Harry Heath experienced success and failures during the Korean War. He shares his experience as a soldier considered one of the Chosin Few. He reflects on the physical and mental effects of that time on both he and his fellow soldiers. He advocates for the study of the importance of the Korean War.
40 Degrees Below
Harry Heath describes the harsh cold that faced the soldiers in Korea. He shares the injuries that caused him to spend two months in a hospital. He describes the failure of equipment given to the soldiers. He explains things that were limited due to the harsh temperatures for soldiers and their hygiene.
Thoughts on PTSD
Harry Heath talks openly about the effects of PTSD that he and many other survivors of the Chosin Reservoir experienced. He shares how he didn't discuss the war for many years not even with his family or wife. He shares how he joined military organizations and began to find healing through communication about his time in Korea.
The Chosin Few
Harry Heath describes the organization he belongs to which includes American soldiers who found in the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. He shares the struggles that both he and his fellow Chosin Few members faced such as frostbite wounds and PTSD. He shares how he feels fighting in Korea made him a better person.
[Beginning of Recorded Material]
H: Harry W. Heath. Uh, I’m 82 years old. I reside in Cicero, NY and a proud member of the Chosen Few.
I: Okay. That’s great. So, how, how do you feel about participating in this project based on your experience so far and talking to other veterans about it?
H: Well, I, uh, am concerned because
of late, the Korean War has been, become a Forgotten War. It’s got to where even the politicians will skip from World War II to Vietnam and forget there was a little skirmish in between there where we lost 33,000 men in combat and a total of 57,000 men altogether
as casualties. Uh, that’s the only part that upsets me is, uh, not that I’m looking for glory and I’m pretty sure we’re not, but, uh, I feel that, uh, the Korean War was an important war, probably one of the most important in modern warfare because
technically it stopped the spread of Communism, that war and, uh, to forget it, I think, is wrong.
I: Well, I think the interesting point that you bring up cause a lot of veterans have voiced that concern regarding the fact that it’s a forgotten war and, and many times they bring up, uh, when the war first started, everyone thought it was going to be over by Christmas, and clearly that wasn’t the case, and then, it was, in fact, a, a big war.
How, how does that make you feel that people overlook it?
H: Well, I, I had assumed that, uh, I didn’t think I’d be home by Christmas, but I thought the war would be stopped by Christmas, uh. But, uh, November the 27th, 1950, 1950 gave me a rude awakening that it wasn’t. That’s when we were first
attacked by the Chinese Communists who came across the Manchurian border and, and surrounded us and, uh, at that point I knew this is not gonna end it.
I: So what were you thinking at that point?
H: Not much. I mean, uh, at the time really, uh, I think the, saving, uh, people, uh, getting out of there, you know.
There was 15,000 Marines and Army and British Royal Marines at the Chosin and, uh, there was an estimated 150,000 – 200,000 Chinese Communists and, uh, when we, um, were surrounded, we lost 3,000 men in approximately 11 to 14 days.
That’s a lot of men.
H: And, uh, but our motto was, uh, we can’t win and we can’t lose, but we’re not gonna give up.
I: And you didn’t.
H: And we didn’t. And fortunately, we were able to bring all our dead and wounded and plus 100,000 immigrants were
brought of North Korea that otherwise may have been slaughtered by the Chinese Communists or the North Koreans. And that was a happy moment because we were able to bring all the women, children out on the boats that, uh, from talking, I wasn’t there at that time, but with talking to some of my friends who were there, was a tremendous
feat to get all those people on those ships and get out of there.
I: Did that make the war kind of seem like give you more of an idea of what you were fighting for?
H: Yes, it did. Yes, it did. I mean, we’re fighting, uh, aggression. Now, uh, they did a lot of atrocities, uh, Communists and the North Koreans to, uh, Korean civilians
because they thought they were cooperating with the American troops, uh. Whether they did or not, they would slaughter them and to me, uh, saving those people and, uh, I’ll grant you, uh, at least South Korea kept its territory without losing any, and that’s the main thing.
I: I think that’s a really important story
that you’re telling because a lot of, seems like a lot of veterans or soldiers that are fighting, they kind of get bogged down and just try and survive. But you were able to identify this kind of greater scheme of, you know, what, why you guys were over there and what you were really fighting for.
