ST. JOSEPH — The Korean conflict, from 1950 to 1953, has been called “The Forgotten War,” but for many the memories still persist.
“The Korean people do not forget us,” said Gus Anton, a veteran of the war, speaking at a gathering Wednesday at the St. Joseph-Lincoln Senior Center.
The South Korean counsel in Chicago frequently treats those who served to free banquets and trips, according to Anton, who was a military photographer who served in an engineering battalion near the front lines. “They really appreciate us.”
The staff members at the senior center haven’t forgotten, including program coordinator Jennifer Malone, whose father, Harold Kasischke, served in the Navy during the war, mostly around North Africa. Malone, who had previously brought together World War II veterans to share their stories, invited the Korean vets to do the same.
Certainly the veterans themselves recall their experiences.
“I am proud of my service, and I am proud of the time I served my country,” declared James O’Malley, who was in the Navy as a radar operator on a patrol plane. “It was not fun, but it was necessary. We did the job we were asked to to. We can look anyone in the eye. When my country called, I answered.”
O’Malley wore a Navy tunic, although he admitted it wasn’t the same uniform he donned as a 150-pound kid. He enlisted after losing a college football scholarship, and chose the Navy after his mother expressed alarm over the prospect of him joining the Marines.
He outlined the early months of the war, which was sparked when on July 20, 1950, heavily-equipped North Koreans, backed by Russia, poured over the 38th parallel and overwhelmed the practically unarmed South Koreans, quickly taking the capital of Seoul and pushing their adversaries to the edge of the peninsula.
America and other nations soon entered the war and, following a landing at Inchon led by General Douglas MacArthur. They drove the enemy to the Chinese border to the north. Chinese troops came at them “in waves,” O’Malley related, surrounding Americans in an area that became known as “Frozen Chosin” because of the temperatures that approached 50-below zero. Weapons, vehicles and even their meals became encased in ice.
“More men were felled by frostbite than bullets,” O’Malley said.
Troops survived by sucking on Tootsie Roll candies, which were mistakenly but fortuitously airdropped to them. After chewing the candy, they used them to patch up their equipment, O’Malley said.
Max Geurnsey, who attended the talk, was at the Chosin Reservoir that winter with the 31st Infantry “Polar Bear” regiment. He was shot in the head and his comrades didn’t think he’d survive. He had a plate placed in his head because of his wound.
O’Malley said there weren’t too many times he was in danger. But there was one flight when another man substituted for him, and was killed.
“I remember that guy to this day,” he offered.
Gus Anton received his draft notice on his birthday in 1951, and just three months after he “married an angel.” He only had one usable eye, but they took him anyway, and when he arrived overseas he was assigned as a photographer, a job he had done as a civilian.
Anton had a lot of motivation, as he was told if he didn’t make it he would be transferred to the infantry. He came home with 500 slides.
Anton was assigned to the 84th Engineering Construction battalion, which was building bridges in the battle zone at the 38th parallel. On March 26, 1953, they were attacked by 3,500 North Korean and Chinese troops.
The 7th Marines “saved our tails,” Anton said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”
One of those Marines, Murray Miller, who was in the 7th Marines in that battle, also attended the program. He was wounded by a mortar shell.
Anton and Miller met when they joined the Korean War Veterans of Southwest Michigan, and they became “instant” friends, Anton said.
Even if someone wasn’t in combat, they contributed to the war effort, O’Malley said. He pointed out that when the men signed on and took their oath, they didn’t know if they would be in harm’s way.
O’Malley wrote a poem in tribute to a veteran and friend, Bill Gobert, who died in 2010:
But history will remember
And a wreath we proudly lay
We know that Heaven’s safer
Because a Marine went home today
Jennifer Malone emphasized the importance of honoring veterans and preserving their stories.
“We can’t forget our veterans,” said Malone, who plans to do a program with Vietnam veterans in the spring. “You all survived for a reason, or we wouldn’t be here.”
Ed Heiden, a Vietnam veteran who was with the 3rd Marines, said that every generation should salute those who came before.
“For us veterans, the Korean War is never forgotten,” Heiden said.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak