The Curse of Being a Hero

by Cole Gilbert

“Our helicopter was hovering five feet over the ground as we were assaulting the firebase. Bullets were whizzing through the air like a swarm of bees. The door gunners yelled: ‘Get out!’ and the man right next to me took the first jump. He screamed in pain as he hit the dirt. I was filled with fear, but I still jumped next.”  That was Joseph Taylor Gilbert’s first mission in his tour in Vietnam. He is my grandpa, a great man but often gruff and serious. When I first thought of him as a possibility for my interviewee, I was excited to learn about his service in the military but I was worried he would try to block out the emotional side of his experience. I thought and re-thought, then pondered and re-pondered, and I realized I was scared to ask him these questions. Veterans, through their tours of various places, go through far more than many of us in our entire lifetimes. After 49 long years of suppressing these memories, how would he feel bringing that emotional baggage back from the depths of his memory? Could he bring these memories back? I decided I would just have to call him and see where it went. I drew a notebook out of my overstuffed backpack and I began to scribble a header: “Interview Project.” This writing would be barely legible to anyone who didn’t know my writing well; luckily I am a master of reading my unintelligible print. Finally biting the bullet, I dialed him on my phone; on the other end his old fashioned dial phone began to ring. “Hello?” I asked politely.

“Hi, sweetheart!” It was my grandma. I explained to her that I was interested in interviewing grandpa about his time in Vietnam. To my surprise, she thought it would be a great idea, so she walked with the phone to find my interviewee. My grandparents live on an expansive lake in upstate New York, a beautiful place. I imagined it sunlit, bathed in orange evening lights, sparkling snow on all the rooftops. It would be the perfect setting for an interview; I wish I could have been there in person. As my grandma wandered into the living room calling for my grandpa, the cord from the old phone carelessly wrapped around the furniture.

“Is that my favorite grandson?” Grandpa asked into the phone, his favorite opening line as I was also his only grandson, which he conveniently “forgot” to mention. I replied that I was here to interview him, and I explained the details of my project. Unfortunately, there was a football game on, and he was not going to miss the Forty-Niners overtime game, so he said he would call me back. Then, he settled into his brown leather reclining chair, and hung up the phone. Looking back on this moment, although my grandfather loves football, I imagine this was his way of preparing to unpack all of these events and stories that he had not experienced, thought, or spoken about in years. 

I began by asking him when he served in the Vietnam War, what his role was, and if he had any control over his position. He served from March of 1970 through March of 1971 as a platoon leader of the 101st airborne, first battalion, 506th infantry. As a platoon leader, he “didn’t have to do much shooting, I just had to make sure my guys didn’t get shot.” He had been called into action via the draft; however, being the organized planner he is, had joined the ROTC earlier to guarantee himself a position where he could tell people what to do, not be told what to do. Grandpa still admitted, “I still got told what to do, you have to remember, there was always someone higher up than you.” 

“How did you arrive in Vietnam and how did the journey there feel?” I inquired. On his way into Vietnam, my grandfather flew in on a large passenger jet; he was filled with fear but he knew his duty. He recalls the man on the tarmac telling the new recruits to “get out quick in case of a mortar attack.” As soon as he exited the aircraft, he immediately began to choke on the soupy, humid air. The first thing he noticed was how dirty, smelly, and sweaty the whole environment was. 

I then asked him what his first mission or outing was in Vietnam. He creased his wrinkled brow, his square, wire rim glasses sliding down his nose. He began to explain the first time he assaulted a fire base. 

“Wait, wait, what exactly is a firebase?” I enquired. 

“It is a mountaintop base that we would use as a home base,” he answered matter of factly. They were a useful strategic holdout, allowing the troops to expand outward from this defensible position. “They had five helicopters going in [to attack the base], as the new platoon, we were in the fifth, scheduled to enter the firebase last. Unfortunately, nothing ever goes to plan, and we ended up being the first helicopter out. We came down onto the mountaintop and the pilot hovered 4 maybe 5 feet above the ground. The door gunners began spraying bullets, deafening us. ‘Get out!’ they yelled.” The man right next to my grandfather exited first and screamed as he hit the ground. “I thought he had been hit by a bullet, but I exited next anyway,” Grandpa supplemented. It turned out he only sprained his ankle. He then directed his men to form a perimeter and begin firing, making sure to be directing, not shooting. My grandpa explained throughout his time he did not know if he killed anyone and he liked it that way. He tried to fire his gun as few times as possible, but he called in many artillery strikes. I scribbled this down as fast as I could, the college-ruled lines on my paper ignored by my frantically flailing fingers, striving to get all of his story on paper. He went on to explain that the rest of his tour he couldn’t recall. I paused for a minute, looking at the illegible notes on my paper, remembering the limitations of memory. Is it possible they were suppressed; or were they just eroded by the passage of time? Silence ensued for a moment. 

