLR did not realize that they were getting the battalion surgeon for a corpsman. As it turned out, the patrol was cancelled, but this shows you how wonderful these doctors were." Doctors Davis and McCormick had a nickname for Fly. They called him "The Senator." He said he didn’t know why, except that perhaps it was because he was "the serious one."
Maybe smoking a pipe gave him a serious look. Fly had picked up some bad habits during his time in Korea, including the habit of smoking a pipe in the winter. He acquired this smoking habit as the result of the Red Cross giving the men pipes and pipe tobacco on a regular basis. He didn’t, however, smoke a pipe to get a buzz from the nicotine. Instead, the simple fact was that holding the bowl of the pipe was warm in the hands, he said. He also did a lot more drinking in Korea than he had done stateside. The Marine Corps gave the men in his platoon a beer ration of about a case a month. They also had brandy and some strong "190" alcohol that was available at battalion aid. Fly had not been drinking for very long before he was shipped to Korea.
Rotated into Easy Med
Sometime in April, Fly was rotated to Easy Med. There was an administration building that looked like a small Korean building. An "L" shaped structure (a medical ward, surgical ward, and a surgical unit) was also on site. There was a chow hall building where meals were served. Corpsmen lived in tents that had living spaces for eight or ten men. There was also a cave in the side of the mountain. "In the hot summer time, when I had ward night duty," said Fly, "I slept in the cave, for the cave was cool. It was like having air conditioning." There was a well within the perimeter of the camp, but the water was not fit to drink. Instead, it was used to keep beer cold.
Easy Med was just like a hospital, explained Fly. "There was a place for surgery and wards to care for the patients. You had an X-ray department and laboratory. There were no female nurses—just corpsmen, doctors, a chaplain, and a psychiatrist." Dr. Birney Dibble was Fly’s commanding officer for about two weeks. Dibble was rotated back to the States, and Dr. Graham replaced Dibble as CO of Easy Med. Graham remained Fly’s CO until Fly was rotated back to the States. "I did not have personal contact with Dr. Graham, but I remember he ran a very relaxed field medical hospital. As far as I can recall, Dr. Graham did not require his corpsmen to salute him or any of the medical officers."
At Easy Med, medical officers and corpsmen socialized together to a limited extent. "We had drinking parties and consumed a lot of alcohol," admitted Fly. Years later, watching a scene in the movie Platoon, where a rowdy bunch of drunken solders were high on drugs and were singing, Fly was reminded of some of the parties they had at Easy Med. "Except we were high on alcohol," he said. "Doctors hung out with doctors and corpsmen hung out with corpsmen," said Fly, "but occasionally doctors and corpsmen hung out together."
Growing up in Missouri, Fly had not known a lot of different people and cultures. In Korea, he met all kinds of new people. "I met an Italian and learned about their favorite foods and about his culture. I met a Greek. I formed a friendship with a black corpsman. I grew up in the time of segregation and did not have any black friends before meeting Danny Bowles." Bowles, Sterling Forman (now deceased), Harvey Fine, Fred Mooney, Alfred Freda (deceased), Gregoria, Goodfellow, and Daughtery (deceased) were Fly’s closest friends at Easy Med.
Those corpsmen looked out for each other. One day, the Army delivered truckloads of wooden flooring for the wards and living quarters at Easy Med. According to Fly, Army MASH outfits often had luxuries that were not available to Navy-operated medical units. "For example," he said, "they had wooden floors. We only had dirt floors. They had ice cream and wonderful desserts with their meals. We did not." Fly asked Corpsman Berman why they were getting wooden floors all of a sudden." Berman told him that Corpsman Jagger had complained in a letter to his cousin, actor Dean Jagger that the Army had this and the Army had that. Jagger mentioned the lack of wooden floors at Easy Med. Apparently; Dean Jagger was a personal friend of President Eisenhower. Dean took the letter to the President, after which President Eisenhower sent a direct order to get those wooden floors over to Easy Med. Fly said that he has tried unsuccessfully for years to find Corpsman Jagger and confirm the accuracy of this story.
Another of his strong memories of Easy Med concerned a dead little Korean girl about the age of eight. Her body was brought into Easy Med after it was found on the side of a road. "An autopsy was performed, which I watched," Fly said. "When they started dissecting her intestines, Dr Graham revealed two large balls of worms that looked like spaghetti. I remember feeling very sorry for the child."
Also during his time at Easy Med, Fly had the opportunity to see some of the natives up close, and learn how they lived. "There was a Korean man who came to Easy Med to give haircuts, and there was a Korean man who came to gather our clothing to be washed by the villagers. I sometimes would try to communicate with the village children who visited us at the fence barrier. Sometimes I would give them candy, and one time I gave a little girl my sunglasses. I also took some pictures of children in Seoul. I saw what appeared to me to be a very primitive society. Shacks covered with straw. Fields of rice paddies fertilized with human manure. Villagers were very dependent on the military for money, favors, and work. I did not participate in the clinic, but after the war was over, hundreds of villagers (men, women, and children) were medically treated by our doctors."
There was a Life Magazine event at Easy Med during the months Fly was assigned to it. The feature in Life appeared in the August 10, 1953 issue, with the words "Death in the Gaza of Prayerful Men" as the headline of the photo story. "I had duty that night on the adjoining ward," explained Fly. "I was not in the photo session, but I watched the staging of the scene. The corpsmen in the photos were Sterling Forman, Alfred Freda, and Fred Dowding. They are all now deceased."
