Clarence Jerke was born on March 25, 1931, in Tripp County, South Dakota. He graduated from Witten High School in 1949. He was drafted into the United States Army in 1952 and received basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, as well as additional training in field wiring for communications. After landing in Inchon in the spring of 1953, he was deployed north of the 38th parallel and attached to the 2nd Infantry Division Head Quarters Battery where he worked to maintain wire, radio, telephone, and messages. He returned to the U.S. in 1954.
Clarence Jerke speaks about driving a supply truck while he was stationed in Seoul in 1952. He describes the city, civilians, and the difficulties that he faced when transporting supplies.
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Memories of the Armistice and Returning POWs
Clarence Jerke shares his memories of the Armistice. He describes how he felt and what he did as he encountered returning POWs in August 1953.
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Help from South Korean Soldiers and Civilians
Clarence Jerke recalls his experiences with KATUSA soldiers and South Korean civilians. He describes one particular South Korean soldier who was especially adept at laying communication lines. He talks about civilian boys who washed military uniforms for food or money.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
Respondent: My name is Clarence W. J. Jerke. Clarence – C-L-A-R-E-N-C-E. Jerke – J-E-R-K-E.
Interviewer: And you said that Jerke is a German name? Tell me about the name that you got, Jerke.
Respondent: Well, when our ancestors came to the United States and were going through immigration, they couldn’t pronounce it. They pronounced it “Yorkie” – or that’s the way it was supposed to be. But the people that were doing the interview there changed it to “Jerkie”.
Interviewer: That’s funny, yeah? What is your birthday?
Respondent: March 15, 1931
Interviewer: Where were you born?
Respondent: Tripp County, South Dakota
Interviewer: So this is your hometown? I mean your home state.
Respondent: Winter, South Dakota was my home town.
Interviewer: Tell me about your family and your siblings when you were growing up.
Respondent: My family on my father’s side they came originally to Dakota territory in 1860 and homesteaded down by Yankton, South Dakota. And that homestead is still in the family name today and there’s still a Jerke living on it.
Interviewer: Wow, from Germany?
Respondent: No, he was born in United States. He’s a professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. He did research and made a book on our family history. Oh my gosh, back in them days they all had big families.
Interviewer: What about your siblings?
Respondent: I had one brother and one sister.
Interviewer: That’s it?
Respondent: And I lost my brother five years ago, same year I lost my wife. My sister is still living.
Interviewer: Tell me about the school you went through.
Respondent: A little country school in Carter, South Dakota. The town no longer exists. It was just a one-horse town. That’s where I went to school at and I was so blessed because we lived next to the Rosebud Reservation, so we had a few Indian children come to that school. Also, we had a rural mail carrier that was a negro and he had two boys and a girl and they came to that school. We were integrated as far as races go, nothing ever changed. Our parents always told us that color doesn’t rub off. We traded sandwiches with both of them and they traded with us. Color had no bearing on it at all. So when I went and served and they were telling us how we should integrate I had already learned that years before.
Interviewer: When did you graduate high school and what high school did you graduate from?
Respondent: Witten, South Dakota.
Interviewer: When was it?
Respondent: That was in the forties.
Respondent: I got out of high school in 1949.
Interviewer: And then what did you do?
Respondent: Stayed on the farm and ranched with my dad.
Interviewer: Tell me about your family farm, how was it?
Respondent: It was good sized. And when the Korean War broke out my dad told us, it was just me and my brother with him in the farm operation. He said one of you boys better volunteer for the draft because things got tough in World War Two and they’ll take both boys off the farm and if they do that our farming is done. So, being the oldest, I volunteered for the draft.
Interviewer: So, you were drafted?
Respondent: Yes, and we I got drafted we landed at Incheon.
Interviewer: No, no, no. Let me ask several more questions. Do you remember when it was you were drafted?
Interviewer: October of 1949? No, ’50.
Respondent: 1951. 1952, ’52. I was 21 years old.
Interviewer: Let me ask you this question: Did you learn anything about Korea in your school?
Interviewer: You didn’t know anything about Korea?
Interviewer: You didn’t know where it was?
Respondent: No, not really. Well, when we heard about it, we looked it up and I knew it was in the Pacific we’d call it. Not far from Japan.
