By LtCol Mike Christy
Together We Served Dispatches
Deciding on a military career at the age of 12, Olds attended Hampton High School in Hampton Virginia where he became a standout football player. Declining a series of football scholarships, he elected to take a year of study at Millard Preparatory School in 1939 prior to applying to West Point. Learning of the outbreak of World War II while at Millard, he attempted to leave school and enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
This was blocked by his father who forced him to stay at Millard. Completing the course of study, Olds was accepted to West Point in July 1940 and played for the renowned coach Red Blaik, compiling so stellar a record as a tackle on both offense and defense that in 1985 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Selecting service in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Olds completed his primary flight training in the summer of 1942 at the Spartan School of Aviation in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Returning north, he passed through advanced training at Stewart Field in New York. Receiving his wings from Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Olds graduated from West Point on June 1, 1943 after completing the academy’s accelerated wartime curriculum. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, he received an assignment to report to the West Coast for training on P-38 Lightnings. This done, Olds was posted to the 479th Fighter Group’s 434th Fighter Squadron with orders for Britain.
Arriving in Britain in May 1944, Olds’ squadron quickly entered combat as part of the Allied air offensive prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Dubbing his P-38J aircraft the “Scat II” (every fighter he flew in combat was named “Scat” and numbered sequentially), Olds worked closely with his crew chief to learn about aircraft maintenance. Promoted to Captain on July 24, on a low-level mission over Montmirail, he spotted two bogeys far in front of him, heading to his right, about 200 feet off the deck.
He pulled behind the two FW-190’s and at 400 yards behind the trailing plane, he fired a six-second burst, hitting the left wing and then pulling his gunfire onto the fuselage. Big pieces flew off, flame and smoke poured out, and the airplane rolled off to the right. Turning his attention to the second plane, he did not see the first one hit the ground. As the second plane pulled a full 360 turn, Olds stayed with him. From dead astern, he fired a five-second burst and observed many hits. The Focke Wulf zoomed up and the pilot bailed out.
On August 25, during an escort mission to Wismar, Germany, Olds shot down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s to become the squadron’s first ace, making him the last P-38 ace of the Eighth Air Force and the last in the European Theater of Operations. He also claimed three more unofficial kills that could not be verified by witnesses.
In mid-September, the 434th began converting to the P-51 Mustang. This required some adjustment on Olds’ part as the single-engine Mustang handled differently than the twin-engine Lightning.
After downing a Bf 109 over Berlin on Oct. 6, Olds completed his initial combat tour in November and was given two months leave in the United States. Returning to Europe in January 1945, he was promoted to Major the following month on February 9, and received his seventh aerial victory the same day, using his P-51D’s new K-14 gunsight to calculate the deflection and hit a Bf-109 at 450 yards over Magdeburg with his first burst, a result that surprised even Maj. Olds. He closed in and fired twice more, with his third burst sending the Messerschmitt down in flames. Five days later, on February 14, he claimed three more kills but only received credit for two with the other listed as a “probable.”
On March 25, less than two years out of West Point and at only 22 years of age, Maj. Olds received command of the 434th. He never forgot it. Decades later he said, “As a Major I was responsible for feeding and housing my men, training my men, and rewarding or punishing them. As a Colonel I had to check with some general for permission to visit the latrine.”
Unlike many pilots who regarded airplanes as tools, Olds could be sentimental about his machines. Near the end of the war he was one of six P-51 pilots who attacked a German airdrome and found himself the lone survivor. He nursed his crippled Mustang back to base but found that it stalled at 175 mph, rolling violently. But as he said, “Scat VI had taken me through a lot and I was damned if I was going to give up on her.”
Somehow he got the bird on the runway and kept it in one piece.
Olds was a team player as long as the team wanted to play. When the leaders were only interested in suiting up, he exercised some initiative. In other words, he went freelancing. In his first two dogfights he was alone with his wingman, having left formation to hunt on his own. As he wryly noted long afterward, “When I shot down my first two airplanes I was relieved to see that they had black crosses on their wings.”
Olds used to say that the two best things about World War II were London and Col. Zemke. When the 479th’s first commander was shot down in August 1944, Hub Zemke moved over from the fabled 56th Fighter Group and rejuvenated the Mighty Eighth’s last fighter outfit. Not that Olds needed any rejuvenating, but the group had plodded along in pedestrian fashion.
In a few weeks Zemke turned things around, and added to Robin’s already formidable determination to succeed as a shooter and a leader. The group converted to P-51s in September but on October 30, 1944, while flying in unforecasted turbulence, the wing of Zemke’s P-51 was torn off. Zemke was forced to bail out over enemy territory and was captured. He was liberated when the war with Germany ended.
Olds had made ace in both the P-38 and P-51, probably the only pilot ever to do so. Postwar after VE-Day, he returned to the States and reverted to his permanent rank: a 23-year-old Captain.
With the end of the war in Europe in May, Olds’ tally stood at 12 kills as well as 11.5 destroyed on the ground. Returning to the US, Olds was assigned to West Point to serve as an assistant football coach to Earl “Red” Blaik.
Olds’ time at West Point proved brief as many older officers resented his rapid rise in rank during the war. In February 1946, Olds obtained a transfer to the 412th Fighter Group at March Field, California, and trained on the P-80 Shooting Star. Through the remainder of the year, he flew as part of a jet demonstration team with Lt. Col. John C. “Pappy” Herbst.
In 1946, while based at March Field, Olds met Hollywood actress (and “pin-up girl”) Ella Raines on a blind date in Palm Springs. They married in Beverly Hills on February 6, 1947, and had two daughters, Christina and Susan, and a son, Robert Ernest, who was stillborn in 1958. Most of their 29-year marriage, marked by frequent extended separations and difficult homecomings, was turbulent because of a clash of lifestyles, particularly her refusal to ever live in government housing on base. Olds and Ella Raines separated in 1975 and divorced in 1976. Olds then married Abigail Morgan Sellers Barnett in January 1978, and they divorced after fifteen years of marriage.
Ella Raines died in May 30, 1988 Sherman Oaks, California from throat cancer. She was 67.
Seen as a rising star, Olds was selected for a U.S. Air Force-Royal Air Force exchange program in 1948. Traveling to Britain, he commanded No. 1 Squadron at RAF Tangmere and flew the Gloster Meteor. With the end of this assignment in late 1949, Olds became the operations officer for the F-86 Sabre-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron at March Field in California.
Olds next was given command of the Air Defense Command’s 71st Fighter Squadron based at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. He remained in this role for much of the Korean War despite repeated requests for combat duty. Increasingly unhappy with the U.S. Air Force, despite promotions to Lieutenant Colonel (1951) and Colonel (1953), he debated retiring but was talked out of it by his friend Maj. Gen. Frederic H. Smith, Jr. Shifting to Smith’s Eastern Air Defense Command, Olds languished in several staff assignments until receiving an assignment to the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Wing at Landstuhl Air Base, Germany in 1955. Remaining abroad for three years, he later oversaw the Weapons Proficiency Center at Wheelus Air Base, Libya.
Made Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division at the Pentagon in 1958, Olds produced as series of prophetic papers calling for improved air-to-air combat training and the increased production of conventional munitions. After assisting in generating the funding for the classified SR-71 Blackbird program, Olds attended the National War College in 1962-1963. Following graduation, he commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. During this time, he brought over former Tuskegee Airman Col. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. to Britain to serve on his staff. Olds left the 81st in 1965 after forming an aerial demonstration team without command authorization.
After brief service at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, Olds was given command of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. He knew from his own sources that all was not well in the 8th TFW and resolved to see it from the perspective of the FNG (the “freaking” new guy).
He went through the normal in-processing routine like any other newbie, paid close attention and spoke little. By the time he reached the front office, he reckoned that he knew all he needed to. He began cleaning house.
First he cut loose the deadwood, the ticket punchers and careerists who had “sniveled some counters “- missions that counted toward completion of a tour when in fact they had not gone north. Then he began learning the way the Wolfpack did business so he could improve upon it. He stood before the F-4C Phantom crews and said, “I’m going to start here by flying Green Sixteen (tail-end Charlie) and you guys are going to teach me how. But teach me fast and teach me good, because I’m a quick learner.”
Sitting in the audience was Capt. Ralph Wetterhahn, a future MiG killer. Like so many other pilots and WSOs, he was energized by the new CO’s press-on attitude. Years later, Wetterhahn compared Olds’ arrival with that of Brig. Gen. Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) in Twelve Oâclock High.
The old ways were not only out, they were deceased. A new regime had arisen, and the Wolfpack began showing results. Olds ruled over a fiefdom like a feudal baron, enjoying the excitement of the hunt by day and discussing the great game with his men at arms by night.
Under Olds’ predecessor, who seldom flew combat, the 8th had eked out a meager kill-loss ratio. Like the rest of the Air Force, it had barely broken even with Hanoi’s MiGs, peaking at a 2-1 exchange rate. Under Olds, the Wolfpack shot to the top of the Southeast Asia league, bagging 18 MiGs, and when he left, the wing’s kill ratio stood at 4-1.
The free-wheeling environment at Ubon fueled morale, and the Wolfpack’s was stratospheric. Dedicated consumers of booze and red meat, they reveled in the warrior ethic. In contrast, todays sedate, sober young professionals are superbly educated, highly competent, and terrified that they might say something that somebody would find objectionable. Olds did not want to live in that world.
And he didn’t.
