For Ted Erceg, seeing Korean War refugees travel through hard-crusted snow in 40 below zero temperatures amid Siberian winds was bad. Worse yet, they were tramping through it in sandals, the former soldier originally from Gary recalled.
Whether it was the children who were so lightly garbed or the elderly who were shepherded along by their daughters or daughters-in-law, Erceg "felt sorry for them" throughout his stay in the war zone.
An Army Signal Corps radio operator teamed with a Marine unit, Erceg made the Inchon amphibious landing with the Leathernecks on Sept. 15, 1950. Lacking training on the cargo nets, he banged his helmeted head against the ship's gunwales while descending into a landing craft. The coxswain piloting the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle/Personnel) saw the Gary, Ind., insignia on his jacket and mentioned something about Black Oak, but Erceg was too nervous and dazed at that point to get his name, he recalled.
Once on land, what he saw of Inchon was little more than rubble, not unlike what he had seen of Seoul.
Despite vowing "this amphibious stuff is not for me," his unit was sent to Wonsan for another landing weeks later, but in a far different circumstance. Instead of a hail of gunfire, Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell had prepared the port for an early USO Christmas performance in what Erceg called a mistake.
Indeed, some accounts suggest the landing of the 1st Marine Division was delayed "because of mines" even after comedian Hope and troupe had been there and left.
Among the more impressive feats Erceg saw was Marine engineers take Treadway bridge sections and stones to build a single-lane road through the mountains at Funchilin Pass in temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.
"They built it in a blizzard," he recalled. "You gotta hand it to the Marines."
Not that he was oblivious to creature comforts, but Erceg learned to wrap himself in a tarpaulin to sleep outside his radio shack for fear marauding enemy soldiers might take shots at his antenna-topped shelter at night.
After mustering out of the service at Camp Carson in 1951, Erceg went to a wedding reception where he renewed acquaintances with a young neighbor he knew from the Kirk Yard section of Gary. He married her in 1954, and their three daughters gave them six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He sold pharmaceuticals in the area for a number of years.
Looking back at the war, he thinks the contrast between the communist North, where the people "have nothing," and democratic South, which is a modern industrial state, proves it was well worth the effort even if the GIs who fought in the war received little recognition.
"People were tired of war" so soon after World War II, and the troops returned from Korea without parades and fanfare.
"I envied the pilots," Erceg said of his war experiences, "not because they were exposed to less danger, because they weren't -- they could be shot down -- but because they didn't have to see the devastation."