Interviewer: But you really didn’t know much about Korea?
Interviewer: When the Korean War broke out, what were you thinking?
Respondent: Well, it’s another war and we just got through World War Two you know. And I had uncles that served in World War Two. And so, dad was the one that organized it then. He said World War Two they took both boys and then the farm would be shut down so one of you got to volunteer for the draft.
Interviewer: That was a tough choice, right?
Respondent: Yeah. So I did.
Interviewer: You were not afraid?
Respondent: No, no. I trust one person way up there.
Interviewer: Are you a believer?
Respondent: Oh, yes. Definitely. There was many times when I’d think back and think that’s why I’m here today.
Interviewer: Where did you go to get the basic military training?
Respondent: Fort Sheriden, Illinois.
Interviewer: And what kind of basic military training was it?
Respondent: Well, that’s’ where we got inducted. Then they shipped us down to Fort Riley, Kansas. And that’s where we took basic training. And I went through infantry training. Then they sent us to school to be a field wireman.
Interviewer: I see. So that was your specialty?
Interviewer: When did you leave for Korea?
Respondent: It was in the Spring of ’53. Early in the Spring. I don’t remember the exact date. It was after the first of the year.
Interviewer: And where did you go?
Respondent: We landed at Incheon?
Interviewer: Right away?
Respondent: Right away. Well, we stopped in Japan but never got off the ship. We just stopped there for a little bit in the harbor because they had some business to do. Then we went right on around and landed at Incheon.
Interviewer: Tell me about Incheon you first saw.
Respondent: Well, we come in and you couldn’t go all the way into the thing. We waded through some water to get to the shore. Got your feet wet. And first thing I seen was some shells going over head exploding.
Interviewer: Really? In 1953?
Respondent: Yes. I know they shouldn’t have been but they were.
Interviewer: Enemy shell or what was it?
Respondent: I know people look at me but my eyeballs know what they seen.
Interviewer: There was enemy there?
Respondent: Not in –
Interviewer: Incheon area.
Interviewer: And what other things do you remember about Incheon?
Respondent: Not a whole lot because we stayed there over night then we moved up to where the Second Division was.
Interviewer: Where was it?
Respondent: That was in North Korea.
Interviewer: Do you remember the name?
Respondent: No, I don’t. Second Infantry Division.
Interviewer: What was your unit?
Respondent: Second Infantry Division. Headquarters and Headquarters Battery.
Interviewer: Headquarters Battery? What do you mean by Headquarters Battery?
Respondent: Well that was the Battery. We were in charge of the communications for the division.
Interviewer: Regiment or company or battalion?
Interviewer: Batteries. That’s it? What was your rank?
Respondent: I ended up Sergeant First Class. I was only in the service 21 months total time.
Interviewer: Tell me about the Headquarters. How was it and where was it located? It was in the west side – or east side?
Respondent: West side. Not far from shore. And we were in Korea I suppose 40 or 50 miles. We had squad tents and small tents, everything. There ended up an old captain the commanded of that unit and he liked me for some reason and I had, well I had taken field wire man training in basic training and I ended being Communications Chief Second Division. Second Infantry Division. And I ended up being responsible for all the communications.
Interviewer: What kind of communications are you talking about?
Respondent: Wire, radio, telephone, the whole nine yards. And messages. I had what they called a message center. When the messages would come up by foot or anyway – we had to deliver them to whoever they were addressed to. So I was very active. Had to be. So I had, I suppose there were 40 guys in that section.
Interviewer: It was a big operation then?
Respondent: Well, division. It was nice sized.
Interviewer: Anything you remember important communications? Or imminent so you have to do something about it?
Respondent: Well, I got one I remember so well. When then the war ended on the fourth of July before they shut down they signed the –
Interviewer: July 24th. 27th.
Respondent: Earlier than that though they agreed and so a general of the armies in Korea ordered that all artillery units would fire a salvo on fourth of July at twelve o’clock noon. That was one big boom. That was to celebrate the peace.
Interviewer: Really? That happened?
Respondent: I’ll never forget that.
Interviewer: Did you directly receive that?
Respondent: Well, that came in and we were all told about it that we were going to go off.
Interviewer: So, that was July 4, 1953.