“Did you at least make any lasting friends in Vietnam?” I asked politely, trying to coax something out of grandpa’s memory. Silence continued, he was thinking. I began scribbling a circle on my messy paper, the scratching of the pencil punctuating the silence. He shifted in his leather seat. “I remember their callsigns, nothing else. Our platoons would shift around so much I would never get to know anyone.” Grandpa continued, “One time, I had a platoon that was supposed to have maybe 44 people. Twenty-two showed up, the rest were injured, dead, missing, or sick. So you can see getting to know people was a difficult business,” he said with a nervous laugh. Personally, I couldn’t imagine being somewhere for a year and not bonding with anyone. Vietnam was clearly a different situation than what we have here.

“What did you do when you came back? How were you treated?” I asked. 

“I was perpetually looking forward to the day I would leave. It was very day to day.” As he entered the jet to leave he took one last look at the Vietnamese landscape. My grandpa stood up and looked out over the vast lake outside his window, recalling leaving Vietnam. He might not have been fondly recalling Vietnam; however, he was recalling it nonetheless. “When I arrived back, I was greeted by protesters and some friends and family. We actually got spit on. It was not popular to have been involved in this war.” I connected this back to today, where our veterans are regarded with the utmost respect. What a different time. I was still scratching away at my paper, trying to take all this in. 

“So no one wanted to hear your story?” I queried, hoping the answer wasn’t what I feared. 

“No one wanted to hear about Vietnam, everyone just wanted the war to be over.” I couldn’t believe this new development. I set my pencil on my desk, baffled at the lack of respect people showed toward our heroes. Politically and socially this was an unpopular war, and my grandpa alluded to this; however, I still could not believe the lack of respect people had for my grandfather, Joseph Taylor Gilbert. I could tell he knew the amount of reverence and respect I had for him, and this was truly moving for my grandpa, especially after suppressing these thoughts for so long. He finished the call by saying, “I love you,” which, to me, showed his gratitude. 

When I started this project I didn’t think it would have impacted my relationship with my grandpa in such a positive way. My grandpa’s opening up to me showed a more emotional side of him than I had ever encountered. Getting to know the hardship in people’s lives inexplicably brings those people together. This project did that with my grandfather and me. Hearing about the adversity he faced makes him even more of a hero in my eyes, and I will make sure he knows that.

Heroism Without Recognition

by Henry Sengelmann

When I first heard of this interview project for my Literature of Witness class, I approached it the same way that I did all school projects: unenthusiastically, but also with a desire to succeed.  To begin my project, I asked both of my parents if they knew any veterans, former refugees, victims of genocide, a victim of any horrible event in general, literally anyone who could possibly fit the description for this project.  The only candidate that either of them could generate was my maternal grandfather, a veteran who served in Korea; however, due to his dementia, interviewing him would be quite impossible. This was not the start to the project that I was hoping for.

A few days later, as time continued to pass, I knew I had to find an interviewee pronto.  My only option was to use one of the resources that Ms. Gonzalez had provided for us to find interview subjects, and I decided to use the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  I called and was quickly connected with a veteran who served in Vietnam, Leo. Leo answered the phone kindly and warmly and was interested in partaking in my interview.  We coordinated a time and date, and the interview was set.

I arrived at his house at 5 pm on Monday, February 26th.  Although I only drove for nine minutes, I was filled with anxiety the entire ride.  I had never truly spoken with a veteran, and the idea of it frightened me to death. So many horrible scenarios began flooding my brain: hat if Leo is an angry man who is irritated with my questions?  What if I ask too many personal questions and trigger a post-traumatic episode? What if instead there isn’t enough to talk about and we sit in awkward silence? I could only imagine the worst possible situations.  

