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Korean war veterans recall conflict
The United States military forces in Korea at the onset of the war in 1950 had been devastated by enemy forces. By July of 1950 they had been cornered in the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula. But the battered men were determined to maintain the “Pusan Perimeter” that surrounded the strategically important port city of Pusan on the coast.
At this time the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division was rushed to the front lines from Japan. Yuma native Lee Tilford was with them. He had joined up after graduating from Yuma Union High School in 1948 and had spent the subsequent years as part of the occupation force in Japan.
“We were there either the 15th or the 17th of July,” he said about the date he arrived in Korea. “Nobody kept a diary then. They just put you on a boat and sent you.”
His first experience in combat was slightly comedic, he recalled.
“It was a funny deal, really. They sent another guy and I in a jeep to go up there and see what was happening.” The two soldiers parked on the south side of the compound surrounded with high walls. Tilford crept to the corner and laid down on the ground, sticking his head out to take a peak at the enemy forces.
“About that time a mortar round hit inside the compound and a ... tile fell off the roof and hit me on the head,” he said with a laugh.
He thought for sure he had been hit with shrapnel, and not a tile, and would be sent home. “One day out and here I'm going back. I thought for sure I was hurt.”
Fortunately, his steel helmet took the brunt of the impact, so he and the other man “got up and got the hell out of there.”
Tilford and a few other surviving veterans of the Korean War gathered at American Legion Post 19 on Friday morning where they were honored in commemoration of the Korean Armistice Agreement that ended combat operations. The document was signed 59 years ago on July 27, 1953.
The summer on the Korean Peninsula is miserable, Tilford continued. “In the summer time you were hub deep in mud (after the morning rains). By afternoon it would get so hot it would be dust. You couldn't see anything and you couldn't breathe.”
The nasty conditions made it difficult for Yuma native Lyle Nelson and the rest of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain roads during the war.
“We poured cement and before you knew it the whole thing was washed out from the rain,” he said.
When winter came, that just made things even more abominable, because the worst thing about the war “was the cold,” said Yuma native James Fernandez, who served in the First Marine Division during the war.
“You had to fight the cold first and then the enemy. I've never been so cold in my life. Yuma is 120, and you go out there and it was below zero.”
The armed forces on the ground in the winter knew they had to keep moving their bodies, because to sit around meant to risk freezing to death. The gear they were deployed with compounded the issue because it was left over from World War II and not designed for the cold.
“We didn't have the gear to keep us warm,” Fernandez said. “It was miserable. The boots we had weren't too good. A lot of Marines got frostbitten.”
Calvin Riley, who served on the front lines with the 40th Infantry Division, remembers the bitter cold well, and the shoddy boots.
“You had those Mickey Mouse boots on,” he said. “They weren't made for it. I don't know what they were made for.”
When the cold dipped below freezing the icy winds blew “right through you,” he added, noting there was “no warm spot” to find refuge. Although many troops on the ground suffered from frostbite, Riley was never afflicted with the condition because he “was careful about it. I kept clean socks on and dry ones. That was the key.”
The only time the soldiers got relief from the freezing temperatures was when the enemy attacked. “It got warm when you were in action,” Riley said.
And when the enemy attacked, they meant business and came in huge numbers.
“They looked like ants,” Fernandez said. “You could tell when they were going to attack because they would start blowing that bugle.”
When they attacked, Riley was waiting, often in a fixed position with his trusty BAR semi-automatic rifle in hand.
“They were young kids from 14 to 17,” he said about the first waves. “They fell on the mine bombs, and kept right on a-coming. They made a bridge for somebody else to ride right over top of them.”
And no matter how many enemy soldiers were killed “there were just more coming,” Riley added, noting it was terrifying. “Oh yeah, but that was an afterthought at the time being. You are at it, and you keep at it. Keep on pulling (the trigger).”
Vietnam veteran Bob Carey Jr. was at the event at Post 19 to honor the remaining veterans and his now deceased father, Robert Carey Sr., who served in the Marine Corps in Korea during the war. He believes it is important to keep their stories and memories alive.
“They saved us, they saved the world, they kept our freedoms, and there are not a lot of them left,” Carey said. “If you sit here and look, most of these Korean veterans are bucking 80. They are leaving us fast, so we need to honor them and need to remember. Too many young people nowadays don't have the slightest idea what military veterans have done for them. We need to have programs that teach them. People need to remember.”
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.