Friday, July 27, 2018

This is Your Korean War

A U.S. Army forward aid station in Korea, July 1950. Photo Courtesy of Mr. Lacy C. Barnett

You are a teenage American boy in 1950.  The U.S. Army welcomed you to its ranks after releasing so many World War II veterans.  Officially, the Army enlists boys as young as seventeen, but a few kids are even younger than that, thanks to recruiters’ lax scrutiny.  Someone had to staff overseas military commitments in the face of a growing Cold War.  The Army looked like a good deal when you enlisted as a high-school dropout seeking escape from a remote coal mining hamlet or a grimy industrial city.  You found a rather cushy billet in Japan, where you enjoyed three hots and a cot – and your dollar went a long way in the local economy.

But at the end of June, word came that Russian-equipped North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel to invade U.S.-backed South Korea.  Almost overnight, America would have to demonstrate its resolve with a true military commitment.  You’re with the 34th Infantry Regiment on Japan’s Kyushu Island, closest to the Korean Peninsula.  So you are the among the first troops to go. The Army prepares you as best it can with weapons, equipment, and food drawn from storage warehouses crammed with leftovers from World War II.  You are issued a rifle with a tag affixed to it that reads “Combat Unserviceable.” 


You quickly find that Korea is inhospitable in many ways. Before you even meet the enemy, you contend with climate extremes, insects, malodorous rice paddies, and those hills… one steep and scrubby hill after another. The highest hills must be scaled to deny them from the enemy. That enemy is no push-over. He is physically conditioned to dash up these slopes.  You and your colleagues are not. You rely on trucks for mobility and supplies. Many enemy formations advance on foot. Others drive Russian tanks. They work together to outflank, divide, and encircle you, pressing attacks on your units that are cut off.  You have tanks, but they are too late, too few, and no match for those of the enemy.

You are outnumbered from day-one. Your leadership – all the way up to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, know this. While it’s not explicitly stated, the job of the first Americans sent to Korea is not to defeat the enemy, but merely to slow him down until reinforcements can be shipped over from the States.  So you hold a hill or a crossroads as long as you can, pulling back only as your encirclement is imminent.  It’s a thankless task, one for which there is little or no direction in the Army manuals. We call it “bugging out.” It is a routine that some clever truck drivers have memorialized in a song, “Bug-Out Boogie.”  The dark humor of its lyrics is a bulwark against the madness that engulfs you. 

You really want to go back to Japan.  Or just get out of Korea. 

The last thing you want is to become immobilized on the front line as the enemy is bearing down on your position.  Even before you were wounded, you were exhausted. Your head throbbed from heat stroke. Your bowels were knotted by dysentery that you contracted by drinking water from the rice paddies, because dammit – it was the only water available.  Now you are immobilized on a stretcher. You smoke a cigarette, in part because the smoke wards away flies that want to crawl up your nostrils.

You anticipate only the next step in your deliverance. A hospital? To the Japanese girlfriend you left in Sasebo? Or maybe even… home.  If you are lucky, the boys from your squad hoist you to an aid station just behind the line. There, a combat doctor stabilizes your wounds so that corpsmen can stack you and four or five other guys in a Dodge ambulance that rumbles back to the nearest Korean rail depot.  Hopefully, you would not have to wait too long to be loaded on one of those old wooden train coaches that will lurch southward between the hills on its way to the port of Pusan – the filthy city that has now become the beloved exit from Korea and all its attendant nightmares. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Private First Class Maurice Francis O'Kain

The O'Kains struggled to start a family. Joe, a Pittsburgh electrician, and wife Irma suffered the loss of two infant daughters in the early 1920s. They finally welcomed four sons to the family.  Following the example of their father, who was a veteran of the First World War, three of these boys would seek opportunity in the military. The youngest son, Maurice, and the next oldest, Robert, went to Korea with the U.S. Army.

Only Robert would return home alive.

September 10, 1950. Having already completed two years of his enlistment, 20-year-old Maurice was assigned to the 19th Infantry Regiment during the darkest days of the Korean War.  Along with Pvt. Philip Hughes and the other riflemen of K Company, Maurice attempted to hold a lonely portion of the Pusan Perimeter known as Hill 300.  It was there, during a hellish nighttime battle, fought in the rain, that Maurice was killed in action. His remains eventually came back to be interred in his home town on Monday, September 3, 1951.

The O'Kains - infant daughters included - rest together now in the Christ Our Redeemer Catholic Cemetery.  Robert was the last to join them in 2016.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Vocation of Herman Felhoelter

Lt. Herman G. Felhoelter, 1913-1950.

