Charles Eggenberger was born in 1930 on a farm in Wisconsin and then moved to Minnesota. Having lost his mother at four years of age, and growing up with an impersonal father, he wanted to be a part of something that would teach him necessary life skills. At the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. After basic training in California, he spent one year of service in Guam, followed by three months in Tsingtao, China. Upon his return to the United States, he attended additional training at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where he received orders to go to Korea. In 1950, he participated in the amphibious Inchon Landing and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Journey to the Front
Charles Eggenberger recalls his 1950 arrival in Korea. He describes his journey, from basic training in San Diego, California, to being stationed in both Guam and China, before the Korean War broke out. He describes his participation in the amphibious Inchon Landing, and a combat lesson he learned while fighting the enemy in Seoul.
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Encountering the Chinese
Charles Eggenberger describes going up a mountain in trucks through Hagalwoori to the Chosin Reservoir area. He recalls how his unit learned that the Chinese had crossed the border near the Chosin Reservoir. He recalls that the surrounding units of soldiers had taken off out of the area during the initial attack by the Chinese.
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Bearing the Extreme Cold
Charles Eggenberger talks about being able to withstand the extreme cold he encountered in Korea. He describes a childhood of not having enough warmth because of poverty and neglect. He recalls seeing the injuries some soldiers suffered from not knowing how to take care of their extremities in the cold.
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[Beginning of Transcribed Material]
C: Charles Eggenberger.
I: And Mr. Eggenberger, when is your birthday?
C: November 7, 1930
I: 1930. And where were you born?
C: On a farm in western Wisconsin, in poverty, the youngest of seven/
I: Wow. Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about your family, your parents and siblings that you grew up with?
C: Well, back then a kid went to the eighth grade, and then they went out and got a job some place. And my mother died of pneumonia when I was four. So, the older siblings were pretty much gone by then. So just my two older sisters and myself. So, with no mother and my father the farmer, he was the cold, mean, silent kind.
And the only thing that he said to me was to give me a chewing out for something, for some rule I violated that I did not know was a rule. And then when I was about eight years old, we moved off the farm and then went to Lake City, Minnesota. And he got a job in a foundry. And it was the same thing.
We didn’t have any communication. And nobody cared about me. And my eyes were very bad. And so, I just sort of drifted and did very poorly at school, even though later I have found that I have PhD level intelligence and highly motivated and all that stuff. So, I needed to get out of that environment.
Don’t ask me how I knew that. But it was a gut-level thing. I decided that when I was 17, I would enlist in one of the branches of the Armed Forces because that was my only way out of school. My grades were very poor, and I didn’t have any social skills or anything like that. And which one.
There was the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and the Marines, etc. And so, I still to this day don’t know why I chose the Marines. But I wanted to be with something, somebody that had some class, that had some leadership, had some skills. And I did. When I was, as soon as I turned 17, I enlisted. I had to have my father’s permission. And then he reluctantly signed it.
He said if anything happens, the Marines are the first ones to go. And my gut reaction to that was you haven’t cared about me since day one. Why do you care now? But he signed it, and away I went to San Diego boot camp. And after boot camp, I went to the island of Guan. And I was there for a year.
And then in three months in China, Sing Kao, and then back to a, we had a cruise all the way from China to the Panama Canal up to North Carolina, Camp LeJune. And I was there until the Korean War broke out in 1950. And then we took a train to, a troop train to Camp Pendleton here in California.
And we’re out in the boonies doing some training and getting ourselves together, got on a ship, went to Kobi, Japan, dumped our sea bags, and then the next stop was Inchon. And we made the amphibious landing there, a landing that experts said couldn’t be done because of the 30’ tides. And when our landing craft got to the, we didn’t have a peach, there was a sea wall.
It pushed the landing craft up against the seawall, and then we had some boarding ladders made out of 2 x 4’s and boards. And then away we went. The next stop was the capital of Seoul. And then there’s where I learned that you don’t use your rocks or boulders for protection from bullets
Because when a bullet hits the rock, the rock fragments, the bullet fragments. Now you got shrapnel all over the place. And my first baptism with fire. And then from there, we eventually made our way up to the road that goes up the mountain and into the Chosin Reservoir area. And we went up there in trucks.
