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John Robert Spencer, Sr.
"This is how the Korean War changed their lives and brought them together. They really needed each other so that each could help the other get over what had been the worst experiences of their lives."
- Cara Spencer
As recounted through his wife, Mary Eleanor Spencer & his granddaughter, Cara Spencer
The recent observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War has prompted me to do something that I should have done long ago, write a record of what I know about Bob’s experience as a soldier in that conflict. He rarely talks about it, not just because he is naturally reticent, modest and unassuming, but also because he had a very difficult time. That becomes obvious to me when I ask him certain things about it because he gets very upset. I don’t want to upset him, so won’t keep nagging him about it. However, I do think that some day his children and grandchildren would like to know about his military service. Therefore, I shall try to pass on to you the things that he has told me over the years during the rare instances that he will mention something.
To begin with, he really didn’t have to be in it. He had letters of deferment because his occupation, insulating power plants, was considered essential to the war effort. But he had been too young to serve in World War II, and somehow he felt that it was his turn to go. So in September 1951, at the age of twenty-one, he was drafted into the U. S. Army to "defend a land he did not know and a people he had never met," a phrase often used to describe the Korean War. Originally called a police action, and later called the Korean Conflict, today it is officially named the Korean War, because that is what it was – all out war. I believe that this was the first war sanctioned by the United Nations (UN). Many other nations besides the U.S. sent troops to Korea.
Bob joined the famous 101st Airborne Division (Screamin’ Eagles) at Camp Breckinridge, KY. Most of his basic training was there, and he also had jump training at Ft. Benning, GA. He was judged to be officer material, so the army sent him to Officers Candidate School (OCS). The night before he was to graduate, he got his first real taste of the army game when his class was told that, as a final requirement for graduation, they would have to change their term of enlistment from two to five years. Bob had already decided that the military life was not for him, so he would not agree to the extra three years of service. He had to withdraw from OCS. After passing everything with flying colors, and even having already bought his officer’s uniforms, it was a big disappointment, to say the least
Soon after this, the 101st was deactivated, and Bob was transferred to the equally famous Second Indian Head Infantry Division. On August 29, 1952, after a week’s leave at home in Meadow Creek, WV, he boarded a plane for the West Coast with orders to go to Korea. Upon reaching the West Coast, he was sent to the Seattle area (I think to Fort Lewis) to await shipment overseas.
Throughout Bob’s time in the service, the army was continually losing his papers and records. Most of the time, this was a big inconvenience. But when it happened while he was at Fort Lewis, it was a stroke of luck. It delayed his going overseas for two weeks, giving him time to visit with relatives. Two of his dad’s sisters, Kate Drennan and Daisy Hunsinger, lived in the area, as did a cousin, Walt Spencer. Bob only had to spend the night on the base. The rest of the time, he could be on his own. Each morning, one of the relatives would pick him up and take him home to visit. Aunt Kate had wanted to adopt Bob after his parents died, so I believe that she and her daughter, Carolyn, were especially pleased to have him with them for a while.
But his papers finally caught up with him, and he left for Korea, arriving in Pusan aboard the General Hugh J. Gaffey in September 1952. Shortly after reporting to his outfit, he ran into a buddy from basic training days who talked him into joining a special assignment raider platoon within the regiment. Called "Stillwell’s Raiders", it was named for their commanding officer, Col. Joseph W. Stillwell, Jr., the son of General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell of World War II fame.
One of the raider platoon’s main duties was to harass the enemy, especially at night. Sometimes, they would simply infiltrate enemy lines during the night and leave signs behind that said, "G. I. Joe was here. Where were you?" Other times, the business would be of a more serious nature, such as capturing enemy soldiers for interrogation.
Both sides engaged in this sort of activity which, even though dangerous, was sometimes lightened by the funny things that could happen. For instance, one night when Bob was out on patrol, things were pretty quiet. The enemy lines were quite a distance away, and he was not expecting to run into any danger, at least in the particular area assigned to him. As he felt his way around in the pitch dark, he suddenly found himself almost nose to nose with a Chinese soldier, so close Bob could smell the garlic on his breath. The enemy soldier was apparently on the same mission and under the same impression as Bob had been. It would be hard to say which one was the more surprised at this unexpected encounter. Now the Chinese were grudgingly respected as fierce, well trained soldiers, but this particular one, after a brief, but intense, direct eye contact, dropped his gun and beat a hasty retreat into the darkness from which he had come. Bob picked up the fallen gun, then left the area, too. He kept the gun as a souvenir the rest of the war, but was not allowed to bring it back to the States with him.
