Sunday, August 21, 2011

Welcome Home Soldier

Service for US soldier killed in Korean War set this week  

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The U.S. state of West Virginia said Friday it plans to hold a special service this week for an American soldier killed in the Korean War six decades ago.

The remains of Cpl. James S. Murray were returned to his hometown from North Korea in the 1990s, but final identification was made only last December through investigation and DNA testing.

He was captured by North Korean troops while serving in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a proclamation ordering all U.S. and state flags displayed at state facilities be lowered to half-staff from dawn to dusk on the occasion of the funeral service on Saturday.

"Today we remember Cpl. James Samuel Murray and the sacrifice he made for his country so long ago," said Tomblin. "It is an important reminder that our servicemen and women work diligently to protect the freedom we enjoy each day. It is my hope that the family of Corporal Murray will take comfort knowing he is now in his proper and final resting place."

The upcoming service comes as the U.S. seeks to resume talks with North Korea on the recovery of remains of American troops killed in the Korean War.

The U.S. recently sent a letter requesting a meeting with Pyongyang on the issue, according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), affiliated with the Department of Defense.

The North has not replied yet, DPMO officials said.

Nearly 8,000 U.S. servicemembers are listed as missing from the war and the remains of more than half of them are estimated to be buried in the communist nation.

Joint recovery efforts between the Cold War foes were suspended in 2005, with Washington concerned about the safety and security of its workers.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Courage Under Fire

Brothers in Arms

Of all the articles, I would write about Korean War veterans returning to Korea, there are two, which stood out the most: the one about a veteran who saved his buddy during the war and other about a former POW returning to the bridge he had walked across to freedom when he was repatriated with other prisoners at the end of the war. Both of these articles were very near and dear to me because I was able to focus more on the personal side of the Korean War.

As a writer and a novice historian, these two articles were the kind of writing that I wanted to do. Writing feature stories about the human element or the personal side of the war came a lot easier for me than writing a straight news story—having to worry about a lead and space, not to mention a deadline. Ever since one of my former Eureka College professors, Dr. Sheila Bartle talked about writing creative non-fiction when I had visited the campus the year before, my interest in this kind of writing grew.

I’ll never forget that May night in 2001 when I sat down with a couple of Korean War veterans from San Antonio at the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon, and listened to them talk about their experiences during the war. A couple of them became misty-eyed, when they recalled the horrors of battle and the men who did not come back. Of all the reasons why veterans would want to travel back to the countries and battlefields where they once fought, I would like to think one of them is the chance to lay to rest the ghosts of their past with men who were there with them.

On that night in May, many ghosts were finally laid to rest. Two of the veterans in particular, had one very special story to tell: how one of them had saved the other during a battle, which would become a turning point for the war.

Courage under Fire

CHIPYONG-NI, South Korea – Last week, on a peaceful verdant hill overlooking a fertile valley of rice paddies and fields sprouting an assortment of vegetables, Eduardo “Ed” Fernandez returned to the battlefield where he had been wounded 50 years ago.

This time he walked back up the hill.

“That’s where the airdrops landed,” Fernandez said, pointing to a freshly tilled field that had been readied for spring planting.

Fifty years ago, on that same field, Fernandez and other men of the 23rd regimental Combat Team of the US Second Infantry Division were surrounded by the four Chinese divisions. Airdrops in a valley just a couple of hundred yards from the perimeter re-supplied the besieged forces of the 23rd Regimental Combat Team and other units. Getting them would not be easy because a Chinese mortar had zeroed in on him and Lou Jurado, as they hurriedly recovered badly needed medical supplies and ammunition.

Severely wounded and passing in and out of consciousness, Fernandez was carried by Jurado—who also had been hit by shrapnel from the mortar—a couple hundred yards back to their perimeter.

 They have a name for that: “courage under fire.” However, Lou was only doing what anyone would do in that situation when someone’s life was in jeopardy. 50 years later, time has not diminished the memories of that battle and of that camaraderie under fire.

Both Fernandez and Jurado were back in Korea for the first time to commemorate the Battle of Chipyong-ni and perhaps, heal some of those emotional wounds of 50 years ago. 

“It’s a little scary being back here,” Fernandez said.

Jurado, on the other hand, had harbored mixed emotions as he walked across the battlefield where he and Ed had fought 50 years ago.

