In June of 1950 the Korean War began, and many Chautauqua County residents took up the charge by enlisting such as Norm Owen, 82, a Jamestown native.
Owen enlisted in the United States Army in February 1951, when he was 20, because all of his friends were being drafted, he said. He also had two uncles who served in World War II.
“I always liked them for doing that, even though they were drafted,” said Owen. “So, I thought, ‘Now is my turn,’ and I enlisted.”
Owen arrived in Incheon, South Korea, in May 1951. Back then soldiers didn’t usually arrive by plane, but rather by ship. And, the ship Owen was on was overcrowded to the point where three guys would take turns sharing a bed. They were on the ship for 10 days.
“You had the bed for six hours and then you had to find a place to sit down while another guy would sleep on the canvas bunk,” said Owen.
“We had fresh water to drink, but we ran out and couldn’t take showers,” Owen continued. “It was so packed because they needed the troops there right away.”
The first role Owen took on when he arrived in Korea was on a field artillery team First Cavalry Division. The group had six 105 howizters that were used to fire upon targets up to five miles away. One soldier would act as a spotter by taking position atop a high hill and would relay coordinates to the howitzer operators.
“They were always in the hills, in caves and trenches and he would give us the range and we would fire a couple of rounds at the target to blow them up,” said Owen. “Sometimes we’d fire all day long if there was a heavy battle.”
Owen was soon reassigned to radio duty, which was what he did through the extent of his service. He was responsible for radio truck in which he operated seven radios and a telephone 24 hours a day.
“We would get messages but a lot of times the North Koreans and the Chinese would get the frequency and block it so we always had two or three frequencies,” said Owen.
Owen also recalls sleeping in a pup tent during 30-degree winter weather. He said that he and the other soldiers would take off their boots and put them in the bottom of their sleeping bag because sometimes they had to get up and night but the boots would be too stiff to put on and lace up.
“We slept with our jackets, hats and everything on to keep warm,” said Owen. “We’d get a shower once a month during the summer, but in the winter we didn’t have one.”
FROM KOREA TO JAPAN
After finishing his first tour of Korea, Owen was deployed to Hokkaido, Japan, about two days before Christmas.
“We were so happy because there were quonset huts with heaters, hot-water showers, bathrooms and bunks – boy we were in heaven,” said Owen. “But, they weren’t ready for us, so we had no mattresses or blankets and put out sleeping bags on the springs for a couple of days and nights. But, we were just glad to be inside.”
While in Japan, Owen began training with an amphibious Marine unit to make a landing in North Korea. To make a landing back then soldiers would climb down a rope ladder and jump into landing craft while carrying a loaded backpack, rifle and more.
“In Japan and Korea the tide is very strong and heavy, so when you go down the rope ladder you’d have time your jump right when the water would rise to its peak,” said Owen. “If you dropped as it was coming up you could break your ankle or your knees because you have a heavy load.”
Owen was then transported off the coast of Wonsan, North Korea, where there was an aircraft carrier and battleship also stationed.
“Early in the morning we were on the deck ready to go in the landing craft and the battleship was firing and blowing up Wonsan and the coast,” said Owen. “When that thing fired you could feel the air pressure from the big guns on our ship. Then the planes dropped bombs and a lot napalm, which burned everything. It was like a gelatin and when it hit the ground it would explode on fire. If it got on you it would burn through your clothes and skin right down to your bone – it was a killer.”
The war raged on until a peace treaty was signed in July 1953 – North Korea never surrendered. Owen served in Korea until May 1953.
“A lot of guys worried about being killed on the last day,” said Owen. “You didn’t want to get shot and have the war end tomorrow.”
But getting shot was the least of Owen’s worries, he said, worse than that was getting captured.
“Prisoners were treated really bad,” said Owen. “They’d march you all the way up to North Korea or China even. They’d give you no food, and beat you, it was always in the back of your mind that you’d rather get shot and wounded than get captured.”
Owen served for three years and returned home in February 1954. Returning home was a difficult transition Owen said, and there were moments when he considered reenlisting.
“After three years in the military, for a month I was lost,” said Owen. “I thought civilians were stupid, and that they didn’t know anything about war. I was also unhappy with the government for calling the Korean War a conflict, and not a war because it was never declared. There were about 40,000 Americans killed and 100,000 wounded. When you take those kind of losses – that’s no conflict – To me, and the guys that were there – it was war.”
When he got home Owen purchased his first new car, a 1954 Ford, which he was really pleased with, he said. He met his wife, Evelyn, through mutual friends who were also in the army with whom he would go out and party.
When looking back upon his life, Owen said he sometimes breaks down and cries. What happened to him, and so many others, never goes away, he continued, and it never will.
“Sometimes I have to stop what I’m doing and the tears come down – it was 60 years ago and they still come,” said Owen. “Korea may be called the Forgotten War, but to a lot of guys it’s not going to be forgotten.”
While serving, Owen met guys from more than a dozen countries. At the time, General Douglas MacArthur was the Far East commander, and Owen felt he was a great and fair general. According to Owen, he was responsible for the landing in Incheon, for which Owen was involved.
“He was quite the general – we all loved MacArthur,” said Owen. “He would have ended the war a year earlier, but (President Harry S.) Truman wouldn’t let him.”
While in the field, Owen and the other soldiers had very little with them other than necessities. They generally had to make due with what they had and would find ingenious ways of keeping themselves safe, but also entertained. One of the activities Owen and his fellow servicemen would do to keep occupied during free time was to play a version of horseshoes.
“The artillery shells came in a cardboard tube with a cap on it and we would dig a little hole with the cap in the ground and then we would get big washers from the mechanic and throw them in the cups – it was like playing horseshoes,” said Owen. “We also had balls that we would use to play catch.”
Owen marched a big parade in Philadelphia in the fall of 1953.
“It was called Citizen’s Day and I was honored to march as a veteran,” said Owen. “I got to sit on the stand with the governor, mayor and a lot of the big shots there.”
Owen has also visited the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his wife and friends.
But one of Owen’s fondest memories, he said, was when he was in Japan in the quonset huts. It was Christmas Eve, and lights went out at 10 p.m., so Owen and about six others lit candles and got hot chocolate from the mess hall. They sat on the cement floor and went through all the things they had from home. They also found an old record player and Frank Sinatra’s “September Song.”
“We shared cookies and we had hot chocolate – that was Christmas Eve and I’ll never forget that,” said Owen. “I love Christmas, but every Christmas Eve at home when everybody’s gone and at midnight the house is quiet I sit by the fireplace and I drink a couple glasses of Swedish Glogg. Pretty soon the tears come because I think of that Christmas Eve in 1951.”