Elgin area veterans remember ‘forgotten war’
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org July 28, 2013 2:58PM
Now largely homebound, 83-year-old Bud Stout of Burlington receives a plaque on Thursday from Dale Dopkins of the Hampshire Veterans of Foreign Wars post, commemorating Stout's 60 years of membership in the post. Dopkins also vowed to make sure then Army awards Stout a long-overdue Purple Heart medal for a bullet wound to his neck. | Dave Gathman - Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 30, 2013 6:06AM
World War II has become known as “the last good war.” Vietnam was the lost war, a bitterness that divided generations. Those who fought in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 complain their fight has become “the forgotten war.”
But retired locksmith Bud Stout of Burlington hasn’t forgotten as he fingers the bullet-wound scar on his throat for which he never received the Purple Heart that was due him. Retired chemical engineer Don Wesner of Elgin had not forgotten when he flew on an “Honor Flight” in May to visit the Korean War and World War II memorials in Washington and he took out his harmonica to play “Taps” in memory of fellow Marines who died in the 20-below-zero cold around the Chosin Reservoir. The families of National Guardsmen Jack Pate and Tom Cassens have not forgotten, because those boys never came home again to Elgin.
But all of America had a reason to remember their sacrifices yet again on Saturday as the world marked the 60th anniversary of the Korean War coming to a halt. Not with peace. No official treaty ever has been signed in this civil war between communist north and democratic south Korea, which had been backed in that three-year conflict by Communist China on one side and by the United States and other United Nations members on the other. And now-nuclear-armed North Korea continues its missile-rattling. But an armistice — a temporary cessation of fighting — was signed on July 27, 1953. And the shooting stopped.
Wesner says that whether to serve his country was never really a question as he was growing up in Indiana. “My uncle and my father had served in World War II just a few years before, and now it was my time,” the now-78-year-old said. “I joined the National Guard while I was still in high school, and the day after I graduated, I was on a train bound for the Marine Corps.” Four months later, he was on a ship headed to Korea.
Wesner said his official title was “ammunition technician,” and he once found himself defusing a rocket that had failed to explode. But mostly he was a scout and a sharpshooter.
He didn’t get to Korea until November 1952. He learned that Korea in the winter was a terrible place to fight. Temperatures fell to 20 below zero, and every hillside was overlooked by some other hilllside. “Our biggest enemy was frostbite,” he said.
The early months of the war — from June 1950 to mid-1951 — had involved sweeping movement up and down the Korean peninsula, like the blitzkriegs of World War II. But the last two years seemed more like the bloody stalemate of World War I.
The two sides began peace talks in July 1951, less than a year after the war started. But they couldn’t agree on armistice terms for another two years. The dying went on.
After the armistice was signed, Wesner used the G.I. Bill to get an engineering degree. And he learned to play the harmonica. That harmonica came in handy when Wesner got a chance to take an “Honor Flight” to Washington with other veterans two months ago.
“During the flight home, they asked me to play some patriotic songs,” he said. “I did numbers like ‘It’s A Grand Old Flag.’ And then when I finished up with ‘Taps,’ there wasn’t a dry eye on the plane, including mine.”
Fighting by night
Stout, who is now an 83-year-old widower confined by illness to his home most of the week, says he joined the Army in 1948 because he couldn’t find any other job.
He was assigned to Korea two years before the war began. In 1949, he was sent to the more hospitable realm of Hawaii.
Then came the North Korean attack. “Within five days I was aboard a ship back to Korea,” he says. He was part of the Fifth Regimental Combat Team, which never contained more than 3,000 men at a time but suffered 4,000 casualties.
“The fighting was mostly at night,” Stout said. “We fought on hills, and we fought in rice paddies covered with human fertilizer.
“Guys will tell you they shot 35 communist soldiers, or they shot 66. They’re full of it. You’re in the dark. You raise your M-1 rifle and you shoot once to the left. You swing it to the front and fire once. You swing it to the right and fire once. There’s no way you could tell who you hit or who the guy left of you hit or who the guy to the right of you hit.”
“When the Red Chinese came into the war and smashed through our lines, we were way up near the Yalu River on the Chinese border. Our company C.O. (commanding officer) come along in a Jeep and says, ‘We’re pulling out, boys. We’re going to reassemble at Taejon, South Korea.’ That was 180 miles south of there! Then he drives away, and we never saw him again until we had walked the 180 miles to Taejon.”
“Another time, we were on patrol and we ran into a communist patrol. Maybe 10 of us, 10 of them.
“One of them raises his rifle and aims at me. I didn’t even know he had fired. But the guy next to me says, ‘Stout, you’re hit!’ I felt my chest, but couldn’t feel any blood. The other guy says, ‘No, in your neck.’ I felt up there and I could feel the cords and tendons and things wiggling around inside.
“I said to myself, ‘This is it, Bud. You’re going home now!’ I went back a few hundred yards to this MASH hospital. But they just looked at the hole in my neck, put two stitches in it and sent me right back to the line.”
It was a different Fox Valley who sent her boys to Korea, a Fox Valley with no guilty doubts about whether communism was evil. It was a Fox Valley that held parades every Veterans Day, went to the cemetery every Memorial Day and had a guy in every house who had put his skin on the line just a few years before, fighting Hitler and Tojo.
Never was that more obvious than on Feb. 19, 1952, when Elgin’s National Guard unit — Company C of the 129th Infantry Regiment — all left town together, cheered on by scores of Elginites.
Since the war, Company C has held a reunion every February, the anniversary of when it became officially converted from what almost amounted to a fun-loving social group into kill-or-be-killed soldiers.
Company C veteran Don Sleeman said only 14 or 15 showed up for this year’s reunion. And the 44th Illinois National Guard Division decided that its statewide reunion in October 2012, which drew about 60 vets, would be its last.
Sleeman guesstimates that a third to a half of Company C ended up in Korea. Others were sent anywhere the Army needed them.
Jack Pate reached Korea on Nov. 1, 1952. Six days later, he was killed at a place called Heartbreak Ridge.
Tom Cassens left a wife and 3-year-old son in Elgin. He arrived in Korea about the same time as Pate. On Jan. 2, 1953, he wrote to his family that “we are on the front line and can hear artillery. There’s bound to be some casualties. But so far I haven’t been in much danger.”
The letter arrived about the same time as the telegram stating that Cpl. Thomas Cassens had been killed on Jan. 5.
Like Vietnam’s vets, Company C’s guys came home one at a time. No one spat on them or shouted “Baby killer!” as some would to their 1960s counterparts. But “by then the war was unpopular,” Sleeman says. “People were wondering, ‘Why were we over there?’ There were no celebrations or recognition.”
Five years after decisively winning a world war, Americans considered the outcome in Korea to be a letdown. Leaving the field while “the Reds” still held North Korea was like ending World War II with Hitler still in his bunker.
But Wesner and Stout think their sacrifices — and those of the 37,000 Americans killed and 8,000 still missing in action — were worth it.
“I believe in the domino theory,” Wesner said. If Russia, China and their North Korean allies had been allowed to take over South Korea, they would have gone on to take the next country, he believes.
Sleeman suggests comparing what life is like today in prosperous, free South Korea to the lifestyle in North Korea — starving and in poverty with no freedoms.
But Wesner believes that if we had pushed to win the war decisively by sending bombers and/or troops across the Chinese border as Gen. Douglas MacArthur had proposed, we would have had World War III — this time with atomic bombs on both sides.
“We had six kids. Not one went into the service,” said Stout. “They would ask me, ‘Dad, how come you volunteered to go to fight?’ And I would say, ‘So you wouldn’t have to.’ ”