Originally published in the Missoulian 1997. ©2011 by Gary Glynn
Soon after the Korean War broke out in late June, 1950, Ken Brown of Hamilton found himself aboard a ship carrying the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division to Korea. Immediately after landing in July, Brown and his fellow infantrymen were thrown into combat in an effort to halt the North Korean advance that threatened to capture the entire peninsula.
As American and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces retreated into the Pusan Perimeter, Brown and his squad of eight men found themselves responsible for holding an impossible 500-yard line along the Naktong River. “If they had come across the river, they would have rolled right through us.”
He was in constant combat, “from the time I arrived until I came back.” The situation was desperate, and conditions for the soldiers were terrible. They lived in foxholes and ate cold food out of cans most of the time.
“When we were in the Naktong River perimeter, we had a company mess and we had warm chow once a day. We had a jeep that kept us posted with ammo, but you’d go three or four weeks without changing fatigues, and you’d get pretty grungy. You’d try and scrounge some socks, but we didn’t have too much else.”
As the fortunes of war shifted, the 1st Cavalry moved north, entering the South Korean capital of Seoul, then crossing the 38th Parallel. By Oct. 12, 1950 they were well on their way to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, when Brown was wounded. “I was a squad leader at the time, a PFC doing a sergeant’s work.”
Thick fog obscured the terrain as the soldiers moved downhill. “We moved down through the valley. I crossed a road and went down into a defile. Then I heard one of our squad leaders say that our tanks were coming down the road, so that we should get away from the main road itself. By so doing I exposed myself to sniper fire.”
“I was shot through the right forearm and lost most of my right elbow. The medic that attended me, apparently they shot at him and hit the canteen on his belt. The water was running down his leg, and he thought he’d been wounded too.”
“The first aid man cut my sleeve off, and gave me a shot of novocaine, then put a bandage on. Then an ambulance came up, and we went back to a MASH unit.”
Several days later, Brown was evacuated to the United States. “We probably had one hundred litter patients on the plane, they were stacked about five high on either side of the aisle. Some guys were getting transfusions, and others were getting shots.”
Brown spent months in the hospital and had surgery twice to repair his elbow. “They put new parts in my elbow, like the bionic man.” Still, his old wound gives him trouble. “I can’t really control the strength of my hand. I shake hands with somebody and they wince.”
“It’s strange, when you’re young and strong like that, you’re bullheaded, you think nothing can hurt you. When you find out the reality it can change your personality. You find out you are afraid. You try to overcome it.”
As one of the first wounded veterans to return from Korea, Brown said he was treated like a returning hero. “I came back before the peace talks or before the armistice was negotiated in ’53. People knew you, and they treated you with respect.”
He eventually went to work for the Treasury Department, then became an FBI agent and private investigator, but his memories of the war remain close to the surface. “They’re almost etched in your mind. You don’t forget. Sometimes things will happen during the day, that will remind you of some of your experiences.”
Like every veteran interviewed for this series, Brown feels a debt of gratitude towards Charlie Crookshanks and the other members of the Montana Korean War Memorial Committee, and is looking forward to the Memorial dedication on Saturday.
“Well I can’t wait. It’s overdue, but I really appreciate what people and corporations have done.”