Fermin Cantu was born in Lubbock, Texas on November 13, 1954. He was working in Lubbock when he decided to enlist into the Unites States Army in December of 1972. He arrived in Seoul, Korea in 1974 and was stationed in Pyeongtaek. He belonged to 1/72 Nike Herk Unit as an SD/4 (later retiring Sergeant First Class/E-7). In 1976, he departed from Korea and later took part in Desert Storm. Upon returning home from the war, he continued working as a correctional officer.
First Impressions of Korea
Fermin Cantu gives his first impressions of South Korea. He shares how it was to go to a country he has never seen or heard of before. He explains how he saw first-hand how difficult it is for South Koreans to rebuild their country and improve their economy after so much devastation from the war. He shares how the infrastructure has changed and how the Koreans used to use American goods and now we use goods from South Korea.
Life in the Barracks
Fermin Cantu describes the living conditions he experienced while in Korea in 1974 and again in the 80s. He describes the barracks that he slept in. He shares his estimated pay at the time.
A Change is Coming
Fermin Cantu describes changes Korea went through from the fifties to the time in the 70s and 80s when he was there. He shares how the products that were there now like Samsung wasn't there. He shares how South Korea has improved international trade.
My name is Fermin Cantu, F-E-R-M-I-N, Cantu, C-A-N-T-U
Alright and When did you enlist?
I enlisted in December of 1972.
Now, could you please provide your birthdate?
I was born November the 13th, 1954.
How old were you whenever you enlisted?
Oh-When I enlisted I was 18 years old.
What did your family think about your enlistment, your decision?
Oh – They were, they were…It was great, ….They encouraged me, you know, to enlist. And to serve my country.
Had you heard of Korea before your enlistment? Did you know anything about it?
I didn’t know nothing about it til I got there. And then I was uh..uh.. I was in a Nike Herk Unit the first time. Headquarters was at Pyeongtaek and I was in a Nike Herk Unit and we just uh – did exercises and helped out in that respect.
So where did you land out when you arrive into Korea? What was your first initial impression of this foreign country?
My first impression, you know, uh. It was not a country that was fully developed. Uh – I saw the South Korean people, they were working on their rick paddies and that kind of thing with oxen. They didn’t have tractors, per se, that I saw. And uh – but very hard working people, trying to improve their economy, you know. You didn’t have – uh – the big companies over there that you do now. In fact, they were looking for – they thought – They were looking for the American product at that time, you know. They thought that their products were a lot better than what they had at that time. It’s been turned around drastically, you know. And that’s all due to the – uh – the -uh – South Korean and the American soldiers that…the conflict that they went through to help that country, to be where they are today, you know. And uh -The infrastructure wasn’t there like it is now. It’s completely changed, completely different. Now we’re looking at uh – You buy a refridgerator, you be looking for a Samsung or LG or Honda. Honda products, Hyundai products. And this all came about because of the American soldiers -the ones especially in the conflict uhm uh – which I was not a part of. I’m honored to be part of the organization.
Have you been back to Korea? – Since…
Ahhh- I haven’t. But, uh uh, I’ve heard people that have gone and come back and said you won’t recognize it anymore, you know. It’s really changed.
So tell me a little bit about what you did in Korea. What was your job? What branch did you enlist into? Um -What was your duties, your responsibilities?
Well, our duties was always to protect. We went to exercises like Team Spirit and uh – that kind of thing. My MOS was in the food service field. That’s what I did there. And uh -try to help out in that respect.
What were your living conditions like? As far as food, your sleeping arrangements…
Well we had a little…The barracks uh-uh, at the time had two big diesel -uh-uh, heater elements in there, if you will, and uh…They were just barracks, per se. We didn’t have nothing elaborate, at the time. But it was good.
How much were you getting paid, probably, by the month?
Whew! It wasn’t much. Maybe between 800 to 1000 dollars, I believe.
It wasn’t much, you know, at the time.
And uh – Tell me again what years you were in Korea.
I was there, like I said, around 1974. And then I went back in the 1980’s.
So you went twice?
I’ve been there twice. Uh The second time I was in the camp Casey and Countershot And uh – It was an armored unit. And uhuhuh there again, you know…we had extra sizes and that kind of thing.
Were your duties much different than whenever you first went into Korea? I mean, had things changed in those 6 or 7 years?
