Saturday, July 27 was the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Agreement. An Elkin veteran told The Tribune of his time in Korea and what it was like to serve in the U.S. Army on the war-torn peninsula.
Bob Hayes of Elkin was stationed at Donaldson Air Force Base in Greenville, S.C. in August, 1952.
He received orders to prepare to move to California and ultimately arrived in Korea several months later.
He left from a two-week furlough and headed west by Greyhound Bus for Camp Stoneman in California.
Hayes described Stoneman as “nothing but a big hellhole.” The living conditions were made up of one story wood barracks and a large mess hall, the largest Hayes ever saw in his 20 years in the military.
He said the mess hall could seat as many as 3,500 troops for each meal.
Troops could purchase hotdogs for $0.10 or hamburgers for $0.15; sodas for $0.05 or milkshakes for $0.15, he recalls. After their money ran out they had to eat inside the mess hall.
Most chose to eat hamburgers and hotdogs for all three meals of the day instead.
The base was a staging point for soldiers and airmen preparing to be moved to the South Pacific via troop ships. Prior to air transport, troops were primarily moved across the world by passenger ship-like vessels.
Hayes had previously been stationed in Guam and Japan, so he knew what to expect. Even so, by the time the ship reached the choppy waters around San Quentin Prison in San Francisco Bay there were 3,000 seasick G.I.’s aboard.
Hayes stayed sick for two weeks, only able to eat after 12 days. Even so, the seasickness was preferable to life at Camp Stoneman for Hayes.
“Even though I hated to ride in a troop ship, I sure was glad to leave Camp Stoneman,” Hayes said.
The troops had chores to do even while out at sea, including guard duty.
“Oh yes, we had to pull guard duty with a rifle, and we had to sweep and mop our compartments, put our duffle bags and shoes in our racks, and tie all beds to the posts that held them up.”
Enlisted men slept six bunks high, one above the other. Hayes said the best rack was the top bunk, but an enlisted man could make due with the lower five “if the man above you wasn’t fat.”
“If he was, you couldn’t hardly turn over, and it was hard to get into your rack,” he said.
Officers and women were assigned cabins or staterooms.
There was some free time for pool, badminton and other recreational activities in the rec hall, but duty was always the main pursuit.
Every three days a mandatory fire drill was done to keep troops on their tows and aware of the dangers of a fire at sea. The crew took the drills seriously, requiring mandatory roll calls to ensure each soldier or airman was present.
The ship stopped once while en route - when crossing the International Date Line.
Hayes said the ship stopped for 12 hours, presumably to adjust for the time difference. The crew took the opportunity to initiate “the landlubbers into Davey Jones’ Locker,” Hayes said.
The crew put a mop bucket on Hayes’ head and made him mop some of the deck while laughing at him. He was 17 years old at the time.
Three weeks later the ship made port at Yokohama, Japan. A train ride to the air force base several hundred miles away in southeastern Japan awaited the troops.
Along the way they passed through Hiroshima. The train crew stopped at several sites in the city to show and explain the destruction the atomic bomb caused.
“What I saw brings tears to my eyes,” Hayes said, nearly 70 years later. He called what he saw that day “a wake-up call for the world.”
“I hope and pray that the A-bomb is never used again as long as I live,” Hayes said.
Two days at Iwakuni was all the time the troops spent there. The second night 400 troops flew out on C-46 and C-47 planes to South Korea. There they loaded their duffles onto two and a half ton trucks.
All but four of the troops were taken by bus to another train station. Hayes was not so lucky.
He and three others rode for three miles to the station.
“I thought I was going to freeze to death,” Hayes said of the trip.
When they arrived to the station they found the temperature was ten below zero.
There were 400 cases of World War II-era “k-rations” awaiting them at the station, one case per man.
As they loaded onto the train, Hayes noticed all the windows had been shot out and there were no heaters. Each seat was made of wood.
“Folks, it was ten below zero!” Hayes exclaimed.
The soldiers broke up the wooden seats to use for firewood and built fires in the train car floors to heat their frozen rations. Hayes found himself envying the machine gunner on top of the train.
“On top of every other train car was a manned .30 caliber machine gun sandbagged pillbox. That soldier had warm clothes on and a small heater to keep him warm,” Hayes said. He and the other troops inside had only their military uniforms - olive drab dress uniforms not meant for wartime, and “those old sorry two-piece gloves,” Hayes said.
The train moved at about 5 and 10 miles per hour.
Hayes finally arrived at his post - K-16. The post was an island in the middle of the Haw River, roughly eight miles north of Seoul. It had taken four days to get from Seoul to the post, Hayes said.
Hayes served as a vehicle dispatcher for two weeks before being transferred to a new task.
“One morning at work formation the 1st sergeant said: ‘You men at the end of this row are transferred to the Transient Alert Crew - report to base operations on the flight line.’”
The other three soldiers were able to get out of the new detail, but Hayes made the move.
“I didn’t even know what the Transient Alert Crew was,” Hayes said. “I was green as grass about it.”
Hayes was tasked with parking planes on the base, driving a vehicle with a sign saying “Follow Me” and using hand signals to guide the planes. He refueled them, put oil in the oil tanks and pushed portable steps around to let VIPs’ step off the planes.
He also took pilots to their planes or to base operations.
The base had a squadron of B-25s and a squadron of B-26s, Hayes said. The bombers were painted jet black, making Hayes’ job of parking them at night especially difficult. Each plane had to be parked within five feet of each other, wing tip to tip. The wing’s blinking red light was all the illumination Hayes had to help with the job.
Hayes was stationed at K-16 during “Operation Little Switch” and “Operation Big Switch.” Little Switch was an exchange between the United Nations and the Korean and Chinese for sick and wounded prisoners. It took place between April and May 1953.
The U.N. released 6,670 prisoners in exchange for the release of 684 U.N. prisoners, 149 of which were Americans.
Big Switch was the name given to the repatriation of all the remaining prisoners. Prisoners were returned to their respective sides but were given the opportunity to stay where they were if they so chose. Many former communists chose to stay with the U.N. and not return to Korea or China, but over 20 Americans and one Briton decided to stay in the North.
Hayes snapped pictures of the events, as well as Senator Adlai Stevenson when he visited Korea during a failed run at the Presidency. He also photographed the only U.S. Navy war ace during the Korean War.
Hayes and others sponsored Korean orphans on Christmas Day in 1952 and helped them receive candy and clothes.
An air raid took place that Christmas. Hayes said he didn’t hesitate to save them, even if it meant his own life.
“I didn’t think about my life that day. All I could think about was the safety of those children and how happy they were,” Hayes said. “God took care of all of us that day.”
Hayes left Korea in September 1953 for his new station in Albuquerque, N.M. He said he never forgot the harsh realities of war - or those orphan children.
“I have prayed many times that they lived through the war,” Hayes said.
Reach Taylor Pardue at 835-1513 or firstname.lastname@example.org.