Ralph Fly has strong memories of his involvement with "Little Switch"—the first large exchange of prisoners in the Korean War. "One nice, honorable thing that happened to me in Korea," said Fly, "was that I was selected to be part of the medical staff on the first day of the prisoner exchange called, "Little Switch." This happened in April of 1953 while the war was still hot. At the time, I thought this was making real history because I have never heard of a prisoner exchange while a war was still on. Years later I learned this has happened in past wars and was not unusual." The site of the prisoner exchange was near Panmunjom.
"There were countless numbers of reporters, cameras, and high ranking generals," he said. "I wore an arm band with the letters RAMP (Repatriation of Allied Military Personnel). There were four lines of tents, each line representing different groups of nations. I was assigned to Line 3, which was the one that processed British and Commonwealth repatriated prisoners of war. Line 1 and 2 processed US prisoners, and Line 4 processed all other repatriated prisoners. In the front of each row of tents were two flags. Line 1 and 2 displayed the US and UN flags. My line displayed British and Commonwealth flags. Like I said, there were generals everywhere, and I was surprised when a friendly Commonwealth general struck up a conversation with me while we were waiting for the repatriates to arrive."
Fly’s Line 3 was the first to receive a repatriate. The prisoner was a French Canadian who was paralyzed on the left side. "While the doctors were examining him," said Fly, "generals from other sectors came rushing over to take a look. Corpsman Foreman was trying to assist the doctors, but being crowded where he couldn’t see what he was doing, he got annoyed and started to say something rude to (of all people) General Mark Clark. Lucky for Corpsman Foreman, he recognized the general and held his tongue."
According to Fly, all the prisoners who came through his line were tight-lipped and did not say much or answer the questions he asked them. "They seemed to be in very good shape and in good health. My guess is that these prisoners were treated good for this occasion," said Fly. Later that day, corpsmen in the US lines told Fly that they had seen some of his old platoon buddies who had been taken prisoner during the Vegas campaign.
On Being a Combat Corpsman
As already mentioned, there are times when a corpsman had to leave the safety of his foxhole or bunker to reach a wounded Marine. The corpsman’s duty was and is to save lives, even if the enemy rounds are still falling. Fly found himself in the most personal danger in Korea at battalion aid, when the incoming was hot and heavy and a Marine was calling out that one simple plea for help: "Doc!"
Corpsman Fly remembered the incident even after the passing of nearly fifty years. "My whole body was shaking and my hand was trembling so bad. I remember afterwards saying to myself, ‘All right, I was very, very scared, and I thought I would be killed. But I performed in spite of being scared to death.’ I know (with that Marine calling for help) that if I had stayed in that fox hole, I would never, never have been able to live with myself for the rest of my life."
Later at Battalion Aid, the conditions under which he treated wounded Marines were more favorable in terms of relative safety from enemy fire, and he said that he knows he helped save many lives there. "We always had plenty of supplies, but when the outposts were overrun, and we had hundreds of wounded come through Battalion Aid, the lack of sterile needles and syringes was a problem. We had cans of water boiling that we dropped the needles and syringes in after washing them. After we sterilized them, we used them again." The medical staff at Battalion Aid tried to treat wounds using the best sterile techniques possible, but when these floods of wounded arrived, "proper technique" was replaced by "make do." For example, Fly said, "At times we were so busy that we had to chuck sterile techniques and hope that the antibiotics that we administered would kill any potential infection." He said that the company also badly needed a better vaccine for the flu. "The vaccine that we had in Korea was ineffective," he said.
Rest and Recuperation
When the war ended, Ralph Fly and a group of Marines were given five days of Rest and Recuperation (R&R) in Japan. Fly explained that the Marines had a much more accurate description of R&R. "They called it I&I—meaning ‘Intoxication and Intercourse’—for that was the main purpose of R&R," he said. It was a time to throw the cares of war away, stop thinking about death and destruction, and just have the time of their lives. Not surprisingly, many Korean War veterans don’t openly reflect (certainly not with their wives and children) on this fling in Japan. Fly talked about it, albeit in a self-conscious manner.
"I went on R&R in the late summer after the war had ended. A group of Marines and I were flown to Kyoto, Japan. The plane that we flew in had the nickname, ‘Flying Boxcar,’ because it looked something like a square railroad car. The uncomfortable cabin was not pressurized, and we had to wear parachutes. We arrived late in the night at the Kyoto base. We were required to shower and have shoes well-shined, but the Marines were in a state of excited frenzy. They rushed through the showers in less than ten seconds, and barely shined their shoes. At the gate, cabs were waiting to take the Marines to hotels. I was the last one out, and the Marines had already left. There was one cab left and the driver said, ‘Get in, Marine. I will take you to hotel and there will be nice business girl for you.’ (Japanese pros are known as business girls.) I said to him, ‘Look, I don’t want to be pressured into taking a girl right now. I just want a hotel room.’ More than anything, I wanted to go dancing. I loved dancing that much."
He found out soon enough that he couldn’t get a room in a hotel without a girl. He sat for a while in the lobby until an attractive Japanese girl in her late twenties (dressed in beautiful American clothes) came over to him and spoke to him in fairly good English. "After talking for a while and getting acquainted, I registered myself and "Jo" for four or five days," Fly said. "In the hotel room, we embraced. I had forgotten how wonderful it was and how good it felt just to hold a woman in your arms. And we stayed embraced for several minutes." His new-found friend interrupted the poignancy of the moment by bringing the veteran combat corpsman down to earth with, "You smell. You need hair washed. You need bath."