As I approached the door, I passed Leo’s truck out front.  I knew it was his truck because it had three separate bumper stickers all commemorating his service in Vietnam.  This was the first of many clues that Leo took a lot of pride in his service, and it wasn’t the harrowing, hellish experience that I expected it to be.  I then passed the truck and rang the doorbell. Rather than seeing an old man slowly open the door to greet me, a dog ran out and began jumping on me. An older woman came out and retrieved the dog, apologizing for its eccentric behavior.  I learned that the dog’s name was Delilah, and it wasn’t even their dog; they adopted it for the owner while they were out of town. As an animal lover, the situation didn’t bother me, but instead relaxed me because I realized that this man had both a family and a loving dog.  Leo’s home was small; there were only a few rooms in the house, and my head was very close to the ceiling when I stood up. It was also dark, as I was visiting him during winter and there weren’t many lights. However, the atmosphere wasn’t scary or repelling. Instead, I felt safe and comfortable in Leo’s small home.  After I greeted the woman, she retrieved Leo and we sat together in Leo’s living room. I asked him if I could record the interview, and the answer was a definitive yes. This string of events gave me the confidence to commence my interview.

I began the interview with basic questions, knowing that the interview would progress and become more insightful and meaningful.  I first asked him when he served.

Leo answered, “I was in Vietnam in 1966-1967, and then again in 1968-1969.  I had one year of separation, and then I was asked to go back. I had a critical M.O.S., or military occupational specialty.  I was a refrigeration and air conditioning repairman.”

I had never even considered the possibility that someone could’ve served in Vietnam twice.  Although his job seemed pretty menial in his second term of service, I was still surprised that he had the courage to go back to Vietnam after a year of freedom.  I asked how old he was when he initially enrolled in 1966; he replied: 21 years old.

Leo then elaborated on his position at Vietnam.  He said that refrigeration was so vital because the soldiers needed both food, but also a place to store and maintain the corpses.  

As the interview continued, I reached the more impactful questions.  I asked, “What were some of your most memorable moments in your two terms serving in Vietnam?”

I could tell that the answer was clear to him, but he paused for a few moments.  As he gazed off it was obvious that he was positively reminiscing because he had a small grin.  He then responded, “On my second tour in Vietnam, I was running a refrigerated transport outfit.  I liked the first sergeant and we had access to good food.” He paused to let out a laugh, but returned to his story.  “So when we used to go over and load the food trailers up, and we found something good in there, we would take a little bit extra for us.  I would take it back and cook it for the guys…and we ate steak a little bit more often than some guys did…and we ate nice barbecue chicken…so my second tour for me was uneventful.  Like everyone else, we had a few bad times in there, nothing too bad. My first tour of duty was tough.”

I anticipated this story to be completely about bloodshed and violence, and I could not have been more wrong.  Rather than focusing on the brutality of war, Leo chose instead to tell this story. He emphasized the camaraderie that the war built as opposed to the lives it ruined, and I think this is when I began to see why Leo was so proud and open about his military service.  

I decided to then ask whether or not he believed the United States’ cause for fighting in Vietnam was justified.  Once again, Leo did not fail to surprise me.

He replied, “Yes, I did.  And unfortunately, we would’ve definitely won the war, no question about it.  Except, back home, with all of the anti-war sentiment that was going on, they kind of made us lose.  North Vietnam was just about to roll over and surrender to us.”

I would have never suspected that a veteran living in the Bay Area could’ve agreed with the cause, and would’ve advocated for the continuation of the war; the interview that I foresaw was completely the opposite.  Although I didn’t personally agree with Leo’s position, his patriotism and love for this country were inspirational. His passion was infectious.

I later asked about his return to the United States.  He said that his return wasn’t too tough; however, he did avoid certain cities due to ongoing demonstrations.  

“The activity in San Francisco and Berkeley — that’s where all the demonstrations were really going on.  People were treating you pretty bad. Here in the Peninsula, you didn’t really talk about it, and nobody asked.  You just stayed away from it.”

I had never known that demonstrators during the Vietnam War were both verbally and physically attacking soldiers.  Leo opened my eyes to a new perspective that isn’t often seen in Silicon Valley, and I appreciated him for it. I also felt disappointment on behalf of the soldiers who were risking their lives on behalf of this country only to be slandered for it.  

Leo then began discussing how he was currently still involved in the military.  Although I found it to be very honorable, I still asked him why now.

He answered, “For the kinship.  A veteran is a brother or a sister.  We are related that way.” He got choked up at the very end, and it reminded me of something: no matter the cause, soldiers are fighting for the lives of each other, and that’s what makes them heroes.  

