Chaplain Ralph Lindon Smith Jr.
Chaplain Ralph Smith Jr. was born on December 24, 1928, in Bellflower, Illinois. After graduation from Bellflower Township High School in 1946, he attended several universities and had recently started a Master’s program at the University of Illinois when he made the decision to enlist in the US Navy as a aviation cadet. After some difficulty in aviation school, he made the decision to enlist in the US Army in July of 1951 and attended basic training and combat engineer training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was deployed to Korea in April 1953 and was assigned as an infantry platoon leader in C Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Division. For his commitments, he received a Bronze Star and rotated back to the US in late 1953. After the war, he remained in the Army Reserve for thirty-three years and retired as a Colonel in May 1988. As a civilian, he completed his master’s degree and worked as a teacher before attending school to become a Chaplain. He has revisited Korea four times. His hobbies include swimming, reading, and visiting the YMCA and the Irving Senior Center.
Outpost Harry (April-July 1953)
Ralph Smith talks about his time at Outpost Harry in 1953. He describes the terrain, logistics, and layout of the encampment. Manned only by one company, he talks about how they dealt with being grossly outnumbered by two Chinese battalions.
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The Last Days of the War at Outpost Harry
Ralph Smith talks about the last days of the war at Outpost Harry. He describes the heavy shelling that took place up until the armistice was signed and recalls his memories of Operation Rollback. He tells the story of meeting a Chinese officer out on the battlefield the morning after the armistice.
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[Beginning of Transcribed Material]
R: Jesus God, thank you for the experience many of us have had in the military. Particularly do remember those killed in action and missing in action, their families. Thank you for leading us in a plain path after the War and thank you for the freedom which the Korean people enjoy, particularly in South Korea. Thank you for your many blessings daily for the praise and the glory are yours. In thy holy name, Amen.
R: I’m Chaplain Colonel Ralph L. Smith. I was born in Bellflower, Illinois on Christmas Eve, December 24, in 1928. And I grew up my first two or three years in Fort Worth. My father was a buyer for Montgomery Ward, so he traveled consistently during my first eight years.
And I went to about 12 or 13 different high schools. My parents came from farm families in central Illinois and the hometown is Bellflower between Bloomington and Champaigne. And then my father returned to Bellflower after World War II started, and I went to high school and graduated from high school, Bellflower Township High School in 1946.
Entered college, Texas Wesleyan, had a year there and another year at Selross State Teachers’ College which was in Alpine, Texas which is not part of Texas A & M. And then I graduated my last year and a half in Illinois State. Oh, after the Korean War, I got out of the Army after the Korean War. I had an early release in November of 1953, returned to my home in Tucson, Arizona at the time with my parents.
I was still single and wanted to settle down there and get a Masters’ Degree, finish my Masters’ Degree which I had started at the University of Illinois in the Spring of 1950. So, I did exactly that. I returned to Tucson, finished a master’s degree
R: In education. University of Arizona in 1955.
I returned to the Reserve, Active Reserve in artillery school even though I was an infantry officer, second lieutenant at the time and went through artillery school for six years, taught at Tucson High School, Health and Physical Education for six years. And I coached freshman boys’ basketball at the same time.
I: Oh, you did?
R: Taught swimming, life guarded, and taught swimming and water safety.
I was a water safety instructor for the Red Cross during the summers. It was just prior to the summer of 1960 when I had a call to the ministry before I reported for ranger training. Even though I was an infantry first Lieutenant in the Reserve, I got orders for ranger school at Fort Benning, and had a call to the ministry.
And then the nine weeks of ranger training at Fort Benning. That confirmed my call, and so I decided to become an Army chaplain which was gonna require three years in the seminary.
I: Um hm. What seminary did you go to?
R: I had two seminaries. I had a year and a half at Claremont in Claremont, California, and then my last year and a half at Perkins at SMU here in Dallas.
R: SMU, Southern Methodist University.
I: Huh. So, when did you finish seminary school?
R: I finished seminary in 1965, was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church and left to Texas to go to Fort Hamilton, NY in Brooklyn for nine weeks of chaplain training.
