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Thurman J. Nichols
Bamberg, South Carolina -
"I can only remember snapshots of the things I took part in. Maybe it’s for the best. There is no need to relive all the horror I witnessed. For years I woke up at night seeing all those things that a seventeen year old should not have to go through. "
- Thurman Nichols
Shakespeare called memory "the warder of the brain”--charged with keeping an individual’s personal account of being. Whatever that means, it should be a sentry of keeping one’s personal records. After sixty years it is hard to remember many of the things that happened in detail to a seventeen year old young man who served in the Korean War. The older I get, the less I can remember exactly how all these events took place. I do remember that I was there and took part in these bad events. Few seventeen year olds today could handle these things and keep a sane mind in later years.
The year 1950/1951 was a year of extremes--the coldest time of my life. It was also one of the darkest times in American history for the soldiers on the Korean peninsula. Today I blame it all on America’s hero, General Douglas MacArthur. Or was he? General Douglas Macarthur caused many American deaths in the Korean War. He wanted to push all the way to the Chinese border and even suggested dropping the atomic bomb on North Korea. He made his own rules and wouldn’t take orders from Washington. That little fault eventually led to his downfall.
President Truman called the Korean War a "police action". Others called it a "sour little war". But to those who served in Korea, it was a battle for survival. Today it is largely forgotten. The Korean War lasted 37 months and 33,686 died in just three years. The Vietnam War lasted ten years and 54,246 Americans were killed. The Korean War had about twice the combat death rate per month as the Vietnam War. It was a short, violent, bloody struggle.
I can only remember snapshots of the things I took part in. Maybe it’s for the best. There is no need to relive all the horror I witnessed. For years I woke up at night seeing all those things that a seventeen year old should not have to go through. The following is my story.
This country was in a great depression in the year 1932. That was the year I was born. I was born on October 27, 1932, in a small, four-room house on Panola cotton mill village in South Greenwood, South Carolina. My parents were Albert Thurman and Reba Brabram Nichols. My mother and father and all of my uncles, aunts and grandmother on both sides of the families worked just to pay the rent and put food on the table. I can only remember seeing my father and mother together one time, and that was when my brother Carlton was born. I was only three years old.
From that time on I made my rounds from relative to relative. Each time, my worldly possessions were put in one brown paper sack. I guess times were so hard that no one family could keep me very long. I remember that when I was about six years old my grandmother and Uncle Jasper came and got me. I didn’t even have a pair of shoes, so Uncle Jasper took me downtown in Abbeville, South Carolina, and bought me a pair. Oh, how proud I was of them! I lived with my grandmother up until a few months before her death. At that time she gave me the only love that I had ever known. I remember dearly the day I left her to go to live with my mother in California. I guess Grandmother knew that she was dying and could no longer keep me.
I have no desire for anyone to think that what I am about to write is a means to blow my own horn. My purpose is to write down from memory some of the most outstanding events in my life. The actual dates are getting harder to remember every day, but I will start out now from the time when I was living in San Francisco, California.
Life in San Francisco
I went from South Carolina about 1941 to San Francisco to live with my mother because my grandmother was very ill and could no longer take care of my brother and me. She died a few months later. There I was, leaving the only true love of my life and going to live with my mother, whom I had never really known, and her husband W. D. McCurry. He had never married before and had never known children in his life. He always made me feel that I was an intruder in his life. In one sense, I guess I was.
To this day I can never remember seeing my mother in church. At that time, my only memory of church was when I was living with my grandmother. I guess the only true values I received were from her. My mother was working as a pipe welder at Bethlehem Shipyards, and I was on my own most of the time. I never knew what it was like to sit down at the table for a family-style meal. Most of the time, if I wanted something to eat, I had to fix it myself.
I was also on my own as far as school. I now know why I didn’t get an education. Who cared? My mother never asked to see my report card, and I signed her name on it myself. I tried to go to school regularly up to junior high. I loved to read, and read a book a week for several years. I think back now that reading was the only education I received and I had to get it on my own. As I said, what the heck. Who cared?
At the age of fourteen I hitchhiked across the United States. My step-dad resented me so I was on the road for six weeks, sleeping in barns and whatever. I had 50 cents in my pocket, yet I never went hungry. I had relatives in South Carolina that I went to visit and I worked for six months in the oilfields of Denver City, Texas.
I had just entered the tenth grade when the conflict with my stepfather began to get worse. I was at that rebellious age and he was going through a marital conflict with my mother. One day they had a spat and he told me to pack my clothes and hit the road. I was just barely seventeen, did not have one red penny, and had no place to live. I was poorly educated and scared to death. A friend put me up for a few weeks and this gave me time to think my situation over. The Korean War had just begun and they were looking for any young male that could creep and crawl. The only alternative I had was to join the army. This is where my story begins.
There was an enlistment station on Market Street in San Francisco. I was homeless and broke so I went and told them I was eighteen years old. (I had just turned seventeen and I forged my mother's signature on the enlistment papers.) It was November 1, 1949. They must have been hungry for young bodies, for they signed me up immediately. I was given a fast physical and sworn into the army. No one was turned down that I saw. That afternoon, a few more enlistees and I were put on a bus and sent to Fort Ord, California. My military life had begun.
Before dark we were issued a set of fatigues and assigned a barracks. I slept very little that night. The next morning we were aroused before daylight and were told to get dressed and fall out on the company street. We then were marched to the mess hall for breakfast and then marched to a building for a brief orientation. Afterwards we were issued a duffel bag of clothes--none of which fit me. The drill instructor then told us it was time to get a haircut and we were marched to the barbershop. There must have been ten barbers cutting hair. One of them asked me how I wanted my hair cut. I told him, and with about ten swipes with his clippers I was almost bald. He had the nerve to charge me fifty cents. In ten minutes he must have run fifteen men through the chair. Each one he asked the same question: “How do you want it, Son?” I saw one who looked like a hippie with long hair get almost shaved bald.