Before I left Leo’s house, he showed me some of his many books in his collection.  On the cover of one of them was a medal of honor winner, and before I left, Leo told me that a medal of honor winner would never tell you they won the award.  As I left, Delilah tried to come with me, but Leo’s wife was able to control her just until I was gone.

My interview with Leo was both eye-opening and life-changing.  He taught me about courage, and how it is not only about doing dangerous acts but also about doing what one believes is right in the face of adversity.  He also demonstrated to me the camaraderie of service, and how soldiers love and fight mainly for one another as opposed to for their country. Lastly, he revealed what unbelievable heroes soldiers are.  He showed me not only their bravery but also their modesty. Celebrities and superstar athletes are inspirational, but Leo has now given me a far superior role model and hero: a soldier.

 

The Unspoken Words

By Andrew Cheng

When I was first advised to interview a war veteran as a project for my Literature of Witness class, I thought of my guardian’s elderly neighbor, whom I call Hughes. Hughes was born in Detroit City in Michigan State during the First World War. His father was a World War I war veteran, and just like him, he ended up in the U.S. military. According to my guardian, Hughes is known as being a reserved man and for the longest time being a neighbor and a close family friend to my guardian for more than 10 years. He has never mentioned anything about his experience in the Second World War or his childhood. After my guardian had talked him into agreeing to an interview with me as part of my project, I always knew it was going to be hard to get the responses that I needed from him. Therefore, I read and practiced extensively on my interviewing skills from Ms. Gonzalez’s class. The interview revealed a lot of truths about the war. It was essential to carry on this conversation as it showed a lot of things he had not talked about for over fifty years since the war ended, and this made him feel better after having to cope with PTSD for the longest time. It also gave me information and an insight into the war.

My meeting was introduced by a comment from my guardian who stated, “Hughes doesn’t prefer to discuss his war encounters, yet he would likely do it for you.” My guardian had told me that in the decades that he has known Hughes, he had talked about World War II just once. It was unexpected, totally out of nowhere and brief. I sat down on Hughes’ balcony just outside his home. He was seated right opposite me with only a coffee table between us. As I arranged for the interview with Hughes in regards to his memories and opinions, I could see the sun setting through the window to one side. The little, calm, wood-surrounded room fills in as his office in one way or another. I felt like I was in a Chinese temple and Buddha was sitting across from me. He had a striking, sharp pose that would command respect from whoever looked at him. I was admiring him and expecting to have a meaningful conversation with him. It was the ideal place to converse with Hughes, and I was immediately drawn into the conversation. On the door towards the corridor of his office hung a photo of military soldiers celebrating a victory in Hawaii in 1945, and he is right at the heart of the picture, most notably the only one of the soldiers with a gloomy face. The room has such a significant number of histories and stories that I had not learned yet. Hughes’ history, not found in any of these books, has an irrefutable noteworthiness. It was him, who is one of the general people I look to for inspiration. This interview might also be the last conversation between me and Hughes before he moves back to Michigan.

In the beginning, he cautioned me that his answers might be brief. I had sent him a rundown of inquiries to try to inspire him, but I detected Hughes’ reservations instantly. The conversation began unexpectedly. He opened our interview by saying, “Right, your meeting,” in good English. He initially attempted to answer huge numbers of my inquiries with a yes or a no. Be that as it may, I forced myself to push past that. Notwithstanding how quick and touchy I trusted my inquiries to be, I soon understood that it would require some push to enter Mr. Hughes’ heart and dig for his experiences. I expressed gratitude and thankfulness toward him for his ability to impart his perspectives to me. As my guardian had admonished me that Mr. Hughes did not like recalling or talking about his war encounters, I realized that it would be really hard for him to recall those memories. So I gave up on the more personal questions.

I began by asking, “What did your life resemble before the war?”

He presently couldn’t seem to warm up, and reacted by saying, “I studied medicine.” This is when I began having trouble because I could see the power in his eyes that intimidated me. I could also see the unwillingness to reply that made me feel guilty. After regaining myself, I asked how old he was at the point at which he was picked to go to the war. He disclosed to me we would return to that later in the interview. I could detect reluctance in his reactions. He was prepared to get this over with. He was not letting me efficiently pry into his war recollections. I now understand that when he relates his story, he is compelled to remember it. As a happy man, I think it hurt him that he didn’t trust he would have been ready to shape sentences that would portray his revulsion. As though anybody could.