Increasing concerned about F-105 Thunderchief losses to North Vietnamese MiGs during bombing missions, Olds designed “Operation Bolo” in late 1966. This called for 8th TFW F-4s to mimic F-105 operations in an effort to draw enemy aircraft into combat. Implemented in January 1967, the operation saw American aircraft down seven MiG-21s, with Olds shooting down one. The MiG losses were the highest suffered in one day by the North Vietnamese during the war. A stunning success, Operation Bolo effectively eliminated the MiG threat for most of the spring of 1967. After bagging another MiG-21 on May 4, Olds shot down two MiG-17s on the 20th to raise his total to 16, including the four MiGs over Vietnam.
Over the next few months, Olds continued to personally lead his men into combat. In an effort to raise morale in the 8th TFW, he began growing a famed handlebar mustache. Copied by his men, they referred to them as “bulletproof mustaches.” During this time, he avoided shooting down a fifth MiG as he had been alerted that should he become an ace over Vietnam, he would be relieved of command and brought home to conduct publicity events for the Air Force. On August 11, Olds conducted a strike on the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi. For his performance, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Upon return to the U.S., Olds was acclaimed as America’s top gun of the war to date, a record he retained for the next five years. But he was contemptuous of the Air Force’s attitude toward air combat, exclaiming, “The best flying job in the world is a MiG-21 pilot at Phuc Yen. Hell, if I was one of them I’d have got 50 of us!”
Despite his MiG-killing fame, he was perhaps proudest of the strike against North Vietnam’s best-defended target: Thai Nguyen steel mill. In an ultra-low-level attack, leaving rooster tails on the paddies behind them, Olds and two wingmen put their bombs on target. He considered it a dangerously wasteful effort, as the mill had been hit repeatedly, but its smoke stacks had remained standing. What he valued most was the courage and skill of his aircrews.
Leaving the 8th TFW in September 1967, Olds was made Commandant of Cadets at the US Air Force Academy. Promoted to brigadier general on June 1, 1968, he worked to restore pride in the school after a large cheating scandal had blackened its reputation. In February 1971, Olds became director of aerospace safety in the Office of the Inspector General. That fall, he was sent back to Southeast Asia to report on the combat readiness of USAF units in the region. While there, he toured bases and flew several unauthorized combat missions.
He found what he feared: most Air Force fighter crews “couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.” Commander John Nichols, a Navy MiG killer brought to Udorn, Thailand to teach dog fighting to the Air Force blue suits, saw Olds taxi his F-4 into the chocks after a practice mission. “The canopy came open, followed by General Olds’ helmet in a high, lofting arc. He was not happy.” But his report and analysis were not well received, and his recommendations were ignored.
When Operation Linebacker began in May 1972, American fighter jets returned to the offense in the skies over North Vietnam for the first time in nearly four years. Navy and Marine Corps fighters, reaping the benefits of their TOPGUN program, immediately enjoyed considerable success with a 12:1 kill-loss ratio. In contrast, by June, as Olds had predicted, the Air Force’s fighter community was struggling with a nearly 1:1 kill-loss ratio.
To the new Inspector General, Lt. Gen. Ernest C. Hardin, Jr., Olds offered to take a voluntary reduction in rank to Colonel so he could return to operational command and straighten out the situation. Olds decided to leave the Air Force when the offer was refused (he was offered another inspection tour instead) and he retired on June 1, 1973. With 17 career victories (thirteen in WW II plus four in Vietnam) when the triple ace died, he was America’s third-ranking living ace. His 259 total combat missions included 107 in World War II and 152 in Southeast Asia, 105 of those over North Vietnam. Scat XXVII (F-4C-24-MC 64-0829), the plane he flew for his four MiG kills, was retired from operational service and placed on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, with the four red MiG stars representing his four MiG kills in Vietnam painted on the splitter vane of the intake.
Retiring to Steamboat Springs, CO, he became active in public affairs. Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001, Olds later died on June 14, 2007. His ashes were interred at the US Air Force Academy.
Far too many military personnel, policemen, and politicians mouth their oath of office as a rote exercise. Not Robin Olds. He thought about the words, absorbed, them, and passed them along. In addressing newly commissioned officers he said, “The airman swears that he will obey the orders of the officers appointed over him. Do you realize what responsibilities that puts on your shoulders? Your orders have to be legal and proper. Think about it, before you give one. But think about how to protect and defend the Constitution. Because do you know what that is? That is by, for, and of The People. It is not the President; it is not the Speaker of the House; nor the Leader of the Senate. It is the People of the United States; who, hopefully in their wisdom will guide their forces properly.”
Olds had been writing a memoir for several years prior to his death. Says F-4 pilot and novelist Mark Berent, “It was well written, as you’d expect from Robin, but it wasn’t really about him. It was more about people he knew.”
Another Air Force officer who read part of the text said that it began as an ethereal discussion with the ghost of Robin’s father. Robert Olds had asked his son the status of the U.S. Air Force and got a detailed debriefing on what’s wrong with the service. It was a long list.
When he died on June 14, not quite 85, Olds left the work incomplete. The fact that his book remains unfinished represents a major loss to aviation literature.
Gen. Robin Olds once said his magnificent mustache represented his defiance. This defiance grew into the modern-day practice called “Mustache March” in the U.S. Air Force, in which Airmen of all ranks grow their mustaches out of regulations for the entire month of March in defiance of AF hair grooming standards.
James Helms Kasler was born on May 2, 1926 in South Bend, Indiana and following 30-years of distinguished military service, retired as a U.S. Air Force Colonel. Three times he went off to war and three times returned home. During his career, he is the only person to be awarded three Air Force Crosses. He also was awarded two Silver Stars, Legion of Merit, nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts, eleven Air Medals and Bronze Star with V for valor. Setting aside recipients of the Medal of Honor, he is the 10th most decorated serviceman in U.S. history. For some, he is known as Indiana’s Sgt. Alvin York, the famous hero of World War I.
Shortly after graduating from Shortridge High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in May 1944. He spent his two-year enlistment flying combat missions over Japan as a B-29 Superfortress tail gunner.
Following the war, Kasler attended Butler University in Indianapolis for three years before entering the U.S. Air Force pilot training program in January 1950 and received his wings on March 24, 1951 at Williams AFB, Arizona. Following a brief assignment to Presque Isle, Maine, in November 1951 he was sent to Korea and assigned to the 335th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group.
Flying the F-86 Sabrejet, Kasler was credited with his first aerial victory on April 1, 1952, downing one MiG-15 near Wongsong-dong and damaging a second east of Sinuiju. He shot down another MiG near Okkang-dong on April 21. Action picked up in May, and he was credited with four more MiG-15s – one on the 4th, two on the 15th. It was on April 25 when he got his 6th in MiG Alley.
He and his wingman, 1st Lt. Albert Smiley, caught several MiGs just as they were returning to their Communist air base. Kasler got behind the lead MiG, chasing it for about 50 miles on the deck, refusing flight commander Phil “Casey” Colman’s request to call it a day. On the MiGs tail, Kasler opened up, and his gunfire tore it apart. Its canopy gone, its pilot engulfed in fire, the MiG arched down in a flaming trail before it splattered in the mud flats just below. Kasler pulled back on the stick mightily, to avoid sharing his victim’s fate. He cleared and called triumphantly to Colman, “Casey, I’m an ace.”
MiGs were routinely piloted by Chinese and Soviet pilots and a U.S. intelligence officer later informed Kasler that the three MiGs he and Smiley killed were the only ones recorded that day.
The officer had another bit of information: One of those three planes had been piloted by the son of Mao Zedong, father of the Chinese revolution and principal founder of the People’s Republic of China.
Kasler returned to the United States in July 1952 and during the next 11 years served in Canada, Turner AFB, Georgia, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, and Breitburg Air Base, Germany, flying a variety of jet fighters. In 1963 he received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nebraska.
In February 1966 he went to Tahkli Air Base, Thailand as the operations officer for the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 355th Wing. While mission were flying daily over both South and North Vietnam, Hanoi was at that time off-limits to U.S. warplanes. Fearing a wider conflict, Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations, drew a 50-mile circle around it and a 30-mile ring around the principal harbor.
That restriction was eliminated in June 1966 as American defense chiefs were slowly escalating the war, and had recently decided to broaden the bombing of North Vietnam to include industrial targets like the Hanoi POL (petroleum, oil, & lubricant) facility.
On June 21, Kasler learned of the impending strike and began to select pilots, draw up the precise navigation plans, and studying Hanoi’s formidable aerial defenses. North Vietnam had the strongest anti-aircraft defenses in history: over 7,000 AA guns of 37mm or larger, and batteries of radar-controlled SAM’s ringing Hanoi.
By midnight on the 28th, their plans were complete, down to detailed route charts, folded accordion-style. Minutes before the 0830 mission briefing, Kasler was invited to lead the mission, much to his surprise, and to the discomfort of Col. Holt, who otherwise would have led the large raid. The briefing focused on weather (clear) and winds (light and variable) – both perfect for fighter operations. Both wings, the 355th and the 388th, would approach the target from the south, to minimize the chances of a bomb ending up in the city of Hanoi. Each Republic F-105 Thunderchief carried eight 750-pound bombs.
Kasler rolled down the runway and lifted off at 235 knots. Airborne, he headed north for the rendezvous with the aerial tankers. They refueled uneventfully and were three minutes ahead of schedule. Kasler led the Thuds in a circle to kill the 180 seconds. Twenty minutes later, they were over the Red River and Kasler began to lose altitude, until they were 300 feet off the ground, at the base of “Thud Ridge,” the landmark mountain range that ran east-west across North Vietnam’s mid-section.
As they dropped tanks, they could see smoke rising up from the POL tanks, already hit by Navy jets. Flak blossomed all around them, even at 300 feet. The NVA gunners must have had their 85mm and 100mm pieces at zero elevation. Amidst the smoke from the target and puffs of anti-aircraft fire, Kasler called for afterburners and went into his bomb run. Big fat oil tanks filled his view; he dropped his bombs and rolled away to the right. Turning back, he saw the fuel tanks erupting into huge billowing fireballs, thousands of feet high.
