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THE NOT FORGOTTON WAR chronicles the experiences of Private Nicholas Dick who served in a machine gun crew during the last few months of the Korean conflict. Those last months were among some of the bloodiest as both sides fought to claim as much territory as possible prior to reaching a cease-fire agreement. For years after his discharge, Nick was never able to talk about his horrific experiences and never mentioned the frequent nightmares he suffered. After a job injury forced him to take early retirement, he suddenly found himself becoming a victim of Post Traumatic Stress syndrome. Here is one GI's story of war and its aftermath.
My journey began the usual way - with that letter every young guy dreaded receiving back during the Korean War. 1952 was the year they drafted twenty-year olds. Sure enough, on my twentieth birthday, November 1, 1952, there was that infamous "Greetings" letter in the mailbox, informing me that "my friends and neighbors" had selected me, Nicholas Dick, for service. Some birthday present.
To be honest, I wasn't exactly thrilled about being drafted. I knew they were still fighting over there in Korea, even though it wasn't front-page headlines anymore. Mostly any stories about the Korean conflict dealt with peace talks and were usually buried somewhere in the back pages.
Korea wasn't like World War II where an American soldier fought for his country. Korea was considered a police action, much like Bosnia today; you were fighting for someone else's country.
And anybody who was gung-ho to get involved in the conflict had already enlisted. Trying to dodge the draft wasn't something people talked about back in the Fifties. That came later, during the Vietnam War. The idea of avoiding the draft certainly never crossed my mind, not when I had two older brothers who had served during World War II, John in the Marines and Irwin in the Navy.
But, I promise you, during those intervening three weeks before I had to report, I partied like hell.
Then, on November 20 1952, I showed up at the Council Bluffs Water Works Building, as ordered. From there, myself and the other draftees were loaded on a bus and driven across the Missouri River to Fort Omaha, where they gave us our physicals.
Looking back, I can't help but wonder whether things might have turned out differently if I had better understood my rights back then. I have since been told that I should have received a medical deferment because I had one leg shorter than the other and a hole in my right eardrum. Who's to say? I guess that's water you can't pick up and put on the other side of the bridge.
Right or wrong, the doctors that day said I had passed my physical. I was in the Army. To make it official, the other inductees and I were told to stand, raise our right hands and be sworn in. The Army guy addressing us also stated that anyone who failed to do so would be subject to immediate arrest.
Believe me, a threat like that will scare any twenty-year old kid into raising his right hand, whether he wants to or not.
And at twenty years old, you're still a kid, although I didn't think I was at the time. But I was definitely a kid.
After the swearing-in ceremony, they took us to dinner at some fancy place near Fort Omaha. It was kinda like the condemned being treated to a hearty meal.
When we finished eating, they took us back to Fort Omaha and loaded us onto a bus. Off we went to Camp Crowder, Missouri, just outside of the small town of Neosho, south of Joplin. There was no going home to tell your folks you were leaving, no last goodbye to friends or loved ones, no nothing. You were in the Army, and that was that.
Camp Crowder is where I was issued my Army uniforms - and where I sent my civilian clothes back home. It's also where I learned how to march and salute and all those good military things.
I don't remember anymore exactly how long we were at Camp Crowder. Everything moved so fast then, with new things being thrown at me all the time. I knew I was on the move, that I was going somewhere, but I never really had time to think about what was happening to me. I figure the Army probably planned it that way.
Anyhow, one day they loaded us onto another bus. South on Highway 71, we went, all the way to Camp Polk, Louisiana, somewhere southwest of Alexandria. Back then, Camp Polk - today it's called Fort Polk - was the Ohio National Guard place, so I wore a little red dot on the shoulder of my uniform as a patch.
After we arrived at our barracks, they lined us up and assigned us to our sergeant. He proceeded to tell us the do's and don'ts, will's and wont's of the Army and what we would be expected to do.
Like I said before, I was only twenty years old. All of it was new to me, and a little scary, too. I remember standing in line wondering what I was going to do. A lot of other guys, I discovered later, felt the same way.
One officer talked to us and said, essentially, "If you want to get out of the Army fast, be a good boy for two years and you're out. If you're a bad boy, I promise you that you will be here a lot longer than two years."
That definitely made me want to be a good boy, because I didn't want to be in the Army one day longer than my two-year hitch.
It was at Camp Polk where I went through my basic training. That was quite an experience for me, but so were my surroundings. Back home in Iowa, it was the dead of winter. But in Louisiana, it was warm; at least it seemed warm to a boy who'd never been down south before.
At this point, I guess I should back up a minute and explain that I was born in Illinois. When I was thirteen, my folks picked up and moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa. That was just about the extent of the traveling I'd done. And in case you don't know it, the scenery doesn't change a whole lot between Illinois and Iowa. Or the weather either, for that matter.