I asked how the war had changed his life. He added more shading to this reaction, saying that he “was drafted not enthusiastically to take an interest in preparing as artillery,” and “in the wake of preparing he was sent to the Asia Pacific war front in 1941.” I requested more detail on what that implied. The Asia Pacific front evidently had a high convergence of “Americans, English, and French.” He stated, “The war influenced me in particular… I had nothing to do with the people fighting.”

Sitting at his dining table, Hughes sat two seats on my left, and my notebook lay on the table. A glass of cold water was served to us by a young lady, presumably one of his nieces. I didn’t know how to proceed with the discussion except to change to the following inquiry. He didn’t want to add additional detail or to help with the meeting. I was experiencing difficulty, knowing he was being compelled to endure some sad memories. He gave off an impression of being as open now as he could be. I delayed pushing him to expand on the most abhorrent piece of his life. I detected that he was just going to be as open as I could drive him to be, so I chose to get some information about his most clear battle involvement. He shouted, “I was involved in the war with Japan till they surrendered!” He continued, “After they attacked Pearl Harbor, I was recruited to fight for my nation, and being born in Hawaii made me more patriotic to my country.”

I asked Mr. Hughes how he felt concerning his general experience, seeking after a reflection on the war. He chose to respond with superficial answers. He stated, “I liked my accomplishment of life.” He proceeded with, “I raised two young men I was glad for, three great-grandchildren.” I am pleased with my neighbor’s commitment. He was not a soldier. He was a kid who was forced to go into World War II for the sake of his nationalism. Notwithstanding, his want for flexibility after getting away from the war and his hard-working attitude empowered him to carry on with a full life. Mr. Hughes didn’t center on his prosperity, climbing from nothing. He talked about what he is genuinely glad for: his children and his grandchildren. My conviction that I expected to lead this meeting was vindicated. Mr. Hughes never discussed the details of the war. However, I saw the responsibility that Hughes carried, and I am thankful to have had a challenging but meaningful conversation with him.

Leap of Faith

By Keyshawn Ashford

“I was given a bible, told to jump out of a plane…..I really didn’t believe nor understand exactly what we were fighting for,” he recalled, somber and stoic in expression while describing his time in the Korean war. “I was a line soldier, machine gunner…I was ordered to open fire…..on many occasions we were in villages… I  killed children…[killing children] you regret but not women, they were fighting as soldiers. I never regret opening up on adults who were trying to kill [us].” The Korean war was short compared to most wars. However, the Korean war was a bloodbath. Nearly five million people died. There were more civilian casualties in Korea than Vietnam and World War II. It is estimated on History.com that more than half of Korean war deaths were civilians

Growing up my Grandpa never spoke about his time in the war. I recently got in touch with my Grandpa Robert to conduct an interview about a veteran experience for my English class. This was the first time I had a discussion with him about his experience. I laugh because we had to give him a lot of notice including questions and schedule in advance because I think maybe he is still on military time. During the interview I discovered that Grandpa was actually drafted. I asked him where he was at the time he got his draft letter. He said he was 23 years old working for a plumbing company that manufactured plumbing equipment. The year was 1950.

Grandpa couldn’t specifically recall what the war was about, but he remembers a lot of talk about communism and a possibility of WWIII. He recalls it being a fight over western cultural ideals and eastern ways. There was a lot of talk about good vs. evil. When searching if this was in fact true I found this quote…..“If we let Korea down,” President Harry Truman said, “the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.”

History.com also states that “In fact, in April 1950, a National Security Council report known as NSC-68 had recommended that the United States use military force to ‘contain’ communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring, “regardless of the intrinsic strategic or economic value of the lands in question.” Simply, it appears the Korean war, regardless of death toll, was meant to stop the spread of communism, regardless of cost.

Although it is important to understand why Grandpa was fighting and the background of the Korean war, I wasn’t necessarily interested and couldn’t quite understand. I wanted to know all about his training and battles. Therefore, I asked him what training steps he took before going overseas and before going into battle. He recalled going to Fort Haling, Kentucky, for basic army training. While there he described being able to choose the airborne division. He described learning how to drop out of planes with a parachute and then he learned hand-to-hand combat training for ground defenses. Grandpa described learning about physics, like I am now.  My Grandfather said, “You can’t jump with a lot of wind. On one jump twenty-three soldiers jumped but twenty-two parachutes failed to open.” I was freaking out. In training Grandpa was issued a uniform. Grandpa was able to remember his number on his issued uniform. He emphatically stated “US 52009861” but instead of “Robert” he had to write “Bobby” on his outfit. After basic and airborne training “Bobby” was placed in Japan and learned more combat training but was on standby alert to be shipped to Korea. After about 30 days in Japan Robert “Bobby” Mardis was off to the Korean War front lines.