The Japanese beauty led him to a room that was attached to a bathing area. While Fly was experienced treating wounded combatants, he was relatively inexperienced in sharing intimate moments with a female. "There she removed all her clothes. I don’t believe I had ever seen a woman completely nude before, and I stood there staring and speechless. She caught me staring and winked at me. She said, ‘Take off clothes, now.’ She repeated that statement several times before I started to remove my clothes. Before entering the tub, which had the dimensions of a large square hot tub, she washed my hair and bathed me as though I was an infant that couldn’t do anything for myself." Clean, hair combed, and dressed in kimonos, the two walked in the hall back to their room. They met three of her girl friends while making the short journey. "They started talking excitedly and they were looking at me. Jo smiled at them and said a few words before moving on. I asked Jo what they had said. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘they say you very handsome. They wanted to know if you were a movie star. And that I was very lucky.’ Now at that time, I had somewhat of an inferiority complex and not a lot of self-esteem—so those words were music to my ears."
Through Jo, Ralph learned a lot about the Japanese. "I found out that the Japanese are very thankful, polite, clean, emotional, easily hurt, and very, very honest. I remember I found Jo counting the money in my billfold. Now, I didn’t know that she was budgeting my spending and she was concerned that I was spending money too fast. She wanted to be sure my money would last all five days. But I misunderstood and snapped at her. The tears started running down her face, and she said, ‘I never steal. Just want money to last.’ I just melted and I was so sad that I hurt her feelings."
Right away Fly wanted to go dancing, but Jo told him that she didn’t know how to dance. He said that her eyes got big and excited when he told her that he would teach her how (starting with the Tango, of course) right then and there in their room. "I taught her how to follow. I taught her a couple of Tango steps, a couple of swing steps, and a couple of Fox Trot. She was so excited and giggled happily. Then she started laughing. I asked her what was funny." Jo reminded him that they were dancing with no clothes on.
Not long after that—fully clothed—Jo and Ralph were drawing attention at one of the local nightclubs. A couple of Jo’s friends came over to the table and wanted to know since when did their friend become a dancer. At the same time, a couple of the corpsman’s Marine buddies came to the club. They spotted him and came over to the table. One said, "Doc, we have been looking all over for you. We were worried about you. But here you are with three girls. We don’t have to worry about you anymore." They left to find their own fun.
Corpsman Fly was learning more and more about women on this R&R. "I found out that Japanese women are a lot like American women. Jo loved to shop! I mentioned that I needed to buy a gift for my mom and dad. Her eyes got big and she said, ‘We go shopping.’ She picked out a gift for dad, for mom, and I let her pick something out for herself," said Fly. "On the last day just before I was to return to base, Jo asked me for my picture. I slipped one out of my billfold and gave it to her. She wrote on the back of it, ‘Handsome like a movie star.’" For Ralph, and so many other veterans, R&R was an opportunity to make up for lost joyous moments that they should have been having back at home. "Kids should not have to fight wars," said Fly. "They should be home going to dances and going to college. Fortunately, I did not have to go back on line."
For Fly, his time in Korea was almost over when he returned there after his R&R. Still, he was skeptical that the war that had ended just weeks earlier, was well and truly ended. "My fear was that it would start again any time," he said. "That fear and insecurity was with me day to day until I was on the ship going back to the USA."
As their replacements arrived, groups of Korean War veterans ended their tour of duty in Korea. Each month a draft was rotated home. Fly said that he was very happy to leave, and counted the days until it was his time to leave—like a kid counting the days before Christmas. "I wasn’t going to believe I was out of Korea until I was on the boat," he said.
Because nearly fifty years have passed, Fly doesn’t remember now what the exact procedure to leave the country was back then. However, he has a letter that Corpsman Fred Mooney wrote to him while Mooney was waiting to board a ship. Fly said he was sure the procedure was the same for his own return to the States one month later. Mooney’s letter stated, "A little run down on what has taken place so far. We went from H&S by trucks to Moon Son Hnee, where we naturally waited two hours for the train. They had to load us to bring us down here. We arrived in Ascom after a two-hour ride. There were some 2,000 Marines and corpsmen. We are assigned numbers which denote how we board the ship. Mine is 1,887. So that puts the corpsmen boarding last, but I believe we are to leave the ship first. On the clothing all of us whose sea bag was lost are getting new bags, but they contain minimum issue which we were told to bring with us to Korea. The green trousers and shirts that were needed to complete the cold weather bag and we all turned in and received no receipt for what we have to buy. You can get them here, have the money charged against your pay and later, you can put in a statement requesting reimbursement of them. If the request will go through or not, I don’t know."
Mooney’s letter to Fly continued, "One sea bag we carry aboard and one goes in the hold. That’s all you’re allowed. They don’t have to be sea bags, but just two pieces is all we are allowed. Your greens are to be carried aboard or you won’t be able to have the first night liberty in San Francisco. This, by the way, is only for one night so they tell us. Apparently you don’t need blankets. We are turning them in. They also ask to have everyone turn in all souvenirs and weapons, and if they are legal souvenirs they are to be returned in S.F. Any money you have over $150.00 has to be given to you in money orders, but they are taking up our MPC and giving us receipts for which can get the good ole green backs on the ship. That’s about all that happens here. We were dusted here, and our ten day therapy on primaquine and quinine was started. They give it to you at chow every night and initial your little slip which you have to turn in after treatment is complete. Oh, yes, stateside we are to get $150.00 or $100.00 whichever you have the closest amount earned up. If you have more, you can draw it."