Next we were marched to the medics. We had to take off all our clothes. There were medics in two rows. We got shots in both arms and before I knew it, I got popped in the butt with one. I don’t remember how many shots I got that day, but I could hardly raise my arms for several days afterwards. We were issued partial pay of fifteen dollars. After being broke for so long, it seemed like a fortune. One thing that stands out about military life is that I was always broke. Some of the fellows wrote home for money and got it. For me, that was a useless proposition.
We must have stayed at Fort Ord, California for about four weeks. Then we were put on a bus and shipped off to who knows where. We were unloaded at Camp Cooke, California. This had to be the beginning of “Hell” week for us. My serial number was RA19383399. The first two numbers stood for regular army, which meant that I had voluntarily enlisted. If a serial number was proceeded by “US”, that meant you were drafted. If it was ”NG”, that meant National Guard.
The California National Guard had just been activated because of the Korean War. There were not enough men to fill out a company, so Regular Army and Draftees did the filling. I was assigned to I Company, 224th Infantry Regiment, 40th Infantry Division, California National Guard. The first sergeant, who was a master sergeant, was only nineteen years old. No one in the company was less than a corporal. They were angry because they had to go in the army, and the ones who had voluntarily enlisted felt the blunt of their frustration. If there was any way to degrade a person, they did it.
After two months at Camp Cooke, the entire division got orders to be shipped to Japan to finish our basic training. At San Francisco, two thousand men were put aboard a ship designed to hold about seven hundred. It was the U.S.N.S. General R.L. Howze, a World War II troop ship. The bunks were six high and we had to rotate to sleep in them. Less than two weeks after we left the States a hurricane hit us. We had to spend two days below deck and everyone onboard got sea sick. I'm glad I was young when we made that trip, for I couldn't do it today.
After fifteen days at sea and one typhoon, we landed in Yokohama, Japan. We were then loaded into trucks and sent to Mount Fuji, where we lived in tents and took our basic training for one month. Then one morning they announced, "Anyone who wants to volunteer for Korea, raise your hand." My hand was the first to go up. Going to war never crossed my mind. I just thought that going to Korea was my best way out of an outfit that made hell for U.S. Regular Army men.
The next day I was on my way. At the time I thought that many of the things that we were ordered to do did not make sense. Now that I am older, I realize that a great lesson came out of my military training. Before then I had never known what discipline was. I lived my life only for today and to heck with tomorrow. Each lesson I learned in the military holds true today. One regret is that I probably won’t get the opportunity to go back and see through the eyes of an adult all the things I saw then as a teenager.
Assigned to 3rd Division
We arrived in Korea in mid-September 1950 after the Inchon Invasion. After getting off the ship we were again put in trucks and sent north. I was assigned to Headquarters Company, US 3rd Infantry Division, Reconnaissance Company. Leaving the 40th Division for this reconnaissance company was a good decision for me. They were a great outfit, although we never knew what hardship lay ahead of us. I was quickly to learn what reconnaissance meant. From the day I arrived there we were trained in how to kill a man with our bare hands. Our main objective was to gain information about the enemy, no matter what. This company had one of the largest casualty records in the whole division. (They did not tell us this at that time.)
In late September in Korea it was still warm, but it got very cold at night. The days were sometimes beautiful, but the nights were so cold that we had to use kerosene heaters to warm our tents. We were sent out on patrols every day all in different directions to see if the roads were open and if any enemy was around. Sometimes we were out on patrol as long as ten hours at a time, and sometimes when we arrived back to the company area the mess tent was closed for the night and we had to eat C-rations.
Patrols were a daily grind for us. We went through bombed-out villages and traveled a lot of dirt roads. In order to check the roads we had to use maps that were in Japanese. (The Japanese controlled the Korean people for many years before the Koreans gained their freedom from them.) These maps were not always accurate and sometimes a road that we were checking suddenly ended in a rice paddy. Day after day we went on patrol way up into No Man's Land. Sometimes we were out overnight and had to sleep in the open. I remember one time we stayed out so long without sleep that when we came back to the company area they had someone stand on guard duty watching over us so we could catch up on some long overdue sleep.
What I'm about to write is enough to chill your blood. Nine men from our company were sent out on a patrol mission. Two days went by and they never returned. We were ordered to go look for them so we backtracked to where they were supposed to have gone. There must have been two feet of snow on the ground. We spotted what we thought was them. They were lying in a small valley about five hundred feet from the main trail. They were all dead--ambushed by the Chinese. If the Chinese spotted a patrol, they covered themselves with snow and when the Americans got near them they ambushed them. We lived in constant fear that it would happen to us.
After seeing the nine dead members of our company, I was afraid we would be ambushed also. We couldn’t just leave them there so we tied a rope around their feet and two of us pulled them up the hill to the trail. They were all dead and frozen solid. One by one we pulled them up the hill and lay them by the trail so someone could pick them up with some sort of track vehicle. I can still see those poor guys even today. How could anyone forget such a thing?
The Big Mistake
Being one of the world’s most super powers, one would think that we would have the best intelligence operation in the world. Think again. In 1950, MacArthur had the idea that we could walk through North Korea in just a short while. He said the Russians and the Chinese would never intervene. With our technology and the United Nations support he figured we could win the war with no opposition. Long after the war it was found out that Russian pilots were flying MiGs against American pilots in dog fights. I personally stood on a hill and could see them dog fighting and could hear their machine guns firing. I never saw any of them shot down or who was winning. So much for our intelligence at that time.