Respondent: Yep. That was a big boom. I always say I’ve seen more fireworks on the fourth of July than anybody else. Heard more. Because all the artillery units all across the line fired at exactly twelve o’clock noon. That’s a lot of artillery.
Interviewer: Where did you sleep? What did you eat? Tell me about the life there in Second Division.
Respondent: Well, we had squad tents. Had little army cot in there. No mattresses. You had your blanket and that was it you slept with that. Always slept with your weapon right alongside you in or under your cover. Then we had chow lines we’d go through. You’d be standing outside to get your food to eat.
Interviewer: How was food?
Respondent: Well, a lot of it was canned stuff that they’d bring in. Some of it not so good, but we all survived on it and we ate it. K-rations, C-rations.
Interviewer: But it was hot food right?
Interviewer: Were you able to take showers?
Respondent: Well, for quite a while, no we didn’t have a shower. The only place we could take bath there was a creek down the ways behind us and a stream running through. And after you go without a shower about a month we decided we were going to set something up. But the creek wasn’t big enough, only about this (motions a height with hand) so we took hand grenades and throwed them in the water to get the rocks loosened up and we’d throw the rocks out and finally we had a hole that was about this deep. And then we had a big rock up here on the end. And we’d go down there and get soaped up. Then we’d jump into the water and get rinsed off. We were taking baths.
Interviewer: Very creative. Public bath tub. Was the water clean?
Respondent: The water was clear, yeah. But that was the only way we got a shower. So when they talk now you gotta shower every day, no. You go that many months without taking a shower, well you survive without it. I had a doctor tell me if people would go back to what they learned when they were kids and take a shower once a week they’d be a lot healthier. They wash all the oil out of their skin when they shower every day. That’s not good for you. Then they come down to the doctor and say I need oil to put on. That’s not necessary. I grew up on a farm and back in them days Saturday night was bath tub so you’d be ready for church Sunday morning.
Interviewer: What was the distance between the front line and your headquarters?
Respondent: Not very much because we’d get incoming artillery occasionally and when we heard it was coming we had to evacuate back a ways.
Interviewer: A few miles, right? Were there any dangerous moments during your service? Were there moments where you were bombed or the enemy infiltrated?
Respondent: No they didn’t get us infiltrated but we’d get airstrikes once in a while. They had one time they sent some MPs up. They thought some of us guys was misbehaving so they were going to straighten us out. Well, those MPs were just a little south of us. Where we were dug in was right in the mountains where we had natural shelter. But there was a big flat area out there. And the MPs from back home all wanted – they set their tents out there in the open. And guess what? They got strafed. There was only two of them survived. They got strafed. And we told the rest of them, even the North Koreans know who’s good guys and who’s bad. That sounds like a terrible thing but they got – well, they were out where they shouldn’t be. Everybody tried to tell them you got to get back in the hills, in the woods. But they was going to be smarter than the rest of us.
Interviewer: What were you thinking? You said you didn’t know anything about Korea and now you are fighting in a country you didn’t know. What were you thinking? Did you know what you were doing there.
Respondent: Well, yeah I knew it. It was a revolution between north and south Korea and we took south Korea’s part. We did. And we defended them and tried to save them only it was a big mistake they made in my opinion. Now, this is my opinion. Instead of pulling out when we did, we should have finished the job. We wouldn’t have that mess today.
Interviewer: What was the most difficult thing during your service in Korea?
Respondent: Laying wire lines when we would be moving up or something. Tanks would go ahead and every time they crossed a wire line you knew you had to replace it or repair it. It got interesting. I learned one thing. When it was cold, get behind that tank, right close, with that heat coming off that tank you could stay warm.
Interviewer: So there was a moving, mobile heating system.
Interviewer: Do you have to work outside too? Because you were in charge, the Communications Chief. Mostly you worked in the office, right?
Respondent: No, I helped lay wire lines too. I’d take a crew out. Well, we had everything going out and I’d go out too because you had to get the job done. We had a general come over from the United States. Our people in Washington had strange ideas. This general was just a One Star General and they wanted to promote him. So they sent him to Korea so they could give him a second star. And we would have a, well…Up in the air, you could detect enemy movement. So this general he thought he would really do that good. So he got some balloons and he sent balloons way up in the air. Well, then when our planes would fly in, it would be lower and they’d hit that balloon. We had several of them have bad accidents hitting that. Wire lines going up. They shipped him back to the States but they made him Major General.