I asked him, “When you finally landed in Korea what was going through your mind when you heard actual bombs going off?”

He described, “The only thing I wanted to do was to make it out alive and the only thing on my mind was survival.” Those that did not focus during training died first. Again, he said the only thing on his mind when he opened fire on the enemy and they fired back was basic instinctual survival…. period. He also remembered his first combat was at night. He recalled navigating what he described as booby traps. In this first battle they were getting overrun and had to fall back. That evening he recalled sleeping in holes. He also remembers dragging the wounded back, and even though it was difficult he said, “When you are scared you can do anything.” As if in a movie line, he said, “Never leave a wounded soldier!” It was relayed to me almost like a command.

I then wanted to discuss specific instances he thought stuck in his mind. I asked, “Grandpa, can you discuss if you had any significant battles?”

He said, “No battles I was necessarily a part of were recorded in history but rather stuck in my mind. I recalled regular missions with a lot of gunfire going back and forth so much that there was a cloud of smoke from my machine gun fire.” He remembered shooting down on villages as a radio machine gunner but also the grenades in fox holes stood out in his mind. Grandpa described most battles as being extremely bloody. He recalled many women, children dying and its impact. He said a lot of his comrades went A-wall. He was choked up when he talked about quite a few of his close buddies dying in combat. He said, “You never knew when you was going to be killed.”

After a while we then talked about his darkest moment which really impacted me on a deep level. I wanted to hear about the time he ended up wounded. Grandpa recalled going into a very bloody battle where his company was getting overrun. He ended up wounded in his leg, but it wasn’t life threatening. In order to survive he put two dead soldiers over him. The bodies were continually shot at, and lying underneath he lasted two days. “During this time I thought about dying. I recalled thinking about hunting, fishing and my home life to get me through.” To this day he walks with a cane. Assuredly, a constant reminder of his days at war.

After hearing about Grandpa’s darkest moment, I wanted to know if there were any moments he felt particularly proud or felt accomplished. He also recalled a moment when he saved his friend whom he called “Scrubs.” He said Scrubs had type A blood and Grandpa was type O, and despite the difference in blood types he was able to save his life by giving Scrubs blood after he blew his arm off.

Despite all my Grandpa sacrificed and went through, I needed to hear about his experience as a black man and what that meant during and after the war. He did say that in 1950 black men were treated poorly; specifically he said, “Black was miserable when you left and was miserable when you came back,” although when he was back in the United States he kissed the ground and soil and was glad to be back. “I recalled how badly black men were being treated during the war and  I believe it’s worse now. Every white person thought black people were going to rob them and shoot them despite the fact black men like myself were fighting on their behalf to help stop WWIII from occurring.” Grandpa also recalled General Macarthur only allowing two to three black men per company. Grandpa said the black men he knew fought harder and smarter. He also despised certain people because of the way they treated him, like a third class citizen. Despite fighting equally some men never changed their racist opinions.  This is important because this shows how discriminated against as a black male in the war.

Overall, Grandpa said he doesn’t miss anything. But there were some but few beneficial things that came from his time in Korea, including being able to go to school for free and the ability to buy a home with a lower interest rate. He said, “If I were to give advice to anyone going to war, it would to be to just look out for each other and have good thinking.” In retrospect, he said the only decision that he wished could have changed was actually being drafted. “A lot things could have and still need to change with people in Washington when it comes to war,” he said. He recalled personally having a different way of thinking when he came home. He hoped that Washington would come up with a better way of supplying people for war. He also questioned the success of the Korean war itself. He said he believed it is still rough for Koreans and is still a bad situation, especially in North Korea. He said it wasn’t worth it in the end in his eyes. He said, “Nothing was accomplished.”

Conclusively, I was glad to be given this assignment. I never had spoken to my Grandpa about his experience in the Korean War. I’m grateful to have had this conversation considering he is 89 years old and still moving. This important because maybe one day I can teach my kids about  how their great grandpa was in the Korean War. Also seeing my grandfather being a black male in war shows that you can overcome any obstacle.

 

 

Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’

BY: OLIVIA FLYNN

“Many of my friends were already in the war. I chose to go into the war. I was eighteen years old and didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.”

