Area Korean War vets recall serving their country
When Bill Knipple of Altoona was a kid, he liked to watch war movies with his friends, and he and they all became eager to be like those movies’ heroes.
So Knipple had no qualms about going to Korea, when the war broke out there in 1950.
“It seemed like a great adventure,” said Knipple, who will be honored during the Veterans Day parade today in Altoona as a Korean War vet, 60 years after the war ended.
When it ended, Knipple felt a bit different than he had heading over, having experienced combat – and 2 years as a prisoner of war.
“I really don’t curse the days I’ve had,” Knipple said. “But I wouldn’t really call it an adventure, after all.”
Now 81, Knipple is glad he served his country and did “the right thing” and glad he had the strength and energy – “what it took” – to survive.
“[But] it was awfully sad for the fellows who didn’t,” he said. “I was one of the lucky ones that adapted.”
Bob Larson, 79, also of Altoona, was gung-ho going in, too.
“I wanted to get medals,” Larson said. “I [was] going to take on the whole North Korean army.”
Until they started shooting at him, he said.
Then he was afraid.
Afraid enough he would feel the urge to…
It wasn’t clear if he was speaking literally or joking.
“There’s no glory in war,” Larson said. “I was proud of the fact that I served, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Knipple was a radio operator.
After a seasickness-riddled trip over the Pacific, his unit “went in behind the Marines” in a mop-up role at Pusan Harbor at the southern end of the Korean Peninsula.
He would go out on patrols as one of two radio operators.
He participated in further mop-up work after the historic landing of the Marines at Inchon, which was in the middle of the peninsula.
Then he returned to Pusan, then back by ship to Inchon, then to the Yalu River in the far north, on the border with China, then back by ship to Pusan, then north again to the 37th Parallel, near the middle of the peninsula.
It was at this point in his peregrinations – Jan. 20, 1951 – that he was captured.
They were on patrol, starting in the morning with a platoon of about 35 men.
They left a village, went down a hill, crossed a road and started into an area of bushes and trees.
There were many dead enemy soldiers – North Koreans – lying on the ground. They went through a flat area and into a valley.
They received radio messages that the enemy was nearby and that the sergeant in charge should check their coordinates.
But the sergeant said they weren’t there yet.
About noon, they entered a ravine with a stream, which they began to cross.
Knipple was in line five or six soldiers behind the sergeant, when they roused enemy soldiers sleeping under their overcoats.
Those enemy soldiers rose and began firing.
The Americans returned fire and withdrew to the cover of the stream bank.
Then enemy solders began shooting at the platoon from the other side.
They ran out of ammunition as night began to fall, and the sergeant was wounded in the groin.
Their radios were out of commission, so they couldn’t call for help.
The sergeant decided they should surrender, so they threw their weapons and radios into the water, to destroy them, as required by the Army, to prevent the enemy from taking advantage.
They also threw their helmets in, knowing they wouldn’t be needing them anymore, and glad to be rid of them.
There were about 18 of them left, including five in bad shape.
The North Koreans accepted their surrender and marched the capable ones to the enemy unit’s command post in a village about 15 minutes away, leaving the wounded behind, which Knipple regarded as “humanitarian.”
They took Knipple’s gloves, scarf, lighter and cigarettes.
Later, they took his heavy clothing and boots, everything except his dog tags and a P-38 can opener.
They gave him an old pair of leather shoes and marched him northward, village to village.
Most of those villages were abandoned.
They marched by night and slept by day, hiding from the U.S. Air Force.
“That was one of our biggest fears,” Knipple said.
The American pilots couldn’t tell who they were.
They made no smoke, because if they did, the planes would strafe them and fire rockets.
They ate whatever they could find when they stopped, usually sorghum or soybeans.
If they saw a dog, they ate dog that day.
In February, they reached a large cave.
About 100 South Korean prisoners were on one end, while American GIs were on the other.
About May, they moved to what he called “the bean camp,” where they got soybeans and sorghum in hot water morning and evening.
At some point about this time, the Chinese took over.
China had entered the war on the North Korean side in October 1950.
They stayed in buildings where the Japanese had kept American POWs during World War II.
Some prisoners tried to mark the roofs, writing “POW” to warn U.S. pilots not to bomb, but the Chinese caught and punished them.
And the U.S. bombed the compound, nearly killing Knipple.
He was hunkered in a cellar, and a bomb caved in the foundation wall, which collapsed on him.
“I was breathing my last, when one of the guys dug me out,” he said. “I think I sort of passed out.”
They moved him again, in a group of about 70 POWs.
At the new location, he almost died again, this time from sheer weakness.
“I was down on my last legs,” he said.
But he revived, when they moved him yet again, a day’s march, to a mining camp.
The next morning, he was able to eat.
He stayed at that camp until October 1951.
Then they moved him again, another day’s march, to a schoolhouse on a hill.
There, the Communist Chinese held classes for the prisoners.
“They fed us a lot of propaganda,” Knipple said.
In broken English, they’d try to convince the prisoners “how bad America was” and how Americans were being exploited by the capitalists, he said.
“You just kept your mouth shut,” Knipple said.