I: Uh huh.
R: And I was the ranking officer. I was a captain at that time, an infantry captain.
And I transferred to the Chaplaincy as a captain and was the senior member in my class. So, I became the class leader.
I: What was your calling? Could you share that with me? How did you get the calling?
R: Well, it happened at a rather strange time. I was in Yuma with Tucson High swim team. I had driven one of the vans, even though I was not an assistant coach, even though I was the swimming instructor.
And I was on the side of the pool in my red Speedo judging strokes and turns during a breaststroke race when I felt my heart strings warm, and I said I’ll serve. And the rest is history.
I: Oh. Thank you for sharing that wonderful story. Let’s go back to around 1950. What were you doing when the Korean War broke out?
R: I had just finished my first semester on my Masters’ Degree at the University of Illinois. And I was traveling with my parents and younger brother. We were on a 7,400-mile trip of the west, from Illinois up to the state of Washington back to California and back to Texas. We were traveling through the state of Washington when the Korean War broke out towards the (INAUDIBLE)
I: How did you know about it?
R: Um hm.
I: What was your reaction? Had you known anything about Korea before?
I: You had a, what is it, pretty good education, and they didn’t teach you about Korea at all, about Asia?
R: No, nothing, no.
I: Wow. So, what was your reaction when you first heard about the breakout of the Korean War?
R: Well, I was ready to start teaching school,
and I signed up to teach junior high in Corcoran, California. So, we came from Washington down through Oregon into California, I found out in Portland, as we went through Portland, Oregon, about a job in Corcoran, California Junior High teaching Social Studies and coaching. But by the time I got back to Illinois, I decided that I would go into the military, that I wouldn’t go back to California and teach.
I: So, you enlisted.
R: Strangely enough, I didn’t want to be drafted. So, I enlisted in the Navy.
I: Why didn’t you want to be drafted?
R: I’m not sure.
R: Because after, I wanted to fly for the Navy. So, I signed up as a Naval Aviation cadet,
Waited six months, had my seaman’s uniform and went up to, I think it was Glenview Air Station up near Chicago near, not too far from the Great Lakes, went up one weekend a month. They didn’t quite know what to do with us, those of us that were waiting on orders. And I wanted six months on orders to go to Pensacola for three months of pre-flight, got through two months of the pre-flight training,
Was having a little problem with the classes in Engineering and Navigation. So, I dropped out of the program and asked for an honorable discharge which they gave me. Plus, a medal, the National Service Defense Medal. Didn’t even know that I’d earned it. And I returned to Tucson, read some books, and got some counseling. Thirty-five days later, I went back to Bloomington, Illinois and did what I said I’d never do.
I went to my draft board and went into the Army.
I: Wow. That’s quite a story.
R: Um hm.
I: So, do you remember the exact date of when you answered the Army again?
R: Fifth of July 1951.
I: So, 1951, fifth of July.
R: Yeah. Earlier that Spring, I spent two months, exactly two months in the Navy at Pensacola and then was out for little over a month and then went in.
They inducted me in Chicago, and after three days at Fort Sheridan for vests and uniforms, they put us on a train. I went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for my basic infantry training, my combat engineer training. And during combat engineer training, I signed up for infantry OCS. I was accepted.
So, they put me through leadership school after my engineer training there at Fort Leonard Wood. And then I went on leave before reporting to Fort Benning. And that was in February of 1952.
I: So, when did you leave for Korea?
R: I left for Korea after about six months with the 11th Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
I left for Korea in, I think it was April of 1953. I knew I was taking a pretty good chance, you know, of losing my life if I ever got into combat, that there would be some danger. And I accepted that. So, when I did get the 2nd Infantry Division, I wanted an infantry platoon. I didn’t want a binary and ammunitions platoon like I had at Fort Campbell.
I wanted to be an infantry officer, serve with an infantry company. And I got my wish. C Company of the 23rd Infantry of the 2nd Division. And we trained. And then when we went over to the Wyoming Line, our company was probably the best in our battalion. So, we got to go up on Outpost Harry.
