This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Korean War veteran Oliver Dahm, 89, ran his index finger through his snow-white hair to locate the scar above his left ear that earned him a Purple Heart 62 years ago.
"I was hit on Feb. 12, 1951,'' he said matter-of-factly.
That date was seared into his memory as he crouched low in the driver’s seat of a jeep that he had volunteered to drive out of the battle zone.
"They broke through our lines; we were surrounded,’’ he said, shaking his head.
Dahm, then 27 and a private in the Army’s 2nd Division, was caught up in the chaos of a surprise assault by Chinese communist forces that killed and wounded hundreds of soldiers from the 38th Infantry Regiment.
He described how the hot metal pierced his helmet and tore through his scalp before landing on the back of his neck.
"It was red hot. I picked it off my neck and threw it off. It’s an experience you never want to go through again,’’ Dahm said. "It was something else.’’
Sixty years have passed since the Korean War ended, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is on a mission to raise national awareness about the service of Korean War veterans, like Dahm. The DOD launched a campaign in 2010 to note the 60th anniversary of important events of the war. On July 27, a public tribute is planned at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington to mark the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended fighting on the Korean Peninsula in 1953.
Called "The Forgotten War,’’ the Korean conflict has been overshadowed in the nation's memory by World War II that ended just five years earlier. From the outset, public support was tangled in the political wrangling that followed President Harry S Truman’s decision in June 1950 to commit U.S. ground troops to a "police action” after South Korea was invaded by North Korea. Korea had been divided along the 38th parallel after World War II, with the U.S. and the United Nations backing the south and the Soviet Union and China backing the north.
Historians estimate that more than 2 million people, mainly civilians, died in the brutal conflict that lasted three years. The DOD, which revised its Korean War casualty numbers in 2000, says that 33,686 U.S. servicemembers were killed in battle and nearly 100,000 were wounded.
'I had to get that jeep going'
Dahm, whose wife died several years ago, now lives in an apartment at Garden Place of Millstadt, a senior living community. He said he was fortunate to have survived that attack 62 years ago – and to make it back home to marry and have a family that now includes great-grandchildren.
Seated at his kitchen table, Dahm talked about the "ifs" that didn’t happen. The "ifs" that could have taken his life:
- If his head had been positioned just an inch one way or the other as he crouched low in that jeep, his wound could have been fatal.
- If it hadn’t been so miserably cold, the blood wouldn't have frozen on his wound during the long hours that passed before he finally made it to a field hospital. "I would have bled to death,’’ he said.
- If he hadn’t gotten up and moved as the news spread that the enemy had pushed through their lines he might have been among the dead.
"When you’re behind the lines like that and enemy fire is coming at you, you just had to duck and fire as much as you can. A lot of men died. They wouldn’t get up and go. And I kept saying, 'You’ve got to get out. Otherwise, you’re going to be dead or taken prisoner.’ ’’
Dahm said he can never forget the ominous sounds of battle -- of the enemy bugles echoing in the mountains around him.
The call of those enemy bugles was also noted in the official command report later filed by Col. John G. Coughlin, commander of the 38th Infantry Regiment, in detailing the fierce gun battles and mortar fire near the South Korean towns of Wonju and Hoengsong on that dark winter morning: "Bugle calls were sounding all over the area and in some instances sounded similar to taps and mess call.’’
Dahm said he had gotten into the jeep with three wounded soldiers in back because the driver had been killed.
"I had to get that jeep going. It had the road blocked and it needed to get it moving,’’ he said.
But the jeep came under fire, killing a sergeant who had climbed into the seat next to him, Dahm said, adding that he didn't hear another sound from the soldiers behind him.
Dahm and other wounded soldiers were rescued by a U.S. tank that carried them behind their own lines.
"Then an officer and his driver picked me up and took me to the aid station,’’ Dahm said. "It was like 'M*A*S*H' on television. That’s exactly like it was. They operated on my head. And a couple days later they put me on a plane and sent me to Japan to recuperate for three months.’’
Dahm said he thought he was going home, but his orders to return to the United States were changed, and he was instead sent back to Korea. He drove an ambulance until his discharge in November; he had been promoted to corporal.
Months after returning home, his service medals -- including a Purple Heart – arrived in the mail. Dahm still keeps them in the brown cardboard box in which they were shipped to him by Uncle Sam.
'You couldn’t get on with your life'
Sixty years later, with North Korea threatening to launch nuclear attacks, Dahm believes the Korean War accomplished little.
"It should have never have been started; it wasn’t worthwhile,’’ he said. "And now North Korea is trying to start something again.”
But despite his misgivings about the war, Dahm said he is proud of his service and of the opportunity he was given to serve his country -- not once but twice. Dahm was first drafted in January 1949 during the peacetime draft. After serving a year in Occupied Japan, the Army discharged him and put him in the inactive reserves. He was called back to duty in October 1950 and sent for "refresher training” before being sent overseas to Korea.
Dahm calls his experience in Korea "something that happens once in your lifetime that you don’t want to face again.’’
"I guess I m just lucky I’m still living,’’ he said.
According to the Veterans Administration, 5.7 million U.S. veterans served during the Korean War, and about half of them -- 2.3 million -- are still living. Nearly 84,000 Korean War veterans live in Illinois and 55,000 in Missouri.
Dale Brandenburger, 86, another Korean War veteran, lives just down the hall from Dahm at the senior living center. Brandenburger’s story is unique because he was rejected for service during World War II due to a vision problem. Though his vision had not improved when the Korean conflict broke out, he was drafted anyway.
Slowed by heart problems, Brandenburger lets his wife Shirley, who is a spry 81, do most of his talking these days. She is an expert on his military career because in a way she served it with him. They met just before he was drafted and married while he was in the Army.
Shirley Brandenburger has always been the keeper of memories: all of the letters he wrote to her, his uniform – down to his Army-issue socks -- his service patches and scrapbooks. She proudly arranged these keepsakes of his military career on a table for a visitor to see.
"He was 24 -- one of the older guys. He should have been in World War II, but they didn’t care about him then,’’ she said. "After his hunting buddy got drafted and killed in Korea, Dale was determined to go in and fight.’’
The Army assigned the private first class with faulty vision to become an optician. After his basic training at Fort Meade in Maryland, Dale Brandenburger spent 18 months manufacturing glasses for military personnel at the St. Louis Medical Depot. He did not serve overseas and was discharged with the rank of corporal in November 1953.
“We were very fortunate,” Shirley Brandenburger said, noting that they were able to live together in an apartment off the base during most of his service. “But you couldn’t get on with your life.”
National thank you
* On July 27, the 60th Anniversary Korean War Commemoration Committee holds a tribute at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, marking the signing of the armistice that ended fighting in 1953. Information is on the committee’s website.
* The Department of Defense is issuing certificates of appreciation to Korean War veterans or their families. Click here for the form.
* The website has oral histories of veterans, battle photographs and a detailed timeline of the war.