Ralph Fly left Korea one month after Mooney, on November 3, 1953. His rank was Hospitalman (HN). In order to advance in rank, a corpsman must take a test proving that he has advanced his medical knowledge. Unfortunately, while Fly was in Korea, no tests were given. Harvey Fine, Ben Gregoria, and Alfred Freda were his shipmates on the return trip. For the most part, he remembered the mood on the ship was one of happiness and excitement. The monotony of the 28-30 day trip was interrupted with the occasional mopping, cleaning, and movies. When the ship arrived off the shore of California, the troops gathered on deck at 5 a.m. to watch the lights of San Francisco in the pre-dawn darkness, and waited to go under the Golden Gate Bridge. "That was an exciting time," he said. "We cheered as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge." There were no bands, nobody to greet the returning warriors, no anything. But within 24 hours, Fly was processed off the ship, granted liberty, and was dancing at his favorite dance place in Oakland, "Lin’s." His Korean War adventure was over.
Duty in Hawaii
For the next few weeks, Fly enjoyed a thirty-day leave. He flew to Tacoma to spend about twelve days with his mother. When the plane landed at Sea/Tac airport, she and Ralph’s stepfather were waiting to see him on the edge of the field. "They were very happy to see me," Fly recalled. "Mother seemed to be very proud of me. She worked for the Tacoma Credit Bureau, where she got me some dates with some of the girls that worked there. The dates were just going to dances and nightclubs. My aunt Mildred and mother couldn’t get over how much I had matured in just one year—that I didn’t seem to be the same person. I didn’t know exactly what they meant, but they seemed to think that I had the demeanor of someone in his late twenties."
After a few days in Tacoma, Ralph took a train to Joplin, Missouri, to visit his father and friends for another twelve days. He had good experiences with his father during that visit. "Dad treated me like a buddy," he said. "Dad seemed to be younger and in good health. He never looked so good. He was only 43, but he died about five months later of a heart attack."
The most positive aspect of his trip back to Joplin was that he met his future wife at that time. His best friend in Joplin, Raymond, was in the Air Force and on leave at the same time. "He had just married a lovely Puerto Rican girl, Awilda," said Fly. Awilda’s family moved to Joplin from Puerto Rico when Awilda was a sophomore in high school. Ralph spent some time with Raymond and Awilda, and was introduced to her parents, Victor and Eleonora. Since they could speak some English and Ralph could speak some Spanish, they liked each other right away. While Raymond, Awilda, and Eleonora were running an errand, Ralph stayed behind to visit with Victor. "Suddenly, this beautiful girl entered from another room. I couldn’t believe anyone could be so beautiful," Fly said. "She was slim, had dark hair, and had dark eyes that sparkled all the time. And she seemed to smile all the time, too. She introduced herself as ‘Cookie.’"
Ralph was instantly smitten with the dark-haired beauty. On the return trip to his father’s place, Ralph told Awilda, "Your sister is a slick chick." Awilda was not pleased with the comment and told him so. However, Awilda’s husband Raymond knew that Ralph was interested in dating Cookie and the foursome double-dated that night by going to a movie. "What I will always remember about that date is this," said Fly: "Cookie was holding a bag of popcorn in her lap when a little girl about three or four years old who is sitting in front of her turned around and reached for her popcorn. Cookie let the little girl eat her popcorn." Ralph dated Cookie every night until his leave was over.
Reluctantly, when his leave was over, he left Cookie behind and took a bus back to Treasure Island to await his new assignment. He and several other corpsmen found out that they had orders to go to Tripler Army Hospital in Oahu, Hawaii. "I did not want to go to Hawaii. I was in love with Cookie and I didn’t want to leave the states. Besides, the Navy had promised a stateside duty for any corpsman that served in Korea. The Navy broke their promise."
Fly spent the next 13 months on Hawaii. There, he was assigned to a neuro-psychiatric unit—a separate building from the main hospital called, "Little Tripler." He was one of several corpsmen, army medics, army and navy nurses, and army psychiatrists assigned to work there. "It was not a job where one would get a lot of satisfaction," he recalled. His job was mostly to just watch over the patients, getting them dressed and bathed, and occasionally feeding them as well.
The mental patients had mental derangements of various kinds, remembered Fly. "Some were homicidal, some suicidal, some had anxiety disorders and Schizophrenia, to name a few. The patients were military personnel and dependents of military personnel. What I recall about them is that some were violent and hard to manage. Some were kept in padded rooms. What sticks in mind is when one went violent, the tremendous strength they had. It usually took three people to hold them down and restrain them."
Sometimes Fly assisted the doctor with electric shock treatments. "I learned that the patient was injected with a medication to stop breathing and relax the muscles, otherwise the convulsions would be so severe that the patient could break bones." After the electrical shock treatment, the patient was given oxygen to re-stimulate breathing. "It was scary sometimes," recalled Fly, "because we had to get the patient breathing within five minutes, otherwise you would have brain damage. But every time, things turned out okay. From my observations of patients who received EST, the treatments did no good. They seemed to be clear-thinking for a while, but later they would be worse. In those days, there was no such thing as oral medications for mentally disturbed patients. There was very little that you could do for them."
Some of the returning war veterans had big plans for their lives, including one of Ralph’s corpsman friends. "In conversation he laid his entire life’s plan before me," Fly said, "including going to college, his career after college, and when he intended to retire. It was only a few days after we arrived at Tripler that he went swimming somewhere in the ocean. He dived off of something high, hit his head on something hard under the water, and broke his neck. I visited him in the hospital. He was paralyzed for life—his dreams were all gone. For a while, I was wondering if it might be bad luck to dream about my future."
