Memories of hard-fought Korean War battles still vivid for the men who served
Sunday, July 27, 2003
By EDWARD SIEGER, parPAR LINDA LISANTI, parPAR and PETER HALL
The Korean War is often called "The Forgotten War."
But Gildo DePaolis cannot forget.
The four-inch scar down his neck is a constant reminder of the battles he fought, the friends he lost.
The pain he endures every day brings him back to the hills where he changed from a boy to a man.
He wasn't alone.
Almost 1,790,000 troops served in the war that ended 50 years ago today with an armistice that remains a subject of debate and regret. More than 36,500 of those who served also died.
California, with 2,611, was number one in deaths suffered; Pennsylvania was second with 2,401 deaths. New Jersey lost 800.
As is the case in all wars, death comes in large numbers, but is felt individually.
Gildo DePaolis' entrance into the U.S. Marines was a present to himself on his 18th birthday, but what he saw and what he experienced was no cause for celebration.
Fifty years later, it's still hard for the Warren County man to bear.
Staring down at his kitchen table, the 72-year-old veteran from Phillipsburg takes a long pause before speaking.
"Only once in a while do I talk about this, not even to my family. It gives me too much pain."
DePaolis left his senior year of high school to serve his country.
He knew he'd miss his senior prom, graduation and his last baseball season. But his commitment to his country was strong -- even stronger than his love of the game.
DePaolis didn't go into combat right away. After boot camp, he spent about two years on Guam playing for the Marine baseball team. He was selected All Marine Pacific and played in the All Service World Series in Hawaii.
While in Hawaii, the war began. Because of his sports background, DePaolis wasn't supposed to go to Korea, but he volunteered.
His patriotism again outweighed his offers to join the major leagues or coach the Marine baseball team back in the United States.
Friendship also played a part.
His best friend, Joe Spurrier, was ordered to ship off to Korea, and DePaolis wanted to be by his side.
"Had Joe not gone, I wouldn't have gone, but we were together. We wanted to stay together. I was always a person never to sit back. I wanted to go and fight."
For a year, DePaolis and Spurrier fought together on the front lines, from the recapture of Seoul to the frozen Chosin Reservoir. They endured inhumane conditions. The nights were horribly cold and many Marines suffered frostbite.
As they moved across the terrain, the troops faced resistance. Their Marine unit crossed the same hill four times and each time, hundreds of young men perished.
"You think they'd learn after the first time," DePaolis said.
The worst the platoon sergeant saw was when his unit was called in to rescue an Army artillery unit that was surrounded. The soldiers were taking a bath in a lake when the enemy ambushed them, picking off the Americans one by one.
There was no way to escape.
When DePaolis' unit arrived, it was too late. The lake was red with the blood of their brethren.
In times like this, DePaolis took comfort in friendship. Through it all, he and Spurrier had each other.
Every night, before they fell asleep, the men would call out to each other from their foxholes so they'd know each was safe.
"We tried to make our voices carry so our positions wouldn't be revealed," DePaolis said, cupping his hands over his mouth to demonstrate. "You had to be alert like that all the time."
One night, Spurrier did not receive a reply from DePaolis.
It was June 2, 1951, the night when waves of Red Chinese tried to take the Marine unit's hilltop position.
The battle was the fiercest their unit had seen yet, DePaolis said.
The Chinese attacked in massive numbers. When one soldier went down, another one picked up his weapon and charged on.
"They just kept coming. They were like ants, like a herd of cattle coming at us," DePaolis said. "They had more people than weapons."
DePaolis knew he was in trouble. He just didn't know how badly until the bullet tore through the right side of his mouth, knocking out teeth and severing his tongue.
He had to ignore the blood that ran down his face. He still had to fight. It was fight, or die.
The last thing he remembers is a group of Chinese soldiers pointing at him. He was wearing binoculars, which was a sign of leadership.
The soldiers threw a grenade and it exploded right in front of him.
Shrapnel tore his neck wide open, severing his jugular vein.
"It pumped out blood like a garden hose, DePaolis said.
He made peace with God, quietly said goodbye to his family and waited to die.
It wasn't his time.
DePaolis woke up three weeks later in a hospital bed. Doctors said it was a miracle he survived.
When his family saw him for the first time in three years, his father said, "That's not my boy."
DePaolis weighed just 80 pounds and couldn't speak. For the first six months, he couldn't even get out of bed. He had to be fed baby food through a hole in his mouth.
For more than a year, he was in the hospital and underwent dozens of reconstructive surgeries. Doctors had to make special plates for his mouth so he could eat normally.
To this day, DePaolis still has to undergo regular treatments. His mouth is in constant agony and the pain runs through his whole body.
The most basic human functions, sleeping and talking, are taxing.
He can't lie on either side of his face because it will cut off blood flow. Most nights, he either lies awake on his back or takes naps sitting upright in a chair in his Wilbur Avenue living room.
On days when he talks a lot, DePaolis' face goes numb.