His flight crossed the Red River and the flak gunners switched to fighter-bombers behind him. Flying west, looking for targets of opportunity, he found a convoy of twenty-five trucks. The Thuds blasted them with 20mm cannon fire, destroying at least half of them. He glanced back at Hanoi, now 35 miles behind. A pillar of black smoke towered up, over six miles high.
The Hanoi POL strike was very successful. Over 90 percent of the facility was destroyed and the Vietnamese abandoned it altogether.
On August 8, 1966, on his 91st combat mission, he was leading the formation when his wingman, Fred Flom was shot down. Kasler dropped down and flew low-level cover while awaiting the arrival of a combat rescue patrol. Running low on fuel with just enough to return to base, he instead hooked up with a KC-135 midair refueler and return to look for Flom.
Kasler’s F-105 was also shot down over North Vietnam that same day and captured by the North Vietnamese. He was a POW until 4 March 1973. So began six years and seven months of imprisonment by an enemy who knew exactly who he was and why to hate him.
Oddly, it was Kasler’s notoriety that saved his life, but it also exposed him to unspeakable torture. His captors gloated. They singled him out. They almost immediately put Kasler on television, so they couldn’t kill him without losing face, but they were particularly eager to force a confession or any capitulation, so great would have been its propaganda value.
It was testimony to the ferocity of the air war that another of Kasler’s closest friends, Lewis Shattuck, was shot down and rescued on Aug 1st and was shot down again, and this time captured, on Aug 11th. And that his friend John Brodak went down Aug 14th.
That’s three buddies down within 35 days of one another and serving as POWs from 1966 until 1973.
At one point, during the fall of 1967, Kasler’s captors took his clothes and his mosquito net. For three days, they denied him food and water and they beat his back and buttocks with a truck fan belt, every hour on the hour, 6 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m.
He was tortured repeatedly by his Communist captors, in an effort to get him to cooperate with their propaganda claims. In the early years, the prisoners were kept in isolation and rarely let out of their cells. The Vietnamese used isolation, sleep deprivation, starvation, as well as physical pain to try to break Kasler down. His worst session came in June 1968:
âThe Vietnamese were attempting to force me to meet a delegation and appear before TV cameras on the occasion of the supposed 30000th American airplane ever North Vietnam. I couldn’t say the things they were trying to force me to say. I was tortured for six weeks. I went through the ropes and irons ten times. I was denied sleep for five days and during three of these was beaten every hour on the hour with a fan belt. During the entire period I was on a starvation diet. I was very sick during this period. I had contacted osteomyelitis in early 1967 and had a massive bone infection in my right leg.
“They would wrap my leg before each torture session so I wouldn’t get pus or blood all over the floor of the interrogation room. During this time they beat my face to a pulp. I couldn’t get my teeth apart for five days. My ear drum was ruptured, one of my ribs broken and the pin in my right leg was broken loose and driven up into my hip.”
“I lay in agony for six months until I was given an operation in January of 1969.”
[Excerpted from pownetwork.org]
Kasler shared the infamous Room 7 of the “Hanoi Hilton” with other great heroes like Robinson Risner, James Stockdale, Bud Day, John McCain, Larry Guarino, and Jeremiah Denton. He never cooperated with the North Vietnamese and survived to return home in March, 1973, after six and one-half years in captivity.
For seven long years, his wife Martha, daughter Suzanne and twins Jim and Nanette awaited Kasler’s return from Vietnam. It came, joyfully and tearfully, on March 8, 1973 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
The twins were 12 when their father left for Vietnam. They were 19 when the family was reunited. Kasler momentarily mistook his son Jim for Suzanne’s husband, John Morris.
The confusion was understandable but short-lived. It is testimony to Kasler’s enormous strength, and that of Martha and the kids, that normalcy was incredibly, and almost immediately, restored.
In July 1974 Kasler was assigned as vice commander of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho and remained in that capacity until his retirement as aColonel on 1 May 1975, in spite of him being in line for an Air Wing command and a brigadier general’s star.
He spent the last 39 years of his life as a resident of Momence, an Illinois-Indiana border town where he owned South Shore Golf Course and had interests in banking and real estate, served on a number of boards and received a variety of civic and service awards.
He died on April 24, 2014, at the age of 87, in West Palm Beach, Florida. One obituary read, he joined what Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg called ‘our honored dead.’
Kasler’s former cell-mates at Hanoi Hilton, Lewis Shattuck and John Brodak, were in Indianapolis for the May 16, 2014 memorial service at Crown Hill Cemetery that saluted Kasler in death. It was a grim, gray day, but the rain eased and the sky brightened a bit for the F-15 Eagle flyover, when there was a lump in every throat and a tear in almost every eye. Kasler was more than a hero. He was a husband to Martha for 65 years, a father and grandfather.
At his funeral, John Brodak, his voice flush with feeling, said, ‘The colonel was my mentor and my hero, the most courageous man I’ve ever known. He was a fierce warriors and a patriot and I’m proud he called me his friend.’
Brodak is a retired Air Force colonel who flew with Kasler. And for 15 months of the six and a half years both were North Vietnamese prisoners of war, he was Kasler’s cellmate at ‘The Zoo’ and the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton.’
Kasler’s happiest occupation was Grandpa. His six grandchildren served as greeters at his Crown Hill memorial celebration. Each spoke.
One, Ashley Hurley, recalled grandpa’s infectious sense of humor and how, when she was little, he would get down on the floor with her and laugh and laugh.
James Kasler was nicknamed “Stoneface” by his Air Force peers, testimony to his toughness, his seriousness of purpose and his mission commitment. But men like Brodak and Shattuck, his wife Martha, kids and grandkids
An up close and personal interview with U.S. Army Veteran and Togetherweserved.com Member:
SSG Robert L Tate
Shadow Box: http://army.togetherweserved.com/profile/287713
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE ARMY?
In 1949 I was 16 years old and had just started my junior year in high school and worked part time for a national food store chain called the California Markets in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana. They offered me a produce manager’s job if I would go full-time. Being raised in a father-missing family, I thought it was a good idea so I quit high school. About a month later the chain went bankrupt.
I looked up an Army recruiter early named Tech Sgt. Vickery in December 1949 who always came by the schoolyard trying to get new recruits. I told him I wanted to join the Army but wouldn’t be 17 until February. He said just lie about my birth date and to say I was born in another state. He added they probably wouldn’t check it out. My 16-year buddy Don Bullock also decided to give it a try. We joined a week later and were bused to Indianapolis for physicals. Don passed without any problems but I was sent home to get some teeth fixed and told to come back once that was done. A few days after getting my teeth fixed, I returned for my physical. The minimum requirement for joining was 5′ 2″ and 112 lbs. I was exactly 5 feet, 2 inches tall but I weighed slightly less than 112 pounds. To make sure I would tip the scales at the minimum weight I ate a whole sack of bananas before weighing in. I stepped on the scale and came in at exactly 112 pounds.
My friend Don had been sent to basic with Company B, 13th Armored Infantry Battalion, Combat Command A, 3rd Armored Division, in Fort Knox. I was also sent to the 13th for training, but Company B had already filled so I was put in Company C. Both of our company commanders found out we were underage. His commander gave him a hard time and got him a minority discharge. Mine didn’t care, so I got to stay.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
My orders out basic training were for occupation duty in Japan. I was also given a 30-leave to go home to Evansville before heading to Seattle for shipment overseas.
When my leave was up, I reported to the Evansville train station where I ran into two other young soldiers also on their way to Seattle for shipment overseas. One was Bob Willett a buddy of mine from Evansville and the other was Ralph Jenkins who was came from Oakland City just up the road. When we changed trains in St. Louis, we were joined by another trainee from Fort Jackson South Carolina. Our new train was a relatively new Streamliner named ‘City of St. Louis’ which would take us partway to Seattle. Once we jumped aboard, however, we found the only thing available was a four person suite and the Military Vouchers we were travelling under did not include such ‘luxury.’ But the kindly conductor let us have it anyway. WOW!!! We had a steward in the car that we called back to order ham sandwiches. When we gave him a tip of $5 (back in those days great tip) he really took care of us for the entire trip.
We arrived two days early and since we didn’t want to go to the base until we had to we decided to look around Seattle. But we also were pretty well broke so we scrapped our pennies together and had enough for me to call home and have my mom wire us some money through Western Union. For two days after the money arrived we had some fun and still reported to base on time.
I shipped out on the USS General M. M. Patrick and landed in Yokohama. Since I had been trained for the cavalry I was certain I would be assigned to occupation duty with the 1st Cavalry Division. But at the reception station I learned I was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, which was spread all over Japan with garrisons on Honshu and on Hokkaido, the northernmost island. My duty station was the division headquarters in Sendai, 231 miles north of Tokyo where I would be on the staff of the Division’s G-3 (Operations). A couple of days later I was on a train to Sendai.
I remember pulling into the Sendai train station and seeing men urinating in outside urinals and wondering what kind of world had I entered? When I stepped off the train, I was then hit with an awful smell. Part of the smell was fish markets and open drain ditches but the worst smell came from what I would learned later were called ‘honey buckets.’ The Japanese at the time used open latrines and the waste was collected in buckets below. Workers would go around every morning, collect the waste buckets and empty them into ‘honey wagons.’ The waste was then used to fertilize crops. I never really got used to that smell.
When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, we were moved to Gotemba and into a tent city at the base of Mount Fuji and put through a rigorous training schedule, including amphibious landing training. I remember everyone was anxious to get over to Korea and get into the fight.