Both the weather and the scenery were a whole lot different in northern Louisiana. I remember we would be marching along in the sunlight, when all of a sudden it would rain and hail, then back it went to warm weather again.
On top of that, Camp Polk is located in a swampy area. The ground was so boggy and loose that when a deuce-and-a-half - that's a two-and-a-half ton truck the Army uses for a troop carrier for you non-veterans- would leave the area where our bivouac was, you could actually see the ground wiggle under it.
One of the first things the Army did after we arrived at Camp Polk, was to lecture us new recruits about water moccasins, deadly pencil snakes, scorpions and all the nasty little insects that lived around there. They also gave us a bunch of shots to protect us as much as they could, but sometimes you have to use your own common sense for protection, too.
As for the initial eight weeks of basic training itself, all of it seemed like a game to me at the time. The Army had us running everywhere we went. If you were caught walking, it was on the ground and ten pushups. Then they'd jump it up to twenty, then thirty, then forty. By the end of eight weeks, a guy could do fifty.
It was the same with the high bar they had outside of the mess hall. Every recruit had to do so many chin-ups before he went inside to eat. This was all in addition to the daily calisthenics they had us doing.
The physical part of it was rigorous, that's for sure. And I didn't understand the need for it. This was the modern Army I was in, a mechanized force with Jeeps and tanks and troop carriers. I had no way of knowing that South Korea had few roads, and most of what the Koreans called roads wouldn't qualify even as a good cow path back in Illinois and Iowa, let alone be considered a road.
But I'm getting ahead of myself again.
Naturally during basic, we had a lot of rifle training. We would go out to the firing range and practice shooting at targets. I was pretty good with a rifle, probably because I'd done a lot of hunting while I was growing up back on the farm. As near as I can remember, they never did wave Maggie's drawers over any of my targets.
For those of you who don't know, Maggie's drawers are what the soldiers call the red flag that's waved when a shooter completely misses his target.
In basic, the Army also tried to simulate combat conditions. They would bombard some hill with an artillery barrage, giving the artillery guys a chance to practice while other recruits, like me, would move to the base of the hill and get the feel of the rounds going over our heads and shells exploding. The Army used real ammunition so the noise was loud, the ground shook, and your heart got to pumping at a pretty good rate.
After the artillery quit, we recruits would charge up the hill and take control of it. The Army really tried to make it seem like the real thing, but it felt more like an adult version of some childhood game, with special effects added.
Naturally, we had plenty of lessons in hand-to-hand combat as well. Among other things, we were taught how to pop out the enemy's eyeballs with your two thumbs, and how to deafen him by slapping his ears real hard, how to flip him as well as other judo moves designed to cripple him.
I didn't understand what good it did to cripple the enemy instead of simply killing him? But the sergeant explained that wounding an enemy could be better than killing him, because it took about four of their guys to look after the wounded man and get him off the frontline. That means four guys are taken out of combat. It's the same reasoning behind setting booby traps, especially the kind that maim rather than kill.
We had a lot of practice in the use of bayonets, learning how and where to stab your enemy, and what to do on the off chance the bayonet became stuck in the enemy. Most of the time that wouldn't happen. I don't know if you've ever looked closely at a bayonet before, but it has these grooves along the blade. The grooves create little air pockets that make it easier to pull the bayonet out. Without them, the wound would create a vacuum and hold onto the blade.
If the blade became lodged in his backbone, the grooves weren't effective. If that happened, we were told to make sure there was a round in the gun, so you could pull the trigger and blow the guy off of your bayonet.
Another thing the Army made us do - both in hand-to-hand fighting and bayonet practice - that made absolutely no sense to me. That was having to yell AAAHHH! every time you stabbed the practice dummy. If you forgot to yell like that, you had to do it again.
It seemed so stupid to me that I finally asked the sergeant, "Why do we have to yell this Aaahh shit? It's silly."
That sergeant didn't even blink. "Have you noticed that every time you yell like that, your brain doesn't function? You aren't thinking to yourself - I'm going to stab this guy here or there. You aren't even thinking about killing him. In fact, you aren't thinking at all about what you're doing; you're simply doing it. By the time you finish your training, this will become so deeply ingrained in you that when you find yourself in a combat situation, your training will take over. And when you see a bunch of enemy soldiers coming at you, firing, you'll start yelling and open fire. You won't think - I'm killing these guys. Maybe when it's over, you will, but not at that precise moment."
What he said made sense. But, at the time, it also sounded like a lot of bullshit, too, if you'll pardon my language.