I: Can you describe the scene of that outpost when you were assigned to the front?
R: It was a company-sized outpost. The Chinese had tried to overrun it several times two months prior in April. We were there the first week in July. Deep trenches are very good pillboxes, lumber was very thick.
And so we were in bunkers that the Chinese artillery mortars couldn’t touch us. Every company went up there and served for a week. And then we came back down. And then the last week of the War, we were back up there. And I had the Point Platoon on Outpost Harry. The Chinese fired at us. Snipers wounded some of our people. Mostly those they wounded were by mortars and some by artillery.
I: So, there was no real sort of soldier-to-soldier rifles sort of collision there. But it was all artillery or mortars, right?
R: Yes. And probably the reason the two Chinese battalions didn’t attack us during that last month of the War in July of 1953,
We had the whole outpost zeroed in with variable timed VT artillery. And we would have killed hundreds of them that probably would have overrun us because they were two battalions. We were only a company. But they didn’t want to take the chance. And so, their attacks the last month of the War were east and west of us.
Chinese hit us in late 1950 with 21 divisions. And all of my fighting on Outpost Harry was against the Chinese.
I: Uh huh.
R: Not the North Koreans.
I: Not the North Koreans.
I: How did you feel about that? It’s being called the Korean War. But it was the war between US and China.
R: Well, we didn’t force, do anything militarily to try to force the Chinese out.
And so, we were there, and we knew what we were facing, that we were outnumbered. And that’s just the way things were. And we accepted it.
I: And still the relationship between the United States and China is described as friendly, friend and enemy.
R: Um hm.
I: And so that I feel like the Korean War really didn’t stop, you know, and still we are technically at war.
R: That’s correct. We had an Armistice, not a Peace Treaty.
I: Do you know of any war that lasted more than 60 years after no official cease fire in your knowledge?
R: No, not really.
I: Uh huh.
I: So, if there is petition saying that even though there are a lot of problems in North Korea, but you are the one who actually fought there,
I: Not the politicians. They said it’s a police action, and then later they changed the war. It’s a war.
R: Um hm.
I: You went there, you fought, you lost your friends, some wounded.
I: Staying there like that, 60 years, the Koreans are divided still.
Would you be willing to sign if there is a petition to replace the Armistice with a Peace Treaty?
R: Knowing what is going on today and what has been going on in North Korea, I would settle for the Armistice. I want us to, I hope I live long enough to see North Korea become free. But because of the strength of their military and what it would cost us or the free world to take North Korea,
I don’t believe it’s gonna happen in my lifetime, although I wish it would.
I: So, could you describe a typical day of your service during the month of July? And it was one of the most severe artillery attacks with each other, right?
R: Yeah. We took a lot of artillery and had to hunker down in our bunkers, particularly the last week of the War,
Not so much the first week of July but the fourth week of July leading up to the 27th and the Armistice. We were hit very hard with artillery and mortars. Even though I had a point platoon outpost area, I only had one man, one soldier wounded by a mortar. And he was walking right behind me in a trench.
And he had stopped to let me go ahead of him. Otherwise, the mortar would have gotten me. It wounded him in the neck and the shoulder, and we evacuated him, and he was alright.
I: What is the most saddest day in your service in Korea? What was the most saddest day, most difficult day, hardest day?
R: Probably the, we were given three days to tear down all our bunkers.
Fill in the trenches, lace up our barbed wire, and for three days, we hardly got any sleep because we had to, it was Operation Roll back, and we had three days to tear down things in Outpost Harry and get out of the 2 ½ mile wide demilitarized zone by a certain date which we did. We had to help what we called Papasan’s, older Korean gentlemen that came up and helped us day and night.
And we gave them free cigarettes for their help. So, they were very happy with the free cigarettes. So, that was the roughest, the three days after the Armistice, after we quit shooting at each other. Those three days were the toughest.
I: Do you remember the day the Armistice was declared?
R: Very much.
I: Describe it.
R: Well, it happened at 11:00 at night. Everything became quiet.
I: You mean July 27th?
