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John Robert Spencer, Sr.

Lakeland, FL
Korean War Veteran

"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:

  • Sergeant First Class John Robert Spencer US 52124175
  • Active Duty, U.S. Army, Korean War, September 19, 1951 to September 12, 1953
  • Reserve Status until June 1, 1957

Served in the following units:

  • 101st Airborne Division, September 1951 - ?
  • C Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Regiment, Second (Indian Head) Infantry Division,
    Korea September 1952 to September 1953

Mary Eleanor Spencer
August 23, 2003


Addendum

Letter to Chaplain Ralph Smith from Mary Eleanor Spencer

July 18, 2003
Mary Eleanor Spencer
824 Bonnie Drive
Ph: 863-683-4213
Lakeland, FL 33803

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am writing to you on behalf of my husband, John R. (Bob) Spencer. He was in C Co., 23rd Regiment, during the last year of the Korean War. We are trying to find proof of the fact that he was wounded in combat just before the armistice.

We have been in touch with Charles Herch of Hamtramck, MI, who recommended that we contact you since you were a platoon leader in Co. C. We had written to Mr. Herch because of an article he submitted to The Graybeards several years ago. In the article, he mentioned being taken to MASH 44 for treatment of wounds he suffered in the ammo dump explosion of some time around July 28th. While he was there, he said that he saw men from C Company who had been wounded in a mortar barrage at Outpost Harry on July 26th. Since that was where and when Bob was wounded, we thought there would be a chance that he also was taken to MASH 44, thus our contact with Mr. Herch.

After Bob was wounded, wherever it was he was taken (he doesn't remember), doctors examined him and told him the shrapnel in his back could not be removed because it was too close to his spine. They kept him overnight for at least one night. He is not sure whether it was for more.  He was placed on temporary disability and sent back to his unit. By then, the fighting was over and the clean up had begun.

He finally got to leave Korea in September 1953. When he arrived in San Francisco, he was told that, if he were to receive compensation for his wounds, he would have to stay in a hospital in California for at least two months. Although he was still crippled and in pain from his wound, he could still get around, and all he wanted was to go back to West Virginia and get on with his life. He did not want to wait another two months before he could go home. So he refused to go to the hospital, and thereby lost all chance of any compensation or recognition that he had been wounded in battle. At the time, it didn't seem important to him. Now, however, many years later, it is beginning to. We would like to find some way to prove it. He has not stayed in touch with the men he served with at Outpost Harry, and we are not having any luck locating them. By now, he doesn't remember their names except for a few whose names are on pictures from then.

I am not knowledgeable about army rank, but I assumed when Charles Herch said you were a platoon leader that you were an officer, possibly even Bob's platoon leader, and therefore might know where some records are.  Bob was not an officer, but by the end of the war, he was a platoon sergeant in charge of a light mortar position at Outpost Harry.

If you know of anyone who could help us, or if you can suggest any other way we could try to find a record that he was wounded in combat, we would be most appreciative. We can't help but feel that, since he was examined by doctors, kept over night, and then placed on temporary disability, there must be a record some where.

Thank you for your time. I apologize for this long letter, but I have tried to give you the facts and still stick to the point. I'm not sure that I have succeeded. Again, thank you very much. I will include a stamped addressed envelope, and we look forward to your reply.

Yours truly,

Mary Eleanor Spencer
Wife of:
SFC John Robert Spencer
US 52124175
C Co., 1st Btn, 23rd Regt., 2nd Division
Korea September 1952 to September 1953


Addendum - From Past to Present

This story was written by Cara Spencer, granddaughter of John Robert and Mary Eleanor Spencer. She wrote it during her first year at West Virginia University, 11 September 2001. Her professor gave her a perfect score of 50, and wrote the following comment: "What a pleasant story of a relationship and one of resilience (of your grandmother and her life with Jack, and your grandfather and Korea). I really enjoyed reading this."

From Past to Present

Though both my grandparents were born and spent their earliest years during the Great Depression, and later lived their teen years during World War II, the world event that most affected them was the Korean War. While my grandparents were both born and raised in West Virginia, they did not meet until after my grandfather returned from the Korean War. When I interviewed each of them separately, they both chose the most significant moment in their lives to be when they met and fell in love.