And I had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do. You know, in the military, you follow orders, and you don’t ask questions. And then there’s the three villages, Kotori, Hagaru-ri where we were stationed, and Udamni up a little bit further. And then the one day, the Chinese, the amazing part is nobody knows how many Chinese came across the border.
But they did it at night when our planes couldn’t see them. And they brought in an estimated 220,000 troops, something like that. And when we were at Hagaru-ri, we sent out patrols. And some of the local farmers told us that there were people back in the hills that wore funny clothes, and they spoke a funny language.
Chinese. And somewhere along the line, one of our patrols captured one or two of them. We brought them in. We found out that they were Chinese, etc. And they didn’t just wander in for a picnic. So, we sent a message to General Headquarters in Tokyo that we had captured Chinese people, Army. Tokyo wouldn’t believe it. You know, we’re there. We’re on the ground. They didn’t accept that or refused to; I don’t know.
But so, China had all these troops in North Korea. And then one day, according to their military plan, they attacked all across the pond. And the Army troops on our left, and there were ROKS, Republican Korea troops. And when they got hit, they jumped in their trucks and headed south.
And they invented the term bugging out. And on the east side of us was an Army regimental combat team. And they were overrun. A lot of them were killed or captured. And then there was the Reservoir itself, and a lot of them tried to come over by us. And we would send out patrols looking for these guys. Sometimes they’d be tired, and they’d be face down on the ice almost dead, and we’d rescue them.
And in the meantime, the Chinese were not, I don’t think (INAUDIBLE) us either. And if you go up the mountain about ¾ of the way up, you know, the reservoir there’s, I think four pipelines of water going down to the power plant below. And there’s about a 35’ bridge across that where the pipelines come down.
And military blunder first class because all it would take would be half a dozen guys, Chinese, carrying a few bags of ammunition or of explosives, and they’d go down there and blow that bridge, which they did, and now we’re trapped. We can’t go north because it’s the Yalu River, China. And we can’t go back because it’s, the bridge is gone.
So, the three units, the regiments, first, fifth and seventh at each one of those villages were cut off and surrounded. Each one of the three were surrounded. And they would attack and, you know, during the day we’d call in our planes and they’d drop Napalm and bombs and what have you. And it lasted about two weeks. And during that time, there were 17 Medals of Honor burned by the Marines.
There was, I forgot to mention. There was a British Commando unit with us also. And, but the Marines and the mentality that we have, we don’t care how many are out there, you know. It’s like come on, guys. I’ve got a lot of ammunition here. I don’t want to carry it home. And so, we’d be dropping Napalm cannisters on them and artillery.
Nobody knows how many we killed. But it was astronomical, extremely high. And my platoon had been together for two years. We were brothers. They were my family.
One-by-one, they started to drop off, either killed or wounded. And one day we were taking some incoming artillery, and my best friend from New York was running to his foxhole yelling incoming, and one landed near him, shrapnel. And I went over by him,
And he was unconscious, bleeding to death. And even to this day, when I think about him, talk about him, you see what happens. It’s trauma because growing up without a family and then being with these guys for two years, with guys my own age from all over the country, I would say, you know, the tribal Indian from Arizona,
An Italian from New York, the fellow from Oregon, we didn’t have any Orientals with us. But we had Korean interpreters, and they couldn’t eat our food because their diet was so much different than ours. They would eat our food, it’s so rich, that they would eat it, if they’d eat it.
And then pretty soon they’d be throwing up. So, they stayed with their food, and we stayed with our food. They were good people. We trusted them. Their English was good enough that we got by. I couldn’t speak Korean, so I couldn’t curse at them. But my best friend, Dick Turpin.
From (INAUDIBLE), New York. I was, when we were stationed at Camp Lejune, I went up with him to his house, with his family. And I guess after he was killed, I got a letter from his mother, and she said that the last thing she saw of us was when we were hitchhiking,
And we both got in a car, and we were gone. She never saw her son after that. And I had thought about if I got back to the States, I would go up and see her. But because of my early childhood and you know, I didn’t have any money either. And you know, I’d have to go cross country, and I didn’t have the money to do that. So, it bothered me cause I didn’t.
That’s all over the hill right now. And the cold has been talked about a lot. It bothered me, too. But not nearly as much because when I grew up on the farm, we had a wood-fired furnace down in the basement, and it didn’t get up to the second floor where our bedrooms were.