While we were on maneuvers, myself and some other guys in my unit were assigned to protect our headquarters. We saw two GIs come into our camp. No big deal.
Pretty soon they walked out of the command post with our company commander. Once they were outside of the perimeter where we are, they said, "Do you realize that we just captured your command because not a single one of you challenged us when we walked up?"
I thought they had pulled a lousy trick. These guys were GIs. Why should we challenge them? But it was also pretty danged embarrassing. It's the kind of lesson a guy doesn't forget, though. I certainly didn't.
One of those crazy coincidences that makes the world seem really small, happened to me during basic. I had been at Camp Polk for only a couple weeks when I noticed a guy across the way who looked very familiar. Then it hit me. It was Bernard Kinnaman, my sister Myrtle's brother-in-law from Nebraska.
Kinnaman had actually received his draft notice before I got mine. But he needed some sort of operation, so the Army gave him a deferment until after he had recovered from the operation. In the meantime, I was drafted and sent to Camp Polk. Now Kinnaman had showed up at the same place.
As it turned out, this wasn't the only time I would run into Kinnaman unexpectedly.
Anyhow, basic training normally lasts for eight weeks if you're in a rifle company. But I had been dropped off at D Company, which is a heavy weapons company. I didn't know the difference until I reached the end of my eight weeks, and the Army informed me that I would now go into my special training.
"What special training?" I said.
That's when I found out that I was in heavy weapons, which meant I had another eight weeks of training to go, making for a total of sixteen weeks.
Back in the early Fifties, heavy weapons consisted of .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun, .30 caliber air-cooled machine gun, .50 caliber air-cooled machine gun, 0.2 mortar, .81 millimeter mortar, 4.2 mortar and .75 recoilless rifle.
I probably should explain that, in the Army, a battalion is made up of four companies - three rifle companies and one heavy weapons company. The machine gunners in the heavy weapons company get divided up and assigned to a rifle company. Technically speaking, you're still in D - or Dog - Company, but, for instance, you're attached to A Company. I know it's confusing, but that's the Army's way of doing things. Surprise.
There are advantages to being in heavy weapons. Two of the biggest are that you don't have to man listening posts or go out on patrols. Those jobs belong to the soldiers in the rifle companies. Also, when you're in heavy weapons, you do most of your traveling from place to place in a Jeep while the rifle companies slog it out on foot.
During those last eight weeks, I was trained in the operations and usage of various weapons. I can sum most of it up this way - you know all those war movies you've seen where a guy swivels a machine gun from side to side to spray a wide target area or where he picks up the machine gun and fires it from the hip like it was a submachine gun? That's all a lot of Hollywood baloney.
If you want to spread a bunch of rounds over a wide arc, you don't swing the whole machine gun; you simply tap the side of the barrel. And as for picking up a machine gun and firing it like an automatic rifle, forget it. A guy would need the strength of Atlas to keep the barrel level. If he tried it, more than likely he would wipe out half of his own outfit.
Plus, you fire a machine gun in short bursts. There is none of that prolonged shooting like you see in the movies. In the first place, the gun would probably overheat and lock up on you. More importantly, it's a waste of ammunition. And in combat, there isn't an endless supply of ammunition to waste.
Sometime, during that final two weeks of the sixteen-week training, we were sent out on bivouac for a week or two. While we were out there, they asked for volunteers to go back to camp and clean up before everybody returned. I was quick to volunteer, thinking that one day at camp was better than one day out on bivouac, especially since I had some booze stashed in our barracks.
Back then, I was somewhat of a heavy drinker - at least, by today's standards. But that's what you did in the Fifties for fun; you and your buddies would grab some beer and get drunk. We didn't have the drugs around that the kids face today.
Anyhow, all of us volunteers were taken back to our barracks. We cleaned up the place, had a couple drinks, and waited to be taken back to the bivouac area. Only nobody came. Somehow or other they forgot we were the barracks. As long as the booze held out, we weren't exactly eager to bring it to anybody's attention.
Finally, on the last day of bivouac, the sergeant walked in, stared at us and said, "What the hell are you guys still doing here?"
"Nobody came back to get us."
He swore a little, then said, "Come on. We have to get you out to the firing range." (I should explain here that this is where we had to crawl on our bellies while they fired a machine gun over us, using live ammunition.) "If you guys don't do that," the sergeant said, "you won't graduate."
So he loaded us in his Jeep and raced off to the firing range. I'm glad to say all of us finished the course - and also had five days of loafing and drinking.
Then our orders came down. Out of our entire group, there was one guy who was being sent to the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. All the rest of us were bound for Korea.
Excerpted from The Not Forgotten War by Nicholas Dick Jr.. Copyright © 2002 Nicholas Dick Jr.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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