Poring over his meticulous collection of snapshots of the Korean War, Missoula resident Dennis Tate recalls his military service with mixed emotions. “It was quite an experience, but I don’t think I would want to go through it again.”
Tate is one of a group of local men who have been working for more than a year to build the Montana Korean War Memorial in Missoula, which will be dedicated June 14th.
“My dad was in the first war, and was wounded very severely, and then I had two brothers in World War II, and it was kind of assumed in my family that if you were called, you went, and you did what you were told to do.”
Drafted at age 19, Tate arrived in Korea in April 1952, and traveled by train and truck across much of the devastated country before he arrived at his assigned unit.
By the spring of 1952, both the United Nations troops and their North Korean and Chinese adversaries were weary of combat, and the war had settled down to a bloody stalemate along a static front line. “They were still shooting at each other, but rather spasmodically, and not at us. Fortunately.”
Along with one other soldier, Tate was assigned to a radio van loaded with top-secret communications gear. The van came equipped with thermite grenades to destroy the equipment and documents. “It was set up so that if you knew you were going to be overrun, you could just push the button and it would burn everything up.” The two men worked 12-hour shifts relaying messages from the front lines to artillery units and headquarters in the rear.
“We were never right up on the front lines, but I saw them bring in some people by helicopter, soldiers that had been wounded, and some that had been killed. We did have some shells fired at us a time or two, but just a few rounds. This was up by the Punchbowl area, which is on the eastern side of Korea.”
“When we first went there we were living in bunkers, which were really rotten.” Eventually the men moved into small tents equipped with pot-bellied stoves. Sometimes the temperatures dropped so low that coal-oil froze, and the soldiers were forced to use gasoline in their stoves, an extremely hazardous way to keep warm.
Tate compares the climate and terrain of Korea with that of Montana, very cold in the winter, and hot in the summer. The hillsides were steep, and the mountain roads treacherous. “Those roads were horribly slick. A lot of the people who didn’t know how to drive in that kind of terrain had a problem.”
“When I got there, we didn’t have real warm clothing, and I wrote my mother to send my elk-hunting underwear, and boots, and a feather pillow.”
“One thing that really amazed me over there was that the kids were still going to school in their little uniforms. They were trotting along right in our area. Right in the middle of a war zone.”
After a year of hardships in Korea, Tate rotated home just a few months before a cease-fire was finally agreed upon. Forty-one years after he left, he returned to South Korea in 1994 to find the devastation he had known had all been repaired.
“You wouldn’t know it was the same country.”
He marvels at the welcome the South Koreans extend to returning veterans. “They treated us like we were royalty. It was unbelievable. They allow you to go back once like that. They [the South Korean government] pick up the tab once you hit Korea, and boy, you are treated first class.” Tate and his wife traveled to Seoul, Pusan, and to the truce village of Panmunjom, where they came face-to-face with two North Korean soldiers peering curiously through a window.
Two summers ago, Dennis Tate attended the dedication of the U.S. Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., and just last week he was present when the black granite panels of the Montana Korean War Memorial were installed in Rose Park.
Reflecting on the 138 Montana men killed in Korea, Tate shook his head quietly, “some of those guys that were over there when South Korea was invaded, they had it real tough.”