Korean War remembered

After bomb burst, flag wasn't still there

2014-03-16T20:30:00Z 2014-04-14T14:15:06Z After bomb burst, flag wasn't still thereTimes staff nwitimes.com
March 16, 2014 8:30 pm  • 

The Fourth of July always brings back memories of the Korean War for James Watkin, of Valparaiso.

Exploding fireworks remind him of the Fourth of July in 1953 in Korea when he saw the bombs bursting in air, and the U.S. flag wasn't still there.

"Right as you come off the road there was a little guardhouse with the American flag, and the shell came down — I just happened to be looking — and hit this guardhouse and the flag, and neither one existed," Watkin said.

"When I see the flag flying yet today, I still remember how an enemy destroyed our flag."

Later in his interview, Watkin returned to that memory.

"But the saddest day of my whole career in the Army was the Fourth of July when you see shells dropping, trees being blown up by the assault of them. And there was this one guy standing in this little guardhouse, about 3 by 3 or 3 by 4, and all at once he just disappeared with a big hole in the ground," he said. 

"Every time on the Fourth of July when we have all the fireworks shows around, I can see the real fireworks from shells bursting in air."

That Fourth of July in 1953 wasn't the only time U.S. Army Private 1st Class James Watkin was close to danger. He remembers the night he personally came closest to death — or as he put it, "the one day in my life that I had seriously been in a dangerous situation."

"The Chinese forces kept shooting at us, and we were right near the spot, and many times we couldn't sleep in our tents," Watkin said. "We had to go out, and one night in particular I remember. We went back into our tents the next morning, and my bunk, the cot I was sleeping on, it was just shot full of holes."

He was injured at another time, but not as bad as many. 

"I was hitching up a Jeep to a trailer, and I had my thumb at the wrong spot, and it mashed my thumb. They took me down to the medics, and this first sergeant said, 'Let me get you a medal for that.' I said no, 'I don't want anything. Let it go.'"

Watkin did lose a front tooth, though.

Watkin recalls when "somebody up the chain of command decided they wanted to take this little hill called Pork Chop Hill."

There about 1,000 men in his batallion who went up the hill to face the Chinese, "and when they came back down, there was about half that many left, other than those who had been wounded and killed in action."

Watkin had stayed behind to guard the equipment.

"A lot of people lost a lot more. I had one friend who was in the battle of Pork Chop Hill. He got, a shell hit right in front of him, and he was alive a a very short while, and then he died. I hated that like everything."

That was disturbing, but it shouldn't be surprising in a war. But one event in particular was.

"One thing that always surprised me. It was during the battle of Pork Chop Hill," Watkin recalled. "They called a truce right in the middle of the battle, and our side went up and got the wounded, and the Chinese went up and did the same thing.

"And I don't know how long this truce lasted — I don't remember — but our troops traded trinkets and badges and everything with the Chinese and shook hands and I don't know what all, and after a short time they went back to fighting each other."

Watkin, a member of the First United Methodist Church in Valparaiso, remembers the atheist who went up the hill to fight that battle.

"After the battle, our chaplain said, 'Let's have a big prayer meeting.' And this atheist was sitting right on the front row shouting 'Amen!'"

While Watkin was in Korea, late in the war, he kept hearing talk of peace talk. "We kept thinking, 'Why can't they sign that?'"

After the war, Watkin came back to the States to farm and raise a family. In 1962, he moved to Valparaiso to work at Pinney-Purdue Farm. The weather was 10 below — harsh for Indiana, but a reminder of those winters he spent in Korea.

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