Veterans Still Feel The Hidden Wounds; Soldiers Went From Frostbite To Cold Shoulder

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared June 21, 2000 in the Metro section of The Post. It was part of a series called, “Invation Plus 50; The Legacy of Korea.” ­

Frank Hackett does not talk much about what happened during the Korean War, because of the dreams those memories bring, but his children know the meaning of certain events and dates.

"They know September 15," said Hackett. "That's the first day I ever killed anybody."

That was the day 50 years ago when Hackett, then an 18-year-old private first class, landed with the 1st Marine Division at Inchon. Moving inland, Hackett spotted a North Korean soldier shooting at Marines. Hackett aimed his rifle at him.

"I had done everything the Marine Corps taught me. I put his head right on top of the sight, but I couldn't pull the trigger, because I guess I thought about it. You're raised 'Thou shalt not kill.' " 

Then through his sight, Hackett watched as the North Koreanpointed his rifle at him. Even from a distance, the gun looked huge. Hackett pulled the trigger and promptly threw up. "I got sick because I killed somebody," he said. "After that, it didn't bother me."

Hackett, a 68-year-old Herndon resident, is a bluff and plain-spoken man, but like many Korean War veterans, he is conflicted about his experience. "I think it was worth it," he said. "If I had to do it over again, that's a different story.

"Knowing what I know now, and what I've suffered over the years, I would say I wouldn't do it, I'd rather not go," he said. "But we all can't say that. Somebody had to go."

Hackett went. His experience is in many ways emblematic of that ofthe nearly 1.8 million other Americans who went and served in theKorean War. They come from a generation closer to World War II than Vietnam, one in which sacrifices were borne with little complaint. Nearly 37,000 of them died, and 8,100 remain missing. For many of those who made it home, the war took a heavy physical and emotional toll that lingers and is often overlooked.

"We paid a high price," Hackett said. "I'm paying for it now."

Thousands of veterans are expected to assemble Sunday at theKorean War Veterans Memorial on the Mall and in Seoul for ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the start of the war June 25, 1950, but Hackett will not be among them. "Why go someplace that's going to give you nothing but bad memories anyway?" he said. "I can't bring myself to go to the Mall to see theKorean memorial. I just don't want to do it. I'm an emotional person, and those things tear me up. I best leave it alone."

That view has sometimes made it difficult for organizers of the 50th commemoration ceremonies to get the word out to Korean War veterans. They never joined service organizations in the same way that veterans of World War II and other wars did. Only 13 percent ofKorean veterans belong to such organizations, according to Army Col. Charles Borchini, deputy director of the Pentagon's commemorations committee.

"The war ended in a non-celebratory way," said Richard Kolb, publisher of VFW Magazine. "When they came home, they come home quietly. There were not many parades. That generation was used to winning clear-cut victories, and they grew up in that generation. They themselves may not have felt quite up to par."

The term adopted by President Harry S. Truman and others to describe the conflict--police action--rankles to this day. "If you lose [thousands] dead, that's some kind of war, I don't care what theysay," Hackett said.

Hackett tried joining some of the organizations but never felt welcome. "I never could handle it," he said. "I'd get into too many arguments."

The World War II veterans Hackett encountered at the VFW posts were dismissive. "They said, 'You weren't in a fight.' They said, 'It wasn't a war, it was a police action,' and that always started an argument."

Hackett belongs to one veterans organization, the Chosin Few, made up of Marines and Army soldiers who survived the bitter fighting in sub-zero temperatures following the Chinese attack at the Chosin Reservoir in late November 1950.

Like most members of the organization, Hackett suffers from frostbite, an affliction common to many Korean veterans.

Hackett's second wife was shocked some years back after a big winter storm hit the Washington area and Hackett's hands swelled and cracked from shoveling snow. Hackett told her it was no big deal, it happens to all the guys who were at Chosin.

"Every winter, my heels crack and they bleed," he said. "If it gets too cold and I spend any length of time outside shoveling snow or something, my hands will crack between my fingers and bleed. My ears will crack."

For years, Korean War veterans have had difficulty getting theDepartment of Veterans Affairs to classify their cold injuries as combat-related and provide compensation, but this is changing because of pressure from the Chosin Few. "These are veterans who had terrible experiences," said Susan Mather, chief public health and environmental hazards officer for the VA. "They really have been ignored."