"I hurt all the time," he says.
But DePaolis works through the pain by lifting weights, working out and keeping busy with housework and gardening.
"I try to be strong. I tell myself there's nothing wrong with me."
His wife, Loretta, knows better.
In five decades together, she has never heard her husband complain -- not even when he was recovering from his many surgeries.
"He just refuses to let it get him down. He tells himself it doesn't hurt, but I know that's not true."
Loretta says he is tough, not only in the way he deals with the pain, but also how he handles the Korean War as a whole.
"He's never talked about it much and I don't ask," she says.
She understands those memories are open wounds.
In the 50 years since the war has ended, not a day has gone by that DePaolis doesn't thank God.
He has a lot to be thankful for.
All he has to do is look into his wife's eyes and relish in his grandkids' hugs and kisses to know what he could have missed.
"I am lucky to be alive," he says. "The good Lord saved me."
DePaolis' daily prayers are not only filled with thanks, but also hope.
Hope that his family will never have to see the bloodshed he did.
Hope that there will come a day when there will be no more wars.
And hope that freedom, liberty and justice will reign.
Rubbing elbows with heroes as young men
Don Muller's Korean War story begins at the end of World War II.
As American servicemen returned to the United States in droves after Japan's surrender, Muller weighed his prospects for employment at home and elected to stay in the Marine Corps. That decision would take him to South Korea in the closing days of the Korean War.
Muller, 84, of Hunterdon County, spent most of World War II as a crew chief aboard Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Roy S. Geiger's personal plane, darting around the South Pacific under cover of darkness.
Compared to other planes of its type, Muller's PB4Y -- the Navy version of the B-24 Liberator -- was a hot rod. Stripped down and souped-up to outrun Japanese fighters, the four engine transport was unique in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Life was good with the general, Muller said. The crew ate steak and eggs from the PB4Y's on-board kitchen with the general whenever he was hungry and spent their days relaxing at island airstrips as the general did his business.
By comparison, Korea was a shock, Muller said.
"It was the most Godforsaken place I've ever been to," he said. "I'll take World War II any day."
From January 1953 to September 1954, Muller was stationed at a Marine Corps air base simply called K-3 by the Americans near P'ohang on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula. There Master Sgt. Muller served as crew chief for the Marine general's air detachment.
In charge of a fleet of Marine Corps transports, he endured waist-deep snow, knee-deep mud and harrowing supply missions to the Chinese border.
He also rubbed shoulders with Marine aviation legends like Boston Red Sox left fielder turned fighter ace Ted Williams and his ace wingman Maj. John Glenn, who would later become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. Both jet fighter pilots were based at the same field as Muller.
Life on the airbase was primitive, and the task of keeping planes in the air left little time for leisure.
"You filled in wherever you could," he said.
Muller was charged with keeping the R4Ds -- the Navy version of the DC-3 airliner -- in the air. He also had to fuel and repair whatever American aircraft were visiting the base.
Working on aircraft engines in temperatures that dipped to 30 below zero was a challenge, he said.
"You couldn't wear gloves and your hands would freeze, so you tried to stuff them in your armpits," Muller said.
Showering in the winter was another frigid experience. Muller said he typically stripped to his skivvies, donned a heavy overcoat and waded through the snow to a shack. Inside, a fellow Marine released cold water from a tank and then Muller dashed back to his tent to get into bed before he froze.
"I haven't gotten warm since I got back," he said.
Although Muller's duties didn't include flying, he would occasionally volunteer to accompany aircrews on missions north of the 38th parallel.
One flight took Muller north to an island in the Yalu River, which forms the border between China and North Korea. Their mission was to land on the island and drop supplies for a Marine reconnaissance unit that tracked the activities of Russian MiG fighters flying from a Chinese airfield.
Muller and his pilot landed on a beach and unloaded ammunition and food from the bomb bay of their single-engine TBF bomber. With the supplies delivered, they started the engine, turned around and took off.
Shortly after liftoff, acrid black smoke poured from the engine. The pilot asked Muller if he wanted to bail out. Despite the risk the plane might explode, Muller replied that as long as it was still flying, he wasn't jumping out over North Korea.
When they landed in friendly territory, mechanics discovered the aircraft's electric starter motor had failed to shut off when the engine started. Driven far beyond its intended speed by the engine, the starter became white hot and started a fire in the engine compartment.
Muller retired from the Marines after 20 years of active duty. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he now lives in Raritan Township with his wife.
Muller said he does feel that Korea is "The Forgotten War," but he works to change that.
Muller visits Hunterdon County elementary schools to tell children about his experiences. Instead of lecturing the children, he uses models of the aircraft he worked on and flew in to make it visual.
One wall of the basement in his Saddle Court home is lined with plastic aircraft models, from the Wright Flyer to the space shuttle. In the classroom he passes around models of the TBF bomber that took him on his harrowing ride, the F9F Panther Ted Williams flew and the F-86 Sabre John Glenn flew.