The Chinese were feeling threatened as the war was closing in on their border. Without the U.S. intelligence knowing it, the Chinese began building up their crack troops--what seemed like millions. It was the worst time of the year with snow waist deep in places. Both the Chinese and the Americans were ill-equipped for such a mass campaign. In November 1950 the Chinese swarmed across the border at the Chosin Reservoir at night and caught the Americans completely off guard.
Get in the Damn Truck
Patrols continued for our recon company as the weather turned colder. We were never in reserve more than a week. Then came the winter offensive at the Chosin Reservoir. Early one morning a convoy of trucks stopped at our company area. I was told by a sergeant to get on the truck. I asked him where we were going. He replied, "Don’t ask questions; just get on the damn truck." Because I was so immature I just went without question. The Chosin Reservoir campaign was the fieriest battle ever in history and there I was in the middle of it. Thanksgiving 1950 the temperature plunged to twenty below zero. We soon found out that the Marines were trapped and surrounded, and we were being sent in to help rescue them. We went in on the backs of tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The Chosin Reservoir area of North Korea in November/December 1950 had to be the most inhospitable place on earth. It was bitter cold. The wind howled. Snow fell so dry from the dust from the road mixed within yellow clouds that seemed to swirled about the column of trucks. The truck started out slushing in the snow, climbing higher in the mountains. Then we hiked for several hours. My boots were soaking wet and my feet felt like they were frozen. My butt was wet from sitting in the snow resting. How miserable can you get? We didn’t know where we were. I guess if we knew what was ahead of us it may have been different. We had been programmed to follow orders without question.
The temperature was about twenty below zero and it was impossible to keep warm. Our clothes were left over from World War II and were not designed for that kind of cold weather. A sergeant came by one morning and said, "Any problems, Nichols?" I told him, "My firing pin keeps freezing up. I poured shaving lotion on it, but it keeps freezing." "What’s next?", I thought. Iceland and Greenland would seem like tropics compared to that hell hole. Even an Eskimo would be out of place there. I remember well the fierce, bitter cold and wind swirling around all the time. The snow was so deep that it was difficult to wade through. Our faces were the only place exposed. I had a stubble of whiskers streaked with dirt. I could feel my lips cracked and they hurt. I kept thinking, “Lord, get me out of here.”
As we went in to the Chosin Reservoir area, I saw dead bodies everywhere--both American and Chinese. It was so cold that they were frozen solid. We rode out with about twenty men clinging to the sides of each tank. I wonder today if any Marines would admit that the Army saved their butts. At the time, they sure were glad to see us.
History will tell you that the Chosin Reservoir campaign was one of the biggest battles we had experienced since the Second World War. In it, 836 Marines died and 12,000 Marines were wounded. There were also 2,000 Army killed in action and 1,000 Army wounded. It was estimated that 35,000 Chinese died. It was one battle we could never win, compelling all the Americans to retreat south. I, personally, was there. If you could interview all the men that were at the Chosin Reservoir, you would find out that 99 percent of them have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Taking a pill will not take away the horror they took part in. (I am one of them.)
Two days later we were on bunker detail on the front lines. We rode on a gook train until the tracks ran out, and then they put us on trucks. It was snowing like hell. When the trucks couldn't go any further on the snow and ice, we had to walk.
My squad (three of us) was in a bunker on the side of a steep hill for maybe two days. I never did see any reservoir--only snow. The bunker was a cut-out in the terrain. It was lined with logs and there was an opening to see out about two feet. Inside we could hardly move around. We couldn't stand up inside and I hurt all over from being in a cramped position. It was muddy inside and we were dirty from our head to our feet. At least we were out of the wind, but that was little compensation.
One day it had been rather quiet all day. But just at sundown we began to hear a bugle playing out in front of us. A few minutes later we heard another from a different direction, then it became deafeningly quiet. Someone shot up flares so we could see what was happening. The Chinese were yelling and were like ants coming up the hill.
All hell broke loose. I remember shells going off and machine guns opening up all around us. Someone called in artillery on the Chinese, and mortars began exploding. We fired everything we had. We could see tracers every few seconds, and all around we could hear explosives. Flares went off every few minutes. I could see nothing, but I heard every sound possible. It was an awful racket. This must have gone on for an hour. I don’t know if we hit anything or not, but we had eight clips of ammo in our M-1's and we fired them as fast as we could reload. I was shaking all over--both because it was so cold and because I was afraid. I don't think anyone will ever know what fear I felt that night. I don’t think any seventeen year old boy in America today can relate to that kind of fear.
Remember--I was just a young 17-year old kid. When there was a short lull in the fighting I decided to crawl out of the bunker to see what was going on. All at once a mortar round went off. It was so close to me that the blast lifted me right off the ground. I felt blood running down in my eyes and my head felt like it was about to explode. My right leg was numb and my left hip was in sharp pain. That was the last thing I remembered for a while, because I blacked out. When I came to, a medic was wiping the blood off my head. “Boy, you look like hell,” he said. He checked my wounds and gave me a shot of something to deaden the pain, and the next thing I knew I was on a stretcher being carried to a truck.
I remember there were about fifteen other guys in the truck, all on the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. The truck was in a long convoy snaking down a very narrow trail. There was no room to pass, for the trail was too narrow. All at once I heard a sharp bang. I asked what it was and someone said they had pushed two trucks over the cliff because they had stalled and were holding up the rest of the convoy. It must have been a two-hour truck ride.