“It’s bittersweet,” added Jurado.

After being pushed back south in November and December of 1950 following China’s entry into the Korean War and suffering many casualties, U.S. UN and ROK forces found themselves on the defensive again, but that was all about to change at places like Chipyong-ni and Wonju about two hours southwest of Seoul.

It was on February 13, 1951, when the Chinese—following a cacophony of bugles, bells, whistles, and drums—first hit according to historian Roy Appleman with a “mortar and artillery barrage from the north, northwest, and southwest that hit the perimeter and inside it at the center. At the same time, enemy infantry ran into the outer defenses of trip flares, antipersonnel mines, and booby-traps in front of C Company at the north end.”

You don’t have to be a military historian to realize that what exactly was happening at that moment: all hell was breaking loose.

 “They were coming at us by the thousands,” said Fernandez. “The Chinese were good fighters. They were somebody to be reckoned with. We were surrounded. I never thought we were going to come out of it.”

Twenty-four airdrops helped restock ammunition, rations, and medical supplies. Every available man helped in retrieving the airdrops. Regimental medics worked steadily to relieve the suffering of the wounded and helicopters shuttled in and out of the tight perimeter throughout the day, evacuating the most seriously wounded.

Others were treated and made as safe and comfortable as possible to await the opportunity for evacuation when the roadblocks ringing the garrison could be broken.

“Our supply sergeant had been killed; the mess sergeant had been killed. Everything was in an uproar,” recalled Fernandez who was then a Sergeant First Class. “I gathered the guys who were around me. I said we got to pick up this stuff before the enemy won’t let us.

“They missed the drop zone. The supplies landed in this open valley and the enemy had the high ground. I made the first trip with a couple of guys. One guy had been killed on the first trip. We had to get out of the way because we had this ammo on us. I was on my second or third trip when Lou showed up to help.”

Fernandez and Jurado made two trips together to retrieve the ammo and medical supplies. Jurado knew that by the second trip, the Chinese had zeroed in their mortars. 

“I knew that we were either going to be dead before we made it back or we were going to get badly wounded,” recalled Jurado.

When the mortar hit, the first thing Fernandez recalled was that the blood on the snow looked like a cherry ‘snow cone.’

Jurado saw blood coming out everywhere when Fernandez was hit. His one leg was just dangling when Jurado tried to pick him up. Although one of the first things you’re taught in first aid is to put a tourniquet on to stop the bleeding, Jurado had no time to think of such things. When he went to pick him up, he fell down.

At the same time, Jurado didn’t know that he had also been wounded because he had been knocked down by the concussion. The only thing he could think of was to pick Fernandez up and get him to an aid station inside the perimeter.

“So I picked him up again,” said Lou, in a broken voice, as he held back the tears. “I said, ‘God help me.’ I picked him up and I could feel that he was moving. I told Ed that we’re getting out of here. I could see that one leg was just dangling. Somehow or another when things like that happen you get super strong, the adrenaline flows.

“I was able to carry him to the aid station. He had bled so badly that I thought he was going to die on me. So, I told the medics to give him so blood. I didn’t know if he was dead or not. To this day, I don’t know how I was able to carry him.”

But Jurado did and later, Fernandez was evacuated to a hospital in the rear. He didn’t know what happened to Ed who was immediately evacuated and whether or not he had lost the leg or if he had died.

“I was at the field hospital for three days. I thought, boy this is a terrific wound. I’ll probably get back to the States on this thing. They patched me up and sent me back to the front lines,” said Jurado. “I never did find out what happened to him. We finally met in 1995 at one of the reunions. He cried; I cried. The wives cried.”

Fernandez was one of the lucky ones. He was evacuated out, but his ordeal was far from being over.

“I had a number of guardian angels with me,” recalled Fernandez.

On his way back to the aid station, that ambulance that he was on was hit by enemy fire. Fernandez, who was sandwiched between two other wounded men, escaped being hit again; the other men weren’t so lucky. Fernandez thinks that they might have died from these rounds. Then, when he arrived at the aid station, he was mistakenly placed with the dead. A French Priest noticed that he was still alive and had him moved.

