Vets recall a 'Forgotten War'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For 43 years, the old gang from the 7th Infantry Division wondered what had happened to their buddy Foy Garris, the moonshiner's boy from North Carolina.

Dead, they figured. Wasted away by the fever that left him sagging in a ditch in 1951 while they surged north across the 38th parallel, toward their own little hells. Years later they checked a few archives but found nothing and gave up.

Wars are like that. Buddies die or get separated. Fathers and sons vanish without a trace, or come home with so little to say that their families wonder what must have happened. And in the case of the Korean War, such mysteries have often stayed unsolved. It was the war no one talked about much or documented to any great degree.

The big picture was well known: the grim arithmetic of 37,000 Americans lost in a three-year Cold War standoff. But, sandwiched between the triumph of World War II and the televised ignominy of Vietnam, much of its vital information always seemed just out of reach.

Then came the Internet, and one day a few years ago Patricia Layne began gushing about its powers to her dad, a retired aluminum worker in Richmond, Va., named Foy Garris.

"You know, I'd love to get in touch with my old Army buddies," Garris told his daughter. So she posted his name in a chat room. His phone began to ring. In September, Garris and four Army pals will hold their third reunion, happily rejoined in a kinship of memories only they understand.

So it goes with the soldiers of the "Forgotten War," which began 50 years ago today. Only belatedly did they get their memorial on the Mall in Washington, and only belatedly have many of them and their loved ones come to terms with the ghosts of loss and memory.

One need merely browse a few Korean War Web site to witness the bloom of rediscovery: A son seeks the buddies of his late dad, a veteran zeroes in on the guy who saved his life, a daughter pieces together her father's final moments.

"I'm not sure why I waited so long to ask questions," said Vincent A. Krepps of Towson, a veteran of Korea who didn't find out until last year what had become of his twin brother, who died in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Korea veterans "waited too long to do everything," Krepps said, "and I think if it wasn't for the Vietnam veterans we probably wouldn't have done everything we've done. ... There are still a whole lot of records that families are trying to get a hold of that are classified. But it is tough to get information anywhere on the Korean war."

"My dad was in the 2nd Division, 38th Regiment, Fox Company. ... I am 31 now, and yet there are still stories Dad won't tell me. I don't think it's because he believes I can't handle it, I just don't think he wants to remember it. Since I've been on the net, I've found other people in his unit and have brought out a few more stories and perhaps better memories that he will talk about."- Web site posting by Lance Azbell, Chicago.

Foy Garris, 70, can tell you plenty about things he'd rather not remember. There was the 10-year-old Korean boy who was watching Garris' unit clear a mine field until an explosion blew a rock toward the boy, tearing his arm off. There was the Korean mother Garris noticed seated against a wall, eyes closed, with her baby crying in a backpack. He went to see if he could help. The woman was dead.

"I had nightmares for about the first five years I was back," Garris said. "I'd wake up screaming. It's probably the reason I drink a lot of beer."

It's one reason he always had a yearning for his pals from his old infantry unit. Who else would understand what he'd gone through, yet could also remember the better moments - the laughs, the beers, the way none of them even knew where Korea was or what it looked like until they went ashore, tossed into the frenzy of battle?

To his buddies, Garris was the mountain boy from Elkin, N.C., population 3,000, the guy who knew a thing or two that they didn't.

"I was sort of a leader when it came to drinking and smoking," he said. "My people made moonshine whiskey. I grew up eight miles away from Junior Johnson," the NASCAR legend who got his driver's training running "white lightning" through the hills.

His buddies' most lasting memory of Garris was the image of a feverish young man moaning in a ditch. They were advancing, but he was too sick to move, perhaps too sick to live more than a few days.

He lost 40 pounds in three weeks, and doctors later called his ailment hemorrhagic fever, a malady that still takes lives. Even after he recovered, the Army wouldn't discharge him until he gained most of the weight back.

For a year, he worked for a friend in Elkin. Then he moved to Richmond to work for Reynolds Aluminum, staying there for 30 years, until his retirement. His four best pals never knew, although one from Minnesota checked records in North Carolina, only to come up empty-handed.

In the meantime, Garris married and raised four children. They all heard his war stories, including Patricia, now 41 and married.

"He can give you a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened," she said. "But it really was the forgotten war as far as the media were concerned. You just never heard about it. So I used the Internet.

"I was telling him how you have people from all over the world on the Internet, and he said, 'You know, I'd love to get in touch with my old Army buddies.' So I was surfing one night about two years ago and put his name in a chat room. It was in no time before he heard from somebody."

"My grandfather, Dale Kidd, was a veteran of the Korean War. ... I've been reading and doing a lot of research on this war, and I never realized the horrors that these men witnessed. My grandfather used to speak of the horrible winter he survived, but until I came across the stories of this Web site I didn't realize how bad things were. ... If anyone has any information for me, please e-mail me."- Web site posting by Brandie Laine Crisp, Grapevine, Texas.

For most of her life, Jean Gier Reynolds, 53, made a conscious choice not to find out much about the war. Her father, Marine pilot Maj. Scott Gier, was killed in Korea when she was 5, and her mother never talked about it.

Then came Jean's stepfather, also a Marine pilot who saw action in Korea. He acted like the domineering tyrant portrayed in "The Great Santini," she said, making her life so miserable that she rarely wanted to be around him, let alone hear his war stories. And because the Korean War rarely showed up in movies or news reports, it rarely entered her thoughts.

But in 1988 she happened to be visiting Austin, Texas, when the LBJ Presidential Library was showing an exhibit on the war. Something inside her made her curious, drawing her to the museum.

