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‘We were just kids’

Osakis man, 94, reflects on his Korean War service


“Over 36,000 American servicemen died in Korea in three years,” said Kearney Frank of Osakis. “More per 100 in combat than any other war other than the Civil War. A thousand a month were killed. People don’t know this about the Korean War unless they’ve been there.”

Kearney Frank of Osakis in his U.S. Army uniform. Kearney is a veteran of the Korean War, and has the been awarded several medals, including the Purple Heart, and Combat Infantry Badge. Photo by Rachel Barduson

Today, at 94 years old, Kearney believes it is important to share this part of his history. “Yes, it’s hard to talk about, but it’s with me every day. Those memories don’t go away,” he said. “It helps to get it out.”

Kearney Frank volunteered for the draft, and was inducted into the United States Army on April 17, 1951, at the age of 22.

Kearney was born in North Dakota and his family moved to Osakis when he was a child. He was glad he was a farm boy when he found himself wounded in combat and rehabilitating in an Army hospital.

“I had to relearn how to walk, and I was thankful that I grew up on a farm and knew hard work,” he said.

Upon induction into the Army, Kearney was sent to basic training in Fort Lee, Virginia. He was assigned to the U.S. Army Infantry 24th Division 19th Infantry Regimen. From Fort Lee Kearney boarded a ship to Japan.

“It took 14 days to get there,” he said. “We went to Japan before we were sent to Incheon, Korea...and the front line.” Kearney’s voice cracked, and his eyes welled up with tears as he said, “We had to march through that town of Incheon, and as we marched we started to see body bags. It was going to be brutal. And we were just kids.”

Right away, the 24th Division was sent on a “10-day push.” Kearney explained, “We were the new kids, and we marched during the night while carrying ammo to the front lines. We waded through the river at night, and I’m not that tall, and I thought, well, this is deep, I may not make it. But we got to the hill, to the front line; we got up the hill with more ammo.”

There were three companies: Abel, Baker, and Charlie. Kearney was part of the Baker Company.

“We walked past Abel and Charlie, and we walked past some of Baker. It was the first time I saw tracer bullets; the whole sky lit up,” he said.

Kearney marched up and down the hill during the 10-day push on the 38th Parallel, on patrol and hauling ammo, two hours on and two hours off.

“I learned in a hurry, just looking in the eyes of those guys who had been on the front line for days on end, they were thinking the same thing as me, ‘if you were able to stay alive in combat on the frontline for nine months without getting could go home.’ It was a matter of survival,” he said.

During those months, Kearney and his fellow soldiers would be on the hill for two weeks at a time, living on C-Rations. Every two weeks, they had a hot meal, a beer, and a shave (they had to have a shave so that if wounded on their face, there would be less chance of getting an infection).

Kearney Frank during his military days. Contributed photo

“We were told, ‘keep your head down and your helmet on or the enemy will get you. We were fighting the Chinese, not Koreans.”

On Dec. 14, 1951, only months into his induction into the Army, Kearney was wounded on the hill. It was a year into the Korean War for the Americans. “Napalm bombs had been used on the hill, and my Sergeant, Henry, and I were clearing some wood, we burned it for heating. It was cold and it was winter. Henry had a machete, cutting wood, and I offered to help. Next thing I knew, I was flying through the air upside down. I looked at Henry, his foot was gone. He hollered for a medic.” Henry had stepped on a land-mine.

“They carried us down the hill, the first thing we needed to do was to get off that hill. They threw a smoke bomb so a helicopter could find us. The medic gave me blood. My leg was bleeding badly. Next thing they did was ‘tag’ tag you’re still alive, two, you’re dead. They gave me a shot of morphine, and they strapped both Henry and I, each on a gurney on the outside of the helicopter like you see on the TV series MASH, they covered our heads with a hood and we took off. I passed out and I don’t remember much about the ride,” Kearney said.

Kearney was taken to a tent hospital, MASH, and x-rays were taken to determine point of entry of ammo; he was filled with shrapnel. Dressings were put on his leg but the wound was left open. Sergeant Henry not only lost his foot, he later lost an arm because of infection.

“When the war was over, I looked for Henry and couldn’t find him because I thought his first name was Henry. But as it turned out, Henry was his last name. When I finally tracked him down, I learned he had just passed away before I found him. He had settled in Long Prairie after the war,” he said.

The war took a heavy toll on the 24th Infantry, 19th Division, in which Kearney served. “There were 205 men when I joined, and only 42 left. Many had been killed. Many had been wounded,” he said.

After he was wounded, Kearney spent two days in the tent hospital before being transferred, by train, to the 121st Evacuation Hospital. He was flown to Japan where he remained in the Johnson Air Force Hospital, where Kearney’s leg was finally stitched up...70 stitches to be exact. The doctors were not able to remove all of the shrapnel embedded in his leg. He was in the evacuation hospital for a month before being transferred to a convalescent hospital where he would rehabilitate and learn how to march and walk again.

“That’s when I was really glad I was a country boy,” he said. The 24th Division was relieved from Korea, and Kearney joined them in Japan.

Kearney is proud of the medals, badges, and patches he has earned while serving his country. He is most proud of his CIB – Combat Infantry Badge.

“It’s very significant,” he said. “You have to be in the Army, and you have to have been in a rifle fight. And I was in rifle fights in Korea, so I am authorized to have this badge. I am very proud of it.”

Kearney was an Assistant BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) in many a foxhole with his commander. He explained that when going “up the hill” the machine gunners went first, followed by the riflemen. There were a lot of hills, there were many foxholes already dug, and when Kearney was in Korea.

“We were not taking more land; we were trying to hold on to what had already been taken. The war started when North Korea invaded South Korea. North Korea was supported by China, and that’s who we were fighting against. The South Korean soldiers were known as the ROK Armed Forces. They were just young kids too.”

Kearney Frank stands next to a helicopter like the one he was transported on when he was wounded in the Korean War. He was strapped on a gurney on the outside of the helicopter on the metal extensions, above the “legs.” Contributed photo

Kearney Frank was a member of the Long Prairie Class of 1946. When he volunteered the draft, he was just short of turning 23 years old. He completed his GED by taking a test while convalescing after he was wounded. Kearney met his future wife, Janice (Johnson), in a Columbia Heights bank. They dated for a few short months before marrying in 1956. “I knew right away, she was the one,” he said. They were married for 66 years. Janice passed away this past Aug. 28, 2022.

Still proudly wearing his uniform, Kearney made the trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in the dedication of the Korean War Memorial on July 27, 1995. The date was the 42nd anniversary of the armistice ending of the war. The inscription on the memorial states: “Our Nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they did not know and a people they had never met. Korea, 1950 – 53.”


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