And I didn’t really have any winter clothing to speak of. So being cold like that was like, yeah, I’ve been there, done that. And, but the guys that got hurt the most were the southern fellows because they didn’t know how to, you know, take your boots off and dry out your inner soles. Get your socks dried off, you know. Wear a pair of socks, and then have another pair someplace drying out.
And always keep your feet dry. And I had frostbite damage from the feet and the hands. But there’s nothing I can do about it, so I live with it. And I feel myself quite fortunate because there’s a fellow that I used to know. He’s down in Arizona. And he doesn’t have any digits on his fingers, I mean on his hands, and he doesn’t have any feet, frozen.
And so, there’s a lot of that. At one time, we were cut off and surrounded by some, I don’t know how many, but, you know, we were in kind of a u-shape in the dirt road, and they came through a tunnel, you know, narrow-gage tunnel at night. And we had a little fireplace there and quieted down, probably just a patrol, I don’t know.
But they had us pinned down for a few days. And another good friend of mine got shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. And we had no medical facilities of any kind. But there was a peasant’s barn there, a small barn. And we had our wounded in there, you know. You can imagine the old manure and stuff on the floor.
That’s where our wounded were put. At least they were out of the line of fire. And we didn’t have any planes or anything for overhead protection. We finally got our way out of there. But you know, that’s what War is. We’re trying to kill them. They’re trying to kill us. And fortunately, it’s one of those things. If you send 1,000 people into battle,
there will be some that will walk out whole. Why are all these guys killed? Are these not, you know, I don’t have an answer for that. And for me, it was a tremendous experience in life. It’s knowing people from all over the country. And it was a major growth factor for me in my social knowledge and skills.
We didn’t have any black people with us because back then, they were segregated. But there were still black Marines. But they kept those in their own units. And but by and large, my Korean service, you know, the four years, was very positive, very, I learned so much from those guys and the drill instructors and they senior Sergeants and the officers,
Not the new Second Lieutenant officers. They don’t know a whole lot. They got the bar, but there’s nothing up here. And the older Captains and the Majors, you know. They were really good people. They care about their people. They care about, you know, it’s like we’re all in this thing together. And that’s part of the Marine Corps principle is we’re all brothers. And even today, there’s a lot of women in the Marine Corps.
But they are still our brothers. If you have worn or are wearing the uniform, you’re my brother. And I will, and I feel very strongly about this. Back then and even today, if something happened that required risking my life or even giving my life, I would do it. It’s that Marine bond. If you’re male or female, if you’re a Marine, you’re my brother. And that stays with me, and it stays with all of us, for the rest of our lives.
And we may joke with each other, insult each other, have a few barley pops, more than we should, and we may argue about something. But behind it all, there’s that bond. And that’s something that a lot of military forces in the world don’t have. And that’s what, in World War I, we earned the title of Devil Dogs from the German POWs.
They wanted to know who they were fighting because the Army didn’t fight like we did. And of course, and throughout history, Iwo Jima took 30 days to, there was about 10 or 15,000 Japanese on the island. And most of them died. And we lost a bunch of people, too. And you go through the history of the Chosin Reservoir.
So many people stand in awe of what, you know, the extreme temperature. And there’s the famous Tootsie Roll thing. And it’s, all of that is, I don’t know how to describe it. You have the feeling in your gut that yes, I was there. But I was with my guys. And we did this and whatever.
But at the time, we were just doing our jobs. I have been called a hero I don’t know how many times. But I’m not. I’m just one of many. I had a job to do. I did it the best that I could at the time. And other guys depended on me just as I depended on them. One night we got in a firefight, and there were,
In a machine gun for example, every fifth round it’s a tracer, you know. You’d see that fin. And there was a lot of red flying around. And that means for everyone that they saw, there were four others that I couldn’t see. But the next, well, they were transmitting on the radio during the night, too. And the next day, a guy from another company came into my area, and he looked me up and he said, he asked me don’t you ever get excited?
