Sunday, November 11, 2007

A thought for my Father on Veterans' Day

My military experience (if it can really be called that) was limited to a year of army ROTC in college. But given the numbers of older members of my family who were in the Army, Veterans' Day (or Armistice Day, as my father called it) always had special meaning.

This photo is of my Dad when he returned from Korea. A newspaper photographer was at the dock, and a closeup of my grandmother feeding him ended up in the newspaper (the Daily News I think -- the clipping is somewhere in with the stuff I emptied out of my Parents' house).

My father saw quite a bit of action in Korea. He was an acting platoon sergeant by the end of the war, though he never had a permanent rank higher than corporal (he was promoted very fast so he must have been a good soldier, but he also had a tendency to mouth off to officers who he felt were below par, so he never received higher permanent rank).

He was wounded on a night patrol. He never talked much about it except to say that he got some shrapnel in his finger and his bullet proof vest was badly damaged. When I was an ROTC cadet in college, his only additional comment was to always wear my flak jacket. My mother also said that his badly damaged flak jacket was hung up on a pole at Inchon for the newly arriving troops to see with a sign saying "THIS SOLDIER IS STILL ALIVE" with an admonishment to wear their flak jackets.

At my father's funeral, one of his army friends arrived and told me the story of what actually happened. My dad, as the platoon sergeant, decided not to send his men out to do what he would not do so he decided to head a night patrol. Because he wanted to set a good example, he wore his flak jacket at all times (they were somewhat new and most soldiers did not like wearing them), none of the other members of the patrol wore theirs. They marched out, and unfortunately the Chinese decided to send a patrol out at the same time and place and they ran into each other. Artillery was called in and a battle ensued.

My father's friend was in the company that was on alert-reserve so they were called in to reinforce the line. Volunteers were asked to go and get my father and his patrol out of no man's land. Because my father was well thought of (probably because he was not afraid to stand up to officers on behalf of the enlisted men), all who were asked immediately volunteered (my father's friend was not allowed to go).

Of the four men on the patrol, only my father returned, probably because he was wearing his vest and the others were not. My dad quickly got stitched up and returned to his unit. (According to Uncle Jack, my father's telegram home that he was wounded but OK was intercepted by the neighbors and my grandfather did not know until he saw my dad wearing the purple heart ribbon on his uniform on his return.)

He was there when the war ended. He had said that toward the effective time of the of armistice, there was fear that the Communists would use it to launch a surprise attack, so his company was ordered up a mountain and told to dig in. He knew the war was over when the appointed time came, the shooting stopped, and the Chinese soldiers on the opposite hill came out of their bunkers and started waving.

He somehow sent a message ahead that he wanted a meatball hero on his return, and his family came through. If you look really closely, you can see they are also all holding small cups -- why let a few regulations keep up from toasting a return with wine.

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