The 7th Division was understrength since many of our officers and NCOs were sent to Army Divisions already in combat in Korea. To bring us up to strength thousands of Republic of Korea (ROK) troops were integrated into our ranks. At this stage in their training, the ROK soldiers were not worth much. There was also a language barrier that constantly got in the way. Later when we got in combat most of the ROKs proved to be brave fighters.
When we boarded the crowded troop ship for Korea we were assigned three men to a bunk. When I got down to my rack there were two ROK soldiers sitting on it eating dried squid with kimchee, which stunk to high heaven. I managed to get it over to them that they were not going to use my rack and they had to sleep on deck. I noticed later that one of them left his Japanese made Kodak camera on the bunk. I never did find him and still have the camera to this day.
Soon after arriving in Korea in early September 1950, we made an amphibious landing with the 1st Marine Division at Inchon. Days later we engaged North Korean soldiers in the First Battle of Seoul. The Division then marched 25 miles east to Suwon to capture the important rail juncture of Inchon. A few weeks later we made an amphibious landing at Iwon and made a rush to the Yalu River separating North Korea from China and when the Chinese entered the war we ended up at the bitter fight at the Chosen Reservoir.
After leaving Korea, I was assigned to US Army Forces Command and was discharged in 1952 as a Staff Sgt. From 1955 to 1968 I was a member of the 71st Troop Carrier Squadron, US Air Force Reserves.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
On the morning of June 25, 1950 we awoke to the news that Communist North Korea had smashed across the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea. South Korea’s army, smaller and not as well trained and equipped was unable to halt the onslaught. By June 28, Seoul had fallen, andacross the peninsula the shattered remnants of South Korea’s army were in full retreat. Three United States divisions sent to its aid were committed in small units. They too were driven into retreat. We all knew it would be a matter of time before our division would be going to war. In late August or early September we sailed across the Sea of Japan and landed at Pusan. A week or so later we were on ships going to Inchon.
On September 15, 1950 the 1st Marine Division swarmed ashore after preparatory bombardment by aircraft and naval guns. Our 7th Infantry Division followed. Taken by complete surprise the North Koreans put up a light resistance and most quickly fled the city.
I remember the sporadic sniper fire that first night in Inchon and remember wondering to myself what the heck I was doing there and thinking I should be home in school instead of where I was. The next day we headed for what would be the first of five battles for Seoul.
The division’s first objective was to take the heavily defended North Koreans holding the high ground immediately northwest of Seoul. It was a brutal battle with many casualties on both sides. Once our frontline troops defeated the enemy, elements of the division entered Seoul. After a couple days of vicious house-to-house fighting,any enemy that had not retreated was either dead or captured. With Seoul firmly in our hands, the division was ordered to take two vital hills southeast of Seoul. It took 12-hour of fierce battle to take the two hills. Later my commander, Lt. Col. Hampton G-3, was killed in a tank ambush around the 4th or 5th day while we were trying to hook up with our tank task near Suwon just south of Seoul.
After our division and the 1st Marine Division secured Inchon, Kimpo Air base, Seoul and Suwon our division started a long overland truck march to the east coast of Pusan where we renewed training and added replacements for our combat-thinned ranks. Orders came down in October to advance to the Yalu so again we loaded sea transport and headed north along the east coast of Korea to Iwon. As a part of the G-3 shop I knew in advance that the push to the Yalu, which separated North Korea from Manchuria (China), was to stop the flow of supplies coming across the river. Our amphibious landing on the last day of October, 1950 was unopposed. We set off north toward the Yalu wearing our newly issued insulated shoe packs for the extreme cold.
We slogged through the cold into Pukchong late at night. We were all cold and pretty tired. I took off my shoe packs, didn’t notice my sweaty socks and jumped into my sleeping bag trying to get warm. When I woke up, my left toes were frozen white with ice between them. It scared the heck out of me, but I managed to massage them and they were okay. It sure taught me not to leave sweaty socks on when you go to sleep.
As the division moved north we met a sharp skirmish at Pungsan and a harsh firefight at Kapsan. The push continued in arctic-like cold weather, and on November 20, the 17th Infantry slogged into Hyesanjin-on-the-Yalu–the first U.S. unit to reach the Manchurian border. It was the northernmost point of advance by the United Nations’ command in three years of bitter warfare.
When the Chinese came across the border on November 27, 1950, we were totally unprepared. The enemy attack caught our division strung out, with some elements as far as 250 miles apart. I remember trying to make it down the MSR (main supply route). I hitched a ride in an Air Force Forward Observer van before they could cut it off and catch us in the Chosin Reservoir trap. Elements of the 7th Infantry (31st Regiment, 32nd Regiment, 57th Field Artillery Battalion, and other support units) were caught in the Chosin Reservoir and suffered tremendous casualties and unspeakable hardships. Thank God I was not caught in that trap. I made it down the MSR before the Chinese cut it off and encircled the troops at Chosen Reservoir.
If I remember correctly (it’s been over 50 years), our Assistant Division Commander, Brig. Gen. Henry Hodes put together a tank task force and broke through at Hagaru-ri to get some of the troops out. Just a couple days ago (after 54 years) not very far from my hometown, they buried the remains of a member of the 7th Infantry Division whose body was recently found in a shallow grave at the Chosin Reservoir.
I remember making it to Hungnam and while waiting to be evacuated I tried to get some sleep in what I think was a bombed out school. But the Navy was bombarding the enemy from the harbor and it seemed like every shell was going right over the building I was trying to sleep in. Finally we boarded the craft to be taken to the ship. It was dark and I remember our craft being challenged for our identity by the heavy cruiser USS St Paul. We were to be aboard ship for three days, but ended up being on it for over a week before we got to Pusan. Everyone on board was sick with dysentery and the whole ship was pretty messy. I don’t ever remember (before or since) being as cold and discouraged as I was that December in 1950.
OF ALL YOUR DUTY STATIONS OR ASSIGNMENTS, WHICH ONE DO YOU HAVE FONDEST MEMORIES OF AND WHY? WHICH ONE WAS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
My fondest memories come from the five month I was stationed at Camp Sendai, Japan. I like learning about the Japanese culture and seeing things that were new and sometimes strange to me. I hated to leave when the 7th Infantry Division reassembled its scattered units throughout Japan to train in preparation for going to Korea to join other American divisions already fighting.
On March 11, 2011, memories of Sendai came flashing back when I saw that a major tsunami hit the city following a magnitude 9.0 Earthquake off the coast. I understand the center of the city was barely damaged but the areas closest to the coastline received major damage resulting in hundreds dying. It was the largest earthquake recorded in Japan’s history.
The memories I dislike the most are those dealing with the many casualties, “American and Korean” I saw during the Korea War.
FROM YOUR ENTIRE SERVICE CAREER WHAT PARTICULAR MEMORY STANDS OUT?
The particular memory that stands out for me was experiencing the bitter, subzero temperature I experienced during our push to the Yalu and at the Chosin Reservoir. Both battles were fought over some of the roughest terrain during some of the harshest winter weather conditions of the Korean War. The worst was the cold front from Siberia that engulfed the Chosin Reservoir with temperature plunging to as low as −35 °F (−37 °C). The cold weather was accompanied by frozen ground, creating frostbite casualties, icy roads, and weapon malfunctions. I had never been so cold in my life.
IF YOU RECEIVED ANY MEDALS FOR VALOR OR AWARDS FOR SIGNIFICANT ACHIEVEMENT, PLEASE DESCRIBE HOW THESE WERE EARNED.
My buddy Scotty and I were recommended for the Bronze Star Medal but through some unexplained policy in place at the time, they could only give one. Scotty won out and they gave me the one just below, the Army Commendation Medal w/Pendulum. The medal was presented by Maj. Gen. Goodwin Barr, the 7th Infantry Division Commanding General.
OF ALL THE MEDALS, AWARDS, QUALIFICATION BADGES OR DEVICE YOU RECEIVED, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE ONE(S) MOST MEANINGFUL TO YOU AND WHY?
While in the Korean War with the 7th Infantry Division, I participated in 5 major battles and 2 amphibious landings resulting in having five Battle Stars and two Arrowheads on my Korean Campaign Medal.
WHICH INDIVIDUAL(S) FROM YOUR TIME IN THE MILITARY STAND OUT AS HAVING THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT ON YOU AND WHY?
Col. Joe T. Pound, from Sullivan, Indiana was truly a great leader of men. I met Col. Pond while I was the First Sgt. of the 71st Troop Carrier Squadron from 1955-1968. There were two others commanders before him and another one who followed. All were fine men and great squadron commanders and since each was required to put in their flying time in order to maintain their proficiency they placed a lot of responsibility on me saying I would have to take care of most of the other functions in the Squadron. They were true to their word and backed me 100 percent.
Of the four Col. Joe Pond was the one who most led by example. He was stern but fair. He became my mentor in many ways. When the Squadron was activated and sent to Vietnam in 1968, Col. Pond stayed on active duty and finished out his distinguished career at the Pentagon. He was the finest Commander I ever served under both in the Air Force and the Army. He was not only my commander but a good friend as well. He has since passed away.
CAN YOU RECOUNT A PARTICULAR INCIDENT FROM YOUR SERVICE WHICH MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE BEEN FUNNY AT THE TIME, BUT STILL MAKES YOU LAUGH?
When I returned from Korea, I was stationed at Camp Atterbury, Indiana just south of Indianapolis. While I didn’t go to Indianapolis that often, one Friday night I decided to go there just to get off the base, find a place to relax and maybe have a couple of drinks. Apparently I must have had a lot more than just a couple of drinks because all I remembered was waking up in my bunk Saturday morning with a hangover. My roommate asked me if I remember anything earlier that morning. As hard as I tried, I could not remember a thing. He told me he was awakened around 2 am by some commotion in the company street and looked out the window to see what was going on. The racket was two burly MPs holding up a drunk under his arms and carrying him down the street. He said the drunk was so short his feet were not even touching the ground. As they carried the drunk closer he realized it was me, all 5 feet 2 inches of me. That was the only time in my life I couldn’t remember where I had been and what I had done. However, I cannot help smiling to myself on those rare occasions when I think of my ‘lost weekend.’ But I see it more as a cautionary tale since it taught me a valuable lesson that I have lived up to even now: ‘Always drink in moderation.’
WHAT PROFESSION DID YOU FOLLOW AFTER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW? IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY SERVING, WHAT IS YOUR PRESENT OCCUPATIONAL SPECIALTY?
After being discharged in December 1952 I got married and started having kids (seven of them). I joined the Air Force Reserve in 1955 and was First Sergeant of the 71st Troop Carrier Squadron for 13 years. My unit was activated during the Cuban Missile Crisis but with the Russians backing down at the last minute. We were on active duty for a short time. We were again activated in 1968 for the Vietnam War and during our preparation the 71st TCS was converted to gunships and re-designated as the 71st Air Commando Squadron, (Later designated as 71st Special Operations Squadron). Because of my situation at home (seven kids, one severely handicapped, the rest school age or under)I was discharged for hardship reasons.Watching my squadron go to Vietnam without me was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I have always felt a little guilt about not being able to go with them. The 71st was the only Reserve Unit to serve in Vietnam.
I made my living in the construction business for 50 years building primarily homes and apartment buildings. I have been retired since 2003 along with “The Light of my Life” (my wife of 58 years). I spend a great deal of my time working around my house and yard.
My Kids kept telling to get a computer but I said I lived without a computer for almost 70 years. But I finally gave in and bought one. WOW!!! I wish I had bought one year’s ago. I am on it a good deal of time each day (especially in the winter). I am getting involved in a lot of things going on in the world, Government, and Ancient Roman and Greek history, EBay, etc. It has sure been a way of keeping my mind active.
WHAT MILITARY ASSOCIATIONS ARE YOU A MEMBER OF, IF ANY? WHAT SPECIFIC BENEFITS DO YOU DERIVE FROM YOUR MEMBERSHIPS?
Am a member of the 7th Infantry Division Association. I derive a lot of satisfaction in keeping in touch with some of my comrades in arms. I attended their convention in July, 2004 in Las Vegas.
I belonged to the American Legion for years, but had to drop it because of personal reasons.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS SERVING IN THE MILITARY INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU HAVE APPROACHED YOUR LIFE AND YOUR CAREER?
I learned a sense of responsibility and discipline while in the military that I have carried with me all my life and in the workplace. Having been in combat I have also realized not to sweat the little thing. Finally, I found out I could accomplish almost anything regardless how hard or difficult if I set my mind to it.
BASED ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THOSE WHO HAVE RECENTLY JOINED THE AIR FORCE?
My simple advice is to take your service seriously and consider it as a career. But the best advice I can pass on to new soldiers was something I heard when I was discharging from the Army in 1952. I was Camp Atterbury and attending an orientation lecture about adjusting to civilian life. At the end of his lecture the crusty major spoke these words: ‘You can leave the military but it will never leave you.’ He then made us a bet that in in the years to come if we were to go into a bar we would more than likely notice some guys sitting around and talking. He said if we got close enough to hear the conversation, chances are they would be talking about their military service. I found out more often than not, he was right.
IN WHAT WAYS HAS TOGETHERWESERVED.COM HELPED YOU REMEMBER YOUR MILITARY SERVICE AND THE FRIENDS YOU SERVED WITH.
Setting up my profile page was like taking a trip down memory lane. Browsing other profile has the same effect. The feature I cherish the most is that my profile page can be viewed by my six living kids, 15 grand-kids, 15 great-grand-kids and so far two great, great, grand-kid. Here they can get a glimpse at what I did in the military service to include some of the ways in which I felt about things. It’s a good feeling. As a life member who knows how long people will be able to read of my experiences.
I would like to add that these pages are dedicated to all those men and women who for over the last few centuries have answered our country’s call to defend the freedoms and the way of life we all now enjoy. Their efforts and sacrifices have made this great country the model to all freedom loving people in the world. God grant that we will always have enough of those individuals that put these beliefs above all else. We must always extend the hand of friendship to all people everywhere. By freely giving to others our greatest possessions of freedom, justice, and the basic principles of human rights, we will insure that we will always have them ourselves. I pray God will continue to shed his grace on this great country.
View the service reflections of US Marine:
Sgt Robert Deeds
U.S. Marine Corps
If you served, join your brothers and sisters at TogetherWeServed.com
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
There were several life-changing events going on in my world when I decided to join the Marine Corps.
I was born into a large family of nine children in 1930 and raised in Isle, Nebraska, during the Great Depression. Like most large, blue-collar families of the period, we struggled to stay afloat. My father worked hard as a cement contractor and brick and block layer. It the warm weather he worked a lot. In the winter months not so much. My mother worked from sunup to sunset every day cleaning, cooking, washing and sewing clothes for me, my father and my four sisters and four brothers. Twice a week she baked bread, cinnamon rolls and on special occasions, pies and cakes. One of my fondest memories is her giving us hot bread right out of the oven covered with melting butter. She also made sure all us kids went to church every Sunday.
When I was seven or eight, the world was in crisis from both economic pressure and ethnic conflict. Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany, stormed into eastern Europe, seizing Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Norway, France and other nations. He ordered his SS Gestapo to round up Jews and put them in death camps. The Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, raided and occupied Ethiopia. He banned Italian Jews from professional occupations. Japan’s leader, Gen. Hideki Tojo, occupied much of China and took possession of British and Dutch colonies in the Pacific. In one exceptionally heinous crime in 1937, Japanese military forces marched into Nanjing and systematically raped, tortured, and murdered more than 300,000 Chinese civilians.
I remember how outraged the older folks were over the wanton slaughters, imprisonments and human degradation being carried out by Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. But I also remember most of them saying it wasn’t our problem and we should stay out of it. But that attitude changed overnight on Dec.7, 1941, when the Japanese, without warning, bombed Pearl Harbor, killing 2,402 Americans. The next day the United States declared war on Japan. Three days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. In a matter of a few days, our nation turned from isolationists to one frantically building for war.
Caught up in the wave of patriotism sweeping the country, two of my older brothers, Marion and Lloyd, signed up in the Army. Marion never left the states, but Lloyd fought in most of the battles in Europe as a member of Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. He was also a prisoner of war twice. The first time was when our forces crossed the Rhine River into Germany. He and others were captured but within a few day were liberated. He was captured a second time and remained a prisoner until the war ended in 1945. Lloyd was awarded the Bronze Star.
I quite school in the 8th grade and worked full-time with my dad pouring cement foundations and laying blocks. Increasingly, I began to distance myself from my dad who was a harsh, quick-fisted, short-tempered man. At 16, I left home for good.
I traveled from state to state in search of available work. Sometimes I would hitchhike, other times I would jump freight trains. I rather enjoyed travelling around seeing different parts of the United States and once I had a little money ahead, I’d moved on to the next place. But competition was fierce. Wherever I’d go, there’d be other boys like me, men of all ages and a lot of World War II veterans, all looking for work. Hearing the veterans talking about their experiences, I felt a surge of patriotism and excitement. As soon as I turned 18, I quit my job carrying shingles for two roofers in Ft. Smith, Ark. and enlisted in the Marine Corps.
WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
I signed up for the Marine Corps on July 29, 1948 and within a week, I was raising my right hand at the induction center and two days later, put on a train with a bunch of other recruits and sent to Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
While I watched other recruits struggle with the physical challenges of boot camp, I did not. I was in good physical shape from my two years of hitchhiking around the country searching for odd jobs and was used to walking long distances when I couldn’t get rides. The work I found was back-breaking, but it also laced my thin frame with strong, flexible muscle. So if any of my drill instructors (DIs) told me to drop for 25 push-ups, no problem.
But what I wasn’t ready for was the strict discipline and the harsh penalties for slowness or inability to accomplish tasks like marching and rifle drills. I also had trouble with our DIs yelling at us like we were the lowest living thing on the earth. Worse was my having to do what was told of me without question. If any of us were slow in getting the point, our senior DI, Staff Sgt. Chatham, would not hesitate to ‘clobber’ us until we totally understood what point he was making. Toward the end of boot camp, however, I saw how he and the other DIs had shaped raw, fumbling civilians into tough Marines. As I stood proudly on graduation day, I silently thanked them for helping me get there.
When I got out of boot camp, my entire recruit platoon (Platoon 72), along with other Marines already at Camp Pendleton. CA, were assigned to the newly reactivated 1st Provisional Marine Brigade. Within days, we were loaded onto the troop ship USS General W.F. Hase and taken to Camp Witek, Guam. The trip to Guam seemed like it would never end but finally, after 31 days and 30 nights of sailing rough seas, we set anchor and stepped onto the island that would be our new home.
We were taught infantry tactics at first and then continuously ran field training exercise to refine those skills. We were also taught survivor skills by Master Sgt. Potter, a World War II Bataan Death March survivor. He was a tough old guy who earned our respect for what he knew and what he taught us. Our company commander was Capt. Robert Bohn, who retired a Maj. Gen. in Sept. 1974.
Sixteen months after arriving on Guam, Typhoon Allen ripped through Camp Witek, destroying everything standing. The entire brigade was shipped back to Camp Pendleton where we continued training.
