Dad wore cowboy boots and false teeth because of the Korean War.
I knew little else about Dad’s experience in that war when I decided to launch a project to honor the Region men who served during the Korean War, in any capacity, in the U.S. armed forces.
The Korean War, sandwiched as it was between World War II and the Vietnam War, is often referred to as the Forgotten War.
After the decisive victories in two world wars, the Korean War ended with a standstill that continues to this day.
The conflict in Korea began June 25, 1950, and ran until July 27, 1953, when the armistice was signed. This year marks the 65th anniversary of the cease-fire.
The war took the lives of 54,246 Americans, 936 of whom were Hoosiers, according to the Indiana War Memorials Commission.
I didn’t want the veterans of that war to be forgotten, so I led a team of staffers capturing their stories. You’ll find some of those stories inside this special section.
It was those men, whose stories I was honored to compile, who taught me about how that war must have shaped my own father’s life. Dad, who died in 1992, didn’t talk about the war.
In the process, I learned that Dad, who had joined the U.S. Army at age 16, was swept up in a push north to the Chinese border as part of the First Cavalry Division. The First Calvary and First Marines went too far, too fast, and got cut off from their supply lines.
Then the Chinese swarmed over the border and surrounded those two American divisions.
Dad lost his teeth because of malnutrition. He was forced to eat rice, millet — bird seed — and the occasional rat. The rat offered welcome protein.
The cowboy boots Dad wore were because his feet had suffered frostbite in the war and didn’t fit well into standard shoes. The cowboy boots worked best.
In the course of interviewing many of the men whose stories are gathered for you in this section, I learned Dad’s story, though not his name, were familiar to the men who served in that war.
When the men shipped out for Korea, they were literally on ships.
Marine Gene Rosenbaum sat in his house in Wanatah when he told me what life aboard ship, en route to a war zone, was like. He was lucky enough not to be seasick, as so many of the men were, and decided to climb the stairs, open the hatch, and see what the violent Pacific Ocean was like.
"We no more than stepped off of that step and it was like somebody had poured 10,000 gallons of water on us,” he said. “A big wave had hit, and we came close to getting washed off. And if you did, it's all over."
Soldier Ed Mech, of DeMotte, sat in his kitchen as he told me the red cross on the Army ambulances made them targets.
"You took the cross off the ambulance, because that was ... they didn't go by the Geneva Convention over there," Mech said.
James Watkin, of Valparaiso, told me why he doesn’t like to see Fourth of July fireworkers. They remind him of the Fourth of July in Korea when he saw the bombs bursting in air, and the U.S. flag wasn't there.
"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," Watkin said.
U.S. Army Cpl. Hal Kostka, of Valparaiso, had better memories of the war, including seeing Marilyn Monroe in a slinky purple sequin dress from backstage at an USO performance. Kostka, a retired golf pro, was a drummer during the war, helping entertain the troops. He drummed out a rhythm on his kitchen table at the end of our interview.
Others had some lighthearted moments during the war, but there were plenty of scary ones, too.
Ray Dorulla, of Valparaiso, 83 when I interviewed him in 2014, said the soldiers were lucky to get showers once a month. They would work up a sweat, then that moisture would work against them as they faced a brutal Korean winter with temperatures as low as 50 below.
Dorulla was sent to the front lines to relieve the First Cavalry Division, which included my father.
"They were beat up pretty bad, and they were awaiting a lot of replacements," Dorulla said.
Dorulla and the others I interviewed for this project have fascinating stories to tell. Several of the veterans told me about experiences they hadn’t even shared with their own families.
Many of the ones who came back were changed, some physically and some mentally.
Read this special section on their Korean War experiences, then treat it as a keepsake for subsequent generations. Keep the memories of the Forgotten War and these Region heroes alive.