R: That’s right.
I: Okay. At night?
R: Ten o’clock, 10 or 11 at night.
I: I thought it was morning.
R: We quit firing on each other, 10 or 11 at night. There was fog the next morning, and I went out to check our front lines, and I ran into a Chinese Second Lieutenant. He was out looking for dead.
I: Were you able to see him?
R: Yes, we talked.
I: You talked?
R: He said he was from Tensen, and he spoke perfect English, and he says why are you here? American aggressor. And I just shook my head and kind of laughed, and I said American aggressor? No, summer vacation. And he didn’t laugh. He turned around, and he walked off. He walked away. But he gave me his name.
I: What is his?
R: He knew we were from the 2nd Infantry Division. He didn’t know my name. But he gave me his name and said he was from Tensen.
I: Do you remember his name?
I: He was from Tensen.
R: Tenjin, yes.
I: How did he look?
R: Well, he wasn’t dressed as well as I was. I mean, tennis shoes right then, you know, tennis shoes.
I: Tennis shoes?
R: Uh huh.
I: Not the regular
R: No. No boots.
I: No boots.
R: No. That’s why we had a hard time if they were on patrol. We had a hard time hearing them at night. They’d sneak up on us. And we were fortunate. None of their patrols hit us the two different weeks I was up on Outpost Harry.
I: Was he alone, by himself?
R: He was by himself.
I: So, there were many dead people there?
R: A few. And of course, they could police them up now that the War was over, you know, the Armistice.
We had an Armistice. So, it was just a matter of, in fact, during the three days that we tore down our bunkers, we also found a lot of dead Chinese on Outpost Harry that we had buried there. They were attacked and many of them that were killed in April. The part of Korea between Chorwon and Kumhwa in the demilitarized zone is very beautiful.
And I had been back to Korea four times. One of those four times, I got to go to a South Korean outpost and look down on Outpost Harry.
I: Uh huh.
R: That was 2003. And I left there in ’53. So, that was 50 years later. And of course, the hills, the valleys in the demilitarized zone have all, they’re beautiful now because of the foliage. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Korea.
I returned in the year 2000. I’ve been back four times. Two of those four times, I taught in all four of the American high schools. I taught Junior ROTC, and I taught leadership.
R: Yongsan, Osan, Taegu and Pusan
R: Two of the four times I’ve been able to teach in the high schools two days at a time.
Japan is a good ally. But South Korea, I believe because we have troops in South Korea and Japan and Okinawa. My last trip to the area with my wife on space available flights was in 2005. I taught in all eight of the high schools, two on Okinawa and six on mainland Japan.
Two days at each high school Junior ROTC and Leadership. They were two Army, two Navy, two Air Force, and two Marines. It just happened to be divided equally among the services.
I: How did you feel? What did you feel when you first went back to Korea, the country that you fought?
R: Well, there wasn’t anything there when I left in 1953. I got a picture of the Seoul railroad station.
It was one of only three buildings that were standing in Seoul. And then when I went back in the year 2000, it’s as beautiful as any of our larger cities in the United States. I have visited other camps, Camp Casey. I stayed there, visited the chapel and prayed one morning at Camp Casey. And then I’ve been up to the demilitarized zone a couple times. It was quite an experience to look over into North Korea.
That’s very special. And then on one of my trips back, I was with an Army tour, first a Marine tour, and we covered the demilitarized zone from the west to the east, all 155 miles of it. And then I stayed and taught high school,
And then went with an Army tour for a week down to the Pusan Perimeter. And so that was one of the special trips which is where this medal is from, the Korean government.
R: I was on one of those tours, and they presented this to those of us that were there.
I: Yeah. So, you were really surprised by the developments they made there in Seoul.
R: Oh yes. The high speed trains. And then Seoul, of course, is the outstanding area.
But all of Korea is beautiful. And I was struck by the number of churches as a Chaplain, you know. I would ride through on the trains, both the slow trains and the fast trains, the number of churches, and they’re lit very well at night also.
I: What do you think the best way for us to pass on the legacy of the Korean War and the Korean War veterans to our future generations?
