Harold Heckman started his military career in 1952 as a rifleman on the front lines of Korea. Through his efforts on patrol, and in the trenches, he eventually became a Sergeant First Class who led many American patrols to the North Korean front lines. He remembers his first night in Korea and the ignorant decision that his soon-to-be-ex commanding officer made. Harold Heckman proudly tells of how he earned the Bronze Star through a successful seek-and-capture mission. Harold Heckman shares how not every decision made in war has a good ending and many decisions can easily follow you home. He is proud of his service, but also recognizes the difficulties of war.
Terrified and misguided from the very first night
Harold Heckman remembers his first night on the front lines of Korea - a night that resulted in seven American causalities. Due to the ineptitude of a senior commanding officer, American soldiers on night patrol) ended up walking through a minefield which resulted in many unnecessary causalities. Harold Heckman never saw the commanding officer again.
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Earning his Bronze Star
Harold Heckman talks about the mission that ended up earning him a Bronze Star. The assignment was to seek-and-capture a North Korean soldier for intelligence. He recalls how he led a mission team through the dark to captured and bring back a North Korean soldier from the North Korean front line - an effort that almost rewarded him with a Russian war-time trophy.
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Decisions made, prices paid
Not every decision that Harold Heckman made during the war is one that he's proud of. He mournfully recalls how he was made to deal with an American soldier who defected during the onset of battle. A tough decision he can still remember clearly, and ultimately, effects him to this day.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
My name is Harold Heckman.
Could you spell you last name?
I: M-A-N. And what is your birthday?
H: June 8th’31
I: June 8th? Where were you born?
I: Could you spell it?
I: Where? In Illinois?
I: Tell me about your family and siblings when you were growing up?
H: Well, I had four, four younger brothers and one sister.
H: And I am the oldest and the youngest one is still living. The rest of ’em had all passed now.
I: When you were growing up?
H: When I was
H: Oh, where I went to school and stuff?
H: Well, I started out in Cederville, up on the hill. Little, well, it was two stories. And from there I went to Dakoda in a little country school.
H: And that’s where I graduated grade school. Then I went to
a year and a half of Freeport High School.
I: Uh huh. When did you graduate?
H: Oh, boy, what year was it?
I: 194-, what is it?
H: 8 I think.
H: Yeah. And I didn’t really graduate.
H; I only had one semester to go and-
I: And then?
H: me and the principal go into it.
H: And I left.
I: Wow, that was big decision, huh?
I: So, what happened? Why did you do then?
H: What did I do then?
H: Then I kinda I went to work on a, one of my friend’s farm?
H: And, I was there, I don’t recall how many years,
probably five or six years I worked with them. And they had two boys that was going to Freeport High School. And one girl. So, I went to right with him to Freeport High School for a year and a half. Then, then the family moved up to Dakoda.
I: South Dakota:
H: No, not south.
H: Just plain D-A-K-O-D-A.
I: Oh, okay.
H: And I went right along with them up there. And I went to Dakoda High School and there’s where I got just about all my education. [laughs]
I: Did you graduate Dakoda High School?
H: I didn’t graduate.
I: I, you didn’t. So, when did you join the Army?
H: The Korean deal?
I: And where did you get the military training, basic military training?
H: Camp Cook, Camp Cook, California.
I: Mm-hmm. And when did you leave for Korea?
H: ’53-, ’52.
I: What month?
H: When was it, July?
H: I think.
H: I was six months in California
then I got on a slow boat to China and went to Korea.
I: Mm-hmm. And where did you arrive in Korea?
I: Where? Was it Inchon?
H: That don’t sound right. I can’t remember.
H: Pusan, I think
H: I think so.
I: You arrived in Pusan. And, where did you go from there?
H: Right to the front line.
Up in the trench.
I: Do you remember Porkchop Hill or anything like that?
H: That was right along side of me.
I: I’m sorry?
H: That was along side of me to my right I think,
H: where I was up on the hill.
I: Where was it? Do you remember the name?