"So I went through this exhibit, and all of a sudden I'm just crying, because of two things. I had given up part of my whole life because of this, because of my father being killed. And I was also thinking of my stepfather, because I could see all the trauma he'd been through, and I understood what had made him the way he was."

From then on, she had to find out more, especially about how her father had died. Although she, too, prowls the Internet for information, it took a chance meeting by her uncle, Jerry McCollom, for her to uncover the truth.

McCollom, 77, also a veteran of Korea and the husband of Scott Gier's sister, Lenore, was at a 1993 reunion of combat fliers at El Toro Marine Air Station near Santa Ana, Calif. He and Lenore got in line for barbecue and began chatting with a guy named Don Tooker.

"Did you fly Corsairs?" McCollom asked.

Tooker did.

"What squadron?"

"VMF-212," Tooker replied. "The Devil Cats."

"Her brother flew there," McCollom said, pointing to Lenore. "Maybe you knew him. Scotty Gier?"

"Yes, I knew him very well," Tooker said. So well that he had a photograph in his car of himself with Gier. He also had a story to tell, a story of the last hours of Scotty Gier.

Tooker, Gier and two other, less experienced pilots were taxiing the runway for a mission across enemy lines. Tooker's Corsair got a flat and never left the ground. His replacement plane wasn't armed, so he had to stay behind, a twist of fate that haunts him to this day because of what happened to the other three planes.

Gier's plane was hit by small-arms fire, and he belly-landed his Corsair on a sandy dry riverbed in a rugged valley. With the enemy all around, one of the other two pilots flew low to offer support, because Gier was armed only with a bayonet. The third plane climbed higher to make radio contact with their base to call in a rescue mission. But that pilot wasn't accustomed to the terrain. He radioed in the wrong coordinates, and by the time the two rescue planes and an accompanying helicopter realized the mistake, they were too low on fuel to linger.

"The chopper pilot did make one run over [Gier's] Corsair," Tooker said. "And he observed that Scott was dead, and that there were four or five enemy lying around him. I've always felt bad, because I'd flown 70 or 80 missions and knew that valley so well. I think I could have got a chopper in soon enough to save his life."

Jean got the news shortly afterward, in a letter from Tooker that arrived on Christmas Eve.

"It's really almost like my father reached out of the past to touch me," she said. "It really changed my life."

"I am an infantry vet of Korea. ... This summer I went to the movie 'Saving Private Ryan.' It was really hard to handle and caused many memories to resurface, especially the scene where the medic dies. My daughters asked me why the scene affected me so much. I told them this: 'This scene took place 46 years ago - only he was a machine gunner in my company. He was hit in the chest in a mortar barrage 6 feet from me. I got to him first. Can you imagine the shock a 19-year-old gets when I look at O'Donnell's face and see his eyes are rolled around, so only the whites are visible? Do you know the gut-wrenching emotion of hearing him cry for his mother? Do you know the absolute horror of watching his blood bubble out with each dying breath?... Do you know the feeling of utter helplessness when he dies? I'm sorry O'Donnell, I'm sorry we didn't get you out. I know you didn't die in vain, I'm so sorry.'"- Internet posting of Glen Prusynski, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc.

For some veterans, the most haunting death scenes are those they never witnessed. That's the case with Vincent A. Krepps of Towson.

Krepps, now 66, went off from Essex to fight in Korea in 1950. So did his twin brother, Dickie.

Vincent won a Silver Star for gallantry after running through heavy fire behind enemy lines to commandeer an abandoned tank, which he drove through miles of treacherous territory to get help for his trapped and beleaguered unit. He was 19.

Brother Dickie never made it home.

A telegram declared him missing in action. Then the Chinese, allies of the North Koreans, sent word that he had died in a prisoner of war camp. There was no body, no details, no eyewitness account, and for Krepps it remained an open matter. He had to know more or he would never rest. He got so deeply into his mission that he ended up running "The Graybeards," an official publication of the Korean War Veterans Association, but every fresh lead seemed to go nowhere.

Then, in December 1998, about five months after his search for his brother was recounted in The Sun, Krepps got a letter from Ronald D. Lovejoy in Nevada. A few years earlier, Krepps had helped start a Web site for the veterans association. Lovejoy's daughter saw Krepps' story posted there and mentioned it to her dad.

Lovejoy seemed to have details. He said he had a photograph, too.

Having endured years of false leads and crushing disappointments, it took Krepps three months to muster the courage to telephone Lovejoy. In July, they met in Macon, Ga., at a reunion of ex-POWs.

"We did get together, and we did talk, and he did put some closure to it," Krepps said. Lovejoy, it turned out, had been in the same POW camp as Dickie, and they had both been in what passed for a camp hospital, where Dickie was slowly wasting away with illness.

"He had kept [Dickie's] picture, had been carrying it for 48 years," Krepps said. "The photo showed him walking with a cane."

In the camp, Krepps said Lovejoy told him, "they were fed barley and millet, and [Lovejoy] tried to get Dickie to eat and to take some of the charcoal that they gave out as medicine. But he said my brother was very ill."

One morning, Lovejoy awakened to find Dickie stiff and cold. The camp guards took his body outside, stacking it with others like firewood.

It wasn't an easy story to listen to, but it was one Krepps needed to hear. He wanted to know, and by knowing he has found a measure of peace.

In the wake of a war, even a war that is 50 years old, that is no small reward.

"I was in the 23rd Infantry. We charged the hill, and there was a regiment of Koreans. We had no choice but to shoot. I have been in therapy the rest of my life."- Web site posting of Gerald "Whitey" Debloix, New Jersey.

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