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"My war was often referred to as "the forgotten war". This expression bothered me because I knew it was true but shouldn't have been true."
- Lynn Swango
by Lynn Swango
Table of Contents:
Like a lot of others my age, I served in the US Army in Korea 50 years ago. I have gone months at a time without ever once thinking about my military experiences. Lately that has changed a little with the 50th anniversary of the war.
My war was often referred to as "the forgotten war". This expression bothered me because I knew it was true but shouldn't have been true.
Somewhat angered by the lack of public knowledge of the war I purchased Korean veterans plates for my car a few years ago. I have never belonged to the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion or any other organization for former servicemen. This is not because I am ashamed of my service time, but instead because I did not think I did anything special. I think of military service as a duty of American citizens. We are privileged to live in this great country and defending it is just what one does.
A few years ago the Korean War Memorial was built in Washington DC. And there has been much talk of a Korean War Museum to be constructed in Tuscola, Illinois, a few miles from my home.
Recently I looked at an album of pictures that I had taken while in the Army. Looking through them and reading notes written on the back caused me to reminisce about the period in my life from June 26,1952 until June 15, 1954. I thought I might enjoy putting my memories down in book form.
My experiences are very typical of the many who served at the same time I did. I have no exciting "war stories" but I do recall many things from my experience. The memories are mine. The book is for me. If others want to share it--that's okay too.
Chapter 1 - Induction
The Korean War started in 1950, and I became eligible for the draft a little later while I was in college at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. I got two deferments to finish my college degree but was well aware that I would be drafted soon after graduation.
I went to the Coles County draft board in May 1952 and inquired about my status. I was told that I would most surely be drafted in September or October of that year. I decided to waive my draft rights and was pushed to the top of the list and was drafted June 26, 1952, about three weeks after my college graduation. I figured the timing was just about right; when my two-year stint in the Army was over, I would be getting out at the right time of year to find a teaching job over the summer.
I had spent most of my life very close to home. While a college student, I had lived in our family’s home in Fair Grange, a farm community with a population of 60, located six miles from Charleston. I had never stayed overnight away from home except for a few times at my sister’s house 22 miles from Fair Grange.
I had been to Chicago, St. Louis, and Terre Haute, but my farthest trip south was to Fox Ridge State Park, only eight miles from Charleston.
In spite of this limited background I was not unusually apprehensive about going to the Army. My brother had been in the service for four years during World War II, and many other relatives and friends had been in the military service. Most of them had no more travel experience than I.
I reported to St. Louis, passed my physical, and was sworn in with about 50 other men. I remember we stayed overnight in an old hotel with no air conditioning. It was a very hot night. The next day we boarded a train for Ft. Custer, Michigan.
We arrived later in the day and were issued uniforms. I recall that night I went over to the recreation room and watched my first television. I had seen a few snowy pictures on a TV in a store in Charleston as they attempted to bring in stations from St. Louis and Indianapolis.
The black and white picture on the television at the recreation room looked quite good to me. I recall seeing the Gillette Friday night fights, and I remember Chuck Davey winning. He had been an amateur boxer at Michigan State University and was very popular in that area.
Three days later I was supposed to ship out of this Michigan reception center to a camp for my basic training. Several hundred were shipped out that day but I was not. About a dozen or so were not on the orders, and we were told we would have to wait until a new group came and be shipped out with them. It turned out that we were there three weeks doing very little. Sometimes we carried Army bunks from one barracks to another one. The next day we carried the same bunks back. It seemed the Army went out of its way to make sure we were doing something.
They did, however, issue me a weekend pass. It was almost unheard of for a new recruit to get a pass from a reception center.
The pass let me leave at noon on a Saturday, and I had to be back by midnight the following day. I was aware that my brother was home from Ohio, and I figured if I could get home he could take me at least part of the way back to Michigan.
I walked to the edge of camp looking for a ride, wearing my new Army uniform with no patches or any other military markings. I immediately got a ride with a sergeant who took me all the way to Route 45 just south of Chicago. I got a couple of more rides and by 7:00 pm I was in Arcola, Illinois, just 15 miles from Fair Grange. I called home and they picked me up.
It turned out my brother had to take me all the way back to Michigan. I had hoped to catch a train from Indianapolis to Ft. Custer, but there wasn’t a connection, so my brother drove me to camp. It was a lot of bother but I know my mother felt better seeing me and knowing I was in good spirits.
