Service Reflections: Korean War soldier recalls life on the front lines

Service Reflections: Korean War soldier recalls life on the front lines

Army Together We Served

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Service Reflections is an easy-to-complete self-interview, located on your TWS Profile Page, which enables you to remember key people and events from your military service and the impact they made on your life.

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Editor’s note: The following Service Reflections is one of many recorded on TogetherWeServed.com, a secure online community with a membership of over 2 million active-duty and veteran members. This story may contain language which may not be suitable for young children.

CLP Richard Wright
Status: U.S. Army Veteran
Service Years: 1952 - 1955

Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Army.


The Movie

I was working in the shipyard and had just turned 17. My girlfriend and I went to see "Jumping Jacks," a movie starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It was all about the fun and adventure of being a Paratrooper. On Monday morning, I quit my job at the shipyard and went to the Army recruiting office. I told the recruiter I wanted to be a Paratrooper.

This was 1952, and The Korean War was in full swing. He said, "I think we have an opening." About a week later, I was on a train for Richmond, Va., where I took my physical and was sworn in. From there, I went to Ft. Meade, MD., where I was processed and tested. From there, I went to Camp Breckenridge, Ky., for basic training. At that time, the 101st was not an Airborne unit. We wore the Screaming Eagle patch without the airborne tab. The camp was still the same buildings from World War II. Not in the best of conditions. At least they had a PX where you could get your beer at 15 cents.

After basic, I went to Ft. Benning, Ga., for jump school. Upon completion of jump school, I volunteered for Korea. I assumed I would be assigned to the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, the only Airborne unit in Korea.

When I arrived in Korea, the 187th was only in need of medics and commo men. It seems a lot of jump school graduates were volunteering for combat looking for adventure. We were, after all, "ten feet tall and bulletproof." There were three of us who had gone through basic and jump school together. One was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, one to the 40th Infantry Division, and I was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division. They weren't interested in the buddy system. I was assigned to the machine gun platoon of M Co. 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry, where I spent the next 13 months. After rotating home, I was assigned to the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., until I was discharged in 1955.

Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?


Paratrooper to Banker

When my 3 years hitch was up, I decided I did not want to make the Army my career. I was in the 11th Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky. I was in the Service Company of the 188th Infantry (Airborne). After being moved from being an Infantryman to working the supply side of things didn't exactly set my world on fire.

The 11th was preparing for Operation Gyroscope and would spend the next three years in Germany. Operation Gyroscope was a project started by the United States military after World War II that was active from 1947 to 1956. The plan was to ship soldiers out of the U.S. state of California instead of New York. Although there were exceptions since the 11th Airborne Division was transferred from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to Augsburg and Munich, Germany in 1955 out of New York to Bremerhaven by troopships as part of Operation Gyroscope. I only had a few months left and didn't want to sign up for three more years. They brought in a typist and a sewing machine, asking who wanted to go, and they assigned those to positions. A guy could be an E-5 if he chose to stay; he could become a master sergeant. I decided that was not for me.

After the Army, I used my GI bill to go to school. While in school, I had a part-time job with a bank and ended up making banking my career. The bank I worked for wanted all officers to have an MBA or Law degree. They paid for me to go to law school.

If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian, and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?


The M1917A1 Watercooled Caliber .30 Heavy Machine Gun

I spent 13 months with the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea and was on and off the front lines. One time they had the riflemen pull back except for those of us that had machineguns in bunkers. They dropped artillery along our positions to repel the Chinese wave attack. The brass links piled so high I had to keep brushing them back to make room. I had the World War II M1917A1 Caliber .30 Heavy Machine Gun. We used both cloth or metal linked belts of ammo. Fully automatic, recoil-operated, water-cooled, Caliber .30 (7.62mm), 174 gr bullet, 50 gr charge, 2800 fps muzzle velocity, 400-600 rounds per minute rate of fire, and a 1000 meter effective range, the M1917A1 was a deadly defensive weapon. My hearing is not the best these days. I think it was due to all the loud constant shooting.

