Originally published in the Missoulian 1997 by Gary Glynn. ©2011.
Fred Raunig of Missoula can still fit into his Marine Corps dress uniform, four decades after it was issued, and he plans to wear it at the dedication of the Montana Korean War Memorial on June 14. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he explains.
Like many 19-year-old boys in 1951, Raunig joined the Marine Corps rather than waiting to be drafted. By the time he arrived in Korea in October 1951, United Nations forces had been battling the North Koreans and their Chinese allies for more than a year.
Raunig found himself fighting in a place very similar to his native Montana, with sub-zero temperatures and forbidding mountains. “It was like fighting a war here. The terrain is like the upper Rattlesnake, with the cliffs and the deep valleys coming up to the ridges.” Unlike the Rattlesnake however, the hills of Korea were occupied by hundreds of thousands of enemy soldiers. Raunig spent his nights on patrol, slipping and sliding down the ridges, climbing laboriously back up, always on the lookout for Communist soldiers.
“We were on line all through Thanksgiving and Christmas, with incoming artillery and skirmishes, nearly on a nightly basis. Once in a while one of the sentries would lay down on the job and go to sleep. They [the Chinese] were sneaky, they were silent. They could get over our trip-wires, they could get through the barbed wire. They would just grab somebody by his sleeping bag and drag him down the hill, in his bag. So you always had either a .45 pistol or a carbine in your sleeping bag.”
Although Raunig spent most of his time assigned to a mortar section, he also carried a flame-thrower in attacks against enemy bunkers, caves, and tanks, and once helped repel a Chinese human-wave attack against his position. Although the flame-thrower was an awesome weapon, it left the operator exposed to enemy fire.
“With a flame-thrower you have 27 seconds of fuel. Half a minute, it’s a long time to be holding a flame-thrower out there. One burst, then you’ve got to move because they know where you’re at, and you’ve got to get the heck out of there.”
Raunig speaks matter-of-factly about the hardships of living in soggy sleeping bags, of eating C-rations for weeks at a time, of clothes worn until they rotted away. His unit was finally taken off the front line just after Christmas, 1951 and they were sent to hunt down North Koreans who had infiltrated behind the lines. “On the second or third night out, the first sergeant woke up in the morning in a tizzy. The guards were out, but everybody else was totally buried in the snow. Thirty inches of snow. You couldn’t find anybody.”
It was the terrain, not the enemy, that finally ended Raunig’s combat tour. “I took a tumble and I injured my knee, and I didn’t realize how bad it was, and I continued to walk on it.” Diagnosed with a fractured kneecap, Raunig was eventually sent home, where he looked up a girl he had met before he went overseas.
Juanita Raunig explains how she won the heart of the handsome Marine. “I wanted to do my patriotic duty, so I would bake him cookies, make him candy, and write him letters. I’m surprised he married me because by the time he got the package the cookies were crumbled, and the candy had turned to sugar, and it was a terrible mess. But he knew somebody back here was thinking about him.”
Fred Raunig, who serves on the Montana Korean War Memorial committee, thinks the upcoming memorial dedication in Missoula will bring some past due recognition to Korean War veterans. “We were forgotten, beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“I have no regrets about going over there. It was an experience. I’m not proud of everything I did over there, but you do what you have to do. You have a job to do, you do your job, you come home, and forget it.”