KEARNEY — For Ralph “Wes” Penrod of Kearney, memories of the Korean War, often called the Forgotten War, will never be forgotten. While Thursday, June 25, marks the 70th anniversary since conflict in the Asian country began in 1950, Penrod vividly remembers the 13 months he spent fighting Communist forces in the U.S. Army.
Fought between World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean War raged from 1950 to 1953. U.S. troops entered the conflict after North Korean troops pushed into South Korea across the 38th Parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south.
“They activated me into the Army on the 19th of August in 1950,” Penrod said, adding he had a growth spurt of about 5 inches while in the service. “I was 17 when I joined up, but I was about six weeks from being 18. The lieutenant who signed me up, they ended up signing me to another battery. … He ended up in another battery and I hardly ever saw him over there because we were in separate units. He ended up losing his life over there.”
The now-octogenarian initially joined the Wyoming National Guard with a friend. He joined as a “recruit” and was later assigned to the 300th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, which became one of the most highly decorated Wyoming units to serve in any war.
According to the Army National Guard archives, on May 15, 1951, three corps of the Chinese People’s Volunteers launched a major offensive against the 2nd Infantry Division. The 300th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, attached to the 2nd Division during the Battle of Soyang, delivered “devastating artillery fire for seven days, inflicting thousands of enemy casualties.”
On May 18 of that year, the battalion was given the mission of destroying an enemy roadblock.
“The batteries of the 300th poured both direct and indirect fire on the roadblock, allowing retreating U.N. forces to fall back to more secure positions. The heroic and determined stand of the 2nd Division and its attached units allowed the Eighth Army to regroup and stop the enemy envelopment. For its gallantry in action, the battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the first of four awards that the 300th would earn,” states the Guard archives.
Of his 13 months in service during the war, Penrod served nine in combat as a cannoneer. The equipment that enabled the 300th AFA was the Priest M-7 Howitzer, an American self-propelled artillery vehicle manufactured during World War II.
“We had a crew of seven people, so I think that’s why they called the M-7,” he said. “We had a driver, the chief, the gunner and then Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the men. … The shells were approximately 4 inches in diameter and weighed approximately 148 pounds.”
Penrod said he was one of the few lucky ones who got to come home alive or without serious injury. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, total service member deaths from the time of the war were around 54,200, with 33,739 of those deaths taking place during combat.
“Their shells, they made a noise similar to fireworks when they went off,” Penrod said of enemy fire. “When we heard that whistling noise, we would run for cover and run for a hole to crawl in to save ourselves from getting hit by an aerial burst.”
While not seriously physically wounded, Penrod said flashbacks are brought on by the sounds of fireworks as it reminds him of jumping into foxholes to avoid the hot steel fragments that rained down on him and his fellow soldiers when they took on enemy fire.
“So many vets, and for me today, when I hear that kind of whistle, I’m ready to run,” he said. “It’s a danger sign.”
In July of 1953, an armistice was signed signifying an end to the fighting. The U.S. was one of 22 United Nations allies in the war. According to the Department of Defense, the armistice was the longest negotiated armistice in history with 158 meetings spread over two years and 17 days.
Looking back, Penrod said he does not think the U.S. fully anticipated what the war would become, saying it started out as a peace-keeping mission.
“I think the idea of stopping the Communism was probably right. If we hadn’t, they probably would have taken over most of Asia,” he said. “Our government … wasn’t prepared for all of this to happen. They had men from the United States as occupational forces in Japan. In 1950, they took a lot of those guys and shipped them over (to Korea) and they were sent to Japan as peace-keeping forces and not for fighting in Korea. They were not prepared to fight that fight in combat. They ended up putting a lot of troops in.”