At night I wouldn't fire the machine gun so as not to mark myself as a target. If I heard anything or we were probed, I threw hand grenades. I had plenty of what we called the WWII pineapple grenades. The Mk 2 was gradually phased out of service as the M26-series (M26/M61/M57) grenade was introduced during the Korean War. Due to the tremendous quantity manufactured during World War II, the Mk 2 was still in limited issue with the US Army. We threw them every night we had contact. It was too dangerous with the tracers giving away your position.

In Korea, you have freezing cold or heat. I was not too fond of the rain. With mud being everywhere and always being wet was not exactly my cup of tea. I still, to this day, hate mud or being in the rain? No umbrellas for the Infantryman.

After the truce was signed, we pulled back and started rebuilding bunkers and laying barb wire until some time in November. At that time, we went into Corp reserve, where I spent the remainder of my time.

Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.

In early July of 1953, we were on the front line in support of a rifle company. One night, we were hit by about a Chinese battalion, and the rifle company was ordered to pull back, leaving the machine guns in bunkers. They then called in artillery and mortar fire on the position. The combination of four machine guns and the artillery stopped the Chinese, and the line was not breached.


Turning night into day

The quad .50 had the huge searchlights on the hill behind us. They did not light up the Chinese but lit us up too. Very scary being blinded and knowing the enemy could see you.

The Chinese would often follow a patrol into the wire opening, and once they entered, they would come through the same opening later at night to attack us. You never wanted to be caught sleeping at your post.

Around this time, a close air support aircraft, I think, was an F4U Corsair. The aircraft crashed near our position. The air defense units behind us on a higher hill shot the .50 caliber rounds over him until they rescued him.

I've been so lucky so many times in Korea. One time a .50 caliber round hit a sandbag next to me.

Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?


The Grand Ole Opry in the 1950s

By far Ft. Campbell, Ky. was my favorite. It was 50 miles from Nashville, and my buddy and I would go a couple of times a month to go to The Grand Ole Opry. There was a bar around the corner from the Ryman called Mom's Place ( it is now Tootsie's Orchid Lounge). Mom took a liking to me and my buddy, Tom Cavender, and always had free tickets for us to the Opry.

There was an upstairs room connected to the Ryman where the pickers and singers would drink in between their acts. On several occasions, Mom sent us up to sit and drink with them. When they all went back on stage for the midnight finale, they took us with them one night. We got to sing on The Grand Ole Opry.

My least favorite was being in Korea. The cold, the heat, and most of all, the mud that seemed to suck the life out of you. Once the DMZ was decided on, we pulled back and built bunkers. Always filling and stacking sandbags. The Engineers were placing out anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect on to this day.


The dangers of exiting an aircraft

The last jump I made before being discharged was one of my most memorable. When we drew our chutes for the jump, the guy behind me asked to exchange chutes. He had drawn a nylon harness, and I had cotton. We exchanged. After exiting the C-119 aircraft and checking my chute, I saw a jumper whose chute hadn't opened and unsuccessfully attempting to deploy his reserve. I used the T-7 WWII parachute in jump school, and then while in the 11th Airborne Division, we had the new T-10 parachutes.

While watching this, I was not paying attention to where I was and ended up on top of another man's chute. His chute stole the air from mine, and it collapsed. I was able to get untangled, and my chute regained air. I landed without any further problems. When I got to the check-in point, I learned that the man I had exchanged chutes with was the one who's chute failed to open. That was just one of many times in my life when I know the man upstairs was looking out for me.

What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?


The most fun you can have with your clothes on!

What stands out is that it was on a cold December Saturday morning upon graduating from airborne training on the parade field. The pride of accomplishing something that would stay with me forever. We had four weeks of hell to go through. You never walked, always running. If we did stop, it was for doing push-ups.