Interviewer: What’s his name? Do you remember?
Respondent: No, I don’t.
Interviewer: Any other important communication you remember?
Respondent: Not that I remember. There was so much of it. It was all important when you’re in a combat zone.
Interviewer: You were there when the armistice was signed, July 27. Was there any important communication about that?
Respondent: Not a whole lot. We heard about it through our radios and telephones because they would radio us what was coming off and we knew it was going.
Interviewer: How was it? How did you feel about this armistice was signed?
Respondent: Well, good. My captain took me where they were repatriating the prisoners. I got to see those prisoners being repatriated. These poor guys, I’ll never forget, they had been in prisoner or war camps in North Korea. You could be 50 yards from them and count their ribs. They were that skinny. It was awful. I’ll never forget the sight of those guys being turned over to United States forces.
Interviewer: Tell me about that. Do you remember when it was? Was it August?
Respondent: I think so.
Interviewer: Because I did a lot of interviews with POWs. They were there for 1-3 years. They lived in a hell. And as you told me they couldn’t have much to eat so they were really losing a lot of weight. And they came back across the bridge of no return. Tell me about those things more, please. When was it?
Respondent: I can’t remember exact dates. Just seeing those guys I’ll never forget that, coming across and the shape they were in. Talk about those guys and talk about somebody suffering. And then we’re going to be so kind and nice to them kind of people. No, treat your enemies as they treat you. That was just inhuman.
Interviewer: Why were you there?
Respondent: Well, I volunteered for the army and they sent us over there to fight the North Koreans.
Interviewer: No, no, no. When the prisoners of war came back, why were you there?
Respondent: My captain wanted me to see that because he came through World War Two and he had seen when the Japanese relseased the prisoners.
Interviewer: What did they say? Do you remember?
Respondent: No, I don’t.
Interviewer: What did they ask first?
Respondent: I don’t know.
Interviewer: Some of them told me they asked for ice cream and then they had diarrhea because he hasn’t eaten.
Respondent: I don’t know about that. I didn’t get in contact with them. I just observed the procedure.
Interviewer: Any Koreans that you worked with?
Interviewer: Tell me about them.
Respondent: There was some South Koreans. There was one named Keetak (spelling unclear). I’ll never forget him. He was the best pole climber – ain’t a squirrel or a monkey could out climb him. He’d put his spurs on, what we called them. Everybody else there was a belt you put around the pole to hold you up there. He just put one leg around the pole like this and when he got done he just kicked his legs out and he’d go down the pole like that. And he was – no GI wire man that I had could come close to climbing like that.
Interviewer: Was he a soldier?
Interviewer: Catoosa? (Spelling unclear).
Respondent: Kim Keetak.
Interviewer: But was he Catoosa or Korean military?
Respondent: He was Korean military? Well, we trained him. He was – we had a nickname for it but anyway I forget what they were called.
Interviewer: What was his rank?
Respondent: He was a private. He wasn’t an officer. He was a wireman. He was helping us lay wire and he knew how to climb poles and that’s what they had to know.
Interviewer: Were there any other Koreans?
Respondent: Yes. Kim Song Soo, Jo Song Soo (Spelling unclear). I can’t remember all of them. They were all good but this one was just outstanding.
Interviewer: Any other Korean boy worked in your tent?
Respondent: We had some Korean kids come up to do laundry. They’d take it down to the creek, put some soap on it and rinse in the water and that was your laundry.
Interviewer: Do you think they were smart? Working diligently?
Respondent: They were getting meals because we’d feed them and that attracted them and they’d come up and do that kind of thing for us. We appreciated it.
Interviewer: Did you pay them?
Respondent: Yes, we gave them money. We didn’t have much money because that was not something we got much of but we shared, we’d give them some.
Interviewer: Did you have a chance to go around Seoul? Did you see Seoul?
