Todd DePastino believes Korean War veterans have never received the recognition they deserve.
The Veterans Breakfast Club executive director also knows most Americans know little about the “police action,” as the Truman administration termed it. Nor do Americans understand that because a peace treaty was never negotiated in 1953, the war created “one of the hottest zones in the world” at and near the 38th parallel that divided the communist North from the South.
The VBC and the Heinz History Center aim to correct some of this by honoring all veterans who served in Korea from 1950 to the present on Thursday, the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m. and continue until 8:30 p.m., during which each Defender of Korea veteran will receive a pin and certificate as a gesture of appreciation for service in what’s been an active war zone for more 70 years. The event is free, but registration is required. Those unable to attend in person can watch over Zoom, and their recognition materials will be mailed to them.
Bob Harbula of West Mifflin, a 92-year-old Korean War U.S. Marine Corps veteran, will be the keynote speaker along with Duane Myers, 93, from Greensburg. Myers served with the U.S. Navy underwater demolition team, the forerunner of the Navy Seals. He was dropped behind enemy lines during the Korean War and rescued by a Navy submarine. Harbula’s son, Scott, who served in Korea during his U.S. Air Force service, also will be present.
Earlier on Thursday a memorial event will take place at 10 a.m. at the Korean War Memorial on the North Shore. The Korean Association of Greater Pittsburgh annually helps to present that event, and veterans who belong to the Korean War Veterans Association Chapter 74 typically attend. Its members have dwindled, as the vets are now near or older than 90.
DePastino said a major reason that Korean War veterans have not been lauded for their service compared to those who served in the prior world wars is because the Korean War was hidden.
“People didn’t follow it very closely. The media didn’t cover it,” he said. “People had a great fear of World War III breaking out. [So] The Truman administration called it a police action, not a war. That was strategic. It was an attempt to keep the war small.
“It worked. It kept the war out of the news and kept the veterans invisible compared to other service veterans.”
The Eisenhower administration followed that lead, DePastino said.
“All branches of service have served at some point to defend South Korea,” DePastino said. “Millions have.”
The number has waxed and waned through the years, he said, and right now 23,468 service members are there, a mix of all branches of the service. “They are watching, defending, training — ready for incursions over the DMZ, being a deterrent for any attack by the North [Koreans].”
DePastino said hundreds of veterans have died there since 1953, as well as thousands of South Koreans. The number of North Koreans killed there is unknown.
He hopes the 100 vets, their families and community members expected to attend the event “know how important the Korean peninsula has been in our post-Korea world” as well as to be “just grateful for the service members who for so many years have put themselves in harm’s way there.”
The VBC executive director has found Koreans, immigrants to the U.S. and others with ties to the country, are already grateful for that service. “I’ve been stunned over the past few years, speaking with people from Korea, how much the Korean War has shaped who they really are and how grateful they are for us defending their country [South Korea] from the North. They are certain their country wouldn’t exist without us. And they wouldn’t enjoy the freedom and prosperity they have now.
“That really opened my eyes how important this area of operation has been for the past 50 years or more since the fighting ceased.”
Susan Kee, a Korean War historian originally from Korea who lives in Arizona, agreed with him. She quit her corporate job 10 years ago to record veterans’ stories. “I really feel as a Korean American I need to serve as a voice for those you all saved,“ she told a VBC Happy Hour online program Monday night. “We can never forget our Korean war heroes who saved us. Twenty-one U.N. Nations served, too, but America served the most.”
The comparison between life in North and South Korea, she said, could not be more stark. She calls the Korean War a “forgotten victory” for South Korea, which has become a prosperous nation.
Harbula shared his accounts of fighting in the Inchon Landing and the legendary Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in 1950 on the program. He wrote the cover story for the summer 2023 edition VBC magazine, too, which details his harrowing tour of duty there, including the Battle of Seoul.
When the Marine Corps called for volunteers, Harbula eagerly left his post at Marine Barracks Washington 8th & I, a unit that protected President Harry Truman and guarded what is now known as Camp David, to join the fight, according to the VBC website. He was assigned to a machine gun squad at Camp Pendleton, California, and with little training, headed to Korea by ship. He was a member of George Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division. His commander was the legendary Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller.