My grandmother, Mary Eleanor, was married before she knew my grandfather, Bob. Her first husband’s name was Jack. He had been in the service during World War II. In June 1951, the Korean War broke out, and since he had joined the enlisted reserves after he was discharged from the army, he received orders to report to Fort Campbell, KY. Their marriage had been mostly unhappy, due to the fact that Jack was addicted to drinking and gambling. After he was called back into the service, they wrote often, and he managed to get a leave for Christmas. They were happy to see each other, and began to try to work through the problems in their marriage, especially since they now had a little girl, Beth. The time was too short, however, before he had to return to Fort Campbell.

It finally seemed that they would be able to salvage their marriage, but that was not to be. Tragically, he was killed about three months later in an automobile accident near Fort Campbell. Although he had not been killed in battle, he was on active duty during the time of war, and so the army treated his death accordingly. He received a military burial, and she received a pension and his insurance, etc. But she was not yet 21, and she was a widow with a small child. She was simply devastated. People would say to her, "You are young, you will marry again." She never thought it would happen.

My grandfather’s life was equally hard. His mother died when he was young, and his father died a few years later. He and his brother went to live with their grandparents. He starred in football and basketball (captain of both teams) at Green Sulphur District High School. He was also a good student, but after he graduated, there wasn't enough money for him to go to college, so he went to work as an insulator. When the Korean War came along, he was drafted in 1951, but because of his profession he did not have to go. He went anyway because he felt it was his duty.

He was in the 101st Airborne for the first year, then was transferred to the 2nd Infantry Division and sent to Korea, arriving in September 1952. Almost immediately, he was in the thick of things. To this day he will hardly ever talk about it, even to my grandmother. He was awarded the highly prized Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) three months after arriving there, which is a medal associated with active ground combat for five or more battles. He was in Korea for one year, most of the time on the very front lines. He and the other soldiers with him suffered from the extreme cold in the winter, the suffocating heat in the summer, hunger from the lack of food, fear and uncertainty from the lack of ammunition and weapons while facing a well-supplied enemy. In short, it was a terrible existence, one he has never completely gotten over.

The war ended with an armistice in July 1953. My grandfather returned to the States in September, back to Summers County, WV, and back to his civilian job and life. But his experiences had changed him considerably. Since my grandmother didn’t know him before the war, she doesn’t know how, but everyone else who knew him previously always told her how much he had changed.

They met on a blind date (which she tried to get out of) in November 1953. It was blind for her anyway. He told her later that he had seen her walking across the street with Beth one day from Wilson’s Drug Store and fell in love with both of them. So he got his friend to fix them up for a date. He was still limping badly from the wound he received at Outpost Harry just before the armistice. He was very thin, weighing about 148 pounds at that time, and he was still not talking much to anyone.

It had been two years since Jack was killed. She had made up her mind that she would not marry again after all the roller coaster ups and downs she had been through with him, only to have it all end in his tragic death. She just couldn’t stand to go through all that again. After she and my grandfather had dated a while, she told him this because she thought he was getting serious. He was working out of town all the time, so she only saw him on the weekends. They would be on a date and he would say, "There’s something I want to talk to you about next weekend." She would go all week wondering what it was, and then the next weekend, he would say the same thing. After a number of times when he wouldn’t say what it was he wanted to talk to her about, and would repeat that he wanted to talk with her about something next weekend, it really began to frustrate her. Finally one night she said, "What is it you want to talk to me about? Do you want to get married?" And he said, "Yes." And she said, "Yes." And that is how he got HER to ask HIM to get married. It looked like his friends’ predictions from the war were going to come true after all. When they used to sit around and talk about what would happen when the war was over, they all said they bet he would go home, and within a year he would marry one of those Southern girls with two names. As soon as he met Mary Eleanor, he knew it was meant to be

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. For Mary Eleanor, it was wonderful to be in love again, and this time with a really good, decent and caring man, one who had none of Jack’s faults.

They have now been married 47 years, and during that time, they have had their ups and downs. There have been other significant happenings, including the birth of their children, the death of those close to them (parents, grandparents, siblings), the birth of their grandchildren, the loss of their family business and their subsequent uprooting until they landed in Lakeland, Florida. But through it all, their love has remained, and is stronger today than ever. I can only hope that I will someday experience this same kind of love and commitment with someone as wonderful as my grandfather.

In short, my grandparents are very happy, and I could never imagine life without them. They have been through so much, but are still so much in love, which is very apparent every time I see them together. If I can be lucky enough to find even half the amount of happiness they have, my life will be wonderful.

 

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