My grandfather, Richard Stone, served as a soldier in the Navy, during the Korean War. We know him as Poppy, but to his fellow soldiers he was just another one of them. The Korean War was fought in the early 1950s following the North Korean invasion of South Korea. In today’s society, keeping up with global news is effortless and accessible, making it easier to be aware of conflicts. However, the news during the Korean War was few and far between, giving Americans only partial information and little concept of the violence that was taking place on South Koreans. In instances like these, sometimes pure recognition of a horrific event is enough to give voice to those who fall victim to it. Although all events like these should be recognized, you truly don’t understand the toll and damage it can have on someone until it is being inflicted on a loved family member or friend. My grandpa is 86, but no one is ever able to guess that because of his amazing personality that can light up a room. His traditional style is one of the best parts about him, getting up every day to read the newspaper and watch the weather channel, while dressing in his ironed slacks and Sperry loafers. Poppy makes the smallest outings exciting and has tried his hardest to continue our family traditions after my grandma passed away six years ago, which I truly appreciate. Not only am I grateful that I was even able to interview him and share his story, but his message is powerful and meaningful and insightful. His words bear witness to all the Korean voices omitted by the American media at the time, as well as the soldiers who went unrecognized and unheard.

The timing of my interview worked out perfectly because my mom was visiting my grandpa for the weekend when I called. My grandfather lives in Palm Springs most of the year and Michigan in the summer, but was in Palm Springs when our interview took place. I was sitting on my bed, surrounded by pillows, with my sister in her bed next to mine. It was 7:30 at night, and I had just taken a break from watching the Oscars so I wouldn’t miss my opportunity to call him. I called my mom and was oddly enough a little nervous, even though I see my grandpa at least six times a year. My mom answered and put me on speakerphone so that both her and my grandpa could hear the questions, while I briefly explained the assignment. I actually found it helpful that my mom was also part of the interview because she was able to ask even more questions that built off of mine, just out of her own pure interest. Although I couldn’t see the two of them over the phone, I knew that they were sitting at the kitchen table next to each other. Just hearing Poppy’s warm voice made me less nervous, but made me a little bit more reluctant to ask him questions that I feared would upset him or make him sad. I had talked to Poppy about his time in the Korean War prior to the interview, but something about the questions I was about to ask him felt deeper than the ones I would normally ask.

I had talked to my grandpa earlier that day just like I usually do, so it didn’t seem like I was just jumping into the interview, not giving him a warning. I started off with easier questions in the hope that I would slowly ease into the questions that were maybe more difficult to answer. I first asked Poppy, “In what years did you serve in the Korean War?”

He immediately knew the years and answered, “I served from 1951 to 1953.” I moved on to the next question but feared that he would give short answers to all of my questions.

I continued on to ask him, “Did you choose to go into the Navy?”

Showing his prominent sense of humor he replied, “Yes, once I hit eighteen I realized that it was better to sleep in a ship than homeless in a hole. No, but really, many of my friends were going into the Navy as well. It was an overwhelming sense of patriotism that clouded any fears we might have had.” Knowing that my grandpa went into the Navy by choice gave me a sense of closure, simply because he wasn’t being forced to do anything he didn’t want to do. As seen in many wars and genocides, both the victim and perpetrator can be forced to do things against their will, leaving both sides angry, depressed, confused.

Although Poppy had mentioned it in many stories before, I asked him, “Were you given a specific job in the Navy?”

I could hear my mom in the background add, “Yeah, Dad, what were you told to do?”

I recognized the sound of my grandpa shifting in his chair as he faced towards my mom to answer, “Well yes, it was a large group of us rather. We were told to look out for enemy submarines which can be somewhat exciting since you didn’t really know where they were coming from.” I sat for a few seconds in shock, thinking of something to say. I didn’t know how to respond to something that seemed so terrifying yet brave.

I have always had a fear of needles, so my grandpa would tell me how in training they would stick a needle in each arm at the same time in order to vaccinate the soldiers and would then continue down the line. For some reason this made me less afraid when I was younger, knowing that if my grandpa could do it, so could I. Remembering this prompted my next question, “Do you remember any details from the training you went through?”