The first week lots of falling, left, right, back, and front. Of course, you never walked anywhere and always doing push-ups. The swing landing trainer, or what we called it "suspended agony," was the worse thing ever invented. It hurt more hanging there than in the real jump. The second week was the 34-foot tower. We had many that just refused to finish it. In the third week, we had to do four jumps from the 250-foot tower. Last week we had five jumps, with the final one on that Friday night.

I could never understand that I would be getting $50 a month to jump out of airplanes and only $45 a month for combat pay. The math for me at the time just didn't make sense. No wonder I ended up working in the banking industry for the rest of my life.

Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations, and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?


Combat Infantryman Badge

My Combat Infantryman's Badge. It reminds me of the rough times I spent in combat in Korea.

This sums up my exact feeling on this: war has demonstrated the importance of highly proficient, tough, hard, and aggressive infantry, which can be obtained only by developing a high degree of individual all-around proficiency on the part of every infantryman. The Expert Infantryman and the Combat Infantryman badges are established for infantry personnel to attain the high standards desired and foster esprit de corps in infantry units.

The second would be my parachutist wings. Being a paratrooper was, after all, the reason I joined the army. I think the Good Conduct medal was probably the hardest for me to earn. I dodged a bullet several times when I got into fights trying to prove that a trooper could whip any ten straight legs. Back then, not everyone was just given a good conduct medal. There was always something bad to be found.

List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.

My closest friend was Tom Cavender. He got out a couple of months after I did, and he spent some time in Portsmouth with me and my wife. We kept in touch for several years, but as we lived about 200 miles apart, we slowly lost touch.

Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?

While in basic, we use to hang by the window ledge of the second floor and drop to the ground. We were stupid for trying to think we could do this by jumping out of airplanes. We felt that we were 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Lucky no one was hurt.

The night the truce in the Korean war went into effect at 10 pm, we had accumulated a huge amount of ammunition we didn't want to haul back. We began shooting all of it off. This one guy wrapped a machinegun belt of ammunition around a rifle grenade. The belt broke loose and wounded him. I guess he was the last casualty of the war. He wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed - something hard to imagine happening. Lucky youtube was not invented yet. It certainly was not funny then, but it is now.

Another time

What profession did you follow after your military service, and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?

I left the Army going to school. Then, later on, the GI Bill allowed me to get my Law degree. I ended my career in the banking industry in August of 1981. I was going through my second divorce and was fully vested in the pension and profit-sharing plan. I decided to make a massive change. I converted everything I had in the pension fund into stock in the bank and resigned. I gave my soon to be ex-wife a power of attorney to sell our house and went to the airport where I bought a one-way ticket to Fairbanks, AK.

I lived in Fairbanks for fifteen months and experienced a lot of different and unusual activities. Among others, I went into the salvage business with a former Political science professor from Seattle. We operated a warehouse in Fairbanks as well as an operation at Prudhoe Bay on The North Slope. I also helped form and operate a fueling company for private aircraft at Fairbanks airport. I did various legal and accounting work for several small businesses. I traveled over most of the state and had a wonderful time.

I had to cut it short when my daughter had some serious health problems, culminating in her death in 1989. I sold my interest in the companies I was involved in and returned to the lower 48 to spend time with her. I'm now retired and living in Georgia.

What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?

I do not belong to any military associations.

In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?

I suppose I got more out of the Army than it got out of me. I got the GI Bill to go to school and to buy my first house. I don't miss the service, but I realize it helped me grow and mature. I was 17 when I went in and 20 when I got out. Had I not gone into the Army, I probably would not have had the quality of life that I did.

The military gave me the strength to persevere through anything thick or thin. So many times, my life had been spared by the grace of God. I miss the brothers I served with and cannot find. Hopefully, someone I served with will be here one day.

Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Army?

I don't think I am one to give anyone advice about the Army. For one thing, today's Army is nothing like the one I served in in the 50s. We were still using equipment from WWII and also eating C rations from the 40s. Today's soldier is better trained and equipped than we were.

In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.

A couple of years ago, I started writing my life story to pass on to my son and grandson. Doing that helped me bring my memories out. I have used that to help put down what I have for TWS.

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