"You can talk to them all day and it doesn't mean anything, but you bring out the pictures and the models and it clicks," Muller said.
The Chinese soldiers came out of the night
The North Korean winters were brutal.
It snowed constantly and the winds blowing south out of Manchuria sounded like a freight train, Marine Corps veteran Joseph Finn Sr. said.
Finn landed in the port city of Hungnam on Nov. 10, 1950, with the 1st Marine Division. He said he was luckier than most.
He arrived with his winter gear while other soldiers were clothed only in their light cotton uniforms. Scores of casualties came in the form of frostbite on the feet, face and hands.
Soldiers wore ill-designed boots of leather and rubber that caused their feet to sweat terribly after hours of hiking. Once they stopped moving, the sweat began to freeze, Finn said.
Each man carried three pairs of socks, he said. Along with the pair he wore, Finn -- originally from Hillside, N.J., and now of Plainfield Township -- said soldiers kept two pair securely tucked under their belts, around their bellies to keep them warm. He also hoped the wet pair he took off managed to dry strapped to his midsection.
After landing in Hungnam, the 1st Marines began their march toward the Chosin Reservoir along a 78-mile dirt road that served as the main supply route into North Korea, Finn said. They arrived in the tiny village of Yudamni in late November. At the time, it was the deepest penetration by Marines into North Korea, he said.
On Nov. 27, in a mountain pass just above the village, the Marines dug in for the night.
Midnight, and the stars were out. Temperatures tumbled to 40 degrees below zero.
And the hills erupted.
"The Chinese just came out of the night," Finn said. "They were all over the place."
Finn said three divisions of Chinese soldiers surrounded them. Later he heard they were outnumbered 10-to-1.
Finn was injured that night when a concussion grenade detonated near his foxhole, sending shrapnel into his back. Although bleeding badly, Finn said he wasn't seriously injured. He spent the night in sick bay about a half mile down the hill watching the Chinese soldiers' red tracers and Marines' turquoise tracers criss-crossing the mountain pass.
Finn, now 77, returned to his unit the next day where he and his comrades dealt with sniper fire for days. Although outnumbered, U.S. and British commandos held their own with superior firepower, he said, explaining that the Chinese were still using slow-loading bolt-action rifles.
The heaviest fighting took place when they pulled back to Hungnam.
"We killed more Chinese on the way out than we did on the way in," Finn said.
Finn was drafted in 1944 and served for a short time in World War II. He married in 1947, joined the Reserves and was called to active duty on Sept. 7, 1950.
In Korea, Finn and some of his WWII comrades were the "old men," climbing hills next to "17-, 18- and 19-year-old boys," he said. They were expected to "nurse along" the younger soldiers until they learned the ropes, he said.
"Once you hear that first shot fired at you, you learn," Finn said.
Finn spent the first eight months of 1951 constantly moving across the country, including a 30-day "guerilla hunt" where he and his squad tracked down and captured or killed North Koreans caught far south of the 38th parallel.
Finn arrived in Korea a corporal and left a sergeant. The military promoted soldiers quickly because the attrition rate for non-commissioned officers was so bad, he said.
They died quickly.
Once he became a squad leader, Finn said he avoided becoming too friendly with his men. That made it only slightly easier when you lost a comrade, he said.
"You often wonder why him and not me," Finn said.
Finn's only fond memories of Korea come from the month spent off the front line before leaving the country in September 1951, sharing a few beers and some camaraderie with fellow soldiers.
When asked what he remembers about that time, Finn said, "I hate like hell to say it, but hey, I'm still alive."
Aug. 11, 1951, and Finn returned to his wife and his job as a produce manager for A& P where he had worked since he was 14.
Finn retired from A& P in 1989, but was discharged from the Marine Corps in January 1952. Finn's devotion to the Corps is evident in the photos and memorabilia adorning his living room.
Even his answering machine is patriotic.
"You've reached the Finn barracks. Leave your name, rank and phone number and we will return your call when we're back from patrol. Semper Fi."
It's Finn's "sergeant voice" over strains of the Marine Hymn.
The Corps offered Finn a promotion to staff sergeant had he stayed. Certain he would have gone to Vietnam had he remained in the military, Finn said his eight years was enough.
He recalled the day his division had dug in only to be ordered to leave. The division sent in to replace his was shelled a half hour later, Finn said.
"You just realize how fortunate you were," he said.
It's hard to say whether U.S. troops should have continued a push across the 38th parallel, Finn said. When U.S. troops evacuated North Korea following the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, "100,000 North Koreans voted with their feet" by leaving with them, he said.
And although disappointed at the establishment of North Korea, Finn is proud to see a strong, independent, democratic South Korea.
"We did a good thing," he said. "Lord knows we saved a hell of a lot of people."
Reporter Edward Sieger can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Reporter Linda Lisanti can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporter Peter Hall can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Copyright 2003 NJ.com. All Rights Reserved.
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