H: Yeah. And, um, fortunately, um, we were able to, uh, bring out a, a lot of our dead and, uh, wounded cause, uh,
I was in the Third Battalion Fifth Marines under Colonel Taplan, and that was what he said. We’re not leaving anybody behind. And they didn’t. I’m here.
I: You are. When did you actually arrive in Korea?
H: I didn’t go to Korea until September the 15th, 1950, uh, at Inchon. Uh, we made the landing at Wolmido
Island which was off the coast of Inchon, uh, the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, uh. We had to take that island before they could actually invade the Inchon Landing, and they were kind of, uh, surprised by the time that it took us to win that island, one hour and a half.
I: Not too long.
H: Which is,
which really, uh, was greater time than what MacArthur thought.
H: Oh yeah. He thought it would take longer, and then they made the Inchon Landing. I didn’t make that at that time but, uh, and then, uh, advancing through Seoul and, uh, making our way up through North Korea. Um, once we
crossed the 38thParallel, uh, was quite an experience. Yeah.
I: What was that experience like? I mean, I, I’d like you to, you know, give me an idea what you were thinking when you first landed in Korea regarding the countryside or maybe the poverty that you saw and then kind of throughout your experience going off to Korea.
H: I know, I know this is going to sound crazy, but I didn’t think.
H: I, my mind was not, I was just doing what I had to do and, uh,
I told some of my friends when I came home, I said, uh, I was like in a fog all the time I was over there. I don’t know if that’s, uh, a good sign or a bad sign but,
I: Well, you were focused on your mission I guess.
H: Yeah. I mean you didn’t, you didn’t have time to get scared.
H: You pro, I probably was afraid, scared. But I didn’t have time to get scared.
H: We, uh,
We knew, uh, prior to the November 27th, we used to see the Chinese Communists come across the border all the time, but we couldn’t do nothing about it because President Harry Truman, uh, didn’t want to get China into a, a third war. But what happened?
I: They got into it.
H: If we could have did something while those guys were coming across, we wouldn’t have had the Chosin Reservoir trip.
H: We used to be able to fly our planes to the Manchurian border, and that was it. We had to turn around and come back. Uh, I thought I read once where MacArthur told, or, uh, Truman told
MacArthur he could bomb half a bridge. But if he can bomb half a bridge, I’d like to know how you bomb half a bridge, you know. And some people say I’m, um, biased at that. I felt Truman had a lot to do, and not everybody agrees with me. But I just felt that, uh,
everybody knocks General MacArthur, but I thought either you fight a war to win, or don’t fight it,
I: Um hm.
H: And I’m afraid that’s what we’re doing now.
I: So did you, you know, as, as a person fighting on the ground, is it maybe frustrating when you see firsthand what’s going on and what you could be doing to make the situation better?
H: Yeah, yeah. You’d, uh, see it, and you couldn’t do nothing about it. We’d be out patrolling.
We’d see these guys, lines of them, coming, um, across the border. Couldn’t do nothing.
H: Uh, but I just, uh, probably the battle I remember most is the Chosin Reservoir because that affected me more than
I: How did it affect you?
H: Well, I froze my hands and feet, and I spent 2 ½ months in a hospital, uh.
It was 40 degrees below zero there and, our equipment at that time, believe it or not, was not the best. We had, uh, felt shoe bags which were rubber on the bottom and leather on top with a felt insert. Now, when you would walk, your feet would perspire, and when you got pinned down, your feet wouldn’t be moving, and
they would freeze in there and, uh, I didn’t think it was, they were the greatest thing in the world. I mean, we had the parkas. I liked that. In fact, uh, at the Reservoir, I think I had three pairs of pants on, uh. We couldn’t change. There was no place to go to change. You couldn’t shave. You couldn’t wash, couldn’t do anything because of the cold, 40, 40 degrees is,
I: So you’re living in
H: That’s cold.
I: pretty tough circumstances then.
I: Not to mention you’re fighting.