It changed a little bit. We still had uh uh curfew. You couldn’t stay out after 12 o’clock or you couldn’t get back on the base, you know. And uh – so – Everything was still intense. I mean you listen to the radio – It had to be a specific station. You couldn’t get no station that might come from .. You know – no Korean or that kind of thing, so…. They was really looking out for every little thing. And n obody could be on the streets after 12 o’clock, and that kind of thing.
Did you exchange letters with your family and friends while you were fighting in Korea? Did you write any letters back and forth?
Absolutely! I would keep in contact with my family…and..uh…we would converse in that respect.
Do you still have some of those letters?
I do. My sister kept a lot of them. Yeah.
Awesome! So – How was your relationship with other foreign troops including Korean soldiers?
Uh – We worked together with Iraq army soldiers and also the Katusas. And uh – we went on joint exercises with them… uh and that kind of thing, you know. So we were more better prepared.
What were some of the most difficult or dangerous or happiest rewarding memories that -um -during your duty?
The happiest memories… uh.. it was just, you know, when I was able to sight see and seeing the country. It’s a beautiful country, you know. I remember one mountain that we went. It was like a mountain – They had a big Buddha camp – a Buddha shrine up there. That was very interesting.
Uh -were you. Were you ever in battle? Were you ever engaged in any of the battles or were you ever wounded?
No, I wasn’t in the battle. I was not in the conflict. But uh – we just helped support. I happened to be there when Pyeong so Hi passed away, when he was assassinated. And uh -that was a tense moment. But, no I was not in battle, per se in the Korean War.
How did you feel after you came home from Korea? After, I mean both times…I mean had it changed your life or impacted you in any way?
Absolutely. After I learned the history of the uh of the uh uh Korean War and the Korean War veterans it has impacted me significantly, you know. Because uh – here was a group of soldiers that went over there in 1950….18 years old…and here come all these bullets coming at them. And it must have been very intense for them. And uh – I have a lot of respect for them. And uh – I’m honored to be able to help out in any way.
This is kind of a long question but I feel like it’s really important. In 2013, we witnessed the 60th anniversary of the Armistice, signed by China, North Korea, and the UN on July 27th, 1953. There is no war in modern history that lasted 60 years after an official cease fire and the mutual hostility among parties involved hasn’t continued. What do you think we have to do to put a closure on it? Do you support a kind of movement to petition to end the war officially and to replace the Armistice with a peace treaty?
That—That’s a complicated question, however, uh uh Even if a thing like that was to happen, of course, uh -uh -uh – North Korea would have to get rid of their nuclear weapons. Tht’s big – That they’d have to do that. And uh, uh show that they are ready to negotiate by – by what they do, you know. Course uh – nobody likes to be in a prolonged war but we also have to be careful of communism and to insure that uh….that’s not going on. It has to be a democratic society between South and North Korea, if that was to ever happen.
Do you feel that it’s important for your children and grandchildren or others to know the significance of the Korean War, itself?
Absolutely! Uh uh uh. They need to know that. They need to know the sacrifice and uh uh And what they did for that country, you know. Uh uh- It’s just so much history, you know with Japan – the Japan invasion and uh the conflict there. It’s a – and the result of it. South Korea being better for it. You know that is a war that was won, in my eyes, because of uh. You can see the outcome of it, you know.
Well, How long was your service each time?
Uhh I believe the first time was like two years. And the second was right at two years, also.
Do you have any personal stories or memories – anything from your duties, there in Korea?
Uh – Well, about… I had two of my children that were born there. So uh – that was significant. I’ve got family there as well, so that’s good memories, you know. But uh – It’s just -uh – It’s just an honor to be a part of this organization, and help out in any way I can.
Would you say that the conditions were either the same or maybe better or worse than that of what they were in 1950-53?
How had the conditions probably changed, from what you saw – from your experience?
When I was there, I mean, you didn’t have the products that you have now. And uh uh – Samsung – I mean they control 50 percent of the economy over there, you know. And uh uh – They’re just doing so well, trading with different countries that they weren’t able to do before, you know. It’s a good thing to see.
Do you have any messages to younger generations or um maybe some insight to the Korean War that they should know about?
I think they should know the history of it….Like the Tell America Program. It’s great to let the younger generation know what transpired in that war. And what they did for South Korea to accomplish what they’ve been able to accomplish. For example, they had so many battles there, that. They had one battle there, I believe it was the Nam River that lasted 55 days and 10,000 soldiers died in that one battle, you know. And iit’s just so many stories that history tells us, you know. And they need to know about it…have a better appreciation of the Korean War Veterans.