I was shipped to the 223rd Evacuation Hospital south of Seoul. I was washed up and my wounds were checked. I remember someone taking tweezers and picking shrapnel out of my leg and hip and out of a bad wound over my left eye. Luckily no shrapnel had penetrated my skull, although the force of the mortar blast had knocked me unconscious. A doctor at the evac hospital said that I wasn’t hurt too badly. He said that most of my wounds were minor and were probably caused from shrapnel when the shell hit. After they picked out eleven pieces of shrapnel from me, they stitched me up. I stayed there about three days.
While I was there, two men came into the ward and wanted to ask me about the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. I could hardly hear them, for I had temporarily lost most of my hearing. One of them said, "You know, you'll get the Purple Heart." They left and I never saw them again. Nor did I ever see a Purple Heart while I was recovering from the mortar blast. The Purple Heart was never given out unless we were half dead.
The casualties were coming in hot and heavy, so they decided I was well enough to go back to my company. I had a few bandages, but they said our company medic could handle them. They issued a new set of fatigues and a new carbine to me, and told me to hit the road for the 3rd Division Headquarters. I made up my mind after this experience that no one had better call me "boy" again.
Back to My Company
I hitched a ride with a truck driver to my division headquarters on the other side of Seoul. When I finally made it back to my company and reported to the company clerk he questioned me, "Are you Corporal Thurman Nichols?" I said, "Yes, it's me." He told me to wait right there and then an officer came in and asked me the same question. When I told him yes he said, "My God, Nichols. We didn’t know if you were dead or alive. You were reported missing or dead. Well, I’m glad you are back." I found out that ten men in my company had been killed the night I got hurt and a lot more were wounded. (They said that ten percent of my company was either killed in action or wounded in action, and months later I found out that we had almost been up to the Manchurian border.) They were shocked to see me because I had been listed on the company roster as dead or missing in action. It was a shock to me also. "Well, here I am," I said. I was issued the Purple Heart with two battle stars, for what they are worth. Many years have passed and these memories just won't go away, even though the government has well-compensated me in my later years.
Back at 3rd Division Headquarters I was told that what was left of my company had been shipped to Koje-do Island to help put down an uprising with Korean prisoners. They arranged truck transportation for me to get to Pusan, and then I traveled from there by ship to meet my company at Koje-do.
Koje-do was a small island just off the east coast of South Korea. It was being used to keep Korean and Chinese prisoners in a large stockade. Before our company got there, the 70,000 prisoners held there had rioted and taken control over the camp. The prison camp was a mass of confusion. Our captain called us together and explained about the prison uprising. He said that it was now our job to go in and break the prisoners up into smaller groups. It never really sunk in just what we were there for. We were given orders like trained sheep and we followed them, no matter what.
The only sleep I had was the night I was aboard ship on my way to Koje-do. At Koje, we stood guard all night. At sunrise we could see the compound clearly. A loudspeaker was blaring for them to come out peacefully. Some came out with their hands on top of their heads, but many did not. Two hours went by and the warning was ignored. I was never so scared in my whole life. Before we had fired on the enemy, but we had never seen them face to face. In the past months I had seen a lot of dead, but nothing could prepare me for the death I was to see on Koje-do.
At the appointed time, a siren went off, an armored personnel carrier knocked down the fence, and we entered the compound in a straight line. We had been issued live ammo, and now we had to go in with fixed bayonets and flame-throwers to get control. It was a horrible event that I will never forget. I still remember the hollow, dejected look on those faces behind the bared wire fence. They were just boys like me. I thought to myself, "It could be me behind that barbed wire fence but for the grace of God." The North Korean and Chinese prisoners had only been following orders from their officers. They, too, must have been wondering how they got there and why.
A POW came running out of a tent with what looked like a gun. I saw the guy next to me take aim with his M-1 rifle and shoot him right between his eyes. It looked like his whole head exploded. A bunch of prisoners were holed up in a sheet metal building. We didn't know if they were armed or not. Someone called in for the flame-throwers, and the tin building just melted. I could hear the prisoners screaming inside, and knew that they were burned alive because I had smelled burnt flesh several times in gook bunkers on the front lines after napalm had hit them. The best I can remember, it all happened in about 30 minutes, although it seemed like hours. Tanks moved in and flattened the rest of the compound, and then the pirosners were all dispersed to different compounds.
The carnage that I saw that day still haunts me after all these years. I keep thinking that maybe my brain can straighten it all out. I wonder if it could be handled more diametrically. At the time, I didn't know how many were killed or wounded. I think we lost one man. Seeing those POWs behind that barbed fence made me realize what freedom meant to me.
While I was at the prison camp on Koje-do I took pictures. Our CO told us not to take any, but try telling that to a 17-year old. I had a small Brownie camera, so I took lots of pictures. These rare candid photographs are located in this memoir's photo album.
After completion of this exercise we were loaded onto trucks and then it was back to the front for us two days later. I remember going weeks without a bath and yearning for some hot water just to soak my feet. I went weeks wearing the same underwear and socks. After a while we didn’t smell our own body odor because everyone around me had the same problems. We were all going through the same hardships and didn’t complain. It got to the stage where we didn’t know if it was Monday or Friday. I kept asking myself, “What in the hell am I doing here, sitting in a hole in the ground on the side of a hill? Just let me go home."
The whole time I was in Korea was spent on the front line other than my time on Koje-do. Sometimes we were in reserve, only a half mile back. When we were in reserve we could still hear artillery shells flying over our head at night. I would lay there and pray that none would fall short. Sometimes I could hear them tumbling end for end as they passed over. I also remember that one time we were trying to build some sort of shelter so we could sleep warm at night. While we were on patrol the Chinese dropped a mortar shell on it. I was glad we were not there.