H: Yeah. And we call, um, we, you know, uh, we have a club called the Chosin Few, and in, in order to join it, you have to have been at the Chosin Reservoir and, um, no one else can join. And it’s like a last man club
and, uh, it’s one of my proud clubs that I’m a member of because not everybody can join it and, uh, I find most of the guys coming back from the Chosin are suffering from either frostbite or post-traumatic stress or other, uh, problems.
So, um, that’s how it affected me after the war, uh, was still having problems with my legs and feet and hands, that pain and, um, and it just changed my life
H: entirely from, I don’t know what I would have done with my life if I had not gone to Korea.
I mean, that’s something you can’t foretell because I don’t know. I might have been down on the streets.
H: But, uh, I think it made me a better person I hope.
I: Yeah. And, I mean it seems like you recognized the cause that you were fighting for, so.
H: Beg your pardon?
I: It seems that you recognized the cause that you were fighting for. I mean clearly
we’ve seen Korea develop over the past
H: Yeah. I’ve always felt proud of the fact that I was able to be in Korea and fight for
H: um. The strange thing is when I came back from Korea, I was home on leave once, and one of my friends said Harry, where you been? I haven’t seen you in a long time. I said I’ve been in Korea. He said well, where’s Korea?
H: that lets you know, uh,
I: Yeah. And this, that’s a story that I’ve heard in almost every interview that we’ve done here. People just had no idea what Korea was or what was
I: going on. Did you, did you know anything about it before you left?
I: Before you left to go to Korea, did you know anything about it?
H: No. No.
H: They, they never, you know. I mean I knew I was going to Korea when they first gave us our orders, but I,
uh, um, I didn’t know that much about Korea. Um, but I will say that I’m proud to have served the Korean people. I appreciate the way they have treated us since the Korean War and showed their appreciation and, uh. They’re one of the few countries, I think, that does show appreciation
for us intervening. A lot of the countries that during the war weren’t too or other countries that we’ve have supported since then, they don’t show any, uh, appreciation. But the Korean people do.
I: Um hm.
H: I appreciate that.
I: Yeah. It’s nice to be recognized sometimes.
H: Yeah. It, uh, you know. I’m, I guess everybody does that, you know. But, uh,
I find, uh, that, uh, a lot of the guys are suffering from post-traumatic stress, uh. There’s incidents that happened at the Reservoir that you really don’t want to talk about that bring back bad memories. I won’t talk about it, and to tell you the truth, when I came
home from Korea, I spent 50 some years and never mentioned the fact that I was in Korea. I, um, my wife really, uh, until I moved to Syracuse here and I met a, a group of Korean War veterans and then you start talking with them, but you, you didn’t talk with people about it. I never even joined veterans
organizations because I think I was trying to forget it, you know?
I: Yeah. So was it a relief or helpful to you when you finally did?
H: Yes. Very much. Um, my life is, really was in like a turmoil. I, uh, worked all the time, but I changed jobs a lot and, I don’t know. Your whole personality changed.
I: Yeah. How do you think it changed?
H: I used to be bashful, shy and after I got out, I just didn’t care.
H: But I never talked about the Korean War.
I: Was it hard to not talk about it? Did you kind of
H: No, I just blocked it out of my mind.
I: Yeah. Did your family ever ask about it?
H: No. And I never told them.
I: Yeah. Maybe they knew it was off limits.
H: Yeah. I was, uh, a policeman, and
I rode with a guy for years, and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I found out he was a Korean War veteran, too.
H: And neither one of us ever talked about it.
I: So it’s a common thing
H: Well, he just happened to, I said gee, I’m going to Korean War party or something, and he says were you in Korea? I said yeah. He said so was I, you know. And I said I never knew that, and we rode together all that time.
H: I lived next door to the American Legion, never joined it.
H: Uh, I just wiped it out.
I: So is it, do you think it has been helpful, helpful to you to join these organizations and be able to talk about your experiences?
H: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a, it’s a lot better because then you’re, you’re getting it out, and you don’t seem like you’re telling war stories cause you’re talking to guys who went through the same thing.
So you’re not gonna baloney them, you know what I mean?
I: Yeah. Well maybe it helps you kind of cope with the past, that you can
I: relate to someone else and share their experiences.
H: Yeah, you know, and I, I, uh, look forward sometime when we get together, shoot the fat and. But that ends it right there, you know? You walk out the door, and you really most of the time don’t discuss it with anybody else.
