By the time Green Valley residents Joe and Carolyn Clark were invited by the Korean government to attend an appreciation ceremony for war veterans, they knew something of what it was about.

Likening the trip to Honor Flight, which takes World War II military veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial, the Clarks have known other vets who’ve attended the ceremonies funded by the Korean government dating to 2000 — the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. A friend who attended an early one told the Clarks, “You’re going to find out what it’s like to be treated like royalty,” Carolyn said. 

Little did they know.

It’d been a lifetime since Joe was in Korea — 1951 to be exact. A U.S. Marine since 1947, he’d been called to serve as a gunner/mortarman in an escalating war against Communist rule. He arrived in Korea Nov. 11, 1950.

The war, and specifically the Chosin Reservoir campaign in which Joe fought, is still mentioned in history books but is better detailed by those who were there. They faced impossible odds, leaders who miscalculated the enemy’s cunning, Korea’s worst weather in 100 years — and they were outnumbered more than 10 to one by the Chinese. No one foresaw the bitter cold that killed many, ravaged limbs with frostbite, caused weapons to malfunction, vehicle batteries to fail, and rendered medical supplies useless. The steep, mountain roads were slick with ice and frost too hard to dig foxholes. A hot meal could freeze between the chow line and finding a place to sit and eat.

“We were poorly prepared with no winter clothes,” Jim recalled. “We had field jackets and boondockers (ankle-high work boots) with canvas leggings. We got the Army’s hand-me-downs. I went ashore and was handed a rifle I’d never fired.”

The fighting begins

Joe was a corporal with a fire team of four men. They were sent in Nov. 12 to help troops already there who had been shot up by the Chinese in the Taebaek Mountains.

"We knew the Chinese were there, but nobody above us believed it. They would come in lines, and never attacked in the daytime.

“Once we got into real fighting, people were subtracted quite rapidly, then they started bringing in cooks, truck divers, third-echelon Marines sent through Japan.”

On arriving, the Marines encountered other military and United Nations forces of Greeks, Turks, British and South Koreans, Joe said. 

“We tried to have at least one English-speaking Korean per platoon. What it depended on how close you were going to be to the fight.”

Following a grueling two weeks in the Taebaeks and around frozen Chosin Reservoir, now known by its Korean name Changjin, Allied Forces were finally ordered to withdraw the horrific conditions under which thousands were killed in battle or perished in the cold. Joe was among the few survivors able to hike 79 miles back to port where he was put on a stretcher and hoisted aboard the hospital ship Constellation. 

His hands and feet were frozen, his arms and legs pierced by shrapnel and he suffered from blood poisoning. The more seriously injured were slowly trucked to the ship over rough, frosty terrain.  They were all brought aboard and would come to be called the Chosin Few.  

As the Constellation made its way out of the east Korean port on the Sea of Japan, the Allies bombed the harbor to prevent the enemy Chinese from overtaking it. The billowing clouds of thick smoke are still vivid in Joe’s mind. In his home library is a “Pictorial History of the Korean War,” published by the Veterans of Foreign Wars that bring it all into focus in stark black and white.

After about six weeks recuperating in Japan, Joe was sent back to Korea in early March 1951. 

“They never let us go back across the 38th Parallel,” he said, referring to the military demarcation that still splits the Korean peninsula roughly in half. To this day, the line separates North, which no longer calls itself Communist but a “single-party state,” and the South, Republic of Korea. 

Back home

Joe then got orders to return stateside and arrived back in Michigan in November. His family knew some of what the Chosin soldiers had experienced from headlines in American newspapers, but those quickly subsided. He came through San Francisco and was surprised to see society ignoring the returning troops. 

“We were like the guys from Vietnam. There was no parade.”

Now called The Forgotten War by many, Korea is but a fading memory for survivors, and virtually unknown to younger generations, Joe said.

Shortly before Christmas 1951, he was met at the rail station by his father and father-in-law. He went to work the following Monday.

“People were tired of World War II, which had just ended in 1945,” he said. “The Korean War wasn’t over yet, there was no clear victory. A resolution was still hanging at armistice, and the country was still divided.”

Soldiers were still stunned over military decisions based on low-ball enemy counts that resulted in thousands of bloody deaths. 

Many vets also bristled at references to the eventual decision by military leaders to withdraw being categorized a “retreat,” a cowardly term in Marine vernacular.

On returning to the states, Joe entered training at Marine Corps Base Quantico, where he stayed five months. He was offered the chance to remain in the service, but says “my wife at the time helped decide. Stay and it would mean divorce. She’d had enough.”

So Joe went home to Michigan and entered police work, making it his life’s career first in Detroit, then with the Roscommon County (Mich.) Sheriff’s Department.

Joe is now 83 and long retired. His children are grown and he survived a bout of cancer three years ago. He and Carolyn now live in Arizona because, unlike Chosin, it’s not cold.

He hasn’t shared much about the war — it was 10 years into their marriage before he mentioned anything, Carolyn said. Even after 61 years, he gets emotional. But after a trip back to the 38th Parallel during the couple’s visit to Korea last month, Joe is amazed with what the country has become.

 A new Korea

The modern Korea is an economic force, clean, rebuilt, respectful, well-educated. Its people seem to genuinely appreciate what the Allied Forces did. Nearly 100,000 refugees left with the troops, escaping communist tyranny. When Joe left, the place had been leveled.

“They can’t say thank you enough,” he said. “My only regret is that we didn’t finish it, it is still an act of war. The South Koreans live in fear every day of the Chinese and the North Koreans coming back.” 

Carolyn added, “I think they’re afraid Americans won’t help them.”

While there, the Clarks met people from all over the U.S., about 300 veterans, relatives and companions.  They filled five buses, which took them on daily tours, furnished meals and hotel stays, all at government expense. 

“They’re selling Korea, no doubt about it,” Joe said. 

The Clarks were impressed. Traveling with them were medical personnel, ambulances and four big, young men to help the aging veterans on and off.

“They wouldn’t take tips,” Joe said. 

At a school visit on Sunday, children sang, played, danced and most touching, presented personally written letters and artwork to each veteran. Some even joined veterans on buses. As the entourage rolled through town sporting Korean War veteran banners, people on the streets waved and gave “thumbs up,” Joe said.

They visited the U.S. Veterans monument and Korean Veterans Memorial in Seoul, and the 38th Parallel, where guards still watch over a 30-mile stretch of the Han River, armed ones on the north side. On the last day, veterans were given “Ambassador of Peace” awards by retired Gen. Se Hwan Park at a banquet. The weeklong visits were sponsored by the Korean Veterans Association and the Patriot and Veterans Affairs, Republic of Korea.

The Forgotten War shouldn’t be, Joe said. He’d like to see the missing in action returned.

“There are three places I know of that are well-marked on maps where we dropped the dead. The graves were marked so they could be found. We constantly try.”

Due to the dwindling attendance at Chosin reunions and the inability for many vets to travel, survivor chapters including Arizona’s may be closed soon.

“They’re running out of guys like me,” Joe said. Korea is now inviting descendents of Korean War vets to visit the country. Anyone who gets the chance should go, the couple says.

Kitty Bottemiller: 547-9732