Another funny story he told me was about his first time in the battle zone. It was soon after he joined the regiment. He was assigned a position in front of Alligator Jaws. Again, it was night, and so dark you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. He was alone with only his rifle for protection. Barbed wire had been strung around the area. Tin cans had been hung on the barbed wire so they would jingle, the only way in the pitch dark that you would know the enemy was approaching. He settled in with his trusty rifle, and it was very quiet for some time. Then, he heard a slight jingle from the tin cans. The adrenaline began to flow, and he became very alert. However, his months of good training had prepared him, and he knew what to do. He steadied his gun and got ready to face the enemy for the first time. The jingling of the tin cans became closer and louder. Finally, a figure slowly emerged out of the darkness, and there at last was the enemy – a small Korean deer! Of course, he was relieved, but he said that he learned something about himself in those few tense seconds. No one ever knows how he or she will react when they finally face the enemy in a hostile situation for the first time. Although this "enemy" turned out to be a deer, the perception that he was about to confront the enemy was very real, and he found out that he didn’t "spook." That incident, while it gave him a laugh, also did a lot for his confidence. He knew he was well trained and ready to do what he had to do.
Because of their special duties, the members of Stillwell’s Raiders received special privileges. They could have all the beer and ice cream they wanted. They also could take things pretty easy during the day. Several jeeps were assigned to them for unlimited use, so they would often pile into one and drive over to visit the French or Turk regiments that were attached to the division. The French were very friendly, and always had a seemingly unlimited supply of wine, with which they were very generous. The Turks were impressive as soldiers. They were known to be ferocious fighters, and with their large size and huge handle bar mustaches, they looked the part.
The special raider platoon activities eventually ceased, and the men all became regular combat infantrymen for the rest of the time. Most of this was on the front lines, but they were sometimes pulled back to the reserve area for more basic training or some special duty. For instance, some time in 1953, they were sent to Cheju Do to put down a riot staged by the Chinese prisoners there. A grisly part of that duty included the revolting and repulsive task of having to cut down the bodies of hanged prisoners. Some had committed suicide; others had been executed by their fellow prisoners for collaborating with the enemy. After the rioting calmed down somewhat, the men of C. Company remained on Cheju Do for a while as guards.
Bob also participated in a landing at Inchon (not the one lead by General Douglas MacArthur). The sea in this area is notable for being one of the roughest in the world, due to a combination of high sea walls with no beaches and extremely high tides. The jerking motion of the boat in this rough water made it a hairy experience for a soldier loaded down with extra gear to step onto the landing dock. They could only do this at high tide. When it came his turn to land, each man had to wait until the wave was just right or risk falling into the ocean and an almost certain death by drowning.
Korea is extremely rugged, mountainous country. There was constant warfare as both sides seesawed back and forth in possession of the mountains, which the men identified with American names such as Old Baldy, Heartbreak Ridge, White Horse, Three Sisters, Pork Chop, and T-Bone. Bob was in combat on all of them. His Korean War service ribbon has three battle stars on it, signifying participation in three major campaigns, but he was really in more than that. A particular time he once mentioned was when he and a handful of other men managed to hold their position through a night of fierce fighting. They lost many men, either killed or wounded. Their officer wanted to recommend them for the Silver Star, but the general, or whoever it is that makes these decisions, refused. He said they were just doing their duty.
However, sometime in December 1952, Bob was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB). An article on Page 48 in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine, April 1998, sets forth the stipulations for this award. Mere presence in battle is not enough to be decorated with the CIB. The awardee must have a military specialty of some kind, must satisfactorily perform his duties during battle, and must have served 60 days in the hostile fire area, and engaged in an exchange of small arms fire on at least five occasions. They also must have been authorized to receive hostile fire pay, and each CIB must be recommended personally by a commander and approved at division level. The CIB was established in World War II specifically for the combat infantrymen because they do "70 percent of the fighting and dying." At the time this award was created, Secretary of War Henry Stimson stated: " It is high time that we recognize the skill and heroism of the American infantry." The article also quotes a platoon sergeant as saying," You’ll get your CIB right along with you Purple Heart." Bob was wounded later on and should have received the Purple Heart, but the war ended right after that, and it didn’t seem important to him. More about that later.
In early 1953, Bob was sent to the Second Division Non-Commissioned Officers Academy in Chumchow for four weeks of combat leadership training. At graduation, he and another soldier were tied for first place. The prize for first place was a chance to go to OCS. Bob wasn’t interested in doing that again, while the other soldier wanted to very much. So Bob agreed to let the other man have first place, and he happily settled for second, though just like the Second Division motto, he was actually "Second to None." After graduation, they kept Bob at the school to teach a class in tactics because he had scored high in that subject. He later got a final reward of a leave to Tokyo for rest and recuperation. Around the same time, he was promoted to Sergeant First Class and made a light mortar platoon leader.
