February 2004

A Veteran of Korea Recalls His Service

Bernard Smith served in the United States Army, stationed in Korea from 1951 until 1953.
Following is the story of Bernard Smith, U.S. Army, 1951-1953. Smith, who served in the Army Signal Corps in Korea, was drafted to report on April 11, 1951. He tells what happened next:

I was working full-tine for an oil company, and they gave me a surprise going away party. 2 days before I was to leave for induction, I got a telegram that the draft quotas were filled, I didn't have to go. Now, that was very embarrassing, going back to work. I was calling the draft board every day, trying to get myself on the list to go; they were ready to take my gifts back! I finally got it on June 11 for induction.
So I went to Very High Frequency Communication school to learn just what there was to know about military radios, and how to repair them in the field. I was assigned to a base in Pusan which was responsible for the communications perimeter between there and Seoul. We had several hills, just outside of Pusan. And we also had the prisoner of war camps. Our job was to monitor the frequencies to make sure that they were correct so that there was clean communication between there, the Air Force, the Navy ships, the hospital ships, and whatever, and also keep communication with the prisoner of war camps.

I was on a little peninsula just south of Pusan until probably June, and then I went up to Seoul. I was fortunate, we were middle echelon, we were out by ourselves; there were 14 or 15 of us on a hill, and our job was to make sure that communications were clear, that nobody was sabotaging the equipment. The Koreans used to hang squid to dry, and if you put them across two wires, it was like putting the screw-driver across, and you'd short them out. So we would have to pinpoint exactly where that short was, and then send somebody out to clear it out.

I was in Seoul until probably late 1952 when I moved up to Kosong, which is about 35 miles north of the 38 parallel in the Japan Sea. This was the furthest north that we had been, and that last six months of the war, they were jockeying for position because land that they had at the time of the armistice would be the new line, so they were always going back and forth trying to get position. There were a lot of casualties that really didn't have to happen. The weaponry that the U.S. had was unavailable for use because they didn't want to bring Russia into the war. We had no goal, it was strictly political. It was rather frustrating.

We had base station troops making sure that the circumference of the hill was protected; in any military situation, if you eliminate communications, you eliminate leadership. In the infantry, there would always be a radioman in each squad, and they used to have to rotate him in his line of the eight-man squad because he would always be a target. They'd try to get rid of the communication, and so they'd move him back and forth, and the antennas would never be stainless steel, but an odd color so they wouldn't reflect light, and give away a position.

The South Koreans were, I found, a very genuine, very resourceful group of people. You'd see the little kids, instead of having trucks, they would be towing a Hershey box on a string, and would be just as happy as if it were the best toy the American kids could have. But it was kind of shocking at first, because there was so much [American] waste, food and all, and the villagers would scavenge anything that they could use One time we were losing sandbags and we couldn't figure out what was going on; the Koreans would slice the sandbags and let the sand out and then make clothing out of the bags. So they were very resourceful.

One time we were at a base station waiting to move up on the hill and we got hit with some fire that night. Because we were just moving through, they had us sleeping everywhere, and I happened to be in the supply tent and some fire came in; all the food was in these big number 10 cans. They hit a can of mustard right over my head, but if I was sitting up it would have gone right through my head, so, you know, those are the differences between living and not living. I figured it wasn't my time, and you're just thankful - nowadays, I'd think twice about this near-death experience, but then, it was just a miss.

We were way up in the Kosong area with the 57th Signal Support Battalion. One of the nice things is that there were only 14 of us, and the smallest amount of rations they could send up was for 25, so we used to pick and chose what we wanted to eat; every other day or so we'd ask the cook what was around and we'd have a choice of what he was going to cook. Sounds like the Army according to Mash! One time Dick Contino came, and we had a little pizza party. We made pizzas out on our field oven, and this kid who was a cook from St. Louis, his mother sent him spices and tomatoes and stuff like that, and we had a pizza party.

You know, old soldiers are great to direct, but when you want some action done, it's the young kids that are going to do it because they'll move forward and they learn to obey, and they do it. I considered it to be a learning experience. I got to know an awful lot of nice guys, and in those conditions where you're so close for long periods of time, they're like family.

But the worst thing that happened …is that in just the next couple of weeks, after I had left (in May 1953), that hill was overrun by the Chinese, and all the guys I was with went with it - and you always look forward to talking to these guys and meeting with them afterwards, you know. [The only ones] who are left are the people who were with me in basic training.

After his tour of duty, Smith worked in the petroleum industry, eventually becoming Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of New England Fuel Institute.

Dick Krug is the director of Veteran Services for the town of Concord, and is located at 105 Everett Street, along with Council of Aging. Krug can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.