With a war behind him, Fly discovered that he had lost a lot of his youthful zest. "A lot of things I used to enjoy—like dancing—gradually lost their appeal. I did drink a lot and hang out at bars on Hotel Street in Hawaii. I also spent a lot of time on the Beach. One time I saw Danny Kaye standing on the beach. I liked his movies a lot and as a youth growing up, I thought he was everybody’s friend. I spoke to him and he was very rude. He wanted me to get lost. I guess he was having a bad day, but I never went to see another movie of his."
About this time, while stationed at Tripler, Fly was tested for possible hearing loss. He had noticed the loss in Korea, and figured it had something to do with exploding missiles (incoming) in Korea. "I was tested by an Army doctor at Tripler," he said. The doctor told him that he did, indeed, have some loss, but his advice to Fly was, "Just listen closely and you will be all right."
When his enlistment was up, he had no desire to re-enlist. "I wanted to move on and do something else," he explained. "Besides, corpsmen can only be so lucky. Other wars will come along, and there you are on the front again." He had actively served his country from June of 1951 to June of 1955. Now he was in love with a young lady whose eyes sparkled. "I wanted to marry Cookie," Fly said. "I wanted to go to school and become a physical therapist. But after three years of college, I became interested in Chemistry."
Now a veteran of combat, the Korean War had changed Ralph Fly. He noticed it, and so did his family and friends back in the States. "I went over to Korea as a silly-acting, young, immature person who wanted to be back in the states having fun," he admitted. "I lost something in Korea. I don’t know what you call it. All I know is that when I came back to the states, there were these comments: ‘You look so mature. You look so serious.’ And the worst of all—one person said, ‘At times you look cold-blooded. You scare me." He said that at the time he did not think that he felt cold-blooded, but later came to realize that there were some suppressed emotions that kept trying to surface.
At the age of 21, he also discovered that he was not the only veteran—particularly not the only veteran corpsman—who returned from combat with emotional problems related to his wartime experiences. "I was asking myself: Why did two corpsmen (one who went home several months before I did and one on our ship going home) commit suicide? They should have been very happy to be back home safe with their families. They should have been having a wonderful life. And I wondered, were there more?"
Fifteen days into his thirty-day leave, Fly began to feel restless and uneasy. The feeling persisted several days, in spite of his efforts to shake it. "Then without warning, an extreme sad mood came over me—just like when Gunny Lupo died," he said. "I was by myself in a restaurant. I had ordered a complete meal that promised to be exciting and fun-tasting. Then, with my knife, I cut into the steak and the blood flowed from the barely-cooked meat. I could not eat and I must have been slumped over for some time, my face almost touching the plate when a soft voice asked: ‘Would you tell me what’s the matter?’ Though I appreciated her concern, I shook my head." She asked Fly to join her party, but he shook his head. "With her arm around my shoulder, she asked the same questions over and again, pleading with me to show some response. She talked to me for the longest time. I think from the sound of her voice, she was hurting for me." The good Samaritan finally left Fly to his own thoughts, including new ones. He said, "Why did I feel so low, when this should have been one of the happiest moments of my life? All my life I had been a mild, rather shy person. So why was I so hostile and angry?"
Fly recovered within a day, but he said he was losing his youthful zest for life and becoming a very serious-looking person. "Maybe it was that "look" that made some people think I was cold," he said. As the years passed, with the exception of some outbursts of uncontrollable anger that Fly admitted, "hurt the people dearest to me," he became outwardly well-adjusted. "I married a kind, beautiful woman, and I had three well-adjusted children. I was successful because I developed a strategy for controlling my emotions: I did not want to lose control. I stopped drinking completely." When "terrible feelings" started to come over him, he would take a jog or a run in the streets.
It was not until the late 1970s that Ralph Fly was able to pinpoint what was causing those terrible feelings. In 1950, the marvelous invention called "television" was very new. When the next war in Asia broke out—the Vietnam War—its returning veterans made national news on television screens in nearly every home in the country. "Post War Stress Syndrome" was a topic on television that caught the attention of Vietnam, Korean War, and World War II combat veterans alike. "I listened carefully as they described the symptoms," said Fly. "I realized that I had many of those same symptoms. But that raised a big question in my mind. Why should I have PWS? Many Korean War Marines and many Korean War corpsmen went through a lot more than I did, and they were just fine. After all, I wasn’t in the war when it was the hottest." Not until the 1990s did Fly have some of the answers to his questions.
Before joining the Navy and becoming a corpsman, Ralph Fly was a house painter. When questioned for this interview about how it is possible for an average man to adjust to such a drastic change in lifestyle (civilian in a peaceful country to combat corpsman witnessing a lot of death and dying in the Korean War), his reply centered around a book he happened to read in the 1990s. Called Real Moments, its author is Barbara DeAngelis. Fly said, "Experts say ‘when the student is ready, a teacher will appear. Or, there comes a moment or window in time when a troubled individual will be teachable.’ That moment came to me when I was about 62 years of age. Have you ever read something and just knew the author was talking to you personally? That his or her spirit seemed to be right next to you, guiding you? That’s the way I felt when I read the book, Real Moments. I learned so much. I learned that every event happens for a reason and that everyone has a purpose. I learned about making connections with others. I learned about what intimacy is. I learned that real moments are all around us. While reading the book, I was learning how to pay attention and how to find joy in things that I instinctively enjoyed so much as a youth."