Chapter 2 - Basic Training
I was happy to learn I was assigned to Camp Breckinridge in western Kentucky for my 16 weeks of basic training.
The camp was just south of Evansville, Indiana and only a few miles from Shawneetown, Illinois. I knew I could make it home on weekend passes.
I found basic training to be no worse than I expected. We had to get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning and run a mile. That wasn't so bad until the weather got colder in the fall. I was able to keep up with all the physical requirements of the training. We marched everywhere we went. Most of the firing ranges were at least five miles from camp and we were seldom released from duty before 8 p.m.
We learned to fire different military weapons. I had very limited experience with firearms—just a little target practice with rifles that belonged to friends—but I did not mind the learning process. I recall carrying the tube end of a mortar to the range once. It was heavy and I could not hold it on my shoulders very long. My arms were not strong enough to carry it like a baby. I finally put one end under my belt and carried it like I was carrying a flag in a parade.
Unfortunately, the day we fired pistols it was my turn to stay behind and keep coal in the barrack's stoves. It was nice to stay behind with a day off, but I regretted that I had to miss pistol firing instead of mortar firing.
I really believe the most shocking thing in the 16-week training period was a mental game played on my company during a class lecture. During the lecture a soldier interrupted the captain, who was lecturing about the use of a bayonet in warfare, to give him a message. The message ordered all troops restricted to the base. We were told Russian war planes had been sighted heading from Siberia to Alaska.
The captain had us believing that World War III was moments from starting. For several minutes I believed the scenario. I had never had a feeling like that before. It was an effective psychological training maneuver.
Making friends during boot camp was easy. Since I had been deferred until after graduation I found several others in the company who had done the same thing. It was a mix of people but everyone seemed to get along. It was a learning experience for me to be in constant contact with blacks, Jews, people from big cities, and those from the deep South.
After the 16-week boot camp, I spent an additional eight weeks of more infantry training at Camp Breckinridge in leadership school. In the 24 weeks in Kentucky I had 16 weekend passes. After a hard six days it was nice to get a day's rest in your own bed at home. It made the training period more palatable.
I would start hitchhiking home at noon Saturday. It was easy for a man in uniform to get a ride in 1952. The trip from camp to Charleston would have taken a little over four hours in a non-stop drive. I was usually able to make it home in about seven hours by using my educated thumb. Occasionally, I got a ride with a friend from camp who was headed for Chicago.
At 1 p.m. on Sunday, someone in my family would take me to Mattoon where I would catch a bus to Evansville, Indiana. From there I was able to catch a bus to camp and arrive well before my pass deadline.
One of the most interesting parts of basic training came in latter weeks. We spent seven days on bivouac sleeping in pup tents. This was followed by an additional three days in a fox hole. It was in late October and it was getting cold at night. Having grown up in a home without a central heating system and no indoor plumbing, the great outdoors was not so unusual. It was much tougher on the city boys.
I lost about eight pounds during the training period. It was the only time in my life I ever lost weight without dieting.
At the end of my final week at Camp Breckinridge we received our orders. Most of us realized that we would be going to Korea but held out hopes for something better. I recall the day I stood at attention with our company and heard the orders read. The first seven in the alphabet went to Africa and another couple of dozen to Germany. The remaining 190 or so were sent to the Far East.
We knew that 95 percent of all those going to Japan would be sent on to Korea. I was not surprised at my assignment and accepted it as something I had no control over. I think we all thought the Korean War would not last much longer. I was confident that my tour of duty in the Army would be limited to the two years for which I was drafted.
Chapter 3 - Furlough and Overseas
I was given two weeks furlough in January 1953 before reporting to Ft. Lewis, Washington to be shipped overseas. Having been home so many times during my basic training the furlough was not as appreciated as it might have been.
The most memorable thing that happened during this time was meeting my future wife on a blind date. She was a junior at Eastern Illinois University. We exchanged letters while I was overseas, and were married a year after I returned home from Korea.
My first plane flight came when I flew from Chicago to Tacoma, Washington. I was to be stationed at Ft. Lewis for two weeks before boarding a ship for Japan. I recall the beauty of Mr. Rainier the day I arrived in Washington. That was the only time I saw the mountain as itwas cloudy and rained a lot after my arrival. I was told this is typical weather for the Northwest in February.
