“We have to remember that in the future we will want to keep before our children what this war (WWII) was really like. It is so easy to forget; and then, for the younger generation, the heroism and the glamour remain, while the dirt, the hardships, the horror of death and the sorrow fade somewhat from their consciousness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
I picked the Korean Service Medal off the table and gently placed it in my hand. It brought back memories of sitting at the kitchen table across from my dad. His large green case lined with felt lay open, and scattered across the table were his war medals… American Defense Medal, American Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, an Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, along with his medals from the Korean War. He’d always been quiet about his war experience, but that night it seemed like he needed to talk. Talk about his life, his successes and disappointments, and more importantly, his time in the service.
My dad, Frank Olson, was born in a large family of 10 children, on the heels of the Great Depression. America was recovering from WWI and hopeful for the future. But in an instant everything changed. One moment they were enjoying prosperity, the next came the stock market crash… stocks fell, businesses failed, and many Americans were left unemployed.
He often spoke of walking miles to school in the winter, wading through deep snowdrifts carrying sandwiches in a lard pail, hoping they’d thaw out by lunchtime.
He didn’t have the comfort of modern conveniences, but had an outdoor privy, kerosene lamps and a hand pump in the backyard instead of running water from the kitchen faucet.
There were no televisions, and current events were broadcast through the radio. They were often a form of entertainment. One evening he listened to the radio with his older brother to what they thought was the Ramon Raquello orchestra playing from New York City. The music was interrupted, and the announcer said, “There have been several reports of what appears to be explosions on the planet Mars.” The program was interrupted several times with special news bulletins. The newscaster reported that a flaming metal cylinder 30 yards wide had hit a farm in Grover’s Mill and was making hissing sounds. With increasing alarm the boys listened to the commentary. Panic stricken, they ran out of the house, peering into the night sky thinking they were on the brink of a Martian invasion, not realizing it was Orson Welles’ dramatization of War of the Worlds.
He had no idea that in a few short years there would be talk of a real world war. Germany attacked Poland, and other countries joined the conflict, yet the possibility of the U.S. entering the war seemed remote. On Dec. 7, 1941, on a brisk winter day, my father was again listening to the radio. Just as his favorite program was about the begin, there was a siren from the emergency broadcast system with an announcement: “We have witnessed this morning the attack of Pearl Harbor and severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army planes, undoubtedly Japanese. The city of Honolulu has also been attacked and considerable damage done.”
He wondered if this was just another one of Orson Welles’ programs, but the newscaster continued, “This battle has been going on for nearly three hours… it’s not a joke. It’s a real war.” Indeed, Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and a state of war now existed between the U.S. and Japan.
America responded with a sense of patriotism and many life-changing decisions were made that day. His uncle was drafted, and it seemed like everyone was going off to war.
In 1943, my dad received his induction papers and reported to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. He received training in mechanics and infantry at both Fort Francis E. Warren in Wyoming and at Fort Lawton, Wash., before serving during the Asiatic Pacific campaign. At the end of WWII, he was honorably discharged and worked for his brother’s truck line until he enlisted in the reserves. In 1950, he was called back to active duty and was sent overseas to Korea.
With his truck driving experience, he was assigned to the 704th Engineer Truck Company, attached to the 36th Combat Engineers.
He arrived at Pusan, South Korea, and was later assigned to temporary duty in Taegu. He drove a 6×6 cargo truck and carried an M1 rifle. He hauled a water trailer at night, barely making the corners in the mountains, not knowing if the enemy was hiding above him. After making several trips to Taegu with supplies and troops, he returned to Pusan. His company split into three platoons. Two remained in Pusan. The third, his platoon, had not yet received their orders. One evening he was ordered to the ammo dumps. When he returned in the blackness of the night the loaded trucks filled with equipment and munitions were driven up the ramp of an LST. Cinching the chains tight about each truck he made them secure. It was only after they were underway that they were told they were headed north to Inchon.
They landed on Wolmi-do Island, hearing sporadic gunfire in the distance. Inchon was already in flames, the harbor littered with casualties. They were unable to cross the causeway, fearing it was sabotaged… The Landing Ship Tank (LST) lowered its ramps and emptied the vehicles, men and supplies. They drove across the mud flats to Inchon with water as high as the truck bed.
He continued to supply troops and munitions along the 38th parallel, from Inchon to Yong-Dung-Po to Seuol, and slept in the bombed shell of the university at Seoul. He had lived through so many hardships in his life, yet nothing prepared him for the harrowing near mortar misses, the strewn body parts of close friends, hard rains and thick mud, and brutally cold winters without proper supplies. One of the most heartbreaking situations for my father was seeing the Korean children. He often told the story of seeing a small Korean child alone by the side of the road… dirty, tattered clothes, tears running down his cheeks. He approached the child, but as he got closer, he saw that the child was holding a grenade.
While he was serving overseas, a woman was kneeling at home praying for her children. Visible from a kitchen window in their old farm house hung a small banner with five blue stars on a white background bordered in red and trimmed in fringe and gold braid. That woman was my grandmother. I never met her, as she had passed away before I was born, but my dad always spoke highly of her. She must have been a very strong and courageous woman… she had five sons serving overseas during the war, four at the same time.
I’ve always wondered… did her heart break anew every time one of her sons was sent overseas? Did she suffer through endless sleepless nights worrying, praying, hoping and waiting to hear any word about her sons? Were they safe? Did she ever ask, will they come home?
My uncle Raymond served in WWII. He was drafted into the Army’s 158th Regimental Combat Team and served as a member of the renowned Bushmasters Infantry throughout the South Pacific Theater. He earned a purple heart for wounds he received in Luzon, Philippines. The Bushmasters had earned high praise from Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “No greater fighting combat team ever deployed for battle.”
Orville enlisted in the U.S. Navy during WWII. He was a member of the Armed Guard and served in England, South America and Africa. In 1943, Orville’s ship was torpedoed ,and he was stranded in a life boat for 13 days. He was rescued by an Argentine boat and hospitalized for several weeks. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1944.
Harold served as a member of the U.S. Army’s Antitank Company, 34th Infantry Regiment during WWII. He was a scout in the Army and participated in some of the most horrific combat conditions as he served at Leyte Island, Luzon, Philippines, and New Guinea.
Everett served in the First Marine Division during the Korean War. Amid skirmishes, counterattacks and heavy casualties, Everett saw front line action and was involved in the thick of fighting until the armistice agreement was signed in 1953.
My dad returned home from Korea aboard the Gen. William Weigel. The transport carried the largest contingent of Korean combat veterans and reserve personnel returning for reassignment or discharge. They docked at the Fort Mason pier in San Francisco, with more than 4,000 troops. Though there was great rejoicing at their return, there would be many years of painful adjustment, as with many who bore the scars of battle.
My dad has since passed away, and as I looked again at the medal in my hand, I thought of all the lessons he had taught me. The greatest of which was not to take our freedoms for granted, because it did not come without great cost or sacrifice.
I want to thank those who have not only served our country in the past but those who continue to sacrifice and defend our freedoms today and for generations to come. Your courage and dedication are remembered, for you put your lives on hold while you answered the call to serve, and you put your lives on the line for people who will never be able to repay you.