He took a moment to think and then replied, “When hearing about how the war was affecting Korean citizens, it gives you a new sense of the ‘every man for himself’ mentality. You truly learn how to take care of yourself. You learn how to operate equipment, and then are forced to go to school for six months after boot camp in San Diego. Learning to work potentially dangerous equipment as an 18-year-old was kind of like learning to drive. Exciting, but the thing you’re operating comes with a lot of risks.” Having to learn how to operate dangerous equipment would likely make anyone uneasy about the responsibility that it holds. Typical 18-year-olds are nervous about going to college and moving away from home, having to manage their schedule and money. The fact that my grandpa was only 18 years old and was using life threatening weapons, while not knowing if he would ever return home, is truly remarkable and speaks a lot for the many other soldiers who fought alongside Poppy and weren’t as fortunate enough to tell their stories.

Knowing the smaller details about life in the Navy made me wonder about Poppy’s thoughts on his overall Navy experience so I said, “How do you feel your time in the Korean War either affected you positively or negatively?”

He answered rather quickly, stating, “It was definitely positive. I know that’s not what most war veterans would answer, but I was extremely lucky that I walked away without any life lasting injuries. Overall it taught me how to be organized and led to me getting better grades once I went back to college. I don’t know how else I would have learned those skills if I wasn’t part of the Navy.” I was honestly shocked at how relaxed he was while answering all of my questions, and how he felt that it was an overall positive experience. Similar to forgiveness, I think looking at it in a positive light is a way of being able to move on and not allow such a meaningful event to impact life entirely. If I had been involved in a situation such as this one, I don’t know if I would be able to forgive the people who oppressed me. I think I would hopefully try to but you can never really predict your reaction to such a traumatic event.

Hearing my grandpa’s point of view on entering the Navy made me curious about how his family members felt when he announced his decision. I asked Poppy, “How did your friends and family feel about you entering the Navy?”

Poppy stated that “they were pleased because most of my friends were serving as well. I don’t know if my parents were necessarily proud but more pleased than apprehensive.”

I could hear my mom in the background say, “Gosh I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if one of you went into the Army. I would get way too worried about you.” It’s hard to realize how parents should cope with this type of situation because they are overwhelmingly proud, yet overwhelmingly scared as well. It makes you reflect on how the parents in Korea must have felt when watching their kids experience such violence.

Knowing that my mom was going to ask this next, I jumped in and said, “Were you scared or nervous at all before entering the Navy?”

Being the brave person he is, Poppy replied, “No, not really. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the event before I got myself into it. While in the war you don’t really realize how much is at risk for both sides until years afterwards. Looking back one of the more scarier events was while we were stationed off the coast of Korea and our biggest fear was accidentally hitting a mine. Knowing that we could all be blown up in a matter of seconds definitely put us on the edge of our seats.” Hearing this showed me a new side to my grandpa that I had never seen before. I was honestly wondering how he could have handled an event such as that, seeing as he gets super excited whenever we do something such as going out to dinner. He’s such a mellow person that never gets stressed, so to hear this really shocked me, considering that it completely goes against his organized and ritualistic personality.

I ended our interview by asking Poppy, “How did witnessing this event change your life after the war?” For a moment all I could hear was silence on the other side. Not even my mom was chiming in with her usual follow up questions. The interview had gone so well up until the final question and I worried that the silence meant I had hit a sensitive spot.

We gave Poppy a moment to gather his thoughts when he said, “As most things in history, you don’t realize the magnitude of the event until it’s over. Seeing the newspapers and the memorial that was dedicated to the Korean War in Washington D.C, knowing that you were a part of that, puts you in a state of confusion. I think most of all you feel pride and patriotism, but you also realize that it did cause harm to a lot of people that shouldn’t go unrecognized. I’m glad I was able to help in sharing yet another side to the story. You can never hear too many voices.” I was relieved that his silence was because he was formulating his words and not because I had made him upset. Then I realized that throughout the interview I had continuously questioned whether I was asking the right questions in order to get the best answers, when it wasn’t supposed to be about making me feel comfortable or special. I was merely doing the job that thousands of news channels didn’t do and that was to recognize the event for what it was, a mass murdering.

Although some of my grandpa’s answers were fun or lighthearted, he likes to say that it is the honest and authentic way he viewed the Korean War. While unfortunately being traumatic to many people, the story wouldn’t be complete by just hearing them. In order to bring truth and recognition to events like these in history, we need to look at the event as a whole, hopefully helping to prevent further problems in the future. In order to remember stories like these in the future, we need to take responsibility in sharing them now. In order to give younger generations a meaningful connection to these past events, we need to take advantage of the media platforms we have today. The fact that the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War” makes me furious and sympathetic for not only my grandpa, but for every soldier and victim that died because they should not be remembered as “forgotten.”