I joined 3,000 other soldiers boarding the troop ship General R.L. Howze on February 12, 1953. Sixteen days later we docked at Tokyo, Japan. The trip was my first by boat. I took Dramamine tablets and had very little motion sickness.
The ship was very crowded, and I worried more about claustrophobia than anything else. We slept in canvas bunks stacked six high. The bunks were so close together that the soldier above you was only about a foot away. I got a top bunk and had a little more space. The first night things were so poorly organized we had no assigned place for our duffel bags so we slept with them.
During the day the bunks folded up and we had a little more room. We were allowed on the deck part of each day and of course went to a mess hall three times a day. It was not uncommon to stand in line for an hour for each meal. We had nothing to do anyway. I had brought a couple of Perry Mason novels and I read them to pass the time.
The ship had only a few fresh water showers. I soon found soap did not work with salt water. I set my alarm for 3 a.m hoping the line in front of the fresh water showers would be short. I still waited a half-hour for my turn.
We were all sent to Camp Drake outside Tokyo for further assignment. Six days later I boarded another troop ship for the much shorter ride to Korea.
Chapter 4 - Pusan and Inchon
Disembarking at Korea’s best harbor was an experience in itself. Pusan is a major city on the southern tip of the country. Korea is roughly shaped like Florida with Pusan corresponding to Miami. The geography was the only similarity however. Pusan was like the rest of Korea. It was in shambles.
We were given two days food rations as we left the ship. The Army calls its canned food C-rations. I was handed eight small cans, and I had nowhere to put them. My bulging duffel bag was completely full, and I had to carry it on one shoulder with my rifle on the other shoulder. I unbuttoned my shirt at the waist and pushed the cans of food around my waist.
I had previously been warned that Koreans would volunteer to carry your duffel bag. We were told that if you let them, you would not see it again.
We boarded a train and embarked on a 24-hour ride from Pusan to Inchon where we would be assigned. The trip today might be only three or four hours but in 1953 the wartorn railroad track limited speed to 15 miles per hour for safety’s sake.
Whenever the train stopped, which was often, several soldiers in each car were assigned guard duty. My turn came at 3 a.m. and as I stood outside the train, in what was almost pitch darkness, I fully realized my wait was over—I was in a country where a war was in progress.
We arrived at a replacement depot in Yongdungpo near Inchon. From here we would get our Korean assignment. As usually was the case in the Army, there was a lot of waiting. About mid-afternoon on the second day someone told me my name had been called on the public address system. I thought it was the usual prank but I did see some men falling in formation outside my tent. I asked if I belonged in the group and was told by a crusty sergeant to fall in. We marched to an office building where we were interviewed. It seems that Korea was short of typists. I think I was picked for an interview because my service records showed that I was a college graduate. I am glad it did not show my typing grades. They were the poorest grades I had in high school or college. A few days later I was to find out just how important my limited typing skills were to be.
From Inchon we were sent to a School of Standards just outside Chunchon. We stopped there to go to rifle range and make sure our weapons fired. The next day I fully expected to be sent the final 30 miles to the front lines.
The next morning was the moment of truth. We were told to pick up our duffel bags and rifles and board trucks as our name was called. We knew the trucks were headed north.
After I had taken a couple of steps the officer reading the orders called out "Swango and Meis come back, you’re assigned to Service Company."
I wasn’t really sure what that meant but it sounded a lot better than being assigned to Company A or Company B. It turned out that Bob Meis and I had been the two picked from the 10 possible typists interviewed at Inchon. We became friends while on the truck to our assignment at 45th Division Headquarters.
Meis was my age and from a small town in Iowa. We had a lot in common. We remained best friends throughout our
12 months together.
Chapter 5 - Chunchon
My new job consisted of working in an office with 20 others and keeping records for the 180th Regiment of the 45th Division.
Meis and I were assigned to the morning reports section, and each of us were assigned a battalion ( five companies). Handwritten information came back from the front lines by truck daily. Our job was to type the official reports.
The Army allowed two typing errors, initialed by the Warrant Officer in charge of the office, but our boss required all reports to be typed errorless. My typing was a little rusty and had it not been for my new friend Meis helping me out I think I might have lost my job. I am forever thankful.