A couple of months later, on June 25, 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea, crushing its army and within a couple of days captured Seoul and was moving rapidly down the Korean Peninsula. Among the casualties were some of the 481 American military advisors. To stop the onslaught, the United Nations rushed in military forces from 16 member nations. Our unit, the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade, left Camp Pendleton in mid-July, boarded ships in Long Beach and San Diego and landed at Pusan, South Korea, on Aug. 3, 1950. For the next seven months I found myself in combat nearly every day.
The fury of the Korean War raged all around Private First Class Jack Arakawa on July 16, 1950. In hastily prepared defensive positions outside the South Korean town of Taejon, his unit watched grimly as North Korean tanks raced towards them. Acrid smoke hung in the nighttime air as the sounds of war abounded. The occasional fighter plane screamed across the sky. Death lurked everywhere.
As the enemy neared American lines at 8 PM, Arakawa’s machine gun squad let out a torrent of fire that pinged ineffectually off the advancing tanks. North Korean troops poured over the beleaguered defenders’ position moments later, forcing the men to flee.
In the chaos, Arakawa – a Japanese-American – found himself staring at the barrel of an enemy rifle. His heart raced as North Korean soldiers brusquely tied his hands with wire. He knew all-too-well that the enemy had executed bound American captives in prior days with a gunshot to the back of the head.
But Arakawa, able to communicate fluently with his captors in Japanese, escaped that fate. While the Korean People’s Army fought its way towards Pusan over the next month and a half, he and other Americans carried their ammunition and food at gunpoint. At night, the bound captives slept next to KPA bunkers, wondering if a midnight napalm strike might send them into an eternal slumber.
When the North Korean drive towards Pusan stalled in early September, KPA authorities transferred Arakawa and his peers to a makeshift prison camp ‘a former school’ in Seoul. There, guards interrogated the prisoners daily, asking the same questions over and over: “do you actually admire Truman and Joe McCarthy?” a common query went.
At the same time, the POWs attended mandatory lectures on the evils of Wall Street capitalism and the righteousness of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). They watched Soviet propaganda films contrasting racial prejudice in the United States with the “ideal’ life” of the Socialist world. (“Free Love” was apparently a common theme.)
Throughout these experiences, Arakawa acted as an interpreter for the other prisoners, imploring the North Koreans for better conditions. The guards, however, responded by demanding that the Japanese-American join the Korean People’s Army since he could pass for one of their own.
If Arakawa would fight for the DPRK, they argued, he would “attain great heights” and “be part of a great machine fighting for the good of all mankind.” In exchange for his service, the guards promised, he would receive a house and servants after the war and “in the immediate future” the “privilege of better food, sake, medical care, parties, better housing facilities, and a woman.” Arakawa- wisely – remained noncommittal.
In the aftermath of the Incheon landing on September 15, 1950, North Korean forces began preparations to evacuate all POWs north of the 38th parallel. On September 26, 1950 as American-led forces seized control of Seoul in brutal street fighting, KPA guards led Arakawa and 375 other men on a forced march to Pyongyang.
Paraded by their captors in villages along the way, the POWs staggered towards the north – many of them with maggot-infested wounds. North Korean guards killed those who could not keep up. From the skies above, American planes frequently strafed the prisoners with gunfire, mistaking them for a retreating enemy column. By the time the Americans reached the North Korean capital, approximately 80 had perished from malnutrition, disease, summary executions, and friendly fire.
After arriving at a schoolyard there on October 10 – with American-led forces advancing rapidly behind them – guards informed the POWs that they would depart soon for a permanent camp on the Manchurian border. Arakawa, and four of his friends, decided then and there on an escape attempt. With the rumble of artillery fire growing louder each day, and the North Koreans becoming noticeably more frantic, the men saved-up their meager rations and fashioned crude knives out of wood.
The opportunity to get away came four days later on the evening of October 14, when guards ordered the prisoners into the street to depart for the refuge of the Yalu River. As the grim POWs lined up outside, Arakawa and his four friends managed to break away and hide in a dark alley. Detection at this point meant certain death.
As the POW column marched away, Arakawa donned a North Korean Army coat and hat – left haphazardly on the ground by a retreating soldier – and proceeded to march his friends through the streets of Pyongyang as his “prisoners.” His ethnic appearance and basic knowledge of Korean helped him get past numerous roadblocks on the way.
On the outskirts of the city, however, the group approached a much larger checkpoint. Arakawa, as he later told an Army investigator, decided that his “limited knowledge of Korean would never get the group past this last barrier.” As a result, he explained: “I proceeded to march the men to the entrance of the main road block at a fast pace. When approximately ten feet from the main gate of the road block, I shouted ‘Air Raid’ in the Korean language, at the same time we charged the gate using the knives we had made, as well as broken bottles.”
After fighting their way through the checkpoint, the men escaped into the night. As the sun came up early the next morning, they hid in an abandoned home. For the next six days, the group survived there on weeds and flowers until dawn on October 20. Following hours of intense mortar fire, South Korean units moved into the area and discovered Arakawa’s group. Within 48 hours, the five men were in Tokyo – warm and safe.
The 180 other Americans that went north without Arakawa and his friends were not so fortunate. Within sixteen days, 70 had died from disease, malnutrition, and exposure while traveling in an open-air railroad car towards Manchuria.
The worst, however, came on October 30 outside the town of Sunchon. There, with U.S. forces just miles away, KPA guards led groups of prisoners from a railroad tunnel to a nearby ravine, where waiting soldiers opened up with gunfire. Sixty-eight men died in the slaughter. Twenty-one others were wounded but survived by playing dead in the piles of bodies.
Three years later, Jack Arakawa – wearing a silver star and the stripes of a Corporal – told his stunning story to an Army Intelligence Officer. Exceedingly aware of how fortunate he was to have survived, Arakawa knew he would never forget the so-called forgotten war in Korea.
The primary source for this article is Jack Arakawa’s Army Counter Intelligence Corps File from the National Archives, Record Group 319.
Calling the war in Korea the “forgotten war” has been part of the American lexicon since 1951. However, why it was called that in the first place is not completely understood.To understand how the words and, more importantly, how its meaning became part of our national mentality, one must first appreciate the history of what was occurring on the Korean peninsula before, during and following the war.
Korea was ruled by Japan from 1910 until the closing days of World War II in 1945 when the Allies split the former Japanese colony along the 38th parallel, with the north administered by the Soviet Union and the South by the United States. Over the next few years the Soviets and the Americans gradually withdrew their forces, and the two Koreas were all but “forgotten” as the world focused on Germany, Eastern Europe, and China’s civil war and revolution.
That all changed the early morning hours on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops stormed across the38th parallel and invaded South Korea, catching the greatly outnumbered and ill-equipped South Korea’s forces off guard and throwing them into a hasty southern retreat. American and other Allied troops still located in Korea also withdrew to the south, setting up blocking and delaying positions until they reached the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. The most famous of these blocking stances was Task Force Smith on July 27, 1950 at the Battle of Osan, approximately 20 miles south of Seoul. North Korean troops and tanks eventually overwhelmed American positions and the remnants of the Task Force retreated in disorder to the south.
The United Nations quickly condemned the invasion and demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and for North Korea to withdraw its armed forces back above the 38th parallel. When the North Koreans failed to comply, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on June 27, 1950 recommending that its members provide military assistance to South Korea.
Although he did not want to find the United States embroiled in another war, President Harry Truman soon agreed to send American forces into action, and on July 7, 1950, the U.N. Security Council recommended that all U.N. forces sent to South Korea be put under U.S. command. The next day, General Douglas MacArthur was named Supreme Commander of all U.N. Forces in Korea.
By early August, 1950 the weakened Allies had been pushed all the way back to the Pusan Perimeter, a defensive line around an area in the southeastern corner of theKorean peninsula. Throughout August and into September, the Americans and their counterparts fought off attack after attack from the North Koreans, barely preventing them from advancing any further. The first reinforcement to arrive by ship in the Pusan Harbor where the Army First Cavalry Division and U.S. Marines stationed in Japan. Other U.N. troops arrived as well, allowing the Allies to take the offensive.
Wanting to crush North Korean forces not only near Pusan but elsewhere in South Korea, MacArthur devised an audacious plan to land troops behind the enemy lines at Inchon – about 100 miles south of the 38th parallel and 25 miles northwest from Seoul. In that way his forces could attack the North Koreans from both directions.
Initially MacArthur’s proposal met with resistance when other senior American military leaders – mostly Navy officers – criticized the plan as too risky, pointing to a variety of challenges associated with landing at Inchon, including the narrow port channel and extreme tidal changes. MacArthur argued that these factors would mean the North Koreans wouldn’t expect the Allies to attempt an amphibious landing at the poorly defended Inchon.
MacArthur received the official go-ahead for the Inchon landing and beginning on September 15, 1950, American-led U.N. forces converged on the North Korean army from the north and the south, killing or capturing thousands North Korean soldiers and disrupting their supply lines. All along the Korean peninsula, the now disorganized units of the North Korean army were trying to hold on while others quickly retreated back over the 38th parallel.
General Douglas MacArthur ordered troops to pursue the retreating North Koreans further into North Korea while sending other U.N. force southeast and to recapture Seoul, which they succeeded to do by September 26, 1950 following bitter, deadly house-to-house fighting.
By early October 1950, American and South Korean forces advanced deep into North Korea, destroying North Koreans units and sending them further into retreat toward to the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from Communist China. On October 19, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang was captured.
McArthur then pushed American troops further north toward the Yalu River. Chinese leaders threatened to intervene in the conflict if U.N. forces continued north or crossed the border into China. McArthur felt confident the Chinese were bluffing and would never enter the war. It was a miscalculation that ultimately helped get him fired by Truman.
