Our War: Korea ... 'I was scared, but it didn't stop me from doing my job'

News-DemocratAugust 22, 2010 

— Leroy Getz will never forget his first days of war.

He was a fresh U.S. Army infantryman aboard a truck near the Pusan Perimeter in southeast South Korea when he heard men ahead calling to an oncoming truck. He figured it carried men who'd been relieved.

"Hey, you lucky guys!" he shouted.

When it came closer, he saw dead U.S. soldiers, stacked two deep. Three trucks carried what he guessed to be 12 bodies each. A guy on top had a .50-caliber wound that took off part of his head.

"Of course, we all shut our mouths then," said Getz, 79, of Belleville. "I guess it was best we'd seen it, because within a half hour, we were being shot at."

Getz served in Korea from July 25, 1950, to Feb. 6, 1951, at the front end of the war. The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter in August and September 1950 was where the United Nations forces turned back the North Korean invasion that had started the Korean War. Getz was part of the U.S.'s first massing of troops in a battle that left 4,599 U.S. troops dead and 12,058 wounded.

When he and his men would push past a hill on their way north, "It was shoot or be shot at," he said.

"If they said they weren't scared, they were nuts," Getz said. "I was scared, but it didn't stop me from doing my job."

He was part of the 1st Cavalry Division, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battallion, Company L. He started as a corporal and a squad leader and left as a sergeant first class in his platoon.

The sound of a bugle, the enemy's call for attack, is still in his ears. Opposition forces would sneak up on his company in the dark early-morning hours. In the winter, the snow was crunchy, but his company sometimes wouldn't hear their footsteps.

The North Koreans were known to booby-trap their dead. Getz and his men would roll them over carefully to check for explosives.

Encounters with his own side's napalm were also a worry. He remembers U.S. pilots in low-flying jets dropping the jellied gasoline bombs on enemy forces. It was essential to avoid getting hit; he can still picture the scorched victims.

Click here to see and hear Getz's story.

But even with the threats, there were good moments.

He befriended some Greek soldiers who were backing up his company. He gave one of them a rabbit-fur jacket to stay warm. The young man and some of his Greek companions then hosted a pig roast, about five miles east of Seoul. Getz and his fellow troops enjoyed the meat and sweet bread, and they showed the Greeks how to clean their weapons to improve their performance.

Getz was accustomed to eating turnips and other food found along the way. He doesn't know where the Greeks got the pig.

"But we were like kings," Getz said.

He's most proud of pulling a couple of tankers to safety -- acts for which he received two Bronze Stars. He isn't sure whether the two men, both strangers to him, survived. All he could do after trying to save them was notify medics and hope for the best.

During his six months in Korea, Getz was injured twice. The first one wasn't serious; after shots to the foot and leg, he got four days of rest back in Pusan. He was glad for the break.

A second injury, which he calls "the good one," sent him home and has kept his right hand immobile for 60 years now. Near the town of Ochon-ni, enemy forces spotted him crossing a hill in the moonlight and fired at him. Because of the injuries to his leg and arm he was discharged shortly after.

"I was no good to them anymore," he said.

They reconstructed his shattered right arm with part of his leg bone. He still has numbness in the top of his forearm and cannot turn his wrist or bend his fingers.

He has a photo of himself with his arm in a sling at Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. His expression in front of the camera seems emotionless. He and his fellow veterans used to call that the "death stare," a blank look that told of all they'd seen.

He has a timeshare about an hour and a half south of Knoxville, Tenn., and when he drives there, a certain steep hill with pine trees and rocks jutting out reminds him of those that he stormed in Korea all those years ago. The only things missing are rice paddies.

When he was younger, he didn't much like talking about his experience. Now, he thinks young people need to hear about it. History books overshadow Korea with World War II and Vietnam. It's been called "The Forgotten War."

"I'd like people to remember the veterans of the Korean War, as well as the other wars," he said. "Fighting one another, getting killed, crippled, wounded. ... It was a war."

Contact reporter Laura Girresch at lgirresch@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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