Shooting Water Buffalo
It may have been the correct procedure, but I just can’t accept the way the following incident was handled. My platoon was to clear out all civilians from villages south of the 32nd parallel in case there were North Korean sympathizers in them. It was impossible to tell a North Korean from a South Korean. The language was the same. Many did not believe in a dividing line, so they thought it was best to send all the villagers south. It was our job to gather up all the Koreans and put them on trucks to relocate them. I remember that it was pouring down rain that day.
A sergeant came up to a young lieutenant and said, “Sir, one old man won't get on the truck. He says he does not want to leave his water buffalo." The lieutenant said, “I’ll fix that.” He took out his pistol and shot the buffalo in the head. The old man burst into tears, for the water buffalo was all he had. I don’t know how I would have handled it, but there must have been a humane way. War is always cruel. I just happened to be in the middle of it.
One time while we were in reserve I was assigned guard duty at one of the main roads leading from the front. It was rumored that North Korean soldiers were infiltrating our lines and using guerrilla warfare. Around noon I was given orders to stand guard at the Main Supply Route (MSR) and check every truck coming from the north. Just before dusk I saw a large truck coming down the road. I signaled for the driver to stop and told him that I had to search his truck. It had GRS stenciled on the side. At the time I didn’t know what it meant.
The driver said, “Son, you don’t want to see what’s in this truck.” I said, "I have my orders." He said, "Okay, but I warned you." I followed out my orders, pulled back the tarpaulin, and shined my flashlight around. What I saw made me sick to my stomach. There were bodies stacked four high like cord wood. All I could see was combat boots and arms. Blood was dripping from the tailgate. The truck was from Graves Registration Service. I motioned the driver on, sat down beside the road, and puked. That picture haunts me even today.
One day when it was cold as heck, a Navy Corsair made a belly landing near the banks of the Imjin River. The plane was still loaded with ammo and it was burning when we got there in daylight. The pilot had walked away and gotten a ride back to his unit. We had to stay up all night in the freezing cold and snow to guard it. Why, I don't know. We were freezing, but we were afraid to get near the burning plane, not to mention the fact that there was 100 feet of nothing but boulders and rocks on either side of the river. Ironically, the plane burned hot all night while we had to stay out in the freezing cold and watch it burn. We were forbidden to light a fire to stay warm because a fire could cause the enemy to call artillery in on us. The next day someone came and finished the plane off by putting explosives on it and blowing it up. The pilot probably got a medal, but all we got was one cold butt!
Fishing with Hand Grenades
A hand grenade is a hand-held explosive device made up of two parts: the fuse and the grenade itself. They were shipped to the war zone in Korea in two parts. The grenade was filled with explosive material and came with a paper seal. The fuse was a small tube about a quarter-inch thick that screwed into the grenade. It, too, was filled with explosive, but it was time-released. When the pin of the grenade was pulled out, whoever was holding it had about ten seconds to throw it before it exploded. The fuse alone could also explode.
One day two of us were ordered to take a jeep and trailer and go to the ammo dump to get what the company needed. I had a list of things we were supposed to get, but in addition I came across a box of fuses, so I took about a half dozen of them. On the way back to our company we had to cross a bridge. There were Koreans on it, and they were trying to fish with bamboo poles and string lines. I have always loved to fish, so out of curiosity we stopped and I asked them if they had caught any. They said no. I looked down and could see that the water was full of carp. I went back to the jeep and got several fuses. I said, "Stand back" and threw a fuse in the water. It went off with a delayed charge, and several carp floated to the surface. The Koreans jumped in the water and grabbed them. I did this several times. The last time I thought I had killed some of the Koreans because they wanted to jump in before the fuse went off, so I stopped. I made their day because they must have gotten 20 pounds of carp. If I fished with hand grenades in the USA, I would be put in jail!
I have many strong memories of Korea, but these many years later I can't always remember the month or day that some events happened. The following memories might not be in chronological order, but I remember each of them still to this day.
On Christmas 1950 we were somewhere above the 38th parallel. The artillery had been firing all day and mortars were going off from both sides. We could smell the powder smoke in the air. This went on until about eight clock. When it was very dark, the firing on both sides stopped and it became deathly quiet. All at once I could hear men singing Silent Night from a distant hill. Then from another hill men took up the same song. Not a shot was fired from either side. It put a lump in my throat. I have often wondered if the Chinese or North Koreans knew what Christmas meant. At least they did that night. It was almost like a truce was on. Surely God was looking on that night. I am not sure of all the details of that night, but it still sticks in my mind.
This will tell you what misery is. It seems like I was always cold in Korea. One time our company was camped near an abandoned Korean village. We were advised to stay out of their houses in case of booby traps, rodents, and disease. We went over and looked one over and two of us decided that we were going to sleep warm one night anyway. That night we spread our sleeping bags on some straw mats and crawled in for the night. About three hours later I felt like I was being eaten alive. The next morning you couldn't lay a finger on me where I didn't have a welt. I went on sick call and the medic said that I was covered from head to toe with lice. They dusted me completely with DDT. I was afraid to even crawl back in my same sleeping bag, so I got another one. I told them someone had stolen mine. I never went in a Korean house again after that. I still itch when I think about it.
Breaking Down Racial Barriers
I had never seen a black soldier in the U.S. Army until I was in Korea. One afternoon our captain called us together and said, "Men, this afternoon we are to receive two truckloads of black soldiers. I want you to show them all the respect you can." That evening they arrived. I said, "Oh boy. Our company has gone to Hell in a breadbasket." After a week I realized they were the best soldiers. They bled and died just like white men. I was assigned to a big black sergeant. I would have followed him anywhere. That experience tore down many racial barriers in my life today. We are all Americans. Even today some of my best friends are black. I owe it all to my Korean War experience.
One day we met some men from the Turkish Brigade. One of the men had a tobacco sack full of gold teeth. He said he got them from dead Chinese. He took his rifle butt and knocked their teeth out. I could never do that--gold or no gold.