H: Where I was?
H: I don’t remember that of that, they had a name for every hill.
H: And I don’t
remember where it was. I’d say Porkchop Hill was just to my right. And what was to the left? I don’t remember.
I: Hmmm. Okay. And what was your unit and MOS?
H: I was in the National Guard here in Illinois.
H: I was in 44thDivision, then I went-
H: And when I got to Korea, I was in the 45thDivision.
I: Mmm. What was your MOS, specialty?
H: Oh I, I, I’m sort handed, I don’t remember what that is.
I: No, you don’t have to remember the number. Was you rifleman, or did you?
H: Oh yeah,
I was, I was, yeah, be a classified rifleman. But I, I had the BAR all the time.
I: BAR? What is that?
H: That’s a bigger weapon than the regular rifle.
I: So, so, automatic machine gun?
H: Yeah, it’s kinda like that. You got a magazine you poke up in,
H: Then you can tape two of ’em together. When it’s empty, you just flip it over and
poke the other on up in there.
I: So, were you at Kelly Hill?
I: Kelly Hill?
H: Oh, I just can’t remember what the-
I: Or Little Norrie, Big Norrie, Tessie, T-bone Hill?
H: No, it wasn’t T-bone.
I: Mmmm. Old Baldy.
I: No. So, tell me about what you did there. Typical day. What did you
H: Well, just walked the trenches mostly.
H: And I had a, oh like a South Korean with me. What them call them ROK soldiers. Yeah, always had one of them with me in the trench. He was my body guard and I was his bodyguard.
H: And, I stayed in the
trench for 13 months.
H: L-like two weeks R&R two weeks back in Japan. Otherwise I’s up there my whole time.
I: That’s where you sleep? In the trench? Or did you sleep in the tent?
H: No, there was not tents, you was in the trench. They had bunkers made that you could go in and, it was made out of
sticks and stuff that could you lay down on. And they had air mattresses. And that’s how you lived.
I: That’s terrible.
H: That’s the way it was for 13 months.
I: My goodness.
I: Oh, my goodness. Did you have a sleeping bag?
H: Yeah, yeah.
I: How often did you take a shower?
H: Well, a lot of times,
if we was close to the river, I’d go down to the river and wash my clothes, take ’em back, hang ’em in the bunk, and dry ’em out.
H: Change, t-tried to change every day, especially my socks. I seen too many guys didn’t take care of their feet. And a lot of ’em lost ’em, lost toes,
fingers, but I lucked out, I went through the winter. It was 42 degrees that winter when I was over there, below.
H: Below 24, yeah. Yeah.
I: So, how was the battle situation there, when you were there, in 1952? It was kind of stalemate, or what, how was it?
there was quite a bit of action yet.
I: Tell me about those.
H: Well, I, I went to, when I was in National Guard, I went to camp for two weeks every summer. That was three summers. So, I got acquainted with some of the stuff in there and before I went to Korea. And, I got over
there and, the big general of the Division, he gave us a speech, right off the bat. And he says if any, if you was out on night patrol or anything, and anybody bugged out, you’d better have somebody take him out, or I’m going to take you out,
H: if I find out.
H: [laughs] He was a mean one.
H: [laughs] He’d been busted before. He was trying come back on his rank I think he was two star at that time again.
I: What’s his name? Remember?
H: No. I only ever seen him once.
H: [laughs] And that first night, I had to out on night patrol.
H: Scared to death. [laughs]
I: Must be, right?
I: You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where the enemies are and-
H: I, I know you’re going down a big hill, then you get into a valley. And there’s another big hill going back up. That’s where the people we didn’t like, and we still don’t like ’em. [laughs] Then we had a, what was it? A second
lieutenant. Took us on patrol that first night that I got over there. And they always go back to the rear and get, get briefed up. They’re supposed to know where all the minefields are at, stuff as that. And we just got down in the valley and he walked us through a minefield.
H: We had
I think seven casualties that we had to get back to our line. And I never, never seen him again.