The book moved him so much; he decided to write to the author. He told Ms. DeAngelis: "I started reading the book from the very beginning—learning so much about myself. But the real moment of change in me did not occur until I started reading Real Moments and Work—until I read the following words, How I Got Lost on the Way Home and Up Against the Wall." In that chapter, the author shares with her readers her pain and disappointment as a counselor. "Certain phrases of her personal experiences brought tears to my eyes," said Fly. "Certain words of hers took me back again to that mountain top in Korea; and, again, I became that overly sensitive boy. Her words that made me cry were: ‘What I didn’t see was that by believing my purpose was to help people, and having a job where I did exactly that, I set myself up for a lot of pain and spiritual torment¼because I thought my purpose was to save the world, I took any sign that I wasn’t doing that not just personally, but as a cosmic disappointment.’"
Fly said that he realized that those words of her experience applied fully to him. In the chapter, she talked about a trip in the mountains with her husband and some of his business associates. There was a wall for climbing and this required team work with climbers connected to each other with rope. The team could not progress up the wall without the full participation of each team member. But she felt badly because she did not have the strength and the skill to help her teammates. She had to come down from the wall, causing each team member to fail in reaching the top. Reading this chapter spurred Fly to write to DeAngelis, telling her, "I felt every moment of your struggle with the "wall" and I cried with you when you said, ‘I now realized, probably for the first time in my life, that no matter how I tried, how much I pushed myself, how intensely I wanted it, I could go no farther.’" In Korea, it was Ralph’s duty to save lives. "I set myself up for decades of spiritual pain," said Fly. "I took the failure to save a life personally."
The former combat corpsman said that he thinks each and every one of us in our lifetime has faced a situation where we needed to succeed at all cost. "For example," he said, "maybe a mom is trying desperately to save her child from drugs, but as hard as she tried, the child died of an overdose. Is it any wonder that this mother will feel failure and torment for years? Or the wife trying to save an alcoholic husband she loves dearly, but fails to convince him to lead a sober life? Possibly as hard as that wife tries, and as much as she wants it, she cannot save her husband from alcoholism and possibly death."
For Fly, what happened to him occurred when he was younger than his years and not ready to face losing the closest friend in his life—Gunny Lupo. "Here was a person helping me to grow as a person. He was a very wise man and my mentor. For example, I remember Gunny Lupo saying to me several times, ‘Doc, I am going to make you my star Marine.’ I think that is one reason why it took me so long to find inner peace. I lost the person I needed the most at that time, and I blamed myself. I felt that I didn’t try hard enough to save his life when, in fact, I was powerless. There were just many serious wounds."
Fly said that Barbara DeAngelis made him realize that he had "real moments" with Lupo, and that he should feel good about the fact that he got the chance to say goodbye to his friend and mentor. "Many people often do not have the chance to say goodbye to the most important person in their life. It took so long to find peace because I was not ready to forgive myself. Some experts say, ‘When the student is ready, a teacher will appear.’ I was ready."
Life after the Navy
The same month that he was discharged from the Navy, Ralph Fly married Eleanora (Cookie) Medina from Puerto Rico on June 26, 1955. "What I remember after leaving the Navy," said Fly, "was that I was highly motivated to start a new career, and nothing could stop me. I was in love with the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and I wanted desperately to be a success." In his post-military career, Ralph Fly got what he wanted. He married the love of his life. He attended two years of junior college, and one half year at Saint Louis University, working in hospitals while going to school. Ralph and Cookie also had three children—Ralph Fly Jr., Bonita Fly Ross, and Alan Fly.
Ralph Sr. settled in the chemistry profession until age 50. Starting as a sample carrier, he then became a lab tech, then chemical analyst. He was a research and development chemist when he retired from that career to begin a new one. He and Cookie had a dream of having their own business. In order to do that, he went to a trade school for one year, taking business courses that included typing and word processing. Their business started out as word processing and accounting, with Cookie doing the accounting. It evolved into a desktop publishing business using dedicated computers and software. At age 62, Ralph "semi-retired," but has stayed partially in business ever since.
Health problems have kept Ralph and his wife busy over the past few years. Ralph has had six coronary bypasses, and Cookie has had two strokes (with good recovery). Ralph and Cookie have also helped other close family members who have their own health problems. "It is not a stress-free retirement," Ralph noted.
Reflecting on his college years, he said that the other students’ outlook on life differed from his because of his Korean War experience. "But not just students’ outlook," said Fly. "Hardly anyone understands how fragile life is and that it can end anytime—unless they have seen it taken away from others right in front of their eyes. I found that most people had no idea how precious their gift of life is and they should not waste it."
Final Reflections on Korea
Reflecting on the United States’ involvement in Korea, Fly said he didn’t think President Truman had any choice but to send American troops there. "Communism was on the march and in those times there was much fear of communism," he said. Although he felt that Truman had no choice in his response to the aggressive attack on South Korea, Fly believed that MacArthur had a choice. "We had already met our goals. It would have saved a lot of pain and suffering if he wasn’t so ambitious." Historians say that by not including South Korea in the realm of United States’ protection, we encouraged North Korea’s aggression. "I agree with that," said Fly. "Also, our troops were not trained and ready." Fly said that his strongest memory of Korea is the terrific contrast he saw between one of the poorest nations in the world—Korea, and one of the richest—the USA. He said that too many people back in America didn’t appreciate how blessed they were to live in a country of prosperity. At the time he was serving in Korea, Fly did not think it was a country worth fighting for. "But I was a kid then and could not see the whole picture," Fly said. "Now I see the wisdom of saving the country. It stopped communism dead in its tracks and the communists never tried to crash a border again."