Respondent: Yeah, I saw Seoul. When I first got over there they had me drive a truck for a couple weeks and make supply runs down to the rear and bring stuff up. So I got to drive a big six by six truck down there. When I was in basic training they had one morning they said you, you and you you’re going to take the driver’s test. So when I was in Kansas I took the test and passed so I had a CDL, Commercial Driver’s License. So that was on my record. So, when I got over there they said you know how to drive a truck. We need a truck driver. So I did that a while.
Interviewer: So you had a chance to see around Seoul?
Respondent: Where we picked up supplies.
Interviewer: How was it? How was Seoul?
Respondent: Congested is the best I could say. Congested.
Interviewer: Congested with what?
Respondent: People. People. A lot of them I think fled out of North Korea and congregated in Seoul.
Interviewer: How did they look?
Respondent: They looked a little big hungry. It was something you didn’t judge. This is war and war is hell. Only thing that irritated us we would get loaded up and there would be a convoy of us driving down the street heading back to the front. And some of these Koreans would run alongside the truck because we’d drive slow. So they’d grab hold and one of them would jump up in the box and start throwing stuff out. We needed that up there. We didn’t need it in South Korea so we finally put a man back in that truck with an M-1 rifle. And when them fingers come over that tailgate, there’s some short fingers over there in South Korea because you’d come down on that.
Interviewer: They needed those? They were hungry? Needed all the necessities?
Respondent: They’d take anything they could get out of that truck.
Interviewer: When did you leave Korea?
Respondent: Well, I came home in…52…54. I was only in service total time 21 months.
Interviewer: Have you been back to Korea?
Respondent: No, I had the opportunity and then they started getting nasty over there again I thought I’m not – I’ve been through enough. I don’t need to go through that again. But I was offered the opportunity to fly me back and tour.
Interviewer: That’s the Korea Revisit Program run by Ministry of Veterans and Patriots run by Republic of Korea. Do you know how Korea has advanced in their economy?
Respondent: South Korea, I’ve heard and kept track, I wouldn’t recognize it anymore because it has really changed.
Interviewer: Who told you about that?
Respondent: I saw it on TV and there was some guys who came back and said you wouldn’t believe how nice it is.
Interviewer: What did they tell you? More detail please.
Respondent: Just that everything is modern now. They’ve got better streets and roads and housing. Everything is nice.
Interviewer: The Korea you saw in 1954 when you left, Korea was not really good, right?
Respondent: That’s right.
Interviewer: Now it’s the 11th largest economy in the world, can you believe that?
Respondent: Yeah, I can believe that because I’ve heard that.
Interviewer: Don’t you think it’s a big success?
Respondent: Yes, only it could’ve been all of Korea if we had followed through after we went that far and lost 35,000 American lives we could have finished the job.
Interviewer: Why is it the forgotten war.
Respondent: I don’t know. We were ignored. All other veterans – Vietnam, every place else, World War One and Two, then Korea – they just closed the book.
Interviewer: That’s why we are doing this.
Respondent: I figured that.
Interviewer: We are doing this and edit it and put it into the internet so students and teachers can use it when they learn about the Korean War and post-war Korean developments. So that’s your legacy. You went to a country you didn’t know and you fought for it and that country becomes the 11th largest economy in the world. How beautiful that is.
Respondent: Well I rode it when I went home, I rode a train all the way down to – what’s the name of that port, south side of South Korea
Interviewer: Pusan? (Spelling unclear)
Respondent: A big port.
Interviewer: Yes, Pusan. Or Incheon?
Respondent: Had to be Pusan.
Interviewer: Had you been there?
Respondent: Never before but a train loaded us and took us down and that old train….It wasn’t really open and the steam engine…chug, chug….Never forgot that train ride.
Interviewer: So are you proud of your service?
Respondent: Yes, I am. I’ve gotten so many awards.
Interviewer: Tell me about it.
Respondent: Well I got last year they gave me that South Korean Presidential Award, which is a big one. I got a big thing on my wall. I got two Bronze Stars and several other decorations. I don’t stand around and brag about it. I just – that’s me. You accomplish it. You done it. You done your job. You do the best you can. That’s what I was taught farming from my dad. He told us boys you do a good job and you don’t have to brag about it, your neighbors will.
Interviewer: Do you have any other message to leave this interview?
Respondent: I’m thankful that I was able to serve and save a lot of people’s lives.
[End of recorded material]