By Keyshawn Ashford
“I was given a bible, told to jump out of a plane…..I really didn’t believe nor understand exactly what we were fighting for,” he recalled, somber and stoic in expression while describing his time in the Korean war. “I was a line soldier, machine gunner…I was ordered to open fire…..on many occasions we were in villages… I killed children…[killing children] you regret but not women, they were fighting as soldiers. I never regret opening up on adults who were trying to kill [us].” The Korean war was short compared to most wars. However, the Korean war was a bloodbath. Nearly five million people died. There were more civilian casualties in Korea than Vietnam and World War II. It is estimated on History.com that more than half of Korean war deaths were civilians
Growing up my Grandpa never spoke about his time in the war. I recently got in touch with my Grandpa Robert to conduct an interview about a veteran experience for my English class. This was the first time I had a discussion with him about his experience. I laugh because we had to give him a lot of notice including questions and schedule in advance because I think maybe he is still on military time. During the interview I discovered that Grandpa was actually drafted. I asked him where he was at the time he got his draft letter. He said he was 23 years old working for a plumbing company that manufactured plumbing equipment. The year was 1950.
Grandpa couldn’t specifically recall what the war was about, but he remembers a lot of talk about communism and a possibility of WWIII. He recalls it being a fight over western cultural ideals and eastern ways. There was a lot of talk about good vs. evil. When searching if this was in fact true I found this quote…..“If we let Korea down,” President Harry Truman said, “the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.”
History.com also states that “In fact, in April 1950, a National Security Council report known as NSC-68 had recommended that the United States use military force to ‘contain’ communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring, “regardless of the intrinsic strategic or economic value of the lands in question.” Simply, it appears the Korean war, regardless of death toll, was meant to stop the spread of communism, regardless of cost.
Although it is important to understand why Grandpa was fighting and the background of the Korean war, I wasn’t necessarily interested and couldn’t quite understand. I wanted to know all about his training and battles. Therefore, I asked him what training steps he took before going overseas and before going into battle. He recalled going to Fort Haling, Kentucky, for basic army training. While there he described being able to choose the airborne division. He described learning how to drop out of planes with a parachute and then he learned hand-to-hand combat training for ground defenses. Grandpa described learning about physics, like I am now. My Grandfather said, “You can’t jump with a lot of wind. On one jump twenty-three soldiers jumped but twenty-two parachutes failed to open.” I was freaking out. In training Grandpa was issued a uniform. Grandpa was able to remember his number on his issued uniform. He emphatically stated “US 52009861” but instead of “Robert” he had to write “Bobby” on his outfit. After basic and airborne training “Bobby” was placed in Japan and learned more combat training but was on standby alert to be shipped to Korea. After about 30 days in Japan Robert “Bobby” Mardis was off to the Korean War front lines.
I asked him, “When you finally landed in Korea what was going through your mind when you heard actual bombs going off?”
He described, “The only thing I wanted to do was to make it out alive and the only thing on my mind was survival.” Those that did not focus during training died first. Again, he said the only thing on his mind when he opened fire on the enemy and they fired back was basic instinctual survival…. period. He also remembered his first combat was at night. He recalled navigating what he described as booby traps. In this first battle they were getting overrun and had to fall back. That evening he recalled sleeping in holes. He also remembers dragging the wounded back, and even though it was difficult he said, “When you are scared you can do anything.” As if in a movie line, he said, “Never leave a wounded soldier!” It was relayed to me almost like a command.
I then wanted to discuss specific instances he thought stuck in his mind. I asked, “Grandpa, can you discuss if you had any significant battles?”
He said, “No battles I was necessarily a part of were recorded in history but rather stuck in my mind. I recalled regular missions with a lot of gunfire going back and forth so much that there was a cloud of smoke from my machine gun fire.” He remembered shooting down on villages as a radio machine gunner but also the grenades in fox holes stood out in his mind. Grandpa described most battles as being extremely bloody. He recalled many women, children dying and its impact. He said a lot of his comrades went A-wall. He was choked up when he talked about quite a few of his close buddies dying in combat. He said, “You never knew when you was going to be killed.”
After a while we then talked about his darkest moment which really impacted me on a deep level. I wanted to hear about the time he ended up wounded. Grandpa recalled going into a very bloody battle where his company was getting overrun. He ended up wounded in his leg, but it wasn’t life threatening. In order to survive he put two dead soldiers over him. The bodies were continually shot at, and lying underneath he lasted two days. “During this time I thought about dying. I recalled thinking about hunting, fishing and my home life to get me through.” To this day he walks with a cane. Assuredly, a constant reminder of his days at war.
After hearing about Grandpa’s darkest moment, I wanted to know if there were any moments he felt particularly proud or felt accomplished. He also recalled a moment when he saved his friend whom he called “Scrubs.” He said Scrubs had type A blood and Grandpa was type O, and despite the difference in blood types he was able to save his life by giving Scrubs blood after he blew his arm off.
Despite all my Grandpa sacrificed and went through, I needed to hear about his experience as a black man and what that meant during and after the war. He did say that in 1950 black men were treated poorly; specifically he said, “Black was miserable when you left and was miserable when you came back,” although when he was back in the United States he kissed the ground and soil and was glad to be back. “I recalled how badly black men were being treated during the war and I believe it’s worse now. Every white person thought black people were going to rob them and shoot them despite the fact black men like myself were fighting on their behalf to help stop WWIII from occurring.” Grandpa also recalled General Macarthur only allowing two to three black men per company. Grandpa said the black men he knew fought harder and smarter. He also despised certain people because of the way they treated him, like a third class citizen. Despite fighting equally some men never changed their racist opinions. This is important because this shows how discriminated against as a black male in the war.
Overall, Grandpa said he doesn’t miss anything. But there were some but few beneficial things that came from his time in Korea, including being able to go to school for free and the ability to buy a home with a lower interest rate. He said, “If I were to give advice to anyone going to war, it would to be to just look out for each other and have good thinking.” In retrospect, he said the only decision that he wished could have changed was actually being drafted. “A lot things could have and still need to change with people in Washington when it comes to war,” he said. He recalled personally having a different way of thinking when he came home. He hoped that Washington would come up with a better way of supplying people for war. He also questioned the success of the Korean war itself. He said he believed it is still rough for Koreans and is still a bad situation, especially in North Korea. He said it wasn’t worth it in the end in his eyes. He said, “Nothing was accomplished.”
Conclusively, I was glad to be given this assignment. I never had spoken to my Grandpa about his experience in the Korean War. I’m grateful to have had this conversation considering he is 89 years old and still moving. This important because maybe one day I can teach my kids about how their great grandpa was in the Korean War. Also seeing my grandfather being a black male in war shows that you can overcome any obstacle.