I am sure that the Army made every effort to see that the men were fed, but sometimes the situation prevented it. Every man carried his mess kit, canteen and cup with him at all times. On several instances while we were on the front line, Korean laborers with back packs brought hot meals to us. They had to hike over rugged terrain to get to us. The food was in large thermos-type containers that kept the food as hot and fresh as possible. Getting this food was always a welcome experience, even though some of it was "recombined." At least it filled an empty hole in our stomachs.
If we were traveling or out on patrol and we saw a chow line, we just got in it--no questions asked. I even saw British soldiers in U.S. chow lines. For breakfast there were powdered eggs and bacon from cans. I learned to make "S.O.S." (creamed chip beef on toast). I never ate any native food and never ate in any of the Korean homes because I was always afraid of the food. There were no regulations regarding how it was prepared and the sanitation that I saw was poor.
I longed for a big steak. When we were shipped back to Japan, that was the first thing we were served. I never saw such beautiful vegetables as were grown in Japan, but we were forbidden to eat the local Japanese food because they used human waste for fertilizer. I loved their hot tea and beer.
Surrounded by the Enemy
Up to now I have only mentioned serious stuff. Now let me tell you something funny. Most of the maps of Korea came to us when the Japanese occupied Korea. One morning a sergeant and I were given the job of checking out a road on the map in case we needed it for retreat. It was a hot day. Our jeep had a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on it. Things went well until the road just ended. The sergeant said, "Thurman, go up the hill and see if you can see the road again." Not thinking, I left my rifle in the jeep.
After getting to the top of the hill, I came face to face with a Korean soldier. I was scared to death. I ran down the hill and said, "Sarge, they have us surrounded." He started to load the machine gun fast. Then the Korean soldier came down the hill with his hands up and holding some papers. I said that he was too old to fight so they put him in charge of guarding the village. The sergeant said, "Thurman, I am going to kill you." When we got back to our unit everyone said, "Tell us, Thurman, how you got surrounded by an old Korean man." I was the butt of jokes for a long time.
They had a point system in Korea. We received so many points for being in reserve and so many points for front line duty. When we had enough points, we were able to rotate home. By the spring of 1951 I had enough points to go home and my time was up in Korea. I could finally go home. I was told to report to our commanding officer's tent. He said to me, "Son, you have done a great job over here and it's time for you to go home. You are only a corporal, but if you sign a waiver to stay here another year, I will make you a sergeant." I replied, "Sir, even if you make me a general, I want to go home." He said, "Go home, Son." I have always regretted that. The war was tapering off and I didn't have a whole lot to go home to. I would have been an 18-year old sergeant.
Those of us going home were sent to Seoul, where we stayed in an evacuation center for a week. Then they put us on a ship and sent us to Japan, where we stayed the night before boarding the ship again to sail to San Francisco.
Thinking back on the country of Korea that I had just left, I never saw a paved road while I was there. But I will always think that Korea was a beautiful country. Beautiful mountains. Clear white mountain streams. It was a cold place in winter, but nice in spring and summer. Also, the Korean people as a whole were nice people. War tore their beautiful country apart. I wish I could go back now and see Korea in peace.
Back in the States
I remember the day that the ship that I was on landed in San Francisco. I had written my mother several weeks in advance telling her when we would arrive. San Francisco was where my mother and family members lived at that time. As we debarked, many of the men had relatives waiting to greet them, but there was no one there to greet me. I have never forgotten how disappointed I was. When I boarded the bus, a strange sadness came over me. After all the ordeals that I had gone through, no one cared.
The bus carried me to Fort Ord, California--right where I first started out. After being there about three days, I got my orders to report to Fort Sam Houston, at San Antonio, Texas. When I got to Fort Sam, I found that all my pay records were lost again. I lay around there for several weeks with no money. Even my duffel bag was lost in transit. I was issued a new uniform and given fifteen dollars partial pay. I was then given orders to report to Fort Hood, Texas. After reporting there, my records were still lost.
Two weeks at Fort Hood was enough for me. I went to headquarters and asked to go back overseas. The sergeant in charge said that I had served my time outside the United States and I would have to sign a waiver to go back overseas. He asked me where I wanted to go. I said, "I don’t care, as long as it’s far from Texas." The next day I had orders to report to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. I lay around there (still broke) for what seemed like two weeks. I eventually got my travel orders for Europe. Where? They didn’t say. I got on a ship and was shipped to Bremerhaven, Germany. From there I was shipped to Berlin, Germany. When I got there the sergeant said, "Why in the world did they send you to Germany with so little time on your enlistment?" I said, “Who cares? I’m here.”
The Greatest Ride I Ever Had
When I arrived in Berlin, I found that my MOS number had been changed because of my injury in Korea. I could no longer be in the infantry. Being a corporal, I was made assistant tank commander, even though I knew nothing about large tanks. I tried to learn about the tank from the other men. One Saturday evening they called an alert. The tank driver was on weekend leave. An officer told me to get the tank out in the street and line it up with the others. I told him that I had no experience at driving a tank. He said, "If that tank isn't out there now, you will be a private on Monday." I was scared to death. I managed to get it cranked up and drive it out on the street. It felt like I was driving an aircraft carrier. After sitting out in the street for hours, along came the driver, drunk as a skunk. He said, "Nichols, I can't drive that thing in my condition." I said, "Just get up here and look like you're driving it." By morning the alert was called off and he had sobered enough to drive it back in the compound. After that I wasted no time in learning how to drive it. I loved it. It was the greatest ride I ever had. Every chance I got I wanted to drive it. I drove it down the German autobahn doing 45 or 50 miles per hour. It was a great experience. Berlin turned out to be the very best duty I had in my three-year enlistment. It was a beautiful city compared to where I had been.