I: What happened to him?
H: He got busted. [laughs] Never seen him again. He got busted too. So, then I started coming up on the rank, getting more stripes.
Then I had to go out by myself. Which was scarier yet. [laughs]
H: One night, my assignment was, I’d always have seven or eight other veterans with me with a medic in the rear and our assignment was to
capture and bring back. So, I lucked out that night.
H: And I seen ’em, this North Korean sitting under a bunch of bushes. That night I didn’t carry the BAR. I took the carbine with the infrared on it. And I spotted ’em with that infrared light and we drug him out, taped his mouth all up and his arms and legs
and took him back to the, our front lines then. What happened to him after that, I don’t know. [laughs]
I: Was it North Korean or Chinese? Were you able to tell the difference?
H: I think this was North Korean.
H: But he had a Russian burp gun. I don’t know if you ever seen one of them or not.
H: Well, about that long,
H: it’s a fast, fast firing weapon
And I got the, I got the weapon from him and got back to the line and I, they, they dis-disarmed it right away so I could take it home.
H: And I got to Colorado for my discharge and I lost it. That guy took it away from me. Took it home, put it on
his wall instead of-
H: me putting it on my wall. [laughs] That, I didn’t like that.
I: Hmm. What were you thinking when you were there? It’s very dangerous and you always on patrol and you have encounters with the enemies and, and you know, you have to live in the trench.
I: It’s a awful way to
live there and so cold, everything was tough for you. What were you thinking to yourself?
H: Well, when I got over there, I had one thing on my mind. To get over there and get back, to Illinois. And I didn’t take too much crap off of anybody, anybody that was in the trench, because I had, my rank was getting up there, so I could
pull a little power sometimes. And this, I was on, I was on my sleep duty and I had this South Korean ROK soldier, he was on guard, just with his head sticking up a little bit above the trench. And, he put his head down on the top and fell asleep himself.
It just happened I woke up and I had my BAR when I come out of the bunker, and he had some awful sore ribs. He got the butt right in the ribs. That woke him up in a hurry.
H: [laughs] ‘Cause he was supposed to be guarding me too.
H: I was
staff sergeant finally by time I got out. And I had oh, what ribbon did I end up with? Not the Purple Heart, but the next one down. Bronze-
H: bronze star. I had the Bronze Star.
I: For what?
H: For bravery going out, just, in the, out of the trenches, down the hills, and.
I: Tell me about that incidents where you got this Bronze Star. Can you provide the detail, des-description of what happened and how you got it?
H: I think that’s when we captured that-
I: North Koreans?
H: North Korean.
I: Ohhh. That you got ff-, okay. Bronze Star for that?
H: And, I got it later. I got it on my license plate and everything.
H: Yeah. Yeah, that’s, that’s as high as I wanted to go.
Th-, usually the Purple Heart you get blowed up, tore apart and stuff like that. I was sergeant first class when I come home. And I come home and then I got married. [laughs] To, to the first wife.
I: Mmmm. Have you been back to
H: No, I would like to go, but my health won’t allow it. I ain’t e-, I can’t even get out to Washington but. I’d like to get out there.
I: For honor flight?
H: Yeah, on the-
I: What is your health problem?
H: Oh, I can’t walk.
H: ‘Cause my legs are gone and my back are gone.
I: Is it diabetes?
H: And I, had three years ago, I just about passed with my heart quittin’ beating. I was down to 32 beats a minute and It’s supposed to be 60 to 80, so they throw a, what’s, what do they call it in my chest up here? Helps you heart keep beating.
I: Yeah, yeah.
Um, do you know what happened to Korea now? I mean, do you know about the Korean economy, Korean democracy, what’s going on there in Korea?
H: Yeah, pretty much. I see it every day on TV.
I: Tell me about it.
H: Well, it don’t look real good with that guy over there in the North.
I: Oh, yeah, with the North Korea, yes, it’s very threatening. But what about South Korean economy and so on?
I: Do you know?