Another strong memory of his time in Korea centers around an elite group of men who were heroes to Fly’s way of thinking. "I consider Gunny Lupo, Dr. Davis, and Father Kelly heroes because they not only did not show fear, but they were also able to inspire confidence, emotional strength, and lead with human understanding. They never showed panic or anger. Among corpsmen, I would have to say Corpsman Fine, because Fine volunteered for everything—including retrieving our dead at the base of Vegas."
This is what the Korean War produced: CASUALTIES. Unlike the television comedy series M*A*S*H, the reality of the Korean War caused its medical personnel to be serious and professional. "It was not a very good time most of the time," said Fly. "Of course there were light moments—we had our beer busts once in a while. But generally, treating and caring for the wounded was no comedy." Fly watched the TV show only a couple of times. "I thought the show trivialized the Korean War, giving the general public the impression that it was some kind of party. When I think of the M*A*S*H TV show," he said, "I think, ‘No wonder the Korean War is called the forgotten war.’"
The nickname "the forgotten war" came about for a number of reasons, explained Fly. "First, it was called a police action. The troops there were called policemen. Second, because TV made a comedy show called MASH; some people believed that the Korean War was a fictitious event." Also, the Vietnam War started up not too many years after the last of America’s Korean War veterans rotated home, and the nation focused on a long new war that lasted some ten years. The fighters of the Korean War, said Fly, were the smallest generation (depression babies), so they were sometimes called the ‘quiet generation.’ "The Korean War generation had already lived through some of the hardest times of our history and nobody wanted to complain about their sacrifices after their fathers and uncles made greater ones. We veterans wanted it to be the forgotten war as well. For decades I had forgotten about the war, but in my early sixties, I began to have bad dreams and have a lot of guilt."
For Ralph Fly and other veterans who served a tour of duty in it, the Korean War was a war they will never forget, even if others do. "A degraded country now has self-respect," said Fly. "It is a free country with a world class economy. It is a modern country that is no longer primitive. It is a country where women no longer have to sell their bodies for food and shelter for themselves and their families." He thinks that American troops should remain in South Korea for a little while longer—at least until we are assured that North Korean will no longer attack. "We don’t want to go back and do this all over again," he cautioned.
When he left Korea, Ralph Fly had a number of questions in his mind. Included among them was why the powers that be back in the States hadn’t thought of using helicopters to rescue Americans who were hurt in highway crashes. "Today they do have helicopters that rescue people on the highways. Also today, we have physician assistants. Did this idea somehow come about from the example of well-trained Navy corpsmen on independent duty? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did," Fly said.
While he was in the Navy, Ralph Fly found out that he did not like ships. "If I had a choice," he said, "I would have been an FMF Corpsman for my entire four years. Marines considered the corpsmen Marines. Even today they invite corpsmen to their reunions. Marines and FMF Corpsmen have a special bond. FMF Corpsmen often see themselves separate from regular Navy corpsmen." The uniqueness of the FMF Corpsman was explained in an article about them in a 1952 issue of a Marine Corps Magazine. "The corpsman has a working knowledge of medicine and does not merely dispense simple first aid. While on independent duty he is considered a doctor without a medical degree. Marines in Korea had accepted him as their type of man and is evidence by the affectionate, ‘Hey Doc.’"
Once a Corpsman, Always a Corpsman
Even though nearly five decades have passed since he was a corpsman, Ralph Fly still finds himself "thinking like a corpsman" in his civilian life. "Have you ever considered what Marines mean when they state: ‘Once a Marine, Always a Marine’," asked Fly. "Maybe what they mean is that a Marine continuously applies his military attitudes and skills to civilian life or occupations," he said. "I think this applies to corpsmen, too."
Fly said that he finds himself making sure he has medical supplies for long car trips. "I find that some people after all these years still ask me for medical opinions—even though I explain that I am not a doctor. Family and friends still want to know my opinions regarding their illnesses. I even have a neighbor or two bringing their children to me to look at their cuts and bruises."
About five years ago, Ralph had chest surgery. He had six coronary bypasses. "I had a good time talking to my surgeon about my experience on a TB surgical ward when I was in the Navy. I explained to him that in the olden days, the only way you could for sure cure Tuberculosis was to surgically remove the infected lobe of the lung. In some cases, the entire lung was removed, leaving only one lung."
Fly not only could carry on an intelligent conversation with his heart surgeon about the medical profession, he also carried over his knowledge of surgical equipment, acquired during his corpsman’s experience, to his chemist’s laboratory. "Even as a Chemist," he said, "I have adapted my corpsman attitude in certain work circumstances. For example, chemical laboratories have always used old-fashioned, very slow, screw claps to tighten or un-tighten rubber tubes connecting laboratory apparatus. I introduced the use of the hemostat to two different labs in my chemical career.
In the early 1960s, I worked in a production lab that extracted and purified the element "Germanium" from large amounts of ground-up ore that had already been processed for zinc and lead. This was a very dangerous place to work because we worked with large quantities of Chlorine gas. This gas was fed to large, jumbo-sized glass containers that were already mixing with ground-up ore and other chemicals heating to very hot temperatures. Sometimes rubber tubes would break, releasing Chlorine gas into the building. The nearest tech would hold his breath while screw-clamping the feeding end of the tube so that he could make repairs. Sometimes a tech could not hold his breath long enough and would be exposed to some Chlorine fumes. I introduced the hemostat by demonstrating that the feeding tube could be clamped shut instantly with the hemostat.