Discharged & Homeless
When my enlistment was up, I came home with the rank of corporal. The only time I flew in an airplane when I was in the military was when we landed in the U.S.A. The government chartered a private plane to fly us to California. It was called Blatz Air Line. The pilot said that he was the president of the company. I asked him how many planes they had and he said, "This is it." We got fogged in at Oakland, California, so he gave us bus fare to get to San Francisco.
After returning back to California for discharge, I once again found nothing. I was still homeless. I had saved enough money while in service to buy a 1954 Ford Coupe. I then headed east. I found work in the Texas oilfield in Denver City, Texas, as a roustabout. After a month of that, I again headed east. After I got to South Carolina I stayed with my aunt and uncle for a few weeks. I was about 21 at that time.
I woke up one morning and felt like a lost soul. I went to the Veterans Administration office in Greenwood, South Carolina and said, “Mister, I just got discharged from the army. I am flat broke, no job, and no place to live.” He said if I could be there in the morning he thought he could help me. He drove me to Columbia in his own car and there I was enrolled at South Carolina Area Trade School. I got room and board and learned the machinist/toolmaker trade. I can truly say that I have never been out of work since. I worked for some of the biggest companies in the USA before I retired as a machinist, and then I worked part-time as a bailiff in Bamberg County for seven years. As far as education is concerned, I have two masters degrees from the "School of Hard Knocks."
Hooked for Life
While I was in Korea they put my name in the Greenwood paper: “Poor lonesome soldier needs someone to write to.” I started getting letters from several girls. One said that she was fourteen, but she had an older sister. I wrote her back and said to send me her address. Her sister Grace and I started writing and wrote for over a year. After I was enrolled in school, I thought I would look her up. I found out that she was a student nurse at the hospital in Columbia. I called her up and said I was coming to visit. We set a time and date. When I pulled up in front of the student nursing dormitory, every nurse turned out to see what I looked like. Well, to make a long story short, I took one look at her and was hooked for life.
We moved to Bamberg, South Carolina in 1966 and still reside there. As of July 9, 2007, we have been married 53 years and I think she is going to keep me. We have three wonderful adult children and two grandchildren. I guess I have found a home at last. My wife and I celebrated our 56th wedding anniversary this past July (2010). Our first great grandchild was born this week (August 2010). I would say I have had a very successful life so far. We live on social security, but we live well.
Best is Yet to Come
Although I never went past the rank of corporal, I have sat on a stump in the woods and conversed one-on-one with a full colonel. I have also sat at restraint and talked one-on-one with a brigadier general. This could never have happened while I was serving in the army. With only a tenth grade education I have been successful. Someone said that I went up and they came down. After all these things I feel the best is yet to come.
After 57 years, I finally received the medals that should have been awarded to me for my military service. I received a Combat Infantry Badge, Army of Occupation-Germany and Japan, Korean Service Medal with three Battle Stars, Good Combat Badge, National Defense Medal, United Nations Medal, Certified Medal issued by the President of Korea, and a Purple Heart.
Hearing Aids and Horrible Memories
I spent over a year in Korea. So many things happened to me at that time that after nearly 55 years it would be hard for anyone to remember them all, but some of the things I saw and took part in remain with me today. I saw many hardships, blood, and dead men. The two things that I experienced in Korea that few people might go all their life and never truly know are real fear and extreme cold.
Fear and Cold
With regards to fear, there were times that I was so scared that I wanted to vomit. I may have even wet my pants. Some men can be in the military for 20 years and never know that kind of fear. I went through hell in 1950-51. I went completely deaf for days from concussion explosions (grenade and mortar shell). One time a mortar or grenade went off close by me and I received shrapnel. The concussion left me deaf for weeks. Since then I have lost most of my hearing.
I never saw Agent Orange, but I went through weeks of 20 degrees below zero cold with no shelter and no proper clothing. Everything was from World War II and not meant for extreme cold like Korea. There were times when it was so cold that we could urinate and it would freeze before it hit the ground. We were outside for days with no shelter. Our clothes sometimes had a coating of ice on them. There were times that I had on so many gloves that I couldn’t get my finger in the trigger guard of my rifle. We longed for just a few moments of warmth. We also quickly learned why they called it the “Frozen Chosin.” I think Chosin is another word for Korea. The cold affected my whole body and today I have health complications because of it.
The war was going so disastrous that our officers and clerks had no time to keep complete records. If they did, where are they? For a while my company roster had me listed as killed or missing in action. How would you like to live with that? It never dawned on me until years later what a tragic time I went through in 1950-51.
The first and second year of our marriage my wife said that I woke up at night screaming. I had vivid dreams. If I had only known that I could go to the Veterans Administration for help. The memories that were so drastic those many years ago are much less so as I get older. But if I concentrate, I can still see all the tragic events that I saw in 1950/51. I still wake up at night thinking about that terrible cold experience in Korea. I have told this to the VA, but I get the feeling that they have all heard it before. I have taken the attitude, "What is past--let it be."
The "Forgotten War"
Today the Korean War is considered the forgotten war, but it is not forgotten by me and a lot of other vets. I often wonder if all those guys that I saw dead will be remembered. I saw many dead bodies of men my own age. These young men in their youth would never see maturity. Their life was just cut off short before it had begun.
I guess I am one of those who fell through the cracks as far as history is concerned. I came home with two legs and two arms, but I lost much in other ways. I do consider myself lucky to have come home physically in one piece--a lot of my friends didn't make it. I answered my country’s call and what did it get me? There have been occasions when I have felt like ending it and forgetting it all, but what good would that do?