“They gave me some blood and put me on a chopper,” said Fernandez. Then that chopper got hit. There were two litters. The guy who was on the opposite one got hit a couple of times. The pilot was also hit. They were firing at the chopper. I guess you might say that I had a couple of narrow escapes.”

Fernandez would be in out of hospitals for the next couple of years. All total, he would undergo over 76 operations—minor and major—including skin grafts. He gets around these days with the use of a cane.

According to historian Max Hastings, “the Chipyong-ni battle represented not only a fine performance by American units, but also an important stage in the rehabilitation and revival of the morale of the 2nd Division, which had been so desperately mauled at Kunu-ri.” This battle was China’s first tactical defeat during the war, and served to bolster the flagging morale of UN troops.

“It was the first battle we whipped the Chinese,” said Jurado. “It made us feel good and boosted our morale.”

However, Fernandez and Jurado almost didn’t come back for this special commemoration trip. It was only after their family members persuaded them to come back as well as knowing that the other one would be here—that they finally decided to come. 

“I had no desire to come back,” said Fernandez, “but my wife was instrumental in persuading me. Of course, I needed Lou to be here.”

The trip also helped both men deal with those ghosts from the past.

“It brought us closer together,” said Jurado whose kids played a big part in convincing him to make the journey back to Korea with Ed. “It was a healing process for the both of us—to know that we had come out of this.”

Fernandez was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of Chipyong-ni. Part of his citation read: “Sergeant First Class Fernandez during the ‘siege’ of Chipyong-ni, repeatedly and under intense hostile small arms and mortar fire, secured the supplies that were delivered by air from the drop zone and brought them into the 23rd Infantry’s perimeter.”

But some things are just hard to forget. Even 50 years later.

“It’s emotional knowing that in this immediate area you lost guys that you had known and were attached to,” Fernandez said with a shaky voice, “guys that talked about their wives and their babies. We lost so many good men.”

Fernandez, who wanted to remember this trip back to Korea and his special friendship with Jurado offered a small token of this remembrance and friendship forged in blood on the Chipyong-ni battleground.

Sitting in the lobby of their hotel later in the evening after they had returned from Chipyong-ni, Jurado pulled out nondescript beige stone from his pocket.

“Look at this. Ed gave it to me today,” Jurado said, his voice shaky as he ran his thumb over the smooth stone, a tear in his eye. “He picked up one for himself and me from the battlefield. I thought that was really special.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

War Remains

In 2001, I went to the first of three "repatriation ceremonies" at Knight Field on the Yongsan Military Garrison in Seoul for the remains of UN personnel killed during the Korean War. 

When I look at these metal caskets covered with the blue UNC flag, I think about the two service members who were finally going home. For over 50 years, the remains of these two service members, missing in action since the Korean War, had only been known to God who had called them home. 

I think about the peace of mind and closure two families would soon have when their grandfather, father, uncle, brother, husband, and son finally came home.

It's been over ten years since I took this photo on a rainy, cool May afternoon. I hope these two men have finally made it home to their loved ones.

And when I wrote War Remains, I made sure to include a scene of this ceremony, not just for the story, but also to remind readers of all those grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, and sons--still waiting to come home.

Until They Are Home

Motto of the Joint Prisoners of War Missing in Action Accounting Command

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Talking Points

Next week I am scheduled to take part in this Internet radio program, Positively Pittsburgh Live to talk about War Remains with other MWSA (Military Writers Society of America) Korean War Book Award nominees.

It's an hour-long show and I am looking forward to the chance to talk about my novel. It's an honor to be nominated the first year this award is being offered.

I am supposed to come up with some "talking points." Not really sure what kind of "talking points" I could come up with other than, how I've discovered this so-called "forgotten war" with the writing that I have done. To be sure, how I learned about the Korean War is not that much different than what Michael learns about the war as he tries to find out what happened to his grandfather, Bobby.

And it all goes back to February 2000, when I was standing in the Kyobo Centre in Seoul with that copy of Retrieving Bones in my hand. If it hadn't been for that book, I probably would have never written about the Korean War commemorations from 2000-2003. Who knows, right? And if I had never covered any of those commemorative events, I would have never learned as much as I would about the war, and meet Korean War veterans like Raymond Davis, Philip Day (Task Force Smith) Ed Fernandez, Lou Jurado, and Oscar Cortez.

I guess I have some talking points after all.
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