In late November, as record subzero temperatures blown in by cold northern winds, a massive force of 300,000 Chinese troops crossed into North Korea undetected and joined the demoralized North Korean forces.
In brutal freezing cold-weather fighting, the outnumbered U.N. forces, surrounded by North Koreans and Chinese, began withdrawing from the Chosin Reservoir and other footholds along the further stretches of North Korea. The complete breakout from the Chosin Reservoir took a few weeks before some U.N. forces reached Hungnam’s port facilities and evacuated by ships. Other badly depleted U.N. forces rapidly retreated towards the 38th parallel.
In early January 1951, the Communists recaptured Seoul, only to have the Allies reoccupy it again in March. By May 1951, the communists were pushed back to the 38th parallel, and the battle line remained in that vicinity for the rest of the war as US and North Korean armistice negotiators, neither willing to surrender an inch of bloody worthless frozen ground, took their own sweet time dawdling in the comfort of a heated “peace tent” at the abandoned village of Panmunjom.
On July 27, 1953, after two years of bitter back and forth negotiation and three years of war that killed about 600,000 soldiers on both sides and as many as 2 million civilians, military leaders from China, North Korea and the United Nations signed an armistice that ended the fighting and established a 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone to serve as a buffer between the two Koreas.
Korea remains divided along the 38th parallel with North and South Korea still making threats against each other, raising nuclear-tipped spears, conducting “training exercises” and firing “stray rounds.” Every day, communist and anticommunist forces – including Americans – stare each other down across no man’s land and conduct reconnaissance and security patrols along the most heavily fortified space in the world. Nearly every day the media reminds us about the tensions between the two Koreas, which are perhaps worse today than when the U.N. sent troops there 62 years ago.
Isolated North Korea continues to be ruled by a one-family dictatorship currently led by its erratic and immature Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un who and in the tradition of his father and grandfather, uses the nations meager resources on military might while his enslaved people continue to starve to death.
South Korea, however, has grown into the eight wealthiest nation in the world and Seoul’s quality of life in 2013 was found to be higher than that of New York City, London, or Melbourne but slightly lower than Tokyo and Paris.
So why is the Korean War Korea still referred to as a “police action,” “the Korean conflict” and “the forgotten war,” when in fact it was inescapably a real, hard slugging, miserable war where millions died and many more suffered from the hostilities? And why in spite of it significance of being the first shooting war of the Cold War, pitting democracy to communism?
Here are some of the reasons given for why it gained the label “the forgotten war” and continues to be referred to in that manner by many.
Nestled snugly between the storied glory of the last “good war” – Second World War and that twelve year nightmare known as Vietnam – the Korean War is mostly forgotten because very little was accomplished according to some. They point out the neither side won nor did they lose it since they never signed a permanent peace treaty, so both sides are technically still at war.
Another theory goes something like this: it was fought in a remote, backward country of no vital, strategic interest, and it ended in a deadlock “the kiss of death for national pride and war memory. What contradicts that idea, however, is the Korean War Veterans Memorial dedicate to the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of the men and women who served during the Korean War.
Dedicate on July 27, 1995, the 42nd anniversary of the armistice that ended the war, it is in Washington, D.C.’s West Potomac Park, southeast of the Lincoln Memorial and just south of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. There are 38 infantrymen statues scattered across an open field to symbolize the 38th parallel.
Perhaps the one theory that makes some sense on how the forgotten war idea came into being was put forth by Melinda Pash in her book “In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War,” which examines this significant but neglected war.
She wrote Korea has been called a “Forgotten War” since at least October 1951 when U.S. News & World Report gave it that moniker. In reality, Americans did not so much forget the Korean War as never having thought about it at all. When the war first broke out, people worried that American involvement would usher in the same type of rationing and full mobilization that had characterized World War II. That failed to occur and within a few months, most Americans turned back to their own lives, ignoring the conflict raging half a world away.
Newspapers continued to report on the war, but with the entrance of the Chinese in late fall 1950 and the resulting stalemate in late 1951, few Americans wanted to read or think about Korea despite the nearly two million American serving in Korea.
No doubt, many of our citizens – mostly because it is so well entrenched in our psyche – will continue to “forget” or ignore the Korean War and its veterans. Yet on so many levels this shows general disrespect for those American patriots who bravely fought in a bitter war where 54,246 died and another 103,254 were injured. Then of course there are the 7,140 POWs and the 8,117 U.S. troops still officially missing in action. Don’t families of those who died deserve the honor of knowing their loved one died in a real war and not a forgotten one?
CMSgt Richard Hardesty
U.S. Air Force (Ret)
(Veterans – record and share your own service story with friends and family by joining www.togetherweserved.com. This is a free service)
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE AIR FORCE?
I graduated from high school at 17 and enrolled in college the following fall of 1951. I also joined ROTC program at the school and two fraternities–ah, the marvels of college life. By the end of the first semester and getting several D grades I decided college wasn’t for me and joined the Air Force in February of 1952.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
My basic training was at Lackland AFB, Texas followed by nearly 10 months going through the Electronics School at Scott AFB, Illinois. Getting there was a bit of a thrill. I wasn’t sure why or how but I ended up on my first airplane ride aboard a C-46 from San Antonio to Scott AFB, Illinois.
I graduated from the school in November 1952 with orders to Japan. I went on a 30-day leave to my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa where I enjoyed time away from military life. When it ended I made my way to Chicago where I’d be taking a train to the west coast and hopping a ship to Japan. In Chicago I met up with several buddies right after the New Year. Having them along as company on the trip made the journey a lot more fun. Since we were travelling in uniform every old soldier on board the train insisted on buying us drinks and regaling us with their stories of how they helped win the war…World War II that is.
Several days after arriving at Camp Pendleton we were taken to where our ship, the USS General W. H. Gordon (AP-117), was docked. The day we left port–January 19, 1953–is a date I will never forget: My idol Hank Williams died on that date.
The highlight of the voyage was crossing the Equator on the International Date Line. In this ancient tradition Sailors and Marines crossing the Equator for the first time are subject to all kinds of weird rituals. This rite of passage is a daylong affair where pollywogs–those being initiated–are put through many embarrassing obstacles such as being locked in a salt-water coffin, hair chopping, digging through rotting garbage, locked in the stocks while shellbacks–the initiators–throw mushy fruit at them, and other degrading behavior. It was a lot of fun to watch.
We arrived at the port of Yokohama 28 days later and took a 4 hour train ride to the Replacement Depot. On the ride there a sergeant came through the car and read off a list of names and where those called would be assigned. He then bellows out, “Anyone whose name I did not call…you guys will be heading to Korea tomorrow morning.” Welcome to the war!!
I was sent to Chinhae AFB (called K-10) to the 102nd Comm Squadron. Less than a month later, the 75th ADW Air Police Squadron got their first mobile communications, and a buddy of mine and me were transferred to the AP Squadron. We lived in a pretty secure environment since he North Korean army had been pushed out the area years ago so the actual shooting war was far off. We had some A-26 twin-engine small bombers based at Chinhae and they made quite a racket on take-off and landing–mainly because we had a PSP (Pierced Steel Planking) runway. We slept in tents on canvas cots and in the winter used sleeping bags. We were always envious of the Army guys based not too far from us. We figured they probably had it better since they had steel cots, sheets and blankets.
Of significance in that tour, my buddy and I were called down to Chinhae port to work on some HF radio gear located on a boat belonging to Sigmund Rhee, the President of South Korea. We did an excellent job of repairs and had him out of the port in under an hour. The gear we worked on was a Collins Radio manufactured in my home town of Cedar Rapids.
One funny story was when our main switchboard reported an outage with the Navy unit in town and asked us to investigate. We got about halfway to town and found a ROK Army unit calmly cutting loose the tie-downs and rolling up our telephone cable connecting us to the Navy base. We never understood why.
And who could ever forget the “Twelve-Holer” at the bottom of the hill from our tents. It was a wonderful experience in the winter time, as we wore the old one-piece fatigue uniform and had to half undress to go to the bathroom.
Then there were the steel canteen cups we used for everything drinkable including cereal soaked in that wonderful reconstituted milk. It worked well for cool water and orange juice too but not hot liquids. Every time I tried drinking hot coffee my mouth would burn and when the cup finally cooled enough for my lips to touch the metal, the coffee was too cold to enjoy. Oh the joys of Korea!
The final armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953 and when it was announced there was wild jubilation throughout our base. I rotated out in December 1953 and was the third ship to dock in Seattle, Washington on December 24th. When I and many other returnees tried to get home we found that all ground transportation and air was booked solid. Somehow the military found a train going to Chicago so most of us got out. I remember the one conductor playing cards with a large group of us. As we arrived near Minneapolis we caught him cheating. After the train starting moving we threw him off the train as it left town. The Air Police was waiting for us in Chicago but didn’t take any action. My parents met me and we made the long drive to Iowa, celebrating Christmas on the 30th of December!!
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
In Vietnam I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut AB near Saigon. I remember the medic almost taking pleasure in showing us the 3 and 5/8 inches long needle used to administer the Hepatitis shot. He then jabbed me in the left cheek of my buttocks. The pain of the serum flowing into my system hurt more than anything I can remember. That shot disabled me for two or three days making it hard to sit or lay down.
In December 1966 and again in early 1967 we came under several attacks by Communist Vietnam Peoples’ Army (VPA aka NVA). I was the communications superintendent in charge of a transmitter site and receiver site located on the north perimeter fence. When the enemy made a second assault the .50 caliber machine we had set up on the roof kept them at bay as they tried to breech the fence-line. I was taken aback a day or two later when I saw some of the bodies laid out on the flight line and among them all of the barbers from the base. They were the guys that snapped our necks and gave us a razor cut haircut!! They could have taken us out at any time. It was the only determined enemy attack on the base while I was in-country. I do recall the VPA threw a bomb under our work bus two days after I rotated back to CONUS and several guys were either killed or severely injured.