It seems to me that the VA is more concerned with vets in the wars today than what happened sixty years ago. I bet you could ask any doctor if any person that went through what I went through in Korea would ever be the same (mentally or physically) and they would say no. The doctors at Dorn VA said I have severe hearing loss and they gave me hearing aids that are of no use. They also gave me pills. But can either of those erase the many horrible memories from the Korean War that I have today? Sure the VA can give me pills and hearing aids, but can they erase the many nightmares I have gone through?
You could ask 90 percent of college students today about the Korean War and all you would get is a dumb look. In fact, most people today have no idea what it was all about. If I told my grandchildren about my experiences in Korea, they would have their doubts. I have poured out many of my experiences in the military in this memoir. Some of them I have never shared with anyone before to pass on to future generations. I might be foggy about the exact dates and times that events took place, but I swear they are all true. What I have written down in this memoir is only a small part of the things I took part in and the places I went. Some things I would never tell anyone. If someone reads my memoirs, it may bring back a lot of memories for them. I think that time and history has a way of fading with time. At least it does with me.
When I was in the military, I was young and carefree. I drank my beer and loved the ladies. So did every young man in my situation. I had bad times, but I also had some damn good times. I wish I could go back as an adult and see the places and things that I saw when I was young. I consider myself lucky to have come home physically in one piece. A lot of my friends didn’t make it. Unfortunately, the horrible memories will last forever.
One thing I have learned in life is things in the past you can never completely forget. Most tragic events you never forget. Maybe not in perfect details. But you still remember most. There have been books and reams of paper written about the Korean War, but my small part is measly only to me. I was there. I saw my share of it and my share of problems. I came home in one piece--in body only.
Some may read this and wonder if it was all true. My memory is getting dimmer every day, but I can honestly say it is all true what I write. I had to bring all these things out in the open to help get some peace of mind and the horrors and fear that very few have ever experienced. Korea can be best described at that time as “frozen hell”. It was a place where we should never have been. It was a place of freezing torment--a place where death and pain awaited us each day.
I have never felt that anything I went through was heroic. I was just one of thousands that went through these events. I think today that I was one of the biggest cowards there was at that time. What does a seventeen year old know? Many a night I wake up at night with cold sweat thinking of the cold miserable nights in 1950 and 1951. I have relived it a thousand times after all these years.
It is hard to remember many of the things that happened to a seventeen year old young man. One thing I have learned over the years, the older I get the less I remember how all the events took place. I was there. Mental scars never heal. The nightmares never stop. Few seventeen year olds could keep a sane mind in later years. In 1951 it was the coldest time of my life. The ground was frozen solid. You could pee and it was frozen before it hit the ground. It was 20 degrees below zero. Our uniforms and clothing were World War II issue and not meant for cold weather.
Not much in history about these events. Chosin Reservoir was the largest battle in the Korean War. What a waste of life. Most of the men were ages 18-20. I was only seventeen, still a boy. It was also one of the darkest times in American history, as far as I think. Today I blame it all on one of America's heroes. General Douglas MacArthur caused many American deaths in the Korean War. He wanted to push all the way to the Chinese or Mongolian border and even suggested dropping the atomic bomb on North Korea and China. He made his own rules and wouldn’t take orders from Washington. President Truman fired him. President Truman called it a police action. Some called it a sour little war which today is largely forgotten. It was a war we could never win.
Dirty Korean Conflict
As the song says, “It was a very good year.” Not so in 1950 and 1951, for the U.S. was stuck in that dirty Korean conflict. But it was a horrible experience for many young men. “I, for one, fought in that hell just to stay alive. Every day the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees colder. The colder it got the worst about that damnable place. Every day I grew bitter about the war. If the best of minds in the world had set out to find us the worst place to fight, it had to be that god-forsaken place. Every night I told myself, "The chinks have this place. I just want to go home." I am sure I had a lot of company.
Many of the men had their own personal reason for being there. Me, it was my own damn fault, for I volunteered. After getting in it, I wished I could get out of it. My face was numb from the wind and cold. Tears ran down my cheeks and froze. Many of our weapons seized up from the paralyzing cold. I would have given up all my pay for just one night in a warm bed.
The Korean War lasted about 37 months and the Vietnam War lasted ten years. There were 54,246 killed worldwide in the Korean War--more than Vietnam. I can only remember the horrible things I took part in. Maybe it is for the best. No need to relive the horror I witnessed, but who could forget it? Sometimes I wake up at night seeing all those things that a seventeen year old should not have gone through. I am writing these thoughts to give me some sort of inner peace. The problem is my memory is fading fast.
One thing I will never forget is how cold it was. Twenty below and no shelter. Dead bodies frozen solid within hours. Why would they send troops all the way to the Manchurian border in the coldest part of winter? Beats me. It was a struggle to face it all. A place none wanted to be in that frozen hell. I kept hoping no bullet would find my name on it. The 38th Parallel may have been a line dividing North and South Korea, but it meant nothing to me, for I never knew where I was anyway. The war meant nothing to the folks back home, but not so to the men who fought there.
Now that I am an old man I still remember that sergeant's words just before we drove into the Chosin Reservoir: “Just get on the damn truck." I still have visions of what happened at Chosin Reservoir. As I said before, I never did see the reservoir, but now that I am an old man in my eighties, I still have memory of those turbulent times. I had to write this down before my memory is all gone. The events that I have written about may not be in the right order, for it took me many months to put them down. That’s the way my memory is after 60 years. Many of these things are still fresh in my mind as if it was only yesterday. I am thankful that I lived to reach old age. Many did not. I am thankful my name is not written on a wall in Washington, D.C. The Korean War is the most thankless war there ever was.
Thurman J. Nichols, 2013-2014