Saturday, June 29, 2013

Father-in-Law's Korean War Service

(Image:  Me, Rex and Janet at our wedding)
A couple of weeks ago, my father-in-law, Rex, passed away.  He was initially admitted to the hospital for severe headaches.  The doctors figured out these were caused by fluid buildup within his skull, but were unable to determine the cause, nor reverse the buildup without the continued use of a catheter.  The only thing that could be done was to keep him sedated.  Finally, my wife Janet and her siblings decided to cease treatment and Rex died shortly afterwards.
Like my own father, Rex was a Korean War combat veteran.  Back when I was getting to know Janet and her family, I asked if he could specify where and when he saw action.  He merely waved his hand in the air and said, "Right from the beginning and we went all up and down the peninsula." Until, I found out later, he was wounded by shrapnel sometime before 1951.
From what I know of the Korean War, I figured this put Rex "in theater" shortly after the initial North Korean invasion through the Chinese intervention.
While Janet and her family dealt with the funeral arrangements, I pieced together Rex's wartime service by compiling information from family photos, military records, a Western Union telegram and my copy of The West Point Atlas of American Wars, Volume 2 (1959)
What I discovered was nothing short of amazing.
Rex was assigned to Bravo Company of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.  At the time, I was frustrated that none of the personal records, along with a 1949 "local boy does good" article from the Spokane Herald (now Spokesman Review) mentioned, was what battalion this particular Bravo Company was assigned to. 
But now that I think of it, in the US Army companies were often labeled in alphabetical sequence; with Alpha, Bravo and Charlie assigned to the regiment's first battalion, with Delta, Echo and Foxtrot to the 2nd, etc.  (Typically there were 3 companies to a battalion and 3 battalions to a regiment).  So I'm going to assume Rex was in the 8th Cav's First Battalion (1/8).
The Western Union telegram opened with the typically ominous line: 
Dear Mr. and Mrs....we regret to inform you that your son...
Fortunately in Rex's case, the sentence concluded with:
...was lightly wounded on 1 November 1950. 

When I showed the telegram to my brother-in-law Tim, he quipped, "What exactly does "slightly wounded" mean?  I can't imagine any parent receiving something like this."

Neither can I.

However, lightly wounded or not, Rex's DD Form 214 (which is still used today), clearly stated that he received no wounds due to enemy action and therefore, no Purple Heart Medal.


Tim and I looked at each other:  Hmmm.  Friendly fire, maybe?

Looking at family photos we learned Rex was part of Bravo Company's 60 millimeter (mm) mortar team.  Initially on occupation duty in Japan, the 1st Cav was rushed over to South Korea to help plug the gaps in the Pusan Perimeter.  Rex, suffering from a broken wrist, missed the initial deployment, but rejoined Bravo Company afterwards.

In September, 1950, MacArthur executed his amphibious flank attack at Inchon and chased the shattered remnants of the North Korean Army all the way up to the Yalu River.  So the war looked like it was just about won--despite the reports of Chinese forces massing near, on--and even over--the China-North Korean border.

As I scrolled through the 8th Cavalry Wikipedia page, I spotted this sentence under the Korean War Section, third paragraph: 

At 1930 on 1 November 1950 the Chinese attacked the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, all along its line.

The link contains enough detail to paint a grim tactical picture.  Basically, all three of the 8th Cavalry Regiment's battalions were isolated and surrounded by elements of the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) 115th Division and 116th Division near Unsan.

To commanding officers and staff manning various field headquarters, the surprise offensive by the Chinese looked something like this...

...but to the GI's fending off Chinese infiltration and human wave attacks, the situation was considerably more up-close and personal...
(Image:  Chinese troops assaulting a hill)
...way too personal.
During this battle, which lasted several days, the 8th Cav's sister regiments, the 5th_Cavalry Regiment and the 7th Cavalry Regiment--of Little Big Horn fame--tried, but failed to break through to their beleaguered buddies.  1st Cav commander was left with no choice but to order the 8th Cav's survivors--growing smaller by the hour--to break out any way possible.
In other words:  You're on your own fellas.
Under such a chaotic tactical situation, with friendly units firing into an area containing a mixed bag of friendly and enemy forces, it's entirely possible Rex, along with others, may have suffered from friendly fire. 
Although there may be other, more mundane explanations for Rex not getting credit for his wound.  Janet recalled her dad saying in-passing, that he turned down the Purple Heart. Also, the US military is infused with an arcane bureaucracy, just like every other governmental department.  This requires every "i" to be dotted and every "t" to be crossed--in triplicate.  If not, then the paperwork gets rejected. 
Regardless of the lack of proper documentation, I impressed upon my in-laws that Rex didn't just "see some action" while in Korea:  He was yanked out of the cushy garrison duty in Japan, only to find himself having to "E&E," (Evade and Escape as we call it now), through enemy lines--while wounded--several months later.
The only veterans who may claim to have survived a worse ordeal would be the Marines "advancing in a different direction" from"Frozen Chosin."
For the Chinese Communist Party's Propaganda Department though, chasing the "foreign devils" out of North Korea was quite a feather in their collective revolutionary caps.
(Image: Chinese propaganda poster)
 One of the items Janet "inherited back" was a picture she gave her dad, similar to this...
...of the Korean War Memorial.  It's now on our fireplace mantle in honor of both our fathers.
At Rex's funeral, the small honor guard played taps.  I'll end this post with something a bit more jaunty and befitting a cavalry trooper--Garryowen.
Say hello to my dad for me, will you Rex?
(Image: William M. Henkle, cica 1951)


commissarmoody said...

Thanks for posting, And condolences to your families. I find the Korean conflict to be very interesting. And think it is represented in the honor roles of American history.

Ted Henkle said...

You're welcome! And thank you for your kind words. Yes, the Korean War was--and still is--a multi-layered puzzle: How to deal with North Korea without triggering a (another) major intervention by China.

ColCampbell50 said...

For more information on the 8th Cav's actions in Korea, I would suggest you contact the 1st Cavalry Division Association ( As a member of the 1st Cav at various times during my 20 years of service, I know that they will provide as much assistance as they can.

I would also suggest contacting the National Archives Military Records Center at St. Louis ( Even though a large number of records were"lost" in the fire, many of them were just water or smoke damaged and are being recovered and returned to active use. Follow the directions on their web site and request your father-in-law's records. you may not get anything, but then again you may get a lot.

Good hunting,


Ted Henkle said...

Thanks Col! I appreciate it.