I: So you opening up to, with the Chosin Few and other guys in the Korean War
I: has it helped?
H: Um, I was asked to do an interview many times, and I didn’t want to do it. But I figured I’d do this one because it’ll give me a chance to express my appreciation to the Korean people, how they treated us after the Korean War, yeah.
But, uh, I guess that’s about all I got.
I: So what time, what year were you actually discharged from the military?
H: Beg your pardon?
I: What year were you discharged from the military?
H: Well, I got discharged in 1951, August, um. I got flew out of Korea because of my frozen hands and feet, um.
H: And I went to the hospital for about two months and a half. Then I did Stateside duty for a while, then I got discharged.
I: Yeah. Have you ever had a chance to return to Korea?
H: I, uh, there’s a lot of chances because they sponsor a trip back. But my wife doesn’t fly, and I don’t go anyplace without my wife.
I: Um hm.
H: She’s been my support all these years,
I: Um hm.
H: I do everything with my wife. And for me to go alone with
I: would not
H: it wouldn’t be worth it. But
I: How, how do you think she feels about your participation in this group, in this project?
H: Hm, participation?
I: In this project?
H: This one?
H: She really doesn’t say anything. She, she really supports me in stuff that I do which you need.
You need someone to be there to say yeah, you do it. But she’ll also tell her opinion if it’s not, and then she says do what you want to, you, you know what I mean? Uh, so, uh, like I said, I did it this time, and, because, uh, I just wanted to let Dr. Han and the rest of the Korean people know that I appreciate what
they have done for the veterans and like that.
I: Well, I’m sure they appreciate everything that you’ve done as well. Um, I guess, um, concluding thoughts on the interview, I’d like you to maybe, if you could provide maybe a message for future generations of children or students that will, in doing homework or doing research, look up this project and look up your name and, and try to find more, find out more about the Korean War and the
experiences of the veterans have had. Maybe if you could give some final thoughts or
H: Well, what I would like to see them do in school, if they don’t want to teach all about the Korean War is to at least include it, part of it, in the history, um. A lot of students are very interested in learning about the Korean War, uh, and, uh,
some, the, a lot of the times you go in the schools and talk to them, and they are really interested, uh. But in the school, I hate to say it, they don’t teach about any war.
I: Um hm.
H: Uh, it’s a, I don’t know why. Uh, the wars are an important part of our history, um.
We wouldn’t have the United States if it wasn’t for a war, the Revolutionary War. So, you know, why forget what has happened to some of the citizens of the, this country. I mean, uh, World War II. We had guys on the beach in Normandy, and then we had Inchon Landing in
Korea, and we had Vietnam and you have all these other. Well, that’s important to the history of this country, I feel, and I don’t know, and I probably shouldn’t say this, it’s the liberalism of the, uh, teachers nowadays that they just don’t want to teach it or the schools themselves have blocked it out. In fact,
if we let some people go, we wouldn’t even have a flag in the schools which, to me, is what this whole nation’s about, patriotism.
I: Yeah. Yeah. Did you find that when you got home from Korea people understood what was going on, what you went through after the war?
H: No. Nobody knew about it. Nobody talked about it. Um,
I don’t remember ever reading about anniversaries or anything of the Korean War in, when I was home prior to, uh, coming here to Syracuse and, where they had an active Korean War Veterans Association.
I: So how do you think this experience of coming home from the war and the lack of knowledge about Korea compares to the soldier’s experience now in Iraq and Afghanistan
in terms of people’s impressions of what, you know, they’re doing over there and in the war in general?
H: Well, I’m afraid the same thing is gonna happen. These guys’ll come home, and if we end the war, that’s gonna forget it.
I: Um hm.
H: You, you won’t see these big parades and all that done. When we came home, nobody greeted us.
I: Um hm.
H: We didn’t have any bands or nothing. We, we
just came home. Um, I think that’s why a lot isn’t, you know, given more publicity than it has or, or what. But, um, like I said, I came home, the guys didn’t even know that I left town till and where I was.
I: Well, all I can say is that we recognize everything that was done.
H: Well, I appreciate this.
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