The war was at a near standstill by March, 1953. The UN forces were encamped in fox holes on hills. The Communists were dug in similarly to their north. The 38th parallel was the line that roughly divided the opposing forces. Both sides were talking truce.
Four months later the Armistice was signed at Panmunjom in July, 1953. In the closing months of the war fighting escalated as both sides realized the Armistice was inevitable and wished to solidify their defensive positions on the hills near what was to most likely be the demarcation line.
Shortly after I started work, 40 men in one of the companies for which I typed reports were killed in one night. I felt very fortunate that the Lord spared me that front line duty. I seldom felt unsafe in my location at 45th Division Headquarters.
Occasionally a small plane from North Korea would fly in under the radar and drop a small bomb near us. These planes usually arrived near midnight and were referred to as "Bed Check Charlie." The alert forced everyone to leave their tents and go into trenches for a few minutes. It was only a harassment maneuver. The US Air Force had complete control of the skies at that time.
The day the Armistice was signed we had to type a lot of information about the troops in our battalion. The information was name, rank, and serial number of each soldier plus a few other things. This exchange of information with North Korea was part of the treaty agreement.
There was not a huge amount of excitement about the signing of the treaty. It had been anticipated for several days. We were not surprised. We knew we would still have to serve several more months in Korea before going home.
I also remember that day for another reason. The various military installations in Korea traded movies, and our compound was to have our one day to watch the award winning movie "From Here to Eternity." The commanding officer had ordered the movie shown all night long, and we finished typing the reports around 2 a.m. I saw the movie from 3 to 5 a.m. It's a great movie, and it was a fitting end to a day that had seen a cessation of hostilities in Korea.
During my first five months in Korea it had been easy to get a promotion. During the time I moved up three levels to sergeant. Soon after peace was established the promotions were almost cut off.
Life on the 45th Division compound was not all that bad. We lived in eight-man tents that had wooden floors and a few feet of wood on the sides. In the winter the tent was heated with two oil burning stoves. We had a Korean houseboy, actually a grown man, who came in early and turned up the stoves and heated a five gallon can of water. He also did housecleaning and ran errands. We each paid him a dollar a month. Actually, we bought a carton of cigarettes and gave that to him. He could sell them for much more that the dollar we were charged. He was often given a pack of cigarettes as a tip. We occasionally bought items such as radio batteries or souvenirs from Koreans. We always paid for them with packs of cigarettes. Korean money had little value and we used a military version of US money— barter seemed to work out best. I think we all were able to keep clean—but we seldom used showers. In order to shower we had to walk to the edge of the compound and shower in a tent. The problem was that the water came from a nearby rice paddy. I never felt I was getting clean with that water. Instead, we usually kept clean by using soap and water out of the steel helmet that served as a pan.
We had limited electricity on the compound. The source of power was a large generator powered with gasoline. At 11 p.m. each night the generator was turned off and there were no lights anywhere. Since the generated voltage varied so much we operated our radios on batteries. There were only a couple of GI radio stations. The few Korean stations we were able to pull in did not broadcast anything in English.
The food was okay. I gained 30 pounds over my 16 months overseas. We had a post exchange (PX) where we could buy candy bars and other sweets to supplement our diet. I really missed milk and milk products. All we had was powdered milk and margarine. Both were barely edible. When most GI's went to Japan on Rest and Recuperation leave (R&R), the first thing they did was order some ice cream.
I gradually became a coffee drinker. The office workers had a coffee break in mid-morning. We lined up with our metal drinking cups from our mess gear and walked through the mess hall and were served coffee. Originally I made the trip just to get out of work for a few minutes. Little by little I started drinking some of the coffee. In a few weeks I began to like it.
The office job became rather mundane. Each day’s work was very much like the previous day. We did have to serve once a week on guard duty. This was four hours of walking in total darkness back and forth with your carbine slung on your back. I don’t remember time ever passing more slowly.
I had some excitement one night. After guard duty was over I headed back to my tent around 3 a.m. It was a dark night and no lights—you found your tent by having a good memory. I accidentally fell into an open trench. The trench was used only when we had an air raid. I could not figure a way out of the trench with my carbine on my back. I was afraid to throw it out for fear I could not find it in the dark. Losing a military weapon would not be looked on lightly. It took me about 15 minutes until I felt my way to a spot where the slope was not so severe and I could get out.