How do you think that we can, because the average age is 82.
I: Yeah. Sooner or later, there will be no Korean War veterans.
R: That’s correct.
I: How do we preach the legacy, your sacrifice, your memory, your loss, your patriotism into our young generation?
R: Part of the way I do it is by subbing in the high schools. And I only sub in Junior ROTC. And part of my leadership presentation is about my experience in the Korean War.
So, it’s, that is important. What we’re doing today is vital, an interview of how we felt and some of the experiences that we had. That’s great. One of the things I guess I ought to remember that was most important was my, two years after the Korean War, getting back into the Active Reserve.
I: Um hm.
R: So, I could retire.
In 1955, I served 33 years in the Reserves, three years of active duty, 33 years in the Reserve. Twelve were as an infantry officer including six years of artillery and the last 24 of my years were as a Reserve chaplain. And my last 10 years in the Reserve, I was a hospital chaplain, and I retired in May of 1988 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
And then I turned 60 in December of that year, 1988, and have been enjoying retirement since.
I: Um hm.
R: So that’s it.
I: So, what do you think is the overall impact of the Korean War and your service upon your life, rest of your life after you returned from Korea?
R: The fact that we saved South Korea and what has happened in South Korea since the Armistice, I think, is the vital thing.
The sad thing is what’s happening, what is still happening in North Korea. There’s a paperback book about six or seven defectors from North Korea who’ve ended up in either China or South Korea, and the name of the book is Nothing to Envy.
I: Uh huh.
R: Nothing to Envy. And that is a book that I’m about to finish right now. And I didn’t know things in North Korea
I: You’re writing?
R: Were that bad.
I: You’re reading or writing?
R: I’m reading.
R: But I didn’t know things in North Korea had really been that bad. But they have. They still are.
I: Impact upon your life here.
I: What is the impact of Korean War to you personally?
R: Well, it changed everything. It motivated me because of my commission to keep it.
I got back into the Reserve in order to keep my commission. But not just keep it. I ended up getting enough points for retirement each year for 33 years. So, that was the big impact, 33 years in the Reserve.
I: Did it turn out good for you or bad for you? What do you think?
R: It’s great.
R: Great experience.
I: Since you are a pastor, I want to ask this question. Why do you think there is a war in Korea?
Why do you think there was the war in Korean Peninsula between north and south, US and China? What is the will? What is the plan? What is the providence of God on that War? Have you thought about it?
R: Are you talking about the future?
I: No. The War that happened.
R: In 1950?
R: North Korea got the greenlight to go south from Moscow.
And they went south. And we weren’t ready because earlier, in 1950 I think it was, Dean Acheson is the Secretary of State in January, and he said the Korean Peninsula is now within our area of influence. And the North Koreans took that to mean we weren’t going to do anything if they wanted to take South Korea. So, they attacked, and we were fortunate to hold the Pusan Perimeter.
And then MacArthur went into Inchon in September of ’50, and we defeated North Korea in six months but then had a brand-new war with China when their divisions hit us in October or late in the Fall of 1950. So, that was the unfortunate thing.
I: Yeah. You seem to know about that, that Dean Acheson actually in January at the Press Club he
R: He wrote Korea off.
R: That was very sad.
I: We draw the defensive perimeters from the Korean Peninsula and also all of it.
R: So North Korea and Russia did not think that we would intervene. But Truman did intervene.
I: Yeah. But when he did, it was a police action, not the War.
R: Yeah. That’s what it was called.
I: So, it’s been.
R: That’s what it was referred to, yeah, as a police action.
R: By the grace of God, thank you for this time together, for the beauty of another day, for the many ways that you bless our lives as free people. We thank you for the freedom that exists in South Korea.
We pray that one day it may find its’ way north and go to North Korea, too. And we pray for all areas of the world that do not know freedom. Thank you for your spirit, for the guidance you give us daily and particularly do we lift up those who are hungry, who have need of your healing power or those who are in grief. Thank you again for this experience and for the impact that the military has had on many lives. In the Master’s name, Amen.
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