In the mid-1970s, I was an R&D Tech Specialist for Gulf Oil Corporation, working on a new process that promised to make this country energy independent. We were learning how to produce gasoline and oils from coal. But most important, we were learning how to dissolve coal into a solvent, extract impurities, and then re-solidify the product into a clean, non-polluting fuel to be used in furnaces to produce electric power for industry and homes. This new product was called SRC (solvent refined coal). Here again, I introduced the hemostat. The Chief Chemist liked the idea so well that he ordered large quantities of hemostats to be used with various testing apparatus in the laboratory.
In 1979, still thinking like a corpsman, I researched and produced a 3200-word study of "Why Rotating Shifts Sharply Reduce Productivity." In the study, I explained a number of health problems. That shifting the sleep and work patterns cause sleeplessness and gastric distresses. Family relationships are damaged or strained because the worker is irritable, negative, and listless. This listlessness brought about by the disruption of the body and mental functions seems to attack the very essence of good work. In other words, the loss of efficiency and productivity is due to an artificially-produced stress—stress which causes body rhythms to be forced out phase. My study was published by the magazine, Supervisory Management". According to Fly, a person not trained in medical matters might not make as close an observation or think about making a study of the effects of changing one’s work and sleep cycles every seven day. "I had been thinking the "corpsman way" all these years—and I didn’t even know it. Once a Corpsman, always a Corpsman."
Don’t Do It!
Ralph Fly’s final comment in this interview is a message for fathers who pressure their sons or daughters to go into the military in order to become a so-called, ‘real man or woman.’ His message is this: "Don’t. Military life’s circumstances might make your son or daughter an unfeeling, insensitive person. I don’t think it is too unusual for those who stay in the military to become alcoholics, not to mention perhaps suffer death from a training accident or war." Referring back to an earlier comment in his interview, Ralph repeated that youth is for dancing and romancing. War participants will experience some "real moments" that will forever remain with them, but "war is not a good time," he said. "With luck, you survive it. Unfortunately, the unlucky die."
Comparison of World War II Medics and Korean War Medics
The war experiences for Navy medical corpsmen in Korea were much different than the war experiences of medics in World War II.
World War II Army Medics:
Note: In the following four paragraphs is information from the magazine: American Heritage article "Medic" by Stephen E. Ambrose. I don’t remember whether or not I copied the text word for word. Originally I meant this to be read by family only and I was not too worried about giving credit.
This is no wonder when you consider they were required to wear a big red cross on the arm band and a brightly displayed red cross insignia on their helmets. Fortunately many Germans in the European theater respected this and tried not to harm medics treating wounded solders if they could help it.
In the Pacific theater that was a different story: The Japanese specifically targeted medics, who were clearly marked with their red cross banners--demoralizing many fighting units.
From this I believe we learned from World II that we could not make medics easy targets. We had to make them invisible to give them some kind of chance. But how? The Marines had the answer.
Korean War–The Invisible Medics:
Lets look at this scenario: The Chinese sniper well hidden in a depression on the hillside stocks the marine patrol as it approaches. The sniper hopes to take out the Navy Medical corpsman and disrupt the mission. But there appears to be no corpsman to target. Where is the corpsman? Unlike World War II army medics who wore a Red Cross Insignia upon their helmets, Navy Corpsman wore no such insignias.
The Navy medics attached to the Marines in Korean wore no insignias to give away their purpose. Sometimes the Navy corpsman may be outfitted in combat fatigues, possibly wearing sergeant strips, or the insignia of a private or corporal-–and he is well armed. As much as the enemy wanted to assassinate the corpsmen in order to disrupt the moral of the unit, the enemy had no way of telling who was the medic and who was the combatant. The truth was this: corpsmen were combatants and medics. Combatants when the fighting began, medics when the cries for "Doc" began.
The second big difference is in the standards of training, conditioning, and education. Army medics in WWII probably had excellent training in first aid. But first aid only. In contrast, Navy corpsmen had approximately a year's medical education if you include all the following: 20 weeks of intensive study (8 hours a day, six days a week), all in the regular college pre-medical courses: anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, materia medica, laboratory testing, X-ray training, minor surgery, sanitation, field hospital setups, and much, much more. In addition to that, Navy corpsmen had 8 weeks training in field medicine under simulated combat circumstances. The corpsmen were also required to have an internship for several months in a naval hospital and some were filled with some of the worst victims of war and unusual diseases. This was more than enough to give a corpsman an enormous amount of experience in treating wounds and disease. The corpsman had great respect from his Marines--officers and enlisted men alike.
Corpsmen could practice independent duty, if needed to, in the absence of physicians. He could prescribe medicines and treatments under certain circumstances. In fact, you might make a loose comparison with the skill and training of today's physician assistants to Navy Corpsmen. And I would not be surprised if the idea of the Physician's Assistant did not somehow evolve from the idea of a Corpsman on an isolated, independent duty station on some far away outpost or submarine doing a tracheotomy or an emergency appendectomy.
In addition to that, corpsmen after finishing their year of intensive education were required to attend medical lectures one day each week for an hour or two, providing they were not occupied with other responsibilities in a combat. But even in combat, the battalion surgeon would school corpsmen whenever possible.
On independent duty, the corpsman had the power to give orders in medical matters to any person of any rank--even generals or admirals. As stated in one article write-up from a Marine Corps magazine in 1952:
The third big difference is in the background. Navy medics were not conscientious objectors or volunteers. Many before entering the Navy were pre-med students already, some were Chiropractors, some were male nurses, surgical technicians, and medical technologists. But many, like myself, were selected from groups taking tests to determine if they had an aptitude for this type of duty.