July 16, 1950. Just north of Taejon, South Korea.  It was the day before Lieutenant Herman G. Felhoelter’s 37th birthday. But now, 11 days since he set foot in Korea with the U.S. Army, this Catholic chaplain knew he was in a tight spot. He was attached to the 19th Infantry Regiment, dug in along the Kum River to resist the onslaught of numerically superior North Korean forces approaching Taejon and its crucial railyard.  

The 19th had taken a lot of casualties.  The lucky ones were shuttled by ambulances down to the train station in Taejon.  But there were too many stretcher cases - men immobilized by wounds – and not enough ambulances. The North Koreans outflanked and gradually encircled the forward aid station where Lt. Felhoelter assisted medics with the living. When necessary, the Louisville, Kentucky native administered last rites for the dead.

Herman Felthoelter’s military vocation was rare in 1950. Just five years earlier, at the end of World War II, the U.S. Army boasted over 8,000 chaplains among its ranks. Demobilization during the late 1940s rapidly diminished those numbers.  At the end of 1947, just over 1,100 chaplains remained, and almost half of those would be transferred to the newly-established U.S. Air Force.  By June 1950, the Army had no more than 706 chaplains on active duty.

The unfavorable tactical situation was obvious to Felhoelter and Captain Linton Buttrey, the regimental medical officer staffing the aid station.  Korea was unbearably hot in July, the kind of conditions that precipitated heat stroke.  Supplies, and especially water, were nearly exhausted. They regiment had already functioned for days with little or no sleep. By noon, the men of the aid station knew their position was surrounded. The only road-bound path for escape was cut off by a North Korean roadblock. The only chance for the 100 or so able-bodied Americans was to escape on foot, through the hills.  Their biggest problem was the disposition of 30 litter cases.  They would have to be carried out by hand.

The group set out by about 1:00 in the afternoon. Following orders, the able-bodied carried stretcher cases with them. They moved in scattered teams in the direction of a pre-determined rallying point on a distant hill.  But soon, the hot sun challenged the endurance of these men.  As a result of cruel calculus, the litter cases were gathered for abandonment on an intermediate rise.  There were pleas, shouts, and tears. And there were choices that would haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.

Lt. Felhoelter and Capt. Buttrey remained with the immobilized wounded.  But in short order, their position was approached by a North Korean patrol.  While Felhoelter was dressed in army fatigues, he wore an armband with a large, white Latin cross that identified him as a chaplain.  Buttrey, a 43-year-old Tennessean, wore a simillar brassard with the red cross of a medical professional.  Under international law, both men were non-combatants, and they carried no weapons.

The North Korean patrol that approached them consisted of boys in their early teens.  It’s very likely that they had little training.  They were probably unaware of international conventions regarding the conduct of warfare. However, several of them were armed with Russian-made PPSh-41 burp guns. Spoting the oncoming patrol, the American chaplain and doctor made a quick agreement: Buttrey would dash forward to retrieve help, if possible.  Felhoelter would stay with the wounded. The enemy nicked Buttrey, but he otherwise made a good escape.

From the rallying point atop the hill, the Americans overlooking Felhoelter’s position could see everything unfold. Felhoelter knelt to pray over the wounded.  In the final analysis, this was all – or rather everything – he could do. The distant Americans then watched in horror as the young North Koreans shot the wounded at point-blank range, as well as the priest who cared for them. The enemy, who probably anticipated the retaliation of artillery, then withdrew from the position as quickly as they had taken it. 

The remains of Herman Felhoelter, and those of many of the wounded men, would be collected the following September after the Americans finally regained these positions. Most would eventually be shipped back home for final interment on U.S. soil.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Love the One You're With

c. 1952. Okinawa(?) A young U.S. Army private poses with a charming companion.  Thousands of liaisons were forged between U.S. servicemen and young women in Japan and its territories during the Korean War.  The quality of such relationships varied greatly:  at one extreme were prostitutes (i.e., panpan sanctioned by the host government in Japan); at the other were life-long marriages, a few of which endure to this day for couples now in their nineties.  During the Korean War, the fidelity of most relationships was similar to the example of modern campus co-eds who might endure for a semester.  Most soldiers serving in Korea managed to pass through Japan, where it didn't take long at all to "hook up" with a willing female companion. Many young men, like Pvt. Philip Hughes, requested (and paid for) a girlfriend photo, which he carried off to war, carefully tucked in a wallet or a helmet liner.  Those servicemen opting for marriage faced hurdles. At the time, U.S. State Department policies (not to mention social customs of the day) discouraged marriages of disparate ethnicities.  Nonetheless, perseverance fueled by love won the day.  A stroll through Arlington National Cemetery reveals countless headstones of deceased servicemen buried along with wives bearing given names that are unmistakably Japanese.