Dad had been pulled out of school to begin working the cotton harvest when he was in the sixth grade and struggled for years trying to make a living out of dry land farming. When I was five years old, the dustbowl chased him off his farm. The fact is, he would have been ready to hang it up and try something else even if his fields hadn’t dried up and the topsoil blown into Illinois. We moved to Sacramento and dad got a job working on an asparagus ranch near Woodland. Dad liked California better than Oklahoma, and I guess he liked asparagus farming better than cotton. I was tall and coordinated, so I boxed and played basketball on my Sacramento High School varsity team, and ended up making All State. Following graduation, in 1953, I joined the U.S. Air Force. The Korean War was just heating up, and I wanted to serve my country. After completing basic training at Lackland AFB in Texas, I was sent for Air Police training at Parks AFB, which was located in the Pleasanton Area. Five of us, who were top performers in our class, were sent to train for Special Ops, where we learned various ways of killing an enemy.
We also learned the art of stealth and how to slip behind enemy lines in order to take out any targets considered to be threats to American airbases. We became proficient in every personal weapon the military had, plus mastered a number of methods for taking out an enemy with our bare hands.
The training was rigorous and demanding, but I loved it. I had knocked down a lot of opponents in the boxing ring, but Special Ops transformed me into a warrior. A few years ago I was in an Antioch parking lot off Lone Tree Way when two tough guys approached me. One of them threatened me with a knife as he reached for my wallet. The art of combat must be like riding a bicycle because I shoved the attacker back and blocked the thrust of the knife with my arm. When he came at me the second time, I grabbed his hand, spun him around, threw his arm over my shoulder, and snapped his elbow. When the second attacker lunged at me, I broke his nose. A third guy in a car picked them up and they took off, but the police caught them later. The one with the broken arm sued me for using excessive force. Two young girls had witnessed the affair and after their testimony, the judge essentially informed the plaintiff that he was nuts for trying to sue me over a thing like that.
That was actually the second time I had to protect myself. Six months earlier, I was coming out of the Antioch Sears when a tough guy grabbed my shirt and demanded my wallet. In that case I didn’t need martial arts. My years as a competitive boxer came into play, and I just knocked him on his can with a single well-aimed punch.
Those parking lot conflicts were nothing compared to the situations I had encountered in Korea. The war
started badly for me because the crossing was tough.
The Atlantic was stormy all the way across. Our troop ship was continually rocking, and I never did acquire my “sea legs.” As a result, I spent a large part of the voyage hanging over the rail. We were highly trainedkillers, but didn’t look very tough feeding the fish with the remains of the last food we had attempted to eat. The sailors made fun of us and told us that we were saving the government a lot of money on chow because of the meals we were skipping.
My first impression of Korea was that the country was ragged, with dead trees, grass, and very little water. The weather was sometimes more fearful than the enemy. It snowed in the winter and the military didn’t have enough heavy socks. Our feet would ge wet from the snow and then freeze when the temperatures dropped.
Military helicopters delivered us to our combat assignments. These were short fierce operations in which we were sent in, did the job, and then got back out. The Air Force slogan “Fly-Fight-Win” was more than a motto for us because we lived, and some of us died, by those three small words. The very first mission tested my mettle. We were sent in to take out some mortar positions. After we got on site, three machine guns pinned us down; we were unable to move. I decided that my first battle wouldn’t be the final one, so I crawled behind some sheltering rocks, got behind the machine guns, and threw a grenade into each position. Taking out the mortars were easy after that.
That was the first round of what became a series of terrible battles. During my three years in Korea, I went on more than 20 missions. At one point so many officers were killed that I was given a battlefield commission as Second Lieutenant, which was ratified later. I never put the bars on my helmet because we had learned that during battle those bars, in effect, acted as targets for enemy fire. Too many officers were killed in that way before they finally got the message and wore helmets that were no different than those of the men they were leading. On one operation we were crawling on our stomachs across the boundary of a Korean prisoner of war camp on a mission to secure the release of a French General. We went in at night without any communications, which meant the first order of business was to search through the unfamiliar terrain and actually find the location of the camp. After taking out all the guards we could find, we freed the general, and took him back to our base.
As a bonus, we also brought two Turkish officers back with us. The operation had been conducted, for the most part, in silence. We knifed the guards or else killed them with a thin wire called a garrote that we would loop around the enemy’s throat and strangle him before he knew we were with him. There was some confusion before we finished, so we had to take out some of the enemy on the way out, as well. By then we were able to use firearms.
