Veteran recalls Korean War days.
Tom Smith is a character. This much is clear seconds into the interview as he asks what we will discuss in the interview for this story.
“So what are we gonna talk about,” he asks in mock seriousness. “Pretty girls,” he says with a laugh to answer his own question.
But in all seriousness, Smith knows what the subject of the interview is: him.
Tom Smith is a veteran of the Korean War.
Although he hails from St. Louis, Mo., Smith has lived in Shawnee since the early 1970s. He doesn’t jump right into the subject at hand.
Instead, he makes cracks about John Wayne movies and apologizes for his sometimes-colorful use of language. But in time, the conversation turns to Korea and Smith shares that he joined the United States Marine Corps prior to U.S. involvement there.
“I don’t recall exactly why I went into the Marine Corps,” he said. “I lived about 20 miles from downtown St. Louis and the Marine Corps office was the first office I came to. I went in, talked to them and they sounded good so I joined. I went home, took the paperwork to my mother, she signed cause it was that point of time. She said ‘they’ll never take you cause you have a bad heart.’
I left the next day for Paris Island, S.C.”
Smith said his heart condition did not flare up during boot camp.
“I breezed right through boot camp,” he said.
From there Smith readied for the next stage of training.
“I had graduated from boot camp,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to go home for the 10-day R&R for Christmas so I went from Paris Island to Cherry Point, N.C. I spent Christmas in Cherry Point, N.C. They subsidized me to Swamp Lejune to [auto mechanic] school. For school, they gave me a train ticket through St. Louis out to El Toro, Calif. I spent most of my enlistment in El Toro until Korea broke out.
“I like to tell it as I got a letter from [President] Harry Truman saying, ‘we enjoy your work so here’s a free ocean voyage to a distant country on us.’ I ended up in Japan for less than 10 days before I went into Korea.”
Smith would stay in Korea for one year from September 1950 to September 1951. When asked where in Korea he went, Smith’s answer is brief.
“Name it,” he said.
Smith pauses briefly before letting out a brief chuckle and adding to his response.
“I started out at the Pusan Perimeter and went from there,” he said.
Smith reflected further on his first night in Korea.
“The gunney volunteered me (I was one of eight) to be in the trench,” he said. “Although it was more of a hill than a trench. Our job was to guard a portion of the perimeter for the base. It was strange because I was in a strange country with strange people and we weren’t supposed to make a sudden noise.”
He adds that his unit headed north.
“I was attached to the 1st Marine Air Wing,” he said. “It was a service squadron. We serviced all the squadrons. When they finally got into Korea, they took all the aircraft to K-1, which was the first airfield we built. They landed three aircraft there, took pictures and refueled them. Then, they were gone and there was 12 of us there.
“So they said, ‘since you guys are groundpounders, you will [support] the Air Force, Army or whoever needed warm bodies. When we were attached to the Air Force, I can remember they had no place in their sleeping quarters for us. So the only place they had that was vacant was a little house not much bigger than an outhouse.
“We were outside the perimeter of the airbase. We were strictly on our own. I spent about three months there. We’d walk a quarter of a mile to the base for rations. They kept most of our rations there so we camped out so to speak.”
Eventually, Smith ended farther north and was part of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. This skirmish lasted from Nov. 27 to Dec. 13, 1950. The battle, which saw American, British and South Korea troops surrounded by Chinese forces, resulted in thousands of casualties due to fighting and bitter cold.
“We loaded the dead,” he said. “We stacked them like wood. You never knew what posture they would be in. Some of them had hands reaching up. That was just how they froze.”
Smith also shares the first question school children will ask him about his time in Korea: how many people did you kill?
“I don’t know,” he says with a shrug, ”I don’t give a .... When you heard a noise, you’d put your rifle over hill and fire a few rounds. All the kids ask about it. I wasn’t there to be friendly.”
When asked about why he gets this question, Smith isn’t sure. We discuss differences in generations and the popularity of games such as the “Call of Duty” series, which depicts combat situations.
“I think it’s more to do with seeing someone in a dress uniform a chest full of ribbons than kids playing video games,” he said. “But if you had seen what I have up close, then you’d throw the game away.”
He adds that he has seen numerous people react the same way to being shot or shooting someone.
“The first words out of their mouth is oh my God,” he said. “The second is mother. Maybe the order is switched, but it’s usually like that.”
Smith and his unit were eventually able to leave Chosin Reservoir during an evacuation at Hungnam.
“After Chosin, we waited on the beach for the boats,” he said. “The Chinese lobbed shells overhead. It sounded like thunderstorms. When we have [thunderstorms] back here, I find myself back on that beach.”
Smith admits to suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“You try to forget the things you can,” he said. “When I suffer from PTSD so does my wife.”
Smith said his involvement with various veterans groups has given him an opportunity to talk about the things he’s seen with fellow veterans.
“That’s the best way to deal with it,” he said. “We might not have followed the same path, but we’ve probably walked many miles in the same direction.”
Smith moved to Shawnee in the early 1970s.
“The first I noticed was the city didn’t have the hots for vets,” he said. “About 15 years ago I designed a memorial for veterans. It took a while, but eventually, we were able to get it built. I have the first shovel full of dirt in my own front yard.”
Veterans from other wars have earned the respect of Smith.
“I appreciate the Vietnam vets,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them raising… we wouldn’t have gotten what we needed. When we came back [from Korea] they gave us our papers and let us go.”
Smith said he never received a parade upon returning from overseas.
“No one was mad at us or threw anything at us like they did to the guys who came back from ‘Nam,” he said. “But even now, there will be an event for Korean War vets and only five people will show up. This town is full of vets, but I guess this is the forgotten war.”