CROWN POINT | Ray Bryan always knew he better have a sense of where he was throughout his military career.
The Horace Mann High grad foresaw the inevitable call from Uncle Sam in early 1951 as the Korean War was in full throttle. He went to his draft board to inquire about his status.
Told he would probably be summoned in two weeks, Bryan knew where he didn't want to be ... the infantry. Serving in ROTC at Horace Mann had convinced him of that.
He consulted an Army recruiter to find out his options if he enlisted.
His test scores revealed he qualified as a military police administrator. He still could wind up in Korea, but he wouldn't be in the infantry. That was more to his liking.
A funny thing happened on his way to bossing MPs, however.
The bus full of recruits from Indianapolis stopped at a sign saying, "Welcome to the 28th Infantry Division." Bryan, 20, approached a sergeant saying there had been a mistake. He wasn't supposed to be in the infantry.
"The sergeant told me to 'Get back in line,'" Bryan recalled. After a brief exchange, Bryan figured back in line was the prudent place to be.
He also discovered, much to his dismay, that since his enlistment on March 1 the full impact of the Chinese army's entry into Korea was evident.
"When they (the Chinese) came across the border, everybody went (into the infantry)."
It seemed a cinch his unit was bound for Korea, but then they learned they would be going overseas — to Germany, according to a story in the Indianapolis Star.
At a time when the Iron Curtain had slammed on much of war-scarred Europe, military strategists scrambled to fill gaps in allied defenses, reversing the de-militarizing begun after World War II.
The U.S. wasn't going to win future wars by dropping an atomic bomb on someone. Commanders knew the Soviet Union had tested an atomic device in August 1949. Troops would be needed to stave off any further communist incursions. The alternative could be a nuclear World War III.
Germany — split between allied spheres of influence in the West and a communist regime in the East — could be a battleground yet again if the North Korean invasion of the South was just a diversionary tactic with the real assault in Europe.
Bryan and his unit were on high alert throughout much of their stay in the former Nazi stronghold, knowing full well that "While everybody is watching Korea, the Russians could come across the border (into West Germany)."
If that happened, the 28th Infantry was outmanned 7 to 1, a company commander, told the troops. That was why they took red alerts seriously, packing up gear as sirens sounded and hauling it to a staging area often in the dead of night, only to learn later it was a practice run. It wasn’t Korea, but as a potential Ground Zero if communist forces were to force the Western allies’ hand it was still a scary spot.
Bryan’s unit, stationed at Amanecer Army Base, spent nine months in the field training for the day the Russians would be coming. They experienced some live-fire hazards, including friendly fire mistakes during field maneuvers that could have been deadly.
In Heilbronn, Germany, there was scant hard feeling six years since the end of World War II. True, the manager of one Gasthaus (inn) once told Bryan and his chums they didn't serve American soldiers. But for the most part, the Germans were welcoming.
Whether in a hot war in Korea or the beginnings of the Cold War in Germany, the young soldiers shared a constant battle against homesickness.
That was what led Bryan to a Gastahaus on Christmas Eve 1951 in Heilbronn, where he told a German acquaintance he had never been away from home before and was intent on getting drunk for the holiday.
Nonsense, said the German in broken English, who told him he had been in the military for nine years and Bryan was coming home with him.
His friend’s wife spoke perfect English. A grandmotherly woman showed Bryan a picture of her son who had been killed in the North Atlantic.
"It had a swastika on one side and a crucifix on the other," Bryan recalled, adding he was a guest of honor that Christmas.
It was a friendship that lasted throughout his tour as he brought his surrogate family gifts he had purchased from a base PX.
He decided to look them up when he and his wife returned to Germany on vacation in the 1980s even though he had heard nothing from his German friends since 1953.
It was a tearful reunion after he approached an elderly man outside the house that now had a garage and grown trees. He asked the woman in her 80s in the home, "Do you know me?"
Initially, she said ‘no,’ but then Bryan showed her a photo of the young GI the family had taken in that Christmas Eve.
The soldier who didn't want to be an infantryman needed no more assurance that he had done his duty in an importance place.