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Memorial Day Memories: A Nephew Remembers (Part Two)

Submitted by R. Thurston Clark

(May 8, 2024) — What follows are several stories told to me by my uncle, Harry W. Nilsen, about his time in the Korean War.

Arrival in Korea:

Harry got to Korea via a transport ship out of California.  It had bunks below decks that were two high and made out of two-by-fours.  They first arrived in Japan, then were transferred to a Japanese transport that had only mats on the deck for sleeping.  When this second transport landed in Korea they boarded a train of boxcars riddled with 50-caliber holes.  The train stopped several miles south of the base, so they had to walk the rest of the way with full packs on their backs.  His group contained about a half dozen soldiers.  After walking some way, it started to get dark, so the person in charge started looking for someplace to spend the night.  He found an abandoned house.  The only furniture inside was a table in the center of the main room.  On it was one #9 can (about a pound) of corned beef hash.  They cooked it on the outside fireplace, which was also used to heat the house via ducts in the false walls.

The Sergeant:

Harry had a Sergeant who didn’t know North from South.  He admitted that he was lost when Harry asked him where they were going.  He said they were going back to base, but when the Sergeant pointed North, Harry asked him if he knew which side of trees moss grows on.  The Sergeant admitted he didn’t and went along with Harry’s suggestion that they change directions.  They made it back to base shortly thereafter.  The Sergeant complained to the Captain that Harry had thrown away his gun and ammo.  He was brought before the Captain to explain this.  Harry said he still had his original gun outside the Captain’s office and could prove that it was the one he was originally issued based on the serial number.  The captain said he believed Harry.  Over the next few days Harry noticed that the Sergeant was missing.  He asked the Captain about it, but no reply.

Two “Hill” Stories:

Harry was a Corporal and part of a group in a valley with North Koreans on the hill above them.  They had a machine gun emplacement along with some infantry.  Harry decided that someone among the troops needed to get behind the hill.  He and his assistant, who was carrying the extra ammo for his BAR (gun), proceeded to get behind the North Koreans.  Harry was able to kill several soldiers bringing supplies to the hill, then headed up the hill, but when he neared the summit, he couldn’t get into position to throw grenades far enough to reach the machine gun position.  After killing one of the remaining two Korean soldiers near that position, he gave his BAR to his assistant and crawled to the machine gun position.  He was about to throw a grenade when the remaining Korean soldier surrendered to him.  Harry was promoted to Sergeant shortly after this event.

A black squad had been pushed off a hill. Sergeant Nilsen was given a squad to take it back.  They did this with no resistance.  Since this was at the end of a very long day, Harry told his squad to bed down in the old American barracks that was on top of this hill.  He would take the first watch of his men.  Subsequently, a Lieutenant came up the hill to find Sergeant Nilsen the only member of the squad awake.  Harry was cleaning his rifle to keep himself awake.  The Lieutenant reported him to the Captain.  This resulted in Harry being brought before the Captain about the situation.  Harry explained that the hilltop position had a very good view of the surrounding area which would allow plenty of time for Sergeant Nilsen to raise his men.  The Captain told Harry not to worry about this incident any longer.

Liberty in Japan:

The troops had been warned not to frequent bars in Japan.  What, then, were they going to do for six days in Osaka?  Previously a deduction from their pay had been made to help fund an orphanage in Osaka, so they decided to visit it.  They spent three days playing with the kids and on the last day they showed up with ice cream.

Tour Almost Up:

The Company was going into an engagement.  The Captain said that since Harry’s tour was just about up, he could stay behind.  Harry asked if Corporal O’Toole, of Pennsylvania, who had been with him since basic training, was also staying behind.  The Captain said he wasn’t.  Harry said he would prefer to go out with his men.  The Koreans used a grenade that was smaller than the GI Pineapple.  If you were quick, you could usually kick it out of your way before it exploded.  Harry would regularly do this, but on one occasion when he saw the Lieutenant coming up behind him, talking on a radio, he didn’t kick it. Instead he ducked for cover as the grenade came his way.  Unfortunately, it got him in the arm, leg and back.  When he got to the hospital in Seoul he discovered that Corporal O’Toole also had gotten hit.  This was O’Toole’s second incident.  Harry carries some shrapnel in his back to this day.

Homeward Bound:

After Harry was wounded, he first went to a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, then was transferred to one in Japan.  Next he was put on a transport ship to San Francisco and then on a train to Fort Devens, Massachusetts.  On the way they had a six-hour layover in Chicago.  Since Harry was a First Sergeant by this time, he was put in charge of a group of men on his train.  They wanted to see some of Chicago, so first they went to a bar where the drinks were free for men in uniform.  Getting bored with this they decided to go to a burlesque show.  Upon arriving at Fort Devens, Harry still had eight months left in his enlistment, so he was put in charge of a group of men, most of whom were also waiting for their discharge paperwork to come through.  Many had more time in the service than he and several were Sergeants, but he was a First Sergeant.  Some who had re-enlisted were being trained in the way to move petroleum.  First Sergeant Nilsen had a private room at the front of the barracks.  For some reason, Harry found that there always was a parade of soldiers at his room/office seeking counsel on a number of subjects, so much so that he put a sign on his door that read “Chaplain.”


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