H: I don’t know too much about that.
I: You don’t know?
H: No, n-not really.
I: Do you remember the Korea that you saw in 1952?
H: Yeah, was-, wasn’t much there.
I: Much there, right?
H: Little, little grass huts and stuff they lived in and. [laughs] Now, now they all live in high rises I guess and stuff like that.
I: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
I: You know that Korean economy is 11thlargest in the world?
H: Oh, yeah?
I: It’s amazing. The country
That you saw completely destroyed and demolished, and so poor–
I: now is 11thlargest in the world.
I: That’s small country without drop of oil.
I: We don’t have natural resources. That small country with nothing, now is 11thlargest economy. What do you think about that?
H: What’s the population now?
I: It’s a 50 million.
H: It’s a what?
I: 50. 5-0 million.
H: Oh, 50 million.
H: Oh. I, I never realized, I, to this day I don’t even know how, how big South Korea really is. ‘Cause I went in, and I come back out, away I went.
I: But don’t you think, don’t you talk to other people? Other Korean War veterans who been to-
I: Korea, back to Korea-
H: Yeah, yeah, I talk-
I: and what they tell you about-
H: to them
all the time and.
I: What do they tell you?
H: Oh, about the living quarters, and I think they got undergrown railway now and stuff like that.
I: Is bigger than New York City. Have you been to New York City?
I: It’s bigger than Chicago. Have you been to Chicago?
H: Oh, yeah.
I: Seoul is bigger than Chicago.
H: Seoul is?
H: Oh yeah?
I: Maybe nine, t-
H: I think, I think that’s where I went in, Seoul.
I: Seoul, yes.
I: Do you remember the Seoul? Remember? It’s like Chicago. I’m not sure whether it’s bigger than Chicago, but t’s like well advances, 10 biggest, among the 10 biggest metropolitan city in the world, is Seoul now.
H: Oh yeah?
I: You remember the Seoul you saw in 19-
H: Yeah, probably,
H: probably a little bit of it.
I: What you think? What do you see?
In 1952 Seoul?
H: Well, it wasn’t too much there that I can remember. Like I said, the living wasn’t very good, grass huts and all that kind of stuff. [laughs]
I: Mm-hmm. So, what do you think about this transformation that has been done? I mean, you are part of the history that the Korea
miserable now is one of the best. What do you think about this?
H: Well, I’m glad it took place after we left there. We, I’m sure we helped to get it a-going.
I: Yes, you did.
H: If it wouldn’t have been for us, I don’t think it would be where it is today. Kinda be like it was in ’52.
H: Yeah. Got roadways,
highways, railroads underground. [laughs] ‘Course I think the Japanese got that too, ain’t they?
I: Yeah, we were under the Japanese Colonial control for 35 years. Yep.
H: Uh huh.
I: Before, before you went there.
H: Well, to my knowledge, nobody has got enough money to
pay me for what I see, seen and went through over there. Nobody. But like I said, I was 20 or 21 years old and I was rough and mean. [laughs] . . . Yeah.
I: What do you remember more, about Korea?
What do you remember now?
H: It wasn’t a very nice country to go to. South Korea or North Korea. I, I was just not too far from the DMZ, in the trench.
H: Yeah. But I can’t remember what the hill
it was, I don’t know if I’ve got any records at home of it or not. I was only worried about one thing, get over there and get back.
I: Get back. And you got back safe.
H: Pretty good health then, but now, [laughs] it’s not too good.
I: Everybody is suffering from, you know,
I: expirational parts warranty. [laughs]
H: [laughs] Yeah.
I: Are you proud of your service?
H: Oh yeah. I still get some of my papers out once in a while, read through ’em, discharge papers and stuff like that.
H: Yeah. I was really mad when that guy took that weapon away from me.
I: But you were not able to bring it back
H: No, he took it home to his house.
I: His house?
H: I’d bet any amount of money, it’s hanging on his wall.
H: [laughs] Yeah, it was only about that long, you fired from the hip.