Otherwise they’d put the prisoners “out in all kinds of weather in a cage,” he said.
They moved him a final time, taking him to a village called Chong-song, where the prisoners lived in grass huts made of corn stalks and sorghum cane, with mud mortar.
There were three rooms and 10 prisoners in their hut, a dirt floor covered with cane rugs and a mud-mortared stone hearth equipped with an iron pot in which they cooked rice.
There was a tunnel under the floor where the smoke traveled, heating the hut, before going up and out.
They could go down to a river that bisected the village to wash.
They gave the prisoners padded cotton outfits – dark blue for summer, light blue for winter.
They wore padded cotton shoes in summer, sneakers in winter.
After a time, as peace talks progressed, the Chinese gave the prisoners toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap.
They had names for their jailers, including “Firsty-Lasty” and “Pistol Pete.”
But conditions generally were better under the Chinese than under the North Koreans.
“They were looking toward us more as good people,” Knipple said. “They were humanitarian.”
Yet it wasn’t wise to cross “the line.”
Once, at a propaganda assembly, others prisoners let loose with catcalls.
“The burp guns came out,” Knipple said. “We didn’t eat good after that.”
And there were outdoor cages.
He avoided those by keeping his mouth shut and cooperating.
He was liberated in August of 1953.
His subconscious hasn’t let the experience go.
After coming home, he’d get “tremendous” migraine headaches.
Once, delirious with pneumonia and “rolled into a ball,” he yelled out, “Don’t hit me, I’m sick” – in Chinese, his wife Betty said.
Still, he feels “like the good Lord watched over me,” he said.
“A lot of guys didn’t make it,” he said. “I guess their bodies broke down, or their willpower.”
Larson went to Korea in February 1953.
He was a gunner in helicopters that went out on pilot rescue missions.
Then he was reassigned to the infantry. They went into the hills for 60 days at a time.
It was miserably cold, and the wind never stopped, he said.
They patrolled at night and slept during day.
They peed on their guns to thaw them.
By standing order, they never zipped their sleeping bags, so they could get out quickly, as Dutch soldiers had been unable to do when attacked.
They’d been killed by bayonets.
They didn’t change clothes, except for their socks.
By standing order, they changed socks frequently, keeping one pair under their armpits, so they’d be dry.
Korean workers brought them supplies in 55-gallon drums strapped to their backs on frames.
When they came off line, they’d get deloused, go through showers and pick out clean clothes from piles, taking as many socks as they could.
Then they’d eat their fill in a mess hall – steak, mashed potatoes and pie.
They saw kids eating out of garbage cans.
They encountered one about 9, his mouth frozen shut with mucus.
They took him to the medics, who cleaned him up and sent him to an orphanage.
When the war ended July 27, 1953, servicemen fired their weapons all up and down the line.
As with Knipple, the experience didn’t leave his subconscious.
His family members know not to waken him suddenly.
Once, when one of his daughters, as a child, came into his bedroom and asked for a drink, he flung out his arm and hit her in the chest, knocking her down.
If someone dropped something heavy at SKF, where he worked in the shipping department, he’d feel chills. If an airplane flew low above him, he’d crouch.
Roger Dodson, 95, Claysburg, who fought in World War II under General Patton in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, landed at Inchon in Korea and served as a motor sergeant for three weeks – before a colonel ordered him to take over a machine-gun-and-mortar platoon on the front lines.
“I was on the front lines for 11 solid months,” Dodson said.
He remembers loading the frozen bodies of fellow soldiers.
“We threw them on the trucks like cordwood,” he said.
He also remembers a decision that continues to haunt him.
His platoon was engaged.
Someone from another unit nearby yelled to him that his platoon was being surrounded.
He ordered his men out, and they crowded onto a 2-ton truck – into the cab, into the bed, onto the fenders, clinging.
They left behind one soldier, who was fighting with a North Korean and whom they couldn’t reach.
He doesn’t know what happened to that soldier.
“I had to get them out of there,” he said of his men. “I was always sorry I had to leave one.”
Dodson retired from the Army in 1962, to avoid being sent to Vietnam.
He joined the Air Force.
He retired from the Air Force in 1969, to avoid being sent – to Vietnam.
“I was already in two wars,” he said. “I was not going to go to a third one.”
Joe Wharton, 81, Altoona, worked on a Navy base in South Carolina, and there became acquainted with three members of the USS Hobson, a destroyer-minesweeper that periodically came into port there.
He played baseball with them.
In April 1952, as the war in Korea raged, the Hobson was cut in half and sunk by a U.S. aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic, while on maneuvers, a half a world away from the fighting.
The accident killed 176 crew members.
Among them was a Cross Keys sailor whom Wharton didn’t know – C.F. Kuney, foster son of Mr. and Mrs. Adam Black and husband of Anna Marie Porte Kuney.
Wharton learned about the accident while eating lunch at the base, where there was a TV.
“I was shocked,” he said.
He’d last seen his acquaintances eight months previous.
“We weren’t close,” he said. “But we were friends.”
He doesn’t remember their names now.
He thought about those friends from the Hobson after the most recent Memorial Day.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “I’d just like to have them remembered.”
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.