Veteran speaks of time in Korea

11/9/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Sixty years later, certain memories of the Korean War still cause veteran Ronald Burbridge to choke up.

A 4-year-old Korean boy, frightened out of his mind, tentatively accepting a piece of chocolate from a young Marine before scurrying quickly away like a scared rabbit.

A buddy falling gravely wounded in front of him, taken to an aid station that later was overrun and everyone in it killed.

"Marines don't cry," Burbridge said Friday morning toward the end of his presentation at Garden City Community College. "So if you see any tears, why, don't tell anyone."

Burbridge struggled to compose himself a couple of times while telling a story about a good friend in his platoon who was shot in the stomach while crossing an open spot as the platoon was on its way to shore up a fellow platoon.

Burbridge and another man went out to get the fallen Marine and took him to an aid station. But before his friend could get picked up and transported out, the aid station was overrun by Chinese.

"Every wounded person in that aid station was killed. And I still today, 60-some years later, have a problem with that," Burbridge said. "Here we thought we was going to help him and he didn't make it."

Burbridge showed photos of his time in Korea and provided a fascinating history lesson for a good-sized crowd at the Pauline Joyce Fine Arts Building at GCCC. Sponsored by the Brookover Lecture Series and the GCCC Student Government Association, Friday's presentation was part of local Veterans Day activities.

Burbridge joined the Marine Corps in 1948 and served as part of the 2nd Platoon, Baker Company 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment 1st Marine Division. On June 1, 1950, he re-enlisted for another two years. Then on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, and Burbridge soon found himself on a crowded boat headed for combat.

Combat, Burbridge said, is hell. The reason he decided to start making presentations and talking to groups was out of a desire to prevent the Korean War from being lost to history. Burbridge was astounded when he learned a few years ago how little Korean War history is mentioned in school textbooks.

"I don't want the Korean War to be lost. We were in between World War II and Vietnam. We lost over 50,000 American troops in Korea from 1950-53," he said. "Four years ago, I couldn't have done this. But when I found out how little people knew about the Korean War, I got up enough courage to do it."

Burbridge especially thinks people need to know about Chosin Reservoir, a major battle in the war in which the Chinese badly outnumbered the Marine 1st Division.

During the 17-day battle fought in brutally cold weather, roughly 12,000 Marines were encircled by 120,000 Communist Chinese and North Korean troops.

Although surrounded and outnumbered, the Allied forces inflicted crippling losses to the Chinese and North Korean troops.

Burbridge and his Marine Company fought in temperatures down to 50 degrees below zero. The Allied forces broke out of the encirclement and retreated to the port of Hungnam.

Out of the 240 members of his company, only 28 men walked away from the battle. The others were killed or wounded. Burbidge was one of the wounded. He was just 22 during the time of the battle.

Burbridge said words are inadequate to describe the cold. Weather reports didn't talk about the wind-chill factor back then, but if they had, Burbridge estimates the wind chill during December 1950 was probably 70 to 90 degrees below zero.

"The temperature was as much of an enemy to us as the enemy. Everything froze," he said.

Guns froze. Artillery rounds fell short. The only benefit, and a ghoulish one at that, was it was so cold it prevented the wounded from bleeding to death. The cold was one thing. The horde of Chinese pouring out of the hills was another.

"They would come out mainly at night. You were half asleep, half frozen. They would come at us in droves, hundreds of them, screaming, blowing whistles and bugles, trying to scare you," Burbridge said. "I can't explain the mass they would attack us in. Life meant nothing to those people. They had nothing to go home for, so life meant nothing to them. Of course, us old Marines wanted to go home."

Burbridge said he fired his weapon so much during the battle he couldn't touch the barrel because it would burn his hand.

"We were told by the Koreans that the winter of 1950 was the coldest they had had in over 100 years. It was a little chilly," Burbridge said, displaying a sense of humor about the situation.

Amid the chaos were times of levity. Burbridge said one day, his wife sent him a letter from his draft board back home warning Burbridge a warrant would be issued for his arrest if he did not report for the draft in 10 days.

"I was sitting on a hill in Korea. I wrote back to my wife and said 'You tell those people where I'm at and if they want to come and get me, I won't give them any problems,'" he said.

Burbridge also talked about the great respect he has for his platoon commander, Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee, the first regular non-white U.S. Marine Corps officer.

"I thank God many, many times that he was my platoon commander," Burbridge said.

Now a major, Burbridge said Lee could speak Chinese fluently and seemed to know exactly what the enemy was planning.

"A brilliant man, and combat-wise, probably one of the best field-line officers the Marine Corps had at that time. He was very strict, by the book, but he was responsible for many of us getting out alive," he said.

One of those times occurred on a push to get to and shore up another company that was holding an important mountain pass. In a blinding snowstorm, one in which you couldn't see a hand in front of your face, the Marines came upon a Chinese outpost. They couldn't see the Chinese, but they could hear them talking.

Lee told his troops to not say a word, and then proceeded to speak in Chinese to the enemy troops and convince them that the Marines were actually Chinese themselves, Burbridge said. The trick worked, and Lee led 800 Marines through the enemy line to get to the company holding the pass.

"When we got another 300 or 400 yards on by, Lt. Lee told them who we were. They were a little bit upset," Burbridge said.

During the presentation, Burbridge said he wanted to emphasize that while much of his talk covered his experiences in Korea as a Marine, it is important to understand that all military branches were involved in the war and went through similarly tough circumstances.

In response to a question from the audience, Burbridge said coming home after the war was difficult.

"It took me probably a couple of years to really realize that I was home and safe. And God bless America," he said. "It takes awhile, and I still feel it now. It's going to take me a week or so to come down off the wall after this, but yes, it takes a long time to recover."

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