Can you tell me a little bit of what the Tell America program is?
Ah – Basically, they going – we’re going to the schools and get permission from the principal to be able to talk to the students and give them a history of the Korean War, before and after, and the different conflicts that came across – the people that they helped, especially the young children. Their mother and father got killed and they were just there on the street. The American soldiers were able to police them up, feed them and give them a chance at a better life, you know.
After your duty, did you go back to school to further your education along with your GI Bill?
I did. Uh. I went back and got my associates degree and I then continued my education with Tolin(15:38) State University and I got my bachelors degree.
Are there any last comments or memories or stories that you would like to show, to go along with your legacy?
It’s just uh, trying to, at this point, trying to help the Korean War Veterans in whatever assistance that they might happen to need, you know. Uh -the one issue that comes to mind, right now is…We need to have more VA contracted nursing facilities throughout the United States. They end up having to go to a specialized skill nursing facility – Rehab -they call it… Skilled Nursing Rehab/Nursing Facility. And they’re there a few months and you hear that their Medicare ran out. And you say, “Well how can their Medicare run out?” you know? But uh, It does, if it’s not VA contracted. So Medicare Part A pays for room and board and Medicare Part B, of course, pays for physical therapy. But, uh, between 155 -to 240 dollars a day, it gets pretty complicated. And some of these facilities are facilities that they specialize and they need that facility, but yet, we got to find a way of assisting them or making them VA contracted facilities to help the veteran. And we’re trying to do that.
Um – On a more of a, I guess, personal or your opinion—Why- What do you think makes North Korea so threatening to South Korea? Why are there so many issues in your opinion? And is there anything that we could really do to help try to resolve this? I know I kinda sort of asked this question already, but…
Well, nothing can really – I don’t think nothing can be resolved until they tone down their rhetoric about their nuclear weapons and disarming and that kind of thing. We’re always vigilant and always will be, you know. For example, in 2010, you know, they had that ship that was downed by North Korea. And then here – what just a year or two ago they fired on an island, you know in South Korea. So that was very uh – That was an eye-opener to be more vigilant. We have to be prepared at all times. Which is what – uh – even though there’s service members that died in the conflict – the conflict is still there, you know. And we always have to be vigilant of that, which is what we’re doing is protecting South Korea and their values and that kind of thing.
All Right – Got anything else for me? I mean you can tell me a little bit more about what you did or um maybe some of the friendships that you made I mean did you – do you still talk to anybody that you were in service with? Make any long lasting friendships or anything like that?
Well -over the years, you know – you try and keep in touch with them but sometimes you’re not able to but uh -The biggest thing is just to continue a legacy of the Korean War Veteran and just uh, Let people know the history of it – And what was accomplished.
What do you think about the Korean War Legacy Foundation and the Digital Memorial that we are working on?
Ohhh – It’s Great!! It’s Great! I mean that’s a way of people being able to see the stories of the Korean War Veterans and say, “Wow! That Happened!” you know… And they never realized that they that happened and they went through that, you know. There’s a lot of stories out there and they should tell their story, you know. And you’re – That program is bringin’ it out. And we need to know that and I mean I applaud the program for that. I think it’s great.
Thank you. So you think that it’s – It’s a good idea. It’s uh -It’s important for decendants of Korean War Veterans to really kind of kick this off – and get it launched and really get the word out there.
I think so, yes.
You think it’s a better um it’s a better angle to come in with decendants of Korean War veterans to take on this task?
Yes-Absolutely and I think they can do that.
Awesome! And I -your hat – I see that you’re involved in the Korean War Veteran’s Association. Can you tell me what chapter you’re with?
My chapter is in Killeen, TX, Chapter 222 and we also do things there locally to look out for the veterans and we have a comradery there and it’s just great to be a part of that organization.
Well Awesome! Well thank you so much for your service and your sacrifice. Even though you weren’t there for ‘50 -you know to ’53..
You contributions are still what have put Korea where they’re at today.
The Korean War Veterans – I tell you that were in Conflict. They deserve all the praise and honor for what they did. It was really an intense. Every war is you know.
But – uh – they were no exception. It was really a hard fought war. People need to know that, you know. And you’re bringing it out and we appreciate that.