This is what a “crazy and wild” guy does on R&R in Thailand. The snake was 17 foot long and very heavy.
Personal Service Reflections of USAF Airman:
CMSgt Don Skinner
US Air Force (Ret)
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
I began working as a carpenter after high school but soon realized that I desired something more for a career. In my economic situation, it appeared that the military service was the answer to obtain the training I desired. Most of my male relatives (uncles and older cousins) had served in World War II, so I sought their advice concerning opportunities. Based on their experiences and suggestions, I chose the Air Force as the best place to obtain a career and an education.
Our basic was approximately 4 months long at Lackland AFB. We did not have a flight photo, but rather individual portraits. Although we had been issued OD uniforms, we used a blue blouse and blue tie (over our ODs) for the picture. I requested several technical schools, but was told that with my test scores, I would be sent to radar maintenance school.
BRIEFLY, WHAT WAS YOUR SERVICE CAREER PATH?
I was initially trained in radar maintenance on specialized airborne (B-29) bombing equipment but was sent to a Troop Carrier unit in Japan. After a short time, I realized this was not what I desired, so I asked for a transfer to a B-29 unit where my training could beutilized. With the Korean War starting up, I was sent to a heavy ground radar unit in Korea. There, because I did not know the equipment, I was assigned to a jeep patrol forward air control unit. In the spring of 1951 when the Army assumed this duty, I was assigned to one of the auto-track ground-directed bombing radar sites known as “Tadpoles.” Here, I served as maintenance and assistant controller.
When I returned from Korea in 1952, I was assigned to Keesler AFB, first in the maintenance shop maintaining the ground radar equipment used in school, and later in the maintenance section maintaining the auto-track trainers. While in Korea, my MOS 867 had been converted to 30251 AFSC. At Keesler, it was changed to 30353, Auto-Track Maintenance.
In 1954, I was sent to Patrick AFB, Florida to assist in activating the AF’s second tactical missile unit. The only operational tactical missile at that time, the B-61A “Matador”, unofficially designated a Pilotless Bomber, was later known as the TM-61A. The unit was then deployed to Germany where I served on radar sites used for Matador missile guidance. This was done by a secret guidance system that utilized the radar beam and eliminated radio commands.
From 1956-1959, I was at Eglin AFB, FL, serving as radar maintenance and controller in the range work such as safety-monitoring, bomb drops, intercepts, missile launches, and general range research work. I also was selected to activate a new range for Air Launched Ballistic Missiles at Cape San Blas, Florida, setting up a radar system to track, monitor, and record information concerning missile flight and impact. I later returned to Keesler AFB to attend a school on auto-track radar equipment.
In 1959, I returned to Germany, assigned to the 601st Tactical Control Squadron for more Matador missile guidance, returning in 1962 to Detachment 9, 11th RBS Squadron (Winslow, Arizona,) where I was assigned to the maintenance crew.
We later moved the site to St. George, Utah. I was selected to attend the first class of factory school for a new system Reeves Instrument Company was building for RBS and some months later was selected as maintenance man for the field tests in White Sands, New Mexico.
I was stationed at the St. George site until 1964 when I was sent to 10th RBS Squadron Headquarters at Carswell AFB, and served there as maintenance staff supervisor until 1966.
I attended the SAC NCO Academy at Barksdale in January 1966, graduating as Outstanding Graduate. I was then transferred to 1st Combat Evaluation Group at Barksdale AFB, LA where I became a member of the Staff Inspection Team for all detachments as well as installing and supervising two radar systems (Michigan and Utah) used to train SAC pilots on evading and avoiding SAM-2 missiles. I was selected in the summer of 1966 to assist in re-writing the 5 and 7 level skill tests for the Auto-Track radar maintenance field.
In early 1967, I was requested to take over maintenance supervision of all the ground-directed bombing radars in Vietnam and Thailand which I did until 1968 when our site was attacked during Tet and I was critically wounded.
When I was discharged from the hospital, I was assigned to Aiken AFS, SC (861st Radar Sqdn) where I served as Chief of Maintenance for 5 years.
In 1973, I was sent to Opheim AFS, MT (779th Radar Sqdn) as Chief of Maintenance. I retired at Opheim on May 1, 1974.
DID YOU PARTICIPATE IN COMBAT OPERATIONS? IF SO, COULD YOU DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE SIGNIFICANT TO YOU?
As a forward air controller in Korea, I was exposed to potential combat. The radio equipment used in the jeeps had no facilities for remote operations, so men and equipment were necessarily exposed while observing enemy targets. The unit I was associated with lost several men to small-arms fire.
The radar we used at the ground-directed bombing sites was very short range, and consequently, the sites were positioned near the front. Several of the areas were heavily probed by enemy patrols, so skirmishes occurred, as site personnel were responsible for security.
In Vietnam all of our bombing sites were liable for attack, mainly rocket and mortar fire but occasionally ground action was involved.
As reported by Reuters
On Feb. 24, 1968, Don Skinner was in charge of maintaining bombing radars in Vietnam when his unit came under attack. The Air Force sergeant was critically wounded, spending three months in a Saigon hospital, before being air-lifted to the States where he says he spent nine more months at a hospital “being put back together.”
Three of his comrades were killed during that assault, and overall, 19 members from Skinner’s unit lost their lives during the war.
But the memories of those 19 men – and hundreds of others spanning different wars – live on, thanks to Skinner’s efforts. Today, the 83-year-old sits in front of a computer at his Aiken, S.C. home working on remembrance profiles for fallen soldiers. The retired veteran is one of more than 200 volunteers who work around the clock building the Roll of Honor on TogetherWeServed.com, an online war memorial that claims 1.5 million members and has more than 100,000 pages honoring fallen service members.
For Skinner, who has personally completed more than 850 profiles, it’s about putting stories to names, bringing those killed in action from “obscurity back to reality.”
“They are now honored and remembered,” Skinner said. “These people are no longer forgotten or lost in the mist of history.”
Erasing that mist is not always an easy task. For example, there’s a dearth of information on many Korean War and World War II veterans, whose numbers are dwindling. Volunteers rely heavily on battle history archives, gravesite information and public records to glean information, but they often must track down surviving family members to fill in the holes.
One of those working to fill the gaps is Carl “Krusty” Elliott. During the Vietnam War, the Army staff sergeant worked at Walter Reed hospital, where he says the wounded soldiers “left a lasting impression” on him.
The 67-year-old Elliott, who has built more than 2,000 online memorials from his Rochester, New Hampshire home, says it was especially gratifying to complete the profile of 1st Lt. Verne Kelley, a 10-year Army veteran who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1969. Kelley grew up not far from Elliott’s hometown and was friends with his older brothers.
Diane Short, a Navy veteran who oversees operations and management of the website’s memorial teams, says the site hopes to complete unfinished profiles by year’s end but the task is daunting. The online memorial includes almost 48,000 fallen soldiers in the Army alone and TWS has completed about 65 percent of those remembrance profiles.
The veterans who add photos, medals and remembrances to the online memorials are giving an emotional lift to families of the fallen. Just ask Debra Booth, whose 23-year-old son Marine Lt. Joshua Booth was killed in Iraq in 2006 — just five weeks after deployment. She hadn’t seen any photos of her son in Iraq until she stumbled upon three images of Josh posted on Together We Served. “What an amazing surprise that day,” said Booth, who added that she has since corresponded with Josh’s captain, hopes to connect with more men who served with her son.
Josh left behind a daughter Grace, who is now 8 years old. Debra Booth says Grace recently asked Santa Claus to bring her pictures of her daddy. Thanks to the images posted to Together We Served that wish was granted. “It’s an amazing gift,” Booth said of the online memorial.
Building the remembrance profiles is a healing process for the volunteer veterans, according to Short.
“A lot of these guys are dealing with PTSD,” Short said. “It is their way of getting into their head and dealing with their memories and putting pen to paper honoring those who they lost.”
Denny Eister, a 69-year old Vietnam War veteran who lives in Destin, Florida, says he suffers from PTSD and repressed his war memories for nearly four decades. One day, his kids uncovered some medals in his desk drawer and he says it triggered a renewed interest to track down his fellow soldiers. Eister, who works part time as an insurance agent, has since built nearly 1,000 remembrance profiles.
“You develop a bond that’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced combat in military,” Eister said. “It’s an honor to do it for the guys who didn’t come home.” Eister said through his work he was able to track down his company commander at the time, Walter Dillard, who retired as a colonel and now lives in Virginia. “We still communicate to this day,” he said.
Indeed, Together We Served has become a coveted social network for veterans. Barbara (Bobbe) Stuvengen served in the Navy in World War II as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). A few years ago, when the 89-year-old Wisconsin resident lost her husband (also a sailor) to Alzheimer’s disease, she credits the website for “preserving my sanity during some very stressful times.”
“It’s just kind of a way to keep in touch with the outside world,” said Stuvengen, who communicates regularly with other members. “It means a lot to me to have TWS to go into. … I begin to feel like they’re my family.”
As for Skinner, 65 years after enlisting in the Air Force, he is still devoting his time to serving his country. The author of several military books, he continues digging into databases, scouring archives and phoning families to piece together the lives of fallen service members. More than four decades after making it through that deadly assault in Vietnam, Skinner is battling cancer – but his doctors have declared him healthy and he remains focused on his work.
“I guess I’m a survivor in more ways than one,” he says.