Not every assignment ended in victory. We once had bad intelligence that resulted in me leading 16 soldiers into a situation in which we found an enemy force instead of the target we were supposed to take out. Before leaving, we destroyed the mortars that had been firing on us. By then half of my force was dead, however. We brought the bodies of our comrades back with us; we do not leave our people behind. There was another memorable failure. The North Korean President lived in a fine house on top of a hill. Guards were stationed around the perimeter, but the sidewalk wasn’t fenced in. We neutralized the guards and invaded the house but discovered that the president had escaped.
My personal faith was important in bringing me through those terrible days with my mind and soul intact. My little unit wasn’t large enough to rate a chaplain, but every Sunday morning I would assemble my troops and we would study the Bible together. I didn’t know much theology, but passages like, “I will never leave you,” do not require much learning.
Following the cessation of hostilities, I spent two-and-a-half years at Ladd AFB in Fairbanks, which was colder than Korea, of course, with a lot more snow in the winter. But the quality of life was immeasurably better. For one thing, we had plenty of warm socks. Part of my assignment was to carry out anti-espionage activities. My method was to go from bar-to-bar, hang out with guys, and listen to their comments. One of those garrulous people actually did turn out to be a Russian spy. He liked to talk about a lot of things, and eventually talked about his treasonable activities.
I also worked with the Alaskan Territory Police on their anti-drug program. One saloon was famous as a major node for the area’s thriving drug trade. We learned of a woman who would go down to one of the lower 48 states, buy drugs, and bring them back to that bar. We further discovered that whenever the local cops made a raid on the place, the woman would flush the contraband down the toilet. So one night we attended a party at the place and, just before the police showed up, we went into the bathroom and locked the door. I think she’s still doing hard time in some federal prison.
Prostitution was legal in Fairbanks so the social scene would get pretty wild, especially when the airman stationed at Ladd would get weekend leave. As a result, a lot of our people got into serious trouble with their families and with their health. Public homosexual activity was not legal, and my partner and I once arrested eight men who were having a gay time on the roof of a large public building. We weren’t exactly dealing with Public Enemy No. 1. We once arrested a man in a PX who had positioned himself so he could look up the dresses of women using a stairwell.
Another time we were getting complaints about a peeping tom who was looking into bedroom windows. It took a while to catch him because, as it turned out, he was one of the MPs who was supposedly guarding the citizenry, including the very women he was watching while they were in their frilly unmentionables.
After Alaska I was sent to provide security at the Strategic Air Command center in Little Rock. I was given a month leave before reporting for duty. I stopped to visit friends and family at my Sacramento home and before the month ended, I had renewed a romance with my childhood sweetheart, and married her. Marriage was good, but my duty assignment was boring, even though they put me in Special Investigations for a while. There were a few adventures, because Little Rock was in the national news as the site of an infamous Supreme Court-ordered desegregation of a local school. A general called me in the middle of the night and ordered me to get my troops together to escort four squads of paratroopers to the school. The troopers came in double-time off the plane before the engines had quit running. We provided protection for them. I was riding in a jeep with a 50-calibre machine gun. Any local residents carrying weapons were seriously outgunned. The only violence was when a civilian attempted to take a rifle away from one of my guys and got a bayonet through his arm, which turned out to be an effective attitude adjustment. I eventually retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
A few years ago a young man came to me and asked me to send a recommendation for the Air Force Academy to Senator Boxer. I contacted the commander of the Academy. It turned out that he had been in my platoon in Korea.
He had gotten into a tight situation, and I killed the Korean soldier who was trying to take him out. He was surprised to hear my voice. We talked about old times. I told him why I was calling.
He discovered that I had not received all the medals that I had been awarded. A lot of them had been granted while we were under fire in Korea.
I do not know how many medals there are. I received the Air Force Cross, two silver stars, and a medal from the French Government for saving that general. They told me that the medal would normally have been given only to a general.
I never had much respect for medals. I was only doing what I was trained to do. I never kept count of the enemies I killed. I do not like to talk about it, or even to think about it. Some people imagine that we are heroes; others think what we did was disgraceful. The fact is, we were just doing what we had to do. God forgive us for the things that we were called upon to do in that war.
As far as I am concerned the real heroes from the Korean conflict are the ones who didn’t come back. They gave their lives. We should honor them for the sacrifice they made to preserve our freedom.