John Dollar looks out his office window while reminiscing about the Korean War.
In the case of Korea, the conflict that took 54,000 American lives saved the South from falling to the Communists.
Originally published June 25, 2000
By Jeff Decker
The Green Bay News-Chronicle
At night, halfway around the world 50 years ago, an infantry soldier cursed as three tanks rolled straight at him. He was surprised mostly by the banzai cry of a man armed only with a knife.
"He jumped out from behind the tank. I ducked, he went over the top of me. There was one on the side of me - I shot him and turned and broke the other's neck. And then I jumped back into the fighting," recalls Clarence Rusk, a veteran of the 21st Infantry living in Wrightstown who knows firsthand why the Korean War is considered one of the bloodiest ever fought by America.
"When you look up a hill and see that flag, you just think about how many lives it took to take that hill," he said.
Sunday (June 25, 2000) marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the conflict that lasted three years and took more than 54,000 U.S. lives, with 18 of the dead from Brown County.
Rusk served on the front lines, part of the first group to relieve the soldiers fighting. Out of the first 2,500 men in Company B of the 21st Infantry, he was one of only 26 who survived the war.
"When you did stuff in the heat of the moment, you didn't have time to think," he said. "If it worked, good. If it didn't, that's it.
There was that one with the knife, I thought he had me, but I got him. "War is dark days," Rusk said. "Your days and nights go on for months."
Wayne Omdahl was a flight engineer on a C-119. The planes delivered everything the GIs needed into Korea from Ashawa, Japan. The plane could hold 82 paratroopers and was "like a B-29 on steroids," he said.
Pulling into airfields was the hairiest of his time there. "You could hear the bullets whistling by," he remembered. But otherwise, there was no anti-aircraft or enemy planes. "I never saw a MiG in the air. We had complete air superiority."
But that doesn't mean there weren't dangers. His crew once forgot to turn on the plane's ID beacon, and "I look out the window and there's a F-86 on our wing. Then I look out the other side and see another jet."
Fortunately, they were all American, and a third was off his plane's tail, but poor communication often led to mistakes in combat. Rusk's plane was once strafed by an American P-38.
"I thought about being a career soldier," said Omdahl, a Green Bay resident. "But maybe that career wouldn't have lasted so long."
MAKE NO PLANS, AND DESTROY
Rusk, who like Omdahl has lived in Brown County for nearly 40 years, says it was hard to plan for anything in Korea because you knew you might not be around to do it.
"One time I was talking with a friend about what we were going to do when we got out, then he lit a cigarette and a sniper got him right between the eyes," Rusk recalled. "Boy, I crawled out of there."
He'd been staying in a foxhole dug into a rice paddy. "The moon was out that night, so it was bright," Rusk said. "If I'd stood up, he'd have nailed me. Then we had to poke around until we found him, and we did. Sometimes you see their rifle flare, and get them right away. You were never sure when you were in somebody's sights."
Soon after his arrival in Korea, a "Bed-Check Charlie" bomb threw out Rusk's transport and his back. The injury took him from the grossly underequipped inland where improvisation was absolutely essential ("We had to roll over the dead bodies to get ammunition to keep going. We even used their weapons. I ate chickens and used my helmet as a pot."), and put him on the ox-cart roads as an ambulance driver.
There he once fit 37 men on one truck.
"We never got to see how they turned out," Rusk said. "That troubled me."
Explosives were the specialty of artillery units. John Dollar, a lifelong Green Bay resident, was assigned to the 159th Battery.
"There weren't any computers, so when we did our calculations we did it with slide rules and metro balloons to check for wind," Dollar said.
His crew was usually firing a 105 mm gun with a three-mile range, but sometimes used a 240 mm gun with a 15-mile range. "You looked at your little drawing of what was out there the day before, and if something looks different, then that meant that something was up."
Then they destroyed it.
Doing his job meant mingling at the front lines and surveying "no-man's land."
"If someone says get down and you say 'Why?' you might never get up again," Dollar said. That is one aspect of war that Dollar said everyone can learn: Discipline. He thinks it may be good to reinstate the draft for that reason. Rusk agrees.
"I don't like to see it, but I think everybody should have at least three days of war," Rusk said.
Omdahl has four sons. "It wouldn't hurt me a bit to see them go into the service," he said.
Unlike Omdahl and Rusk, Dollar was drafted, and like them he was stunned by the realities of war.
"The first thing that strikes you is the devastation," Dollar said. "The water systems aren't working, the power's out" and the buildings are leveled.
During a battle, he saw fear in the eyes of the South Korean people as they wondered if they would soon be refugees.
"That's when people would line up in the roads, wondering if we're going to hold. You felt very sad for these people, you knew you didn't have it so bad," he said. "The North Koreans were out to do you in, so you didn't feel so sorry for them."
To bring the harsh reality of war close to home, Dollar suggests local people imagine an attack on Green Bay. "They'd probably start shelling sometime later at night, shell for three or four days and then start moving their troops in," he said. The city's closeness to the Green Bay means big ships and big guns. During the war, Green Bay was labeled a "probable" nuclear target.
This type of hell, so foreign to the Northeast Wisconsin of today but so real in Korea 50 years ago, demanded close ties among soldiers. "The camaraderie is 99 percent of what you're living for while you're there," Omdahl said. "We'd lie for each other till we fell over dead."
Dollar said he was tight with everyone in his crew, when he was a private and also as sergeant. "Nobody could do anything to us that we couldn't handle."
Both Dollar and Omdahl still keep in touch with many of their old mates.
MEMORIES NOT FORGOTTEN
Though he couldn't remember it from his geography classes, watching the sun come up in Korea with his friends was always a relaxing, frozen moment. "The land of the morning calm," Dollar said. "It sure was."
Memories of Korea aren't as rosy for Rusk, although he admitted it had virtues. "They had good watermelon, apples, grapes. But then we tore all that to hell, too," he said, sadly.
He also saw the funniest thing in all his life there: "...a man carrying two barrels of rice, two mattresses, two other barrels and an old woman on top in a chair." With a walking stick, the man waddled into the horizon while Rusk and a friend watched, mystified.
Although the ravages of war were all around them, fun and crazy stuff did happen; soldiers need to relax, too. "You improvised," Dollar said. "You found a clear spot and got a ball, played cards. Someone had a ukulele."
Omdahl discovered a closely guarded secret: how to make GI coffee. "They drag out a 55-gallon garbage bucket, put it over a fire, put 5 gallons of coffee in it, stir it up with a stick or rifle butt, then give it a taste test," he said, laughing. "You could just about walk on it, that coffee was so bad."
That coffee was paid for with money spent for a single purpose - the containment of communism.
"I think we'd have shown a great weakness as a country, in not fighting for what we have," Omdahl said. "As soon as you have communism, you have death, starvation, misery and disease."
He believes this as much today, at 66, as he did as an 18-year-old soldier. Dollar, 69, is proud to have defended American ideals and the liberty of others. "If we hadn't gone over there, they'd be sending bombs over here," said the man who was 21 when he first went to Korea.
Rusk wishes only that more effort had been spent on diplomacy when he was 20. Now, at 70, seeing the splendor of South Korea is a great reward. The struggle will have been worth it, he said, if the two countries unite.
None of these old soldiers feels any resentment that many Americans don't understand the conflict, often referred to as the "Forgotten War."
"We were just kind of forgotten, but it never bothered me," Dollar said. "Everyone was sick of war."
All content © copyright 2002 Green Bay News-Chronicle
and may not be republished without permission.
Jeff Decker is a freelance writer from Green Bay, Wisconsin
US Legacies Magazine 2003