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'I just wanted to make it home in one piece,' Korean War vet recalls

Korean War Veteran Delmer Scheurer, of Trenton
Korean War Veteran Delmer Scheurer, of Trenton Derik Holtmann/BND

In 1950, 24-year-old Delmer Scheurer had never strayed too far from his family's farm near Scott Air Force Base in rural St. Clair County.

Then in December 1950, he got a notice from the draft board.

"They sent me off to basic training in Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and the next thing I knew I was on a boat," Scheurer said. "I'd never been on a boat before. I had never been anywhere."

Eating oranges to fight sea sickness, he spent 12 days on a troop ship with 6,000 other soldiers and 2,000 crew members headed for Korea.

"That boat had a jail and a dispensary on board," Scheurer said. "It was like a real, floating city.

"The chow lines were so long that people would still be lined up for dinner when the line started to build up for supper."

Prior to his arrival, the 25th Infantry Division defended the South Korean city of Pusan, then pushed communist forces back to the north before being overwhelmed by a Chinese assault in late 1950. Scheurer joined the 25th just in time for the tide to turn.

United Nations forces began to push back the communists in early 1951, recapturing Inchon and Kimpo Air Base on their way to the Han River.

Scheurer was originally assigned to be a radio man, a task he wasn't very excited about.

"I learned pretty fast that the enemy targeted the radio guy because they knew if they got him they cut off communications between the rest of the guys and headquarters," Scheurer said.

Lugging the heavy radio along with his M-1 rifle made him feel like he was at a disadvantage in defending himself. "I was a prime target, so I asked to be transferred to a rifle squadron."

He was grateful for the switch, but his new assignment was no piece of cake.

"We would go out on patrols and it would be so cold," Scheurer said. "It got down to 22 degrees below zero sometimes. We were all bundled up, but they would make us leave our parkas behind if we did a raid because they were afraid that they'd slow us down.

"One night, we were out on a patrol and we had to wade through a waist-deep river," Scheurer said. "It was 11 o'clock at night, we were soaking wet and it was about two degrees below zero. Our body parts were starting to freeze."

The men were ordered to go behind enemy lines to a village where intelligence indicated Chinese soldiers were staying.

"They were there and we got into a firefight," Scheurer said. "But they took off pretty quick as soon as we started blazing away at them."

The assault made local news back home. Scheurer still has a wrinkled, yellow piece of newspaper his mom cut out when she saw his unit referenced in the story.

"When we got back, they sent us to the hospital because they thought our feet were frozen," Scheurer said. "We all had water in our boots and our socks were frozen to our feet. One of my boots had a hole in it where a piece of shrapnel went through it a couple of weeks before."

The doctor at the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital used a cigarette lighter to test the soldiers' feet for signs of frostbite. Then he gave them the all-clear and sent them back to their unit.

In addition to the cold, the thing Scheurer minded the most about Army life was not being able to take a regular shower.

"There were times when we didn't get to take a shower for two months at a time," Scheurer said. "Your skin would get all itchy and raw, it was terrible."

Every once in awhile, the Army would send in a six-wheeled water tanker trunk. They'd throw pallets on the ground for soldiers to stand on and run pipe from the truck to be used as makeshift showers.

"You could hardly stand on the pallets because they would quickly get covered in ice," Scheurer said. "It wasn't exactly what you would call a warm shower. But at least you could get the crud off of you."

Sometimes there was no water at all.

In spring of 1952 they were out of water when they came across a stream. They filled their canteens and dropped in their chlorine tablets, then found the corpses of about 10 Chinese soldiers in the water upstream.

In battle, Scheurer most feared the Chinese "burp guns" -- a submachine gun with a round drum magazine like a Thompson sub machine gun. The Chinese often armed entire platoons with the weapon during the Korean War, giving them a huge firepower advantage over the United Nations platoons with M-1 rifles backed up by one man with a Browning Automatic Rifle plus one or two machine gun squads.

"I don't know why it was, but that BAR was a big heavy gun and you had to carry a lot of ammo with it, and it always seemed like they gave it to the smallest guy in the platoon," Scheurer said.

When things were quiet, he worried about land mines and booby traps.

"The North Koreans used to leave signs for us to find that said that we were dying for nothing and that our government didn't care about us," Scheurer said. "You had to be careful if you picked one up because they would attach them to bombs or grenades."

Scheurer marveled at the way communist forces would use their mortars.

Unlike UN troops who used mortars that were held up by and aimed with a tripod stand, the Chinese used no tripod. One soldier would hold the mortar tube to aim it while the other dropped a round in.

"They were very good with it," Scheurer said. "We always had tanks for support and one time the tank was sitting there with the hatch on the turret open and they flipped a mortar right in there, setting the tank on fire."

But it wasn't just the communist weapons that worried him.

"The Air Force would fly over us with F-80s, dropping napalm all over the place," Scheurer said. "It was jellied gasoline that would stick to things and just burn like crazy. They'd drop in on the enemy, but sometimes it seemed like it was getting awful close. That stuff was terrible."

Late in his service, Scheurer was assigned a "snooper scope," which was basically an early version of night vision goggles that used ultraviolet light to make it possible to see at night.

"It had this wet cell battery that I had to carry on my back in a pack," Scheurer said. "It would leak and after a while it totally ate out the back of my jacket. But that thing sure worked well. I couldn't believe we had that technology way back then."

Scheurer became a squad leader about two months before he was set to come home in 1952.

"I had 47 points and you were supposed to be able to go home when you got to 42," Scheurer said. "I was a staff sergeant and they tried to talk me into staying by telling me they would make me a sergeant first class. But I had already had enough."

Scheurer said he remembers his last patrol before he got to go home.

"I was terrified of getting shot or stepping on a land mine," Scheurer said. "I had seen people who stepped on mines and they had their legs completely blown off. I just wanted to make it home in one piece."

After his service, Scheurer returned to farming. He married his wife, Lucille, in 1957 and never had any interest in reliving his war days.

"I used to wake up with flashbacks and nightmares," Scheurer said. "But I guess I eventually got over it."

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