The Korean War was probably the last really dirty, nasty, miserable trench warfare this country has engaged in. There were almost as many killed in three years in Korea as there were in ten years in Viet Nam. For a long time, Bob was lucky in that he was only slightly wounded once, considering all of the combat he was in. But his luck ran out just before the war ended when his mortar platoon was at a place called Outpost Harry. At the time, he already had more than enough points to have been transferred back to the States. Indeed, nearly all of his buddies had already been shipped out of Korea, but his transfer had not materialized because his records, as usual, were messed up and/or lost.
In the meantime, by the end of July, everyone knew that the long sought after armistice was to finally take effect at midnight, July 27, 1953. Bob says that at about 11:30 the night of June 26, everything had gotten very quiet. The UN troops actually thought the fighting was over. Everyone was milling around, and Bob himself had left his cover and started walking over to the next foxhole to say something to the soldier there. Suddenly, in total disregard for the impending armistice, the Chinese let loose with everything they had in a horrific last minute bombardment. It was a cowardly act of murder in which many men, unprotected and out in the open, were killed or wounded. Bob was among the latter when he was hit in the back by shrapnel.
He was loaded into a jeep and taken somewhere for treatment, but he has no idea where. Wherever it was, he says it was a chaotic scene because of the number of wounded. There was an article on Page 14 by Charles Herch in The Graybeards of September/October 1999 in which Herch was an eyewitness to men from C Company who had been wounded in this action being treated at MASH 44, so there is the possibility that Bob was taken there. A map of the area that included Outpost Harry shows that there was an aide station at the bottom of the mountain, so it could have been there, too. Wherever it was, the doctors who examined Bob said that the shrapnel was too close to his spine to be surgically removed. He was in a great deal of pain, but able to get around, so he was sent back to his unit the next day, having been placed on temporary disability. The armistice was in effect by then, and a big cleanup operation had begun, notable for the explosion of a big ammunition dump in which more men were killed and wounded.
About a month after the armistice, Bob’s orders to return to the States finally came through. On September 3, he and many other war weary veterans boarded the USNS Marine Adder and sailed out of Pusan, headed for America. When they arrived in San Francisco and sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge into the harbor, they were greeted by Patrice Munsel, a popular young musical star. She was standing on the dock singing a song entitled, "My Hero." What an emotional moment this must have been for all these men on the ship as the loud speaker system carried her welcoming song across the water to them! They knew their ordeal was over, and they were back in the good old USA.
After arriving in San Francisco, Bob was still suffering from his wounds. As already mentioned, he had been awarded temporary disability pay. However, for him to receive it, he was told that he would have to stay in an Army hospital in California for about two months. The only thing he wanted at that point was to go home, so he refused to go to the hospital. In doing this, he signed away all chance of receiving any compensation for his wounds. In fact, his official discharge paper (DD214) says that he wasn’t wounded.
A few years ago, we wrote to the military records department to see just exactly what they have on file about his military service. The pattern with his records had continued. They had all been destroyed in a fire in the storage building in St. Louis. All we have to prove that he served his country in time of war are some crumbling papers that list various orders, etc. And, we also have the pictures that he took.
Nevertheless, we should all be proud of him. He did his duty to his country because he believed that he should. He served honorably and bravely, often under the worst of conditions. He has told me that his most vivid memories of the Korean War are the indescribably and unforgettable sights, sounds and smells of combat. The troops on the front lines were not always adequately supplied, so he often went hungry and sometimes didn’t have enough ammunition. Adding to the discomfort was the hostile Korean climate. It was unbelievably cold in the winter, sometimes 40 degrees below zero, and unbearably hot and humid in the summer. All of this combined to make life miserable for the dog-faced combat infantrymen, sleeping in bunkers or wherever they could. For some time after he got back home, Bob would set his clock to wake him up very early in the morning. After the clock went off, he would just lie there for a while, savoring the feeling of being in a clean, comfortable bed. Then he would enjoy the extra luxury of just rolling over and going back to sleep.
Over the years, he has told me many times what a miserable existence it was to serve in Korea, but at the same time, he is also proud that he was able to do it. During the years of the Korean War, and all through the Cold War era, communism was the biggest threat to the U.S., as well as to the rest of the world. Bob has always been convinced that, if it had not been for the Korean War, Japan would have gone communist. Had that occurred, it would have had quite an impact on the world, and might even have tipped the balance in favor of communism.
The inscription on the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC, reads: "Freedom Is Not Free." Bob certainly did his share and more to purchase that freedom that we all enjoy.
So for the record, and so you, his children and grandchildren, will always know, he was:
Served in the following units:
Letter to Chaplain Ralph Smith from Mary Eleanor Spencer
Addendum - From Past to Present
From Past to Present