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'I was lucky': Korean War vet saw the horrors of war, but Mother Nature sent him home

Korean War Veteran Wayman Milam.
Korean War Veteran Wayman Milam. Zia Nizami/BND

Collinsville native Wayman Milam, 82, joined the Army twice.

The first time came in late 1945 as World War II was winding down.

"I was lucky," Milam said. "I missed the shooting. I worked in the occupation force, building an airport on the site of a former fighter base."

Times were tough when Milam got home. Hundreds of thousands of former soldiers and sailors flooded the workforce after World War II. He was forced to work midnights as a mechanic on the Pennsylvania Railroad and decided maybe the military was a better career choice.

He rejoined in late 1948 and would be on the front end of an ugly conflict.

"It seemed like things were going to be easy," Milam said. "They sent me to the Granite City Army Depot where it seemed like we spent most of our time playing sports and trying to stay in shape. But that all changed in June 1950 when North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea.

"They locked us down and wouldn't let anybody on or off the base," Milam said. "In those days there were fears that some communists had set up operations in Granite City and everyone was tense about what might happen next."

Milam and the other men in his unit knew they were likely to be shipped off to war. They pleaded for the opportunity to visit their wives and kids before they headed overseas.

"We were finally able to convince the base commander to let us have a 36-hour pass," Milam said. "I had just rented a two-room place with my wife in Collinsville. We just bought new furniture and everything. I had to help her put it in storage and she went to live with her mother in Freeburg."

While most of the men from the Granite City Depot were headed to Korea, Milam was told he was going to Fort Riley, Kansas, to combat engineer school.

"When I arrived there, the first thing I saw was all of the trains with the heavy construction equipment on them," Milam said. "I was told not to bother to unpack because I wasn't going to be there long."

He was assigned to the 84th Engineer Battalion and, after a 21-day journey, landed in Pusan, South Korea. The unit participated in all 10 campaigns of the Korean War, building and repairing bridges and roads vital to keeping United Nations troops moving.

Milam was quickly given a reality check about the horrors of war.

His unit came upon a small shack and inside were the bodies of four North Korean soldiers. They were tied to chairs, posed as if they were sitting around a table with a whiskey bottle on it. Scribbled at the scene was the phrase popularized by American GIs during World War II: "Kilroy was here."

"I didn't know our guys were capable of that sort of thing," Milam said. "I still have nightmares about it."

One of his first jobs was to take part in the repair of a bridge that was damaged by communist forces. While the work was being done, one of the men in the unit wandered into a nearby railroad tunnel. He was injured when a land mine inside exploded as he poked around.

Two of the 84th's biggest projects in Korea were the replacement of the Freedom Gate Bridge blown up by North Koreans and the construction of the Teal Bridge. Both spans helped get United Nations troops across the Imjin River. Because of their work, the unit was known as the "Conquerors of the Imjin."

Because of the extreme weather conditions in Korea, many soldiers found Mother Nature to be as dangerous of a foe as enemy troops. In November 1952 Milam came down with a fever and was sent to a field hospital for treatment.

"I was waiting to see the doctor and they brought in three Chinese prisoners," Milam said. "They told me that, because of the Geneva convention, they needed to see them before they could take care of me. They were all filthy dirty and had some kind of stuff coming out of their mouths."

When he was finally seen by a doctor, X-rays determined that Milam had pneumonia in both lungs. He was put on a hospital train and shipped 300 miles to the south for care.

"I was so sick that I couldn't stand the smell of food," Milam said. "So, naturally, they put me next to the dining car and I had to smell it the whole way."

At a train station Milam's gurney was placed on the platform while he awaited the next leg of transportation. While he lay there, a couple of his buddies from his Granite City days came across him.

"They saw me lying there in my condition and thought that I had been shot up," Milam said. His buddies went to get some other guys from his old unit. But by the time they got back, he was gone.

He arrived at the hospital in Pusan just in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Still turned off by the smell of food, when they placed a turkey dinner at the end of his bed, Milam kicked the tray onto the floor.

"The doctor was furious and he came over to ask what was the matter with me," Milam said. "I told him that I couldn't eat and he told me to come over near a window."

The doctor noticed in the light that Milam was jaundiced.

"He told me that I had hepatitis and that I was going home," Milam said.

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