As the veterans age, the cold injuries they suffered a half-century ago leave them more susceptible to circulation problems and other health problems associated with aging, Mather said.

"It gets worse as you grow older," Hackett said. "The fellows I know, we're all in the same boat. It's not uncommon to take your shoes offand find your socks are a little red from the blood. That's why mostof us will wear dark socks: It doesn't show."

He admits to being bothered by the lack of attention given theKorean War by the media and the public in general. "You don't see anything," Hackett said. "And any time you do see something, it's called 'Korea: The Forgotten War.' " 

Hackett was blissfully ignorant about Korea the evening a half-century ago when he was playing blackjack with fellow Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the radio broadcast the news that theNorth Korean army had invaded the South. "Nobody knew whereKorea was, but we soon found out," he said.

Hackett landed at Inchon with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, as part of an air support team that operated in front of lines to set up markers for the Corsair fighter-bombers attacking enemy positions.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, flush with the success of Inchon, soon sent the force to the east coast as part of an ill-fated push north to seize the entire Korean peninsula and end the war.

About 20,000 Marines and soldiers from the U.S., South Korean and British armies were positioned on both sides of the Chosin Reservoir when a force of more than 100,000 Chinese soldiers who had infiltrated across the border struck on the night of Nov. 27. Though poorly equipped, the Chinese had surprise and numbers on their side.

"It was eerie to see people who would rush at you like a crowd going at Macy's," Hackett said. "You didn't have to aim. You couldn't miss."

The fighting was almost surreal at times. "This was a modern era, and I shot a Chinese soldier riding on a pony," Hackett said. "A lot ofthem were on ponies. Half of them didn't even have weapons."

The Marines were darkly humorous about their plight. "Of course, MacArthur had said the Chinese would never come into the war, and here they were," Hackett said. "That was the big kidding point. 'They ain't going to get in here, but they're here. Somebody better tell them.' " 

The cold was merciless, with temperatures dipping 20 or 30 degrees below zero. A VA report now estimates that the wind chill reached 100 below.

Hackett's hands and feet were frozen, and all his fingernails and toenails fell off, and he had a bullet wound to the shoulder. "It was a hard time for me," he said.

Assigned to a radio tent where he could still pitch in, Hackett was further injured when a crate of supplies being dropped by a transport plane broke loose from its parachute and landed on thetent, breaking his collarbone and ribs.

Hackett was ordered evacuated, but the C-47 plane on which he was loaded had its engines shot out as it took off from a frozen airstrip and crashed in the snow. Hackett, bruised but not suffering serious further injury, decided to forgo evacuation.

"That was the last plane, so it didn't really matter," he said. "The next day, we started walking out."

The 60-mile retreat from Chosin to the sea would go down in Marine Corps legend. The Chinese attacked constantly and tried to block theMarine retreat down narrow roads through mountainous terrain, butthe Marines kept moving and inflicted enormous casualties.

"We had an objective," Hackett said. "Everybody wanted to get out ofthere."

At times, Marines were fighting with entrenching tools, rifle butts or just fists. "If you saw a lump in the snow, you had to be careful, because it could be a Chinese soldier under there," he said. "They'd lay in the snow, cover themselves, and when the column would go by they'd start shooting, knowing full well they were going to get killed.

"It's not a very nice thing to talk about, but walking down the road, you'd see dead Chinese lying on the side of the road, and it became a habit to stick them with your bayonet," he said. "Once in a while, one of them would holler, just laying there playing dead. That could cost you your life. It wasn't a very pleasant thing."

The Army force on the east side of the reservoir was decimated. Butthe Marines made it to the port of Hungnam, where they evacuated by ship to fight another day.

After recovering from his injuries, Hackett made it until Operation Killer, a brutal U.N. counteroffensive launched in February 1951, when he was hit by artillery fire. It tore the metatarsal arch from his left foot, and he was evacuated to the United States, where he spent a year being treated and almost lost his foot.

Hackett stayed in the Marine Corps for 20 more years and thendrove a truck for a living.

Half a century after the fighting, Korea looms large in Hackett's memory--as it does for so many who were there. "It's not that we're saying we're owed something, but a slap on the back would be nice," Hackett said.

He paused and gathered his emotions. "I'm not saying they ought to say thank you, but they ought to say something."

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