8th Combat Engineer BN
1st Cavalry Division
In January of 1951, I was drafted into the U.S. Army. There were thirty-one other guys on the bus to Columbus, Ohio, six of whom were high school classmates. We were taken to the train station and boarded a train, which took us to Fort Knox, Kentucky for our basic training.
Our sixteen weeks of training was both physically and mentally demanding. Up at 2:00 AM to wash our barracks, or up at 3:00 AM for a ten mile hike. We trained to be crew members on tanks. We simulated amphibious landings by climbing up and down rope ladders. Generally speaking, basic training stunk.
Following basic, I went home on a seventeen day furlough before going overseas. After our leave, a high school friend and I left for Seattle, Washington. During the first part of June we had three days of processing at Fort Lawton, before shipping out. When we had finished our paperwork—making out our Wills, and making sure our beneficiaries on our life insurance were correct—we were transported to Seattle Docks to board our troop ship.
After boarding, a Navy guy came by with blank pieces of paper for us to sign. He told us he needed our signatures so they would know who was on board. Keirns and I decided he was a clerk trying to make a list for KP duty, so we didn’t sign it—we were right.
The next day, the rest of the five-thousand troops boarded the ship. As the tug boats pulled the ship away from the docks, there was a band playing and people waving good-bye to us. I didn’t know any of them; I just wanted to wave back. To do so, four of us had to climb a ladder that went to one of the lifeboats. We were told a couple of times to get down from the ladder by an army private wearing an armband with “Guard” written on it. We went back up the ladder a third time, and this time when we were told to get down, the guy on the bottom rung told the individual to “Kiss our ass.” This was a huge mistake! The guy standing there had more gold braid on his uniform than you could shake a stick at; he was a Chief Petty Officer. It seemed he ran the ship, the captain only steered it. Guess what? We four were put on KP duty—everyday—for the entire voyage. Imagine, fourteen days without ever seeing land.
After fourteen days, we docked at Yokohama, Japan, a suburb of Tokyo. We were taken to Camp Drake for final processing before going on to Korea. I only have two memories of Camp Drake. First, we were taken to the rifle range, given five rounds of ammo, and told to zero in our weapons; the next time we fired them would be at the enemy. To this day, I still have no idea what I hit. Secondly, after firing our five rounds we marched back to our company area. Here they called out names of those who would attend additional schooling.
“Degood”Medical School in Osaka, Japan. I really didn’t want to be a medic. However, the peace talks had started a day or two earlier, so I felt the war would be over by the time I finished school—wrong!
We were schooled on general first aid, dressing wounds, and putting splints on broken bones. Basically, we were to give first aid and get the wounded to an aid station as quickly as possible.
The Medical School is where I became good friends with Benjamin Franklin Dunkle, known as “Jiggs,” from Johnstown, Ohio. We had our evening meal in Sasebo, Japan, and breakfast in Pusan, Korea; our voyage to Korea was a short one.
We stayed in Pusan a few days processing through the “pipeline.” That was the first time I had heard that phrase and actually thought I was going to be working on some kind of pipeline. It turned out that all replacements to Korea were called “pipeline” or “cannon fodder.” This is where Jiggs and I split up. I was sent to Yong Dong Po, which was close to Seoul, to the division headquarters for the 1st Cavalry. Jiggs went to the 2nd Infantry Division to be a medic in a rifle company. He was killed in action during September 1951. [As a medic for the 23rd Infantry Regiment, he was killed in action on September 6, 1951; during the battle for Bloody Ridge.]
After spending a day at headquarters, I was sent to Company C, 8th Combat Engineers. I was just beginning to know people when I was transferred to B Company. Here I became known as “Doc” to forty guys—I went everywhere they went.
The reason I was transferred to B Company was a tank patrol had been ambushed with three engineers wounded, and one taken as a prisoner of war. The medic that was with them had a nervous breakdown and was sent somewhere else. I was never ambushed while on a patrol, but the fear of knowing it could happen was always with me. However, on one patrol we did encounter small arms fire and had some grenades thrown at us. So one of the tanks advanced to our location and shot its .50 caliber machine gun at the hill where the fire was coming from. We had no more trouble that day.
The Combat Engineers job was to lay mines, probe for and remove enemy mines, and build roads for the infantry. In the mornings I would go to the platoon sergeants tent to see who he wanted me to go with; it was usually the squad that was doing the most dangerous job. The most dreaded task was tank patrol.
Tankers had a right to be leery of hitting a land mine, because they would knock off a tread, disabling it. One time we had just caught up with the tanks, when a tanker was calling for a medic. I rushed up there finding a tank that had hit an anti-tank mine. The explosion had blown the escape hatch, which is located under the assistant driver’s feet, straight up breaking both of his legs in several places. I gave him a shot of morphine, took two ram rods—per leg—and put splints on his legs. I was looking for litter bearers to evacuate him, when the tank commander said they had to go back and check out the damage; they took the wounded tanker with them.
Roughly two weeks after I arrived at B Company, we went in one of our established anti-personnel minefields; we found a dead soldier from Signal Corps. Cautiously, we moved him out of the minefield so those who took care of the dead could do their jobs. A few days later, the letter I had written to Jiggs came back marked “Deceased.” I went out in a field, by myself, and cried.
