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Our War: Korea — Alfred Elam survived ship attack, frigid temperatures during the war

Navy veteran Alfred Elam was on board  the frigate Gloucester during the Korean War.
Navy veteran Alfred Elam was on board the frigate Gloucester during the Korean War. Derik Holtmann/BND

When World War II ended, Belleville resident Alfred Elam thought his days of fighting were over.

In the big war, Elam braved the high seas -- and the German U-boats -- as a member of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard. He was chief gunner's mate protecting the cargo ships that streamed supplies and munitions to Allied troops overseas.

The mission nearly cost Elam his life in 1943 when U-512 fired a single torpedo at the James K. Polk. For 12 hours he stayed at his battle station on the damaged, partially sunk ship until it was evacuated. After six ships and traveling the world, Elam was done with war and ready to go home.

Five years later, the Navy veteran found himself pressed back into service for the new conflict in Asia.

In the Korean War, Elam found himself serving as chief gunner's mate on a three-inch gun on a World War II surplus frigate re-acquired from the Soviet Union. The dirty, cramped, small ship was a far cry from the new tanker and cargo ships with big rooms and waiters serving meals he saw during World War II.

"It was one of 10 frigates we got back from the Russians," Elam, now 86, said. "They weren't in very good shape when we got them. But we were short of ships in the Pacific and we needed whatever we could get."

Named the Gloucester, Elam's ship in November 1950 was sent to the shores of Korea. There it patrolled in the Yellow Sea, enforcing a naval blockade and attacking targets of opportunity including shore gun batteries, buildings and bridges in and around Wonsan, Pusan, Inchon and Kusan.

In addition to facing enemy fire, conditions were grim. Elam said below-freezing temperatures made it difficult to operate his gun. The sea spray would quickly freeze on the barrel of the three-inch rifled cannon. It was periodically fired to break loose the ice.

Gunners would duck into the ammunition room to try to warm up their fingers and toes whenever they could while on watch.

The three-inch gun was so loud that it left sailors temporarily deafened. It sometimes made Elam's ears bleed. Today he wears hearing aids and is 85 percent deaf in one ear.

On Nov. 11, 1951, the Gloucester came under attack from shore batteries. Despite laying a smoke screen and zig-zagging to avoid fire, the ship took a direct hit in one of its aft gun batteries. One man was killed and 11 were wounded. It was the only damage the ship would take during Elam's tour of duty.

"I was one of the lucky ones," Elam said. "I never earned a purple heart."

But it didn't seem like he was so lucky at the time. In the aftermath of the battle, Elam was given the job of picking up all of the explosive shells that scattered across the deck when the aft gun station was hit. He also had to help get rid of several high explosive depth charges that were ripped open by shrapnel.

Any one of the shells or depth charges could have blown up when moved.

While the explosives clean-up duty stands out as his most terrorizing moment of the war, Elam said there was a persistent fear overseas. In World War II, torpedoes were the biggest threat. The North Koreans didn't have an accomplished navy like the Germans and Japanese did a decade before. What they did have were mines. And lots of them.

"We lost five ships in Korea and all of them were because of mines," Elam said. "You tried not to think about it too much because there was nothing you could do about it."

But it was impossible to put it out of your mind when sometimes the Gloucester was called upon to destroy mines to protect bigger ships.

"Mines were something that was always in the back of your mind," Elam said. "They were something you couldn't forget about."

Elam was witness to the devastation dealt out by some of the most impressive big guns in Navy history. Being a smaller ship, the Gloucester was often between the shore line and the battleships Missouri and New Jersey when they fired their 16-inch guns. The shells weighed as much as 2,400 pounds and could be fired 24 miles.

"They were as big as a car and it was really something because you could actually see them flying overhead," Elam said. "I was glad I wasn't on the receiving end."

While his service was cold, dangerous and lonely, Elam said it was mercifully brief.

In December 1951 he was shipped back to the states.

"The admiral really took care of us and made sure he did everything he could to get us home by Christmas," Elam said. "I got home on Christmas morning. It was wonderful to be home."

Since his second war on the high seas, Elam is happy to put the sailor's life behind him. He doesn't attend reunions and has no interest in taking a pleasure cruise.

"After I got out of the Navy, I never went back to the sea," Elam said. "No more for me."