He landed on an LST just as the country had been struck by a typhoon. “We were so unprepared for Korea,” said Harbula, who is a McKeesport native. “No special training. Never practiced a landing. Didn’t have a beach to land on. We had to climb up a sea wall, carrying 100 pounds on our backs.”
The Inchon fight came after Gen. Douglas McArthur decided in October to take the forces back there after a battle in Seoul, an attempt to invade North Korea instead of blocking roadways and holding forces from advancing. Harbula and other Marines had to get back on LSTs and land at Wonsan, a bay loaded with mines. For 10 days they attempted to land. He said they called it Operation Yo-yo, so protracted that the Marines ran out of food and had to eat just cheese.
“Two ships sank in Wonsan’s harbor,” he said. “It was wasted time. We let North Koreans escape. We had to fight them again. The North Koreans were never a contest for us. We could fight them.”
The fighting there was bloody. He ended up being promoted to squad leader because his unit had so many casualties. It was on-the-job training for him and the reservist Marines who had been called up without going to boot camp to prepare.
By November 1950, the weather turned incredibly cold —he and Kee both emphasized this during the program — 30 to 40 degrees below zero. The Marines had blocked off the perimeters and taken lots of prisoners. But when ordered to take prisoners back to Wonsan and to get badly needed winter gear, the Marines saw many Korean women and children left for dead on the route, plus U.S. military men shot execution style with their hands tied behind their backs. “We took very few prisoners after that,” he said.
Puller cobbled together an Army Infantry Company with some Royal British Marines, part of the U.N. Force, named Task Force Drysdale after the British colonel in charge.
By Nov. 28, the task force had reached Hagaru, a town that was hit by the Chinese troops, en route to the Chosin Reservoir, which he said was in the middle of nowhere. “We saw lots of refugees, coming down the roads,” Harbula said. “That’s a bad sign.”
Worse, the Chinese troops fighting there — about 150,000 — vastly outnumbered the U.S. forces of about 12,000 men, he said.
Harbula explained the fighting in detail, with the Marines using their trenching tools and bayonets to get a foothold on the icy hills. When tanks finally got through, providing cover, they fought back against the Chinese. The weather hurt both sides, with soldiers dying from it and fighting with frostbitten hands and feet. It affected their weapons, too.
“My machine gun wouldn’t fire. Without machine guns you aren’t going to outrun anybody,” Harbula said. He used his .45 caliber revolver when his machine gun froze, and when he ran out of ammunition, started hitting some of the Chinese with his helmet. He had jumped into a hole with dead Marines to reload that .45.
He ended up getting shot as he brought an injured soldier back down the hill and suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon. Both men were evacuated for medical treatment. The irony: He was listed as MIA. When he recovered, Harbula returned to Korea in January 1951. He could get his mail then and learned from his brother that his chance meeting with the injured man he saved let his family know he was alive.
His service in Korea ended in June 1951 after he had fought more battles and been promoted to corporal, according to a 2014 Congressional Record by then Rep. Mike Doyle. The VBC article explained he had to stay in the Marines for another year after Truman had extended all military personnel’s service by a year.
When the 21-year-old finally returned home, Harbula didn’t want to follow his family members to work on the railroads or get a job in one of the mills. He tried to get a security job at the Bettis Atomic Laboratory in West Mifflin. “They told me to come back when I was 25,” he said.
He also tried to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh or Duquesne University on the G.I. Bill but was told to go back to high school and take two more years of English. Harbula declined.
So did work for the Union Railroad as a brakeman in East Pittsburgh for about a year. But Harbula said he then worked in the finance business for over 20 years.
He said he does not regret his Marine Corps service, and he cherishes the three Presidential Unit Citations and many awards and decorations he and his unit received, according to the VBC magazine article. “Against All Odds,” a documentary that aired on the American Heroes Channel in 2014, featured George Company’s and Harbula’s bravery. Author Patrick K. O’Donnell included both in his 2010 book, “Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story — The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company.”
“My four years in the Marine Corps were the greater adventure I could have had,” Harbula told his listeners Monday night. “I never appreciated some of it. It was all good duty after Korea. I did enough killing. I got out of it.”
The VBC will host another online Happy Hour program on the Korean War on Monday, Sept. 4, with three veterans telling their stories. It will be accessible via Zoom, Facebook and YouTube.