It was October 1951, and the engineers were laying “Bouncing Betties” along a ridge in front of the infantry bunkers. We had stopped for chow, at noon, when a shell went off over the hill where we had just come from. Somebody was yelling “Medic,” so I took two engineers with me and we found another soldier from Signal Corps lying in the minefield—wounded. He told me to be careful because it was a minefield; I told him I knew and that some guys were coming to disarm them, so we could get him out.
I asked him if he had seen the strand of barbed wire with signs in four different languages that said, “Mine Field.”
He said, “Yes.”
My next question was, “Why are you in here, then?”
He told me he was checking the telephone lines, which were laid on top of the ground, from the MLR to the outpost and he thought he could make it through. Finally, we were able to get him out, but he was a long way from being out of danger. A piece of shrapnel was buried in his back. Not being trained, or qualified, to remove it, I could only wrap a compress bandage around him—hoping to contain the bleeding. After giving him a shot of morphine, I called for litter bearers. They came and carried him away.
Company B was assigned to the 7th Cavalry Regiment, which goes back to George Armstrong Custer’s Indian fighting 7th Cavalry. Their motto “Garry Owen” was plastered anywhere that a piece of paper could be stapled. Anywhere they went, we went; either behind them or out in front of them.
During the first part of October, the 7th (along with the rest of the 1st Cavalry and other UN forces) made one final push, moving up a mile or so. For a couple days, I watched as they hauled dead soldiers out of that valley. All lying face down on stretchers with a poncho covering them; legs with boots on, sticking out the end.
In late November, the entire division went in reserve at Uijonbu. Usually during this time you replenished your supplies and took on new replacements, so you could go back on line. We also had to get booster shots. The day they were to be given, Captain Sackett, the medical officer, called me over and told me to give my platoon their shots. I had to live with these guys, so I begged him to let me give shots to strangers, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Apparently, I must have done a good job, because no one got a sore arm and life went on as usual. We were in reserve during Thanksgiving, and we had turkey, dressing, shrimp salad, sweet taters, pumpkin pie, and the whole works.
After Thanksgiving, rumors were flying all over the place. One was, we were headed back to the States, or other places—like Hawaii. And of course there was the dreaded rumor—back to the line. Our platoon, like most military units, had one soldier that would not keep himself clean. After Thanksgiving, we had an inspection by the battalion commander—a full-bird colonel. While inspecting the troops, he stopped in front of this guy and asked the company commander if he was going to clean this man up “before we go to Japan.” It was no rumor! This came straight from the main mans mouth.
We were leaving “Old Baldy” where we had spent a lot of our time; we were to be replaced by the Oklahoma National Guard. [The 45th Infantry Division.]
Leaving from Inchon, we arrived at Camp Crawford, located in Sapporo, Japan, on December 24, 1951—what a Christmas present. Crawford had brick barracks with steam heat, in-house showers, and flush toilets. I had almost forgotten how to use them. Sapporo was the largest city on the island of Hokkaido; the northern most island of Japan. The island is on the same parallel line that intersects the middle of Canada. So, guess what? Snow was everywhere. We didn’t see bare ground until April 1952.
At Crawford we went through different types of training. We had amphibious training, and even had to see how fast we could evacuate the island. The Army wanted to see how long it would take since we were only ten miles across the sea from Russia. It was during this exercise that I flew on an airplane for the first time.
If a trooper had earned thirty-six points, they were rotated back to the States. Front line soldiers were given four points a month; rear echelon soldiers received two points. And those stationed in Japan were given one point. By July 1952, the platoon had lost half of its men to rotation. We finally received new replacements to get us back up to full strength. Later that month, our seven month vacation came to an end—back to Korea.
We boarded a ship and docked in Pusan. It would take most of the day for us to board the train, and I knew my friend—John Keirns—was stationed in Pusan. I went to an MP Guard House and asked if they could connect me to his address.
When a voice answered the phone, I asked, “Is Private Keirns there?”
He replied, “This is Sgt. Keirns speaking.”
I said, “Well kiss my ass, Sgt. Keirns.”
Yelling into the phone, John asked, “Who is this?”
I answered, “Corporal Degood.”
John came down to the railroad station and we were able to visit for a few hours.
Here we boarded an old steam engine, which we rode for a day and night. Along with Louis Marr, my buddy from New York, I rode in a jeep fastened down on a flat car. The coal burning engine passed through several tunnels on our way to Song-Zong-Ni, which was a small village in the southern part of Korea. When we arrived, you couldn’t tell the white guys from the black guys with all the soot from the coal fired engine.
There was a little Korean boy in the village, who spoke broken English, saying he was a “number one washy-washy boy.” He left our camp with two duffel bags full of dirty GI fatigues—never to be seen again. Needless to say, I knew the Army would take care of our laundry, so I didn’t loose any clothes.
Baker Company was sent here to build a prison compound to house North Korean prisoners. The prisoners actually built the prison, the engineers were straw bosses. We were here until mid-September 1952, and then we went back to Hokkaido, but this time to Camp Chitsoe II. This was a big let down from Camp Crawford. Chitsoe had Quonset huts with fuel oil heaters, instead of steam heated barracks. Knowing I only had a few more months, I made the most of it.
I spent my second Christmas at Camp Drake, processing to go back to the States. The day after our ship docked in San Francisco, we boarded a troop train. It was a first class passenger train with upper berths, a lovely dining room, and excellent food. The train took us to Fort Custer, Michigan, to be discharged.
After several stops along the way, I finally arrived in Maryville, Ohio—home; my Army career was over.