I: So, you have your Bronze Star home?
I: Bronze Star. The medal that you got.
H: Yeah, I got that at home.
Any other episode that you want to tell me? When you were in Korea in 1952?
H: Well, you might not want to hear it. Maybe I shouldn’t even tell you
I: I was out on patrol one night, with seven or eight guys with a medic in the rear.
He was a Puerto Rican,
H: which I never have liked since. He bugged out on us.
I: What do you mean?
H: Took off from the front li-, our front line when we got hit.
H: Out on the patrol. So, I had a radio, the last man in the patrol had a radio, and I told him
to take him out when he went past. So, that’s what he did. ‘Cause I wasn’t going to have that general take me out. [laughs] So, it was about the biggest, biggest deal of my night patrols, outside of capturing that one and walking through that minefield that first night. [laughs]. We had to bring, I don’t remember what
We had, 14 of us that night, or 12 or 14, 12 I think. And we had to bring, carry seven of ’em back when that mine start going off. I guess I was lucky, in the right place.,
I: Do you have nightmare or PTSD?
H: Oh yeah, once in a while.
I: How does that happen? Tell me, what’s happening to you?
H: I don’t know.
I just, and it seems like I’m wide awake.
H: I guess I wake up at the right conclusion. It’s not too often anymore, but once in a while it happens.
H: I don’t watch no war movies [laughs] or anything like that
H: ’cause I know what’ll happen then. Yeah.
I: Any regret?
I: Any regret that you went there and fight there?
H: No, not after I come back and learned what I did learned.
I What did you learn?
H: Well, how to take care of yourself mainly. That’s the main thing.
H: And pay attention to what you’re told, not what you’re not told.
You don’t go everything on your own. You get orders. And you do the orders that you’re given.
I: Do you think your doctor will allow you to travel to Korea?
H: No, I, I know I can’t do it.
I: You cannot.
I: I’m so sorry that, because-
H: My, my wife won’t even leave me.
I: Korean government has a revisit program and they invite you back.
H: I know.
H: Don’t cost you much money. I, I’ve been thinking about trying that trip to Washington, but I don’t know, seems like every day, my legs and stuff get worse. And I, she takes me out if it’s warm outside, she takes me out for a little walk. Three years ago, our house got blown away in a tornado.
H: [laughs] And that didn’t help things either.
H: We had to move to Monroe in a, in a one room apartment in a motel for two and a half months
H: while they built the house back up.
I: Any other episode that you want to leave to this interview? Important one that you didn’t tell me?
H: Well, I think that pretty much would cover it probably. I was glad to get there, do what I was told to do and get back out of there. [laughs]
I: Harold, on behalf of Korean Nation, we want to thank you for your fight and we not going to forget, and this is why we are doing this interview, so that teachers and students
will listen from you about your honorable service. And your 13 months in the trench, all the sufferings, resulted in the modern Korea,
I: which is 11theconomy in the world
I: and most substitutive democracy in Asia. So, you should be proud of you,
I: and your service.
H: Yeah, I was never had no regrets. Come home
and kept on a-going. Got married in, got home in ’53 and got married in ’54. That didn’t work out. Worked out for about 31 years and the bottom fell out from under it. Then I got with this one here, she’s a lot younger than I am. Maybe it’s a good thing, ’cause I, she’s my nurse
now. [laughs] Wouldn’t be for her, I’d have hard times a-getting around.
I: Mm-hmm. So, thank you very much for sharing your story with me and
I: we’ll edit this and then we’ll use it in the classroom. Okay?
H: For your youngsters.
I: For the youngsters of Korea and the United States, together.
I: Thank you.
H: What will there be?
A book or something come out sometime?
I: I don’t know, but we are making digital history, kind of teaching materials with it.
H: Oh yeah
I: Great, thank you.
H: I’ll keep my eyes open in case something-
I: Yeah, we’ll let you know.
H: if I stick around long enough.
I: You will, you will. Thank you.
[End of Recorded Material]