Korean War veterans recall years in service
This year marks 60 years since the Korean War came to a close. Veterans of that war, La Fayette “Willy” Wilson and Earl Miller, residents of South Peninsula Hospital’s Long Term Care facility, recently shared with the Homer News their memories of military service and the lives they’ve lived in the six decades since that war ended.
La Fayette “Willy” Wilson,
“I wanted to be in the Marine Corps since I was about six years old,” said Wilson, 78, born in Kansas and raised in San Francisco, Calif.
Wilson enlisted on his 17th birthday, Oct. 29, 1952, and served until Oct. 28, 1956.
Asked why the Marines, his steely-eyed glare underscored his response.
“Because they’re the best. They’re the Marines. Everybody else is secondary. That was some of the best four years I’ve had in my life,” he said.
All except for boot camp in San Diego.
“I was a little bit miserable there,” he admitted. “They work the hell out of you in the Marines.”
Daily chapel service offered a welcomed break to boot camp’s demands, even for atheists like Wilson.
“You went to church because it gave you an hour’s sleep,” said Wilson. “Sometimes you’d go in, sit down, wake up half an hour later and there’d be so much snoring going on that you couldn’t hear the g------ preacher.”
Trained in Memphis, Tenn., as an aviation electronics technician, Wilson spent time on the ground and in the air. Once he turned 18, he was shipped from Santa Ana, Calif., to Korea and then Japan in support of the Korean War.
His transport overseas was aboard “an old leftover victory ship from World War II they brought out of mothballs,” he said. The crossing was supposed to take 14 days.
“It took 19 days and we never had one day of calm weather. I was sick every day,” said Wilson, who survived the time on a barely tolerable diet of soda crackers and milk and long hours spent on deck in the fresh air.
His duties kept him out of combat, but “a little tiff” in Japan required his training as a Marine to avoid trouble with the Japanese police. That was only one of many adventures the gruff-speaking Marine had in his life, during his military service and in the years since.
After returning to the United States, he wanted a couple years of embassy duty, “and then after that, I was theirs for life if they wanted me.” The Marines had other plans, however.
“They wanted me to just do the same job I was doing,” he said. “I can’t blame them. They put a lot of money into training me. … But they wouldn’t give me what I wanted to re-enlist.”
So, he didn’t.
Wilson gives no quarter to veterans who whine or embellish their service “to build up their egos.” As a charter member of the Marine Corps League, he served as chaplain, a curious role for an atheist, but “I figured that worked out good because I could handle everybody. They were all the same to me.”
After leaving the Marines, Wilson worked for a phone company, spent seven years driving truck for a newspaper and during a 14-year period he bartended in the heart of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
He was married for a time and has had three children.
In 1982, he left California and headed north, arriving in Homer on April 2 of that year.
“A buddy of mine had read some dumb book and decided we had to come up here and check it out,” said Wilson. “He didn’t stay and I did.”
He worked on the North Slope for several years and, in Homer, installed satellite dishes, worked in a restaurant and helped cook for charity events.
“I designed my life to be a good story,” said Wilson, wearing a sable hat a friend brought him from Ukraine and a turquoise crocheted scarf
another friend made. “If I was doing something I didn’t like, I started doing something else.”
U.S. Army Air Force
Originally from Montana, Earl Miller, 87, began his military service in the United States Army Air Force beginning in January 1946.
Trained to be an airplane mechanic, Miller served with “one of the first groups of mechanics that went over to Germany with the P-80s.” The P-80, nicknamed the Shooting Star, was the first U.S. turbojet-powered fighter and the first U.S. operational combat aircraft to exceed 500 miles per hour in level flight.
“The older pilots didn’t want any part of them,” said Miller of attitudes toward the aircraft. “Most of them had their time in and didn’t care to risk their necks in a new outfit.”
After returning to the United States, Miller decided to leave the military, but that didn’t last for long.
“In order to get out of the service, I had to sign up for inactive duty. That’s how come I was involved in that Korean deal. They recalled me,” he said.
For Miller’s second round in the Army Air Force, which had become the Air Force in 1947, he was sent for additional training as an engine mechanic. When his term of service was completed, he was still going to school.
“As soon as I finished school, I signed the release to get out,” said Miller.
He went on to work in sawmills in Montana and Washington, an occupation that cost him the sight of his right eye following an accident. For 20 years he worked on railroads in Washington and Oregon.
His son, Mike, and daughter, Patti, were born during his first marriage; the woman who became his second wife had eight children.
“And I have a lot of grandkids,” said Miller.
When his second wife died in 1998, Miller was already retired and “there was nothing left in Washington for me.”
With Mike and Patti living in Homer, he packed everything he had in a U-Haul and drove to Homer in 1999.
“It was a good drive, but I got awfully tired with that U-Haul,” he said.
Although its application didn’t extend into civilian life, it is the training Miller received while in the military that stands out.
“I had quite a history of schooling, but it didn’t do me any good. It was just for the service,” he said. “None of it helped afterwards.”
Liberated from Japan in 1945, Korea was a country divided by the 38th Parallel, with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south. On June 24, 1959, North Korea, with the support of the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea.
With backing from the United Nations and troops furnished by the United States, South Korea fought back. The war ended in July 1953, with more than a million combat casualties on both sides and the country still divided.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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