Veteran credits piece of Civil War equipment for getting him through tour in Korea

News-DemocratJanuary 1, 2011 

When Thomas Lapins was shipped off to Korea in 1951, he wore a standard issue U.S. Army belt buckle.

But the buckle wasn't issued to him by the Army. The rectangular piece of brass featuring a bald eagle with his wings spread and a banner across the top that spelled out "E pluribus unum" was issued to his great grandfather when he fought in the Civil War nearly 100 years before.

"It was given to me by his daughters who thought that it might be lucky," Lapins said. "He made it through that war, so they thought maybe it would help me make it through Korea."

If he had it to do over again, Lapins doubts he would have accepted the buckle. It could have been lost or it could have become a souvenir for an enemy soldier if the Chicago area native turned Shiloh resident was killed or wounded.

"If I had time to think about it, I probably would have decided that it wasn't a very good idea," Lapins said. "But I'm glad I did take it. I don't know how much I believe in lucky charms. But there were some things that happened when I had that buckle with me in Korea that can't be described in any other way than 'lucky.'"

Lapins spent most of his time in Korea as a radioman in a valley known as the "punchbowl" because it was surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges.

"I was on the front lines with the 5th Regimental Combat Team for nine months and 23 days," Lapins said. "But who was counting?"

Many nights, it was Lapins' job to man a defensive trench in 30 degree below zero temperatures with 20 mph winds. Undermanned, the whole line couldn't be guarded. Watchmen huddled in "fighting holes" every hundred yards or so along the trench line. Soldiers strung trip wires tied to tin cans or empty gun magazines that would rattle like a cow bell if stepped on to warn if North Korean or Chinese attackers tried to enter the trench in unmanned areas.

"The fighting holes were lined with hand grenades and filled with 30-caliber machine gun munitions," Lapins said. "If we heard somebody coming, we were ready to let them have it so you had to be careful when you moved around in there or else you might end up with a grenade in your lap.

"We really had three enemies in those trenches: The North Koreans, the Chinese and the weather."

When he wasn't hunkered down in the cold, Lapins was walking in two feet of snow on even more dangerous patrols. Sometimes the fog in the punchbowl was so bad that Americans and their NATO allies would bump into their communist enemies while on patrol, igniting close quarters firefights.

During one patrol, Lapins and another man were sent to string a communications line from a command bunker to troops in the field. Communist soldiers spotted the Americans doing their work and fired mortars at them.

"You could hear the mortars, the poom, poom sound they make when they're launched and the sound they make when they're flying over your head," Lapins said. "One of them landed about 10 feet behind us -- close enough that it threw dirt on me. But it was a dud. It didn't explode. Something was watching over me that day."

Three days before he was supposed to be shipping out for the States after nearly 10 months in combat, Lapins was told his replacement was due any day. But if the soldier didn't make it in time, Lapins would have to go out on one last patrol before he was allowed to go home.

"Guys get pretty squirrely when they're about to go home," Lapins said. "I didn't want to go on that patrol because I didn't want to be the guy who got killed right before he was supposed to go home."

His voice halted with emotion.

"My replacement showed up in time and he went on that patrol instead of me," Lapins said. "And he was killed. I think about that a lot."

In the last few weeks before he was set to go home, Lapins almost lost the buckle to a new lieutenant.

"He saw it and told me to get rid of it," Lapins said, adding that the young officer was unmoved by his story that he thought the buckle would be OK since it was, actually, Army issue. "He told me to get rid of it, so I said, 'Yes, sir,' and walked away. But there was no way I was taking off that belt buckle."

Korea is never far from Lapins' memory. Especially during winter time.

While he avoided communist bullets and mortars, he didn't come away from Mother Nature unscathed. Pressed into what was supposed to be a quick skirmish, Lapins took off his bulky "Mickey Mouse boots" that protected his feet from the cold when he was stationary. The fight lasted nearly two hours in deep snow. When it was over, Lapins' feet were so frostbitten he couldn't walk. Five decades later, he said his hands and feet still get tingly in the cold.

After the frostbite scare, Lapins spent much of his remaining time in Korea in the Command Center handling the radio calls from indoors. He was offered stripes and a raise to stay in the military after his two-year hitch, but, despite growing up while dreaming of being a soldier, he decided he had seen enough war and went home to become a carpenter.

After Lapins' service was up, the belt buckle wasn't through with its lucky ways. It found its way to the uniform of Lapins' stepson, helicopter pilot Jim Murphy, who served in Vietnam.

Although Lapins doesn't describe himself as a hero, he said his stepson was certainly one, flying dangerous chopper missions to rescue stranded troops. Murphy earned several honors for his service, including the distinguished flying cross.

Today the belt buckle is in a frame in Lapins' Shiloh home. He said he hopes no one else in his family has an opportunity to wear it in battle.

"If I'm having a bad day or I get frustrated, I try to remember that at least I'm not in Korea," Lapins said. "Compared to those nine months and 23 days, nothing else seems that bad. But who's counting?"

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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