Our compound was on the edge of the city of Chunchon. Like the other parts of South Korea, the city had little electricity, plumbing, or usual city services. The streets were dirt and we often saw people tossing pans of waste water out their back doors into the streets. I could not understand how Koreans survived under such conditions. We seldom ever walked into the town. There was nothing there we really wanted.
By comparison we lived under pretty good conditions. We slept on Army canvas bunks in sleeping bags. I had an air mattress and in addition I had purchased a two-inch thick mattress from our Korean houseboy. We had a mosquito net over the bunk during the summer. Of course we had an outdoor toilet, which was fine with me. I had never lived in a house with indoor toilets except during my time in stateside Army barracks. We all wore Army fatigues and never wore dress uniforms in Korea. The houseboy took care of our laundry.
We were short on entertainment. I played a few softball games on the office team. We had an outdoor basketball court also but not much organized activity. I occasionally went Mto movies, and I read the Stars and Stripes Army newspaper everyday. The highlight of the day was mail call. Since I had access to a typewriter I wrote a lot of letters myself. All of us had calendars that counted off the days we had left to go home. We also looked forward to R&R so we could go to Japan for a week.
Most GI's were granted two seven-day leaves in Japan during their tour in Korea. I had three R&R's. A mile or so from our compound was an Air Force base in Chunchon. We flew out of there for one of three locations in Japan for the leaves. We were sent either to Tokyo, Kuratsu, or Fukuoka. I had assignments to each city. My friends and I decided to take a train from Kuratsu to Tokyo so I spent two of the three in Tokyo.
It was nice to get out of Korea for a few days into a more civilized looking country but it was no substitute for a trip home. We flew to Japan in Globemasters. They were cargo planes and not designed for comfort. We had to wear a parachute and I could hardly wait for the four-hour ride to be over.
Japan was much different than Korea. Hotels were available specifically for troops on leave. The cities were similar to US cities. We were all impressed with the train system in Tokyo. We were able to travel just about anywhere on the trains. The Japanese trains were almost always on time. I was surprised that most of the Japanese I met could speak acceptable English. Of course, American troops generally did their sightseeing at the same places. I doubt if citizens off this track were able to communicate in English.
Pictures of Chunchon, Korea
Chapter 6 - Headed Home
The Army decided to send the 45th Division home in March, 1954. I did not have enough time in Korea to qualify to go with them. With the division gone, I was reassigned to I Corps Headquarters in Uejongbu a few miles away. When I arrived at my office assignment my new commanding officer admitted he had no job for me. Since I was going home in six weeks he told me just to stay out of trouble. This was easy since there really wasn't any way for me to get in trouble.
When my rotation time arrived no ships were available. I had to wait a couple of extra weeks before finally getting my orders to go home. The two months at I Corp headquarters were very boring.
We traveled to Inchon for our boat trip home. The harbor there is not as deep as the one at Pusan. We had to ride small boats for about a mile to board the big ship that was docked off shore. The ship did not seem quite as crowded as the one that took us to the Far East.
There are not enough jobs on a ship to keep nearly 3,000 soldiers busy. My sergeants rank was high enough that I did not have to work. I was assigned to the kitchen detail with orders to supervise those of lesser rank. I did a lot of lying around and eating. I feel sure I must have gained my last five pounds on the return trip home.
We arrived in Seattle in early June. There were no great honors bestowed on soldiers from a war that ended in a tie. However there was a band and a chorus line on shore to entertain us as we disembarked.
I, along with many others, boarded a troop train headed for Ft. Sheridan in Chicago. I enjoyed the three-day train ride as I got to see the country out of my train window. We had Pullman cars and were able to sleep comfortably.
After three days of physicals and turning in equipment at Ft. Sheridan I walked out the gate as a civilian. I took an "L" train to Wrigley Field and saw a Cub game. I spent the night with the family of my sister's brother-in-law. They put me on the "City of New Orleans" the next morning and I rode that train to Mattoon where my mother and sisters met me. That night I went back to Mattoon to see the girl that a year later would be my wife.
I started to summer school two days later at Eastern Illinois University to work on my masters degree. It was great to be home.
I never regretted my military time. I am sure I learned more during two years in the Army than I did in any two years in college. However, two years was enough—I was not tempted to re-enlist.
Appendix - KOREAN WAR TIMELINE
Photos & Scanned Documents...
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