Donald Polzin’s 24th birthday is one he will never forget.
On that day, Nov. 30, 1951, he was drafted into service for the Korean War.
Korea had been divided at the 38th Parallel after World War II, with the Allies controlling the southern half and the Soviet Union controlling the north. There were periodic cross-border skirmishes, but it escalated and war began when North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950.
The United States provided more than 300,000 military personnel to assist the South Koreans.
As we celebrated Veteran’s Day this month, we interviewed some of the heroic men who enlisted and were called into action to serve during this war.
Polzin, a native of Wisconsin who now lives on Des Moines’ northwest side, had graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. Rather than pursue a career with his degree, the young Polzin found himself being sent to Fort Belvoir, Va., for training with the U.S. Army. He was trained to be an engineer.
After training he was shipped overseas. His group landed at Incheon, Korea, before heading inland to Chuncheon, near the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea during the war. He arrived nine months before the armistice agreement went into effect on July 27, 1953, and remained in the country for three months afterward.
While in Korea, Polzin was in the 19th Engineer Combat Group in the 10th Army Corps. He and his fellow comrades built roads and bridges, set mines, tested materials for road construction, surveyed sites and created maps for the South Koreans of the infrastructure they built.
His group was located in a combat zone about five miles behind the front line for nine months of the time while he was in Korea. He says the group received some artillery fire and bombing that consisted of mortar shells being thrown out the window of light planes that would fly overhead during the night.
He says occasionally soldiers were hurt and a few were killed during the attacks, but mostly it was just harassment from the North Koreans. Polzin was charged with manning a 50-calibur machine gun, so anytime the sirens went off from an attack, he would get in the foxhole and man the gun.
Polzin says one event he’ll never forget is the Christmas Day he spent in Korea. The Russians had given the Koreans a B-51 Mustang. The North Koreans flew the plane toward where Polzin’s group was stationed. Three Navy planes shot it down overheard as soldiers on the ground watched. It is unknown whether the intent was to bomb the American base.
“I just happened to look up and see it happening,” Polzin says, adding that he thought it was sad that on a day when they should have been celebrating Christmas, a plane was being shot down.
One of Polzin’s other duties was to work as a movie projectionist. The base where he was located would receive three movies a week that were shipped over from the United States. Polzin took a turn every other night operating the projector.
“That was our major entertainment over there,” he says.
Polzin also was an amateur photographer. He took about 500 photos while he was in Korea. Most of those pictures are on slides that he periodically shows to share military life during the Korean War with others. The pictures show scenes of the South Korean countryside, Polzin’s winter and summer bunks, several of him and his buddies and other aspects of his time in the service.
Polzin served just short of two years — actually he was in Korea one day longer than he had to be. He says he remembers one day an officer came in and asked him if he was Don Polzin. He replied “Yes,” and the officer told him: “Well, you’ve been here one day too long.”
The war was starting to wind down, and men were being sent home after a year of service. Polzin was discharged in late 1953.
“I’m real fortunate to have had as easy of a time as I did,” he says of his service during the Korean War. “I feel that service in Korea was at least one … that I don’t feel too bad about. I think we did a good thing. If you look at Korea today and what it is compared to North Korea today, I hate to think that South Korea would have ended up in the same position as North Korea is today.”
He says Korea is a well-developed country and a good competitor to the United States, while North Korea has remained more primitive. He believes that is a result of the war and the influence of the United States.
Robert “Bob” Martin also served in Korea, but, ironically, it wasn’t during the Korean War.
Martin, who lives in Beaverdale, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1953 at age 17. He dropped out of high school to do so and later received his equivalency degree through the General Educational Development tests.
“My brother was in the Marines, and it was something back in them days that everybody pretty much served in the military one way or the other,” he recalls.
Martin was sent to Marine boot camp in San Diego. The Korean War was still going on when he enlisted, so at the time, it was unknown whether he would end up being sent overseas because peace talks had been discussed for several years.
He ended up being sent to several locations in the United States before being stationed to Hawaii after the war was over to work in military police. He worked in a Marine Corps brigade as security for two years and then spent a year working in construction on the base during his time in Hawaii.
Martin was discharged from the Marines in 1956 but later decided he wanted to continue a career in the military.
“At that time, the economy wasn’t good,” he says. “It was hard to find a decent job, so I went out to California to see my sister, and while I was there, I enlisted in the Army.”
He joined the U.S. Army in 1959. Because of his previous military experience, Martin easily passed a field test, which meant he did not have to take Army basic training.
“It’s an experience I wouldn’t have missed,” he says of his time in the military. “I got to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have done.”
Martin also worked as a member of the military police while in the Army. At the time the United States still had about 50,000 troops in Korea, so he was sent there to work.
He says his worst experience in the military was the time he traveled from the United States to Korea on a troop ship. The ship docked at the Kodiak and Adak islands to drop off supplies and traveled through the Bearing Sea. It was March, the weather was bad and the seas were very rocky.
“It was terrible out there,” Martin recalls. “Today, I tell people that’s the worst place I’ve ever been.”
In March 1960, Martin arrived in Korea and spent the next 13 months there. Shortly after he arrived, the people of Korea, led by student protests and uprisings, overthrew President Syngman Rhee, who had been the first president of the country.
“It was quite a deal at the time,” Martin recalls. “We had to keep weapons loaded.”
Martin and the other military police lived in Quonset huts on military compound surrounded by barbed wire fence, with two tanks guarding the gate. He says during the uprising against Rhee, the U.S. troops were ordered to avoid interference. They were even ordered to not intervene when the Koreans attacked each other, with some pulling others from their vehicles and killing them.
“We were told this was an internal problem and that we were not allowed to intervene,” Martin recalls. “It was sad that we weren’t allowed to intervene.”
After the uprising, he says things calmed down in the country. He returned to the United States after his term in Korea and spent the rest of his service in the Army at Fort Hood, Texas.
Martin served in the Army until 1962, being discharged just before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
America’s outlook on war was changed forever.