And I said about what. And he said oh, last night, you know. The bullets, you could walk on them. And he said you were talking on the radio just as though it was another day at the beach. And I said well, I did my job. That’s what I get paid for. And I have been called, as an adult at home and all that,
I have been criticized because I don’t show any emotion. Well, I have, as a result of the War, I don’t have any emotion except anger and just keeping everybody, I won’t get close to anybody except my wife. She understands me, and I trust her.
But beyond that, I just don’t want to be close to anybody. If we go out to a restaurant, I want my back in the corner. And I want to be in a position where I want to see what people are doing. And if somebody come in the room attempting to do damage to the people in it, I would do anything, even giving my life, to take him out so that these people wouldn’t get hurt.
And I don’t think that psychologists or psychiatrists that, they have their theories. But I don’t think they can understand what’s going on in the mind of a combat veteran. Like in Korea, there’s a 20-1 ratio. For every guy in the fire line, that takes about 20 people back there with supplies and trucking and all those other ships and all that,
And, but we’re all there, and we’re all part of one unit, you know. We can’t do our job unless they do their job. And there’s a fellow that I was good friends with was a medic in Viet Nam. And his job was, the guys that were killed in action, is to prep them for the embalming.
And they put them in something. And then they flew them back to San Francisco where they were embalmed and then put in caskets and sent home. And he’s got a lot of emotional problems with that. And I tell people, I’ll tell you that I can’t put into words a lot of what’s in here. And even if I did have the words, I don’t think you could understand it because of the emotional factor.
I have had the thousand-yard stare. My wife knows what it is. It’s something, I don’t know if I’m thinking about something or whatever. But I’m staring off into space. And that comes from the combat situation where you’re doing things, you’re seeing, you’re hearing.
And the brain goes on overload. It’ll accept up to a level, and then it shuts down. You can see that blank look, when you look at pictures of combat vets, you can see that blank look on their face, even though they won’t. There’s just like a football there. You train, train, train, train, them on Sunday, you do without thinking. It’s a habit. And that’s what we had was the habit.
I’ll live with this kind of stuff the rest of my life. And I plan to live a long life. Sometimes the VA counselors ask me if I’ve ever thought about suicide. Yes, I have. The next question is why don’t you? And I say I wouldn’t dump that on my, on the people I care about
The people that I care about are far more important than me. So, I put up with me. And my long-term objective is to outlive everybody that cares about me which means she goes before I do. And my son and my daughter, all those people that are important to me, I can go, I’d rather go to their funerals than for them to come to mine because I don’t want them to grieve over me.
When I came back and got myself into civilian life, I don’t know how many years. But when somebody died (INAUDIBLE), our custom is you go to the funeral home and all that. I could not, would not, and I was bitched at. I was, my wife, at the time, was, she would be very upset and very angry because I wouldn’t go to the funeral home.
But I could not stand the sight of a body. I could not stand the sight of an accident or something like that. The mind just went (HANDS OVER FACE). And I’ve been going through a lot of formal and informal therapy. But it’s helped in the sense it helped me to understand it. But what’s in here ain’t gonna go away.
It’s always gonna be there. And at night, I don’t nap during the day, no matter how tired I get cause I try to be really tired when I go to bed because then the demons.
I have bad dreams. One night, I was making funny noises. And my wife hears that. And to make a long story short, I dreamed that I had been shot in the back.
I: And what kind of career did you have after you were finished with the Marine Corps?
C: When I got out of the Marine Corps, I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any education. I didn’t really have anything much in a warm body.
So, I needed to get some employment. So, I went to work in a papermill, and I worked there three months and then said no, this is not me. And I quit. And I went to work for an electric company as a lineman. And in three years, I was promoted to foreman which, you know, is pretty young at that stage.
But I stayed there for 17 years. And then I decided that I didn’t want to do that in my older years. So, I went to school and became a computer programmer. And about three or four years later, I was promoted to manager. And then I, one day I got a telephone call, and there was the President of an insurance company wanted to know if I would be interested in an interview.
And I said certainly. My loyalty runs right around my back pocket where my wallet is. And she took me out to a golf club and dinner, and we talked and all that. She offered me a job, and I accepted it. And it was a good move. And how long was I there, 15, 17?
Female Voice: Something like that.
C: Something like that.
And then I was promoted to Vice President of Information Technology. And so, I enjoyed that type of work. And then one day it was time to pull the plug and join the retirees. And I have no regrets.
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