Pacing their steps on the neatly mowed lawn, Korean War veterans Ken Santor and Jack Delaney placed flowers on a monument commemorating unknown Korean War veterans who are interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Their remembrance came as Honor Flight Nevada veterans visited the sprawling cemetery as part of their five-day trip to Oahu earlier this year. After placing the flowers, Santor, a Nevada state treasurer in the 1980s, talked about the significance of honoring the unknown American warriors who died during three years of fighting in what he said was the first test of wills in the Cold War.
Although the brief ceremony was performed as a sign of reverence by those on the Honor Flight, Santor said the focus has originally been on Memorial Day and the 825 unidentified veterans.
“Every year we (a group of Korean War Marine veterans who served at Chosin Reservoir) send money to place flowers on Memorial Day,” he said. “Every grave here has a flag.”
Beginning 29 years ago, Oahu resident David Moffat began placing flowers on Memorial Day, and when he died his son assumed the tradition to place the flowers.
On this cloudy but warm day in February at the Punchbowl, Moffat’s widow Yumiko and her son, also named David, met the Nevada veterans at the cemetery.
While there, Santor also explained the importance of remembering the Korean War that begun 70 years ago on June 25, 1950, when more than 75,000 Soviet-backed North Korean soldiers invaded South Korea. An armistice ended the war three years later on July 27, 1953. No peace treaty, though, was signed between the two sides, thus leaving the two sides technically at war.
“Korea was a different war,” said the New York native. “We had close to 36,000 deaths in Korea in three years. What we did do is succeed in defeating communism. That was our purpose.”
Including Republic of Korea (South Korea) and United Nations troops, that number balloons to almost 150,000 deaths to repel the Chinese and North Koreans from occupying the Korean peninsula. Santor said Korea was the first start of the political wars, which was followed by Vietnam. Those two wars developed into an extension of the military buildup between the United States and Soviet Union and their respective allies.
When Santor and a group of veteran Marines visited Honolulu years ago, they toured the cemetery and vowed they needed to do something additional for their interred Leathernecks. When they returned to Reno, Santor said the group chipped in to buy a monument.
“We came over again and dedicated it to the cemetery. We’ve been doing this for the past 15 years,” he said of the remembrance.
Santor said many Marines and other veterans could be buried in this part of the cemetery, but he also said not all the dead were brought out of North Korea. Pointing to the section, he said the Marines and others buried in the cemetery probably fought and died in South Korea.
Santor was a 19-year-old Marine when he arrived in Korea on the Incheon landing’s first wave at Blue Beach. The Marines secured Kimpo Airfield near the capital Seoul shortly. His unit, the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, landed in South Korea in September 1950.
The amphibious United Nations-backed assault at Incheon in early September forced the North Koreans to retreat. The invasion’s success under Army Gen. Douglas McArthur’s leadership heavily depended on 75,000 soldiers and Marines and 261 naval vessels to reverse the war’s direction by repelling the North Koreans and eventually leading to the liberation of Seoul.
“After we secured the city of Seoul, we went back to Incheon,” he recalled. “This was at the end of September. We boarded a ship to North Korea, but we were hit by a typhoon.”
Eventually, they arrived at Wonsan Harbor on the northeast side of the peninsula and parallel to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Before their ship entered the harbor, the Navy cleared the mines. After disembarking and with their field jackets, gloves, boots and white socks, the Marines began their northwest movement into North Korea and eventually to Chosin Reservoir. Santor said the Marines went into a village near the reservoir, and villagers brought them food.
The extreme cold affected the Marines in late October and by the time they arrived at the reservoir on Nov. 10, temperatures hovered at minus 12. The frigidity of the area became more brutal with the mercury dropping to minus 40. The Marines received parkas to help them fight the cold and snow, and keeping their feet dry and warm was paramount.
“We were walking in snow shoes, and I had nine pairs of socks on,” Santor said, explaining the boots came in one size. “I was so cold, and the temperature stayed at 40 below.”
Santor said he couldn’t describe the cold but could illustrate the effects.
“We had some guys freezing in their sleeping bags,” he said. “One thing you never did was take your boots off. A lot of the men had a lot of inserts made out of felt to absorb the perspiration from the feet.”
Santor, though, credits his upbringing for saving himself during the cold snap.
“Thank God coming from the East Coast, I was a Boy Scout and I learned survival in cold weather. That really helped me,” Santor said. “A lot of boys from the South didn’t survive.”
The cold and freezing temperature was secondary considering thousands of Chinese soldiers advanced to Chosin with the aim of annihilating the 1st Marine Division.
“We suffered about 12,000 casualties,” Santor pointed out.
Santor, who achieved the rank of sergeant, received the Purple Heart with one star along with other medals.
Honor Flight veteran and Reno Marine Lonnie Snyder also saw action at Pusan and Inchon, but also reaffirmed the cold weather he faced.
“It was colder than hell,” he quipped in an interview almost three years ago. “Fifty below zero.”
Snyder said soldiers from other units didn’t protect their feet, which left them black and frozen with frostbite.
The Marines recalled Dayton veteran Ed Tremper on Dec. 6, 1950, and he reported to G Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Division. He also found himself in North Korea and the Marines disembarked in Hamhung but southeast below Chosin Reservoir. The command designated him as machine gun leader responsible for six machine gun squads.
The Marines faced fierce opposition from the North Koreas with hundreds of Marines and Army soldiers killed.
“I lost five of my machine gun section leaders,” Tremper noted.
His thoughts then turned to the frigid weather gripping North Korea. Tremper echoed Santor’s reflections, saying the Marines issued “one size fits all” boots and parkas.
“Originally, the bottom half of my parka had 4 to 6 inches of ice (at the bottom) and I cut that off,” Tremper recollected. “I had two pair of 100% wool socks, but I still had frost bite.”
Tremper said the frost bite was minor, and he recovered from it; however, he said the Chinese soldiers may have suffered a worse case of frostbite than the Marines. He said Navy corpsman cut the frozen footwear off the enemy soldiers and discovered their entire feet blackened.
“They were frozen solid,” Tremper said.