REMEMBERING KOREA

'Angel's' advice helped wounded soldier survive

2014-06-15T19:00:00Z 2014-08-15T18:34:11Z 'Angel's' advice helped wounded soldier surviveMonte Martin monte.martin@nwi.com, (219) 678-4318 nwitimes.com

As Sgt. John Gamez lay in a ditch, bleeding from lower torso wounds near Wonju, South Korea, he thought he saw an angel.

His "angel" was Herman W. Dickes, his former health class teacher. Gamez saw Dickes standing in front of the room at East Chicago Washington High School. He was telling students how to reduce their risk of death from exposure.

"He was guiding me," Gamez said of that bitterly cold Jan. 10, 1951. "It wasn't a dream. I had a vision. I don't know if it was a miracle, but it was like the lord sent him to me."

Gamez rubbed snow on his forehead and the back of his neck as Dickes had advised.

As seriously wounded as he was, the Hammond resident is convinced he might well have died of shock or exposure — if not the injuries to his thigh, back and rectum — if he had waited in that ditch for stretcher bearers. He was mindful that earlier, at Kunu-ri, in "the worst withdrawal in U.S. history," dead and wounded had been left behind in a chaotic retreat.

A lieutenant, who had been wounded in the same Wonju skirmish and was lying beside Gamez, stayed put.

He died of exposure.

Instead, Gamez crawled on ground frozen by 40-below zero temperatures about a quarter of a mile back to an aid station by following a phone wire.

"They started cutting my uniform off and I watched their expressions all the while they were doing it. From their expressions, I knew I was hurt pretty bad," Gamez recalled.

He had been shot at nearly point-blank range.

His squad had been summoned to reinforce a unit trying to regain a hill. As they regrouped at the foot of the knoll, Chinese forces uncharacteristically launched a second frontal assault, threatening to overrun them.

The squad leader saw his friend, Browning automatic rifle marksman Charlie Hodge, of Eldora, Iowa, fall.

Aware that enemy troops were known to mutilate corpses, Gamez had put down his rifle and tried to drag the mortally wounded comrade to a reverse slope when he saw a flash of white light.

"I felt my flesh burning between my legs," Gamez said.

He was struck by a round from an enemy soldier standing little more than 15 feet away.

"He could have shot me again, but he didn't for some reason. … I couldn't fight back (because his rifle was on the ground) ... Otherwise, I would have had it out with that guy."

Amazingly, no bones were broken nor vital organs destroyed. The son of a Mexican immigrant who arrived in the region in 1922 once again had cheated death.

Gamez previously had been wounded by grenade shrapnel while repulsing an assault on Sept. 10, 1950, near Sin-Dong-Yang. He earned a Silver Star in that firefight after the BAR gunner he was assisting caught much of the grenade blast in the face.

When the bleeding triggerman ran off, Gamez, who took two pieces of shrapnel in his spinal column, another in his lip and a fourth in his right leg, was left alone to fight off an assault.

Despite bleeding heavily from his wounds, Gamez kept firing the BAR and stayed in a flanking position even after he was relieved.

"If they (enemy forces) had gotten past, they would have overrun our position and wiped out our platoon," Gamez explained. The enemy suffered more than 100 casualties.

Gamez was evacuated to Osaka, Japan, where he was among the walking wounded in a tent. Doctors told him the shrapnel eventually would work their way out of his body. He was back in the field by Nov. 15.

The wounds he suffered at Wonju led to a five-month hospital stay at Camp Atterbury in downstate Indiana where he learned to walk all over again.

He and other formerly wounded soldiers were "demonstration troops" in Fort Benning, Ga., for its Officer Candidate School before he mustered out on April 22, 1952.

"I didn't let nothing bother me," said Gamez of his returns to action after receiving two Purple Hearts. "A lot of soldiers have no backbone. Some make a crutch out of it (being wounded). I seen a lot of casualties. I didn't let it get to me. That's the way to look at it. If you let it be a crutch, you're through."

It's the kind of attitude that probably could help a soldier save his own life … Herman Dickes notwithstanding.

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