War veteran's year in Korea taught him a lot about life
By JANE UTECHT, Staff Reporter
On May 23, 1950, the day after his 17th birthday, Kenneth Beesley enlisted in the Air Force.|
His grandfather was the freight agent in Madison for many years, and Beesley had grown tired of being around trucks. The Air Force, as fate would have it, put him in the motor pool. Then he was sent to Korea.
Fighting started in that Asian country in late June 1950, when 75,000 troops from the North Korean People's Army crossed the 38th Parallel, the boundary line that had been deemed the division between the pro-western Republic of Korea in the south and the Soviet-backed North Koreans.
Beesley was attached to a mobile radar unit.
"We moved all over Korea," he said. The unit would find spots on the tops of the Korean hills to set up their equipment.
"We had to get as high as we could get and set up perfectly straight," he said. That way they could get radar images for the American forces to use.
"[The pilots] called us `Show me the way home'," Beesley recalled. But it was also their job to spot enemy planes.
That meant the North Koreans "were out to destroy the radar," so the unit was always on the move and under fire.
"What we couldn't move, we had to destroy," Beesley said.
Marines kept watch at the perimeter at the base of the mountains, but if the North Koreans broke through, the motor pool soldiers "were like sitting ducks," Beesley said. "We had guns but no combat training," and the Koreans used guerrilla warfare. Twice they were overrun.
"I have battle stars for each of those," he said.
Beesley's main job was making supply runs, bringing in food, fuel and water. By the end of his year in Korea, the closest food was 50 miles away in Seoul; fuel was a 40-mile drive, and water was 30 miles away.
Most of this running was at night, Beesley said. "Blackout driving."
He ran over a land mine once and ended up with 110 stitches, and a knee and shoulder that now bother him, but he said he was "very fortunate."
Living conditions were rough. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There was one metal shop building, but everything else was tents -- living quarters and the mess hall.
The soldiers sometimes had to spend winter days in their open air trucks; Beesley's feet were frostbitten twice, but again he was lucky.
"Some guys lost fingers or toes. One even lost an ear."
Living in these rough conditions in a war zone was educational for the teenager.
"I grew up in a hurry," Beesley said, and he learned how to take care of himself. "You may not think life is important, but once you get shot at a few times..." he said.
As the 60th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Day approaches on Saturday, Beesley reflects on the whole experience, especially in light of the fact that there are still rumblings of war and fighting between the two Koreas.
"[The Korean War] never should have been started, but once it was started we should have finished it," Beesley said. "The U.S. made a huge mistake when they stopped at the 38th Parallel. If we had kept going, we would not have the problems today, I don't think."
©Madison Daily Leader 2013
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