JOLIET – At the Golden Corral on Jefferson Street on Saturday, a group of seven Korean War veterans ate lunch together, reminiscing about their time serving their country.
They came from all over Illinois, almost all older than age 80. Although their numbers have dwindled since they fought in Korea in the early 1950s, they’ve tried to remain in touch in recent years.
“You can’t explain something like this unless you’ve been there,” said James Howe, 85, of Joliet. “Us guys know exactly what it was, and it wasn’t much fun for a while.”
Most of the men were stationed at the Chosin Reservoir in November 1950, when about 30,000 American and United Nations troops were attacked by about 120,000 Chinese troops. The U.S. and U.N. soldiers were able to make it out while inflicting heavy casualties on the Chinese.
What made conditions in Korea that winter especially difficult was the extreme cold. Temperatures got as low as 30 degrees below zero. The soldiers had to wear five, six or even seven layers of clothing. Food rations, water and equipment froze, and the troops were not able to make fires to keep themselves warm.
“The temperature was just devastating,” said Ken Newton, 88, of Homer Glen. “I don’t know of anybody that didn’t have some levels of frostbite.”
Newton spent four months in Korea because he was injured and shipped back home. To this day, Howe said he can’t stand the cold and he still has numbness in his feet.
“You learn things when you’re in places like that,” Howe said as he described how his rations would be frozen solid when he’d open them. “Everything was frozen.”
More than 65 years later, both Will County residents are able to stay in touch with some of the men who served with them at Chosin Reservoir. They’re part of a group of veterans of the battle now known as the “Chosin Few.”
Although they become fewer and fewer, the men routinely go to reunions around the state and even around the country. But they still feel that the Korean War, sometimes referred to as the Korean conflict, is very much a forgotten event in American history, at least in part because it began only five years after World War II ended.
Newton described his son’s job as a high school history teacher where the curriculum didn’t cover the Korean War very much. He referred to it as the “forgotten war.”
“World War II was so devastating that when Korea starts, this country wasn’t ready for that,” Newton said.
That is part of the reason why these men, even the couple who walk with canes, try to make it out to reunions such as this one. They exchange stories and notes about their specific divisions and share artifacts from the era, including a map of Korea. It means so much to them, even all these years later.
“We got to go out and sell this lunch to these guys,” Newton said. “Because how many more are we going to have?”