Having been born in Kentucky in a home and then attending a one-room schoolhouse, Herbert Gilliam remembers his experience in the Korean War as a mechanic in the Air Force. He recalls how he celebrated several milestones including his 21stbirthday and his first wedding anniversary miles from his family. He describes how he first heard of the war and had to look up where Korea was on the map because he had never heard of it before that news. He then explains how he believes history will be kind to the veterans and that they should not be Forgotten. Overall, Herbert Gilliam is humble in the retelling of his experiences in the Korean War.
Celebrating Important Dates in Japan & Korea
Herman Gilliam remembers being in Korea and Japan for several milestones and holidays. He celebrated his 21st birthday and first anniversary in Japan with his wife thousands of miles away. He remembers landing in Korea on New Year’s Day and having to enjoy his turkey dinner with a pocket knife.
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Hearing about the Korean War
Herman Gilliam was a boy on the farm when he learned about the Korean War. He explains why he wasn’t surprised. After all, he said his generation was used to war after experiencing World War II and living with parents who fought in World War I. He states that he didn’t know where Korea was until he heard about the war and had to look it up.
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Legacy of the Korea War
Herbert Gilliam responds to a question regarding what he believes is the legacy of the Korean War. He explains that it should be remembered, not forgotten, as a war in which they helped fix a nation economically and stopped Communists from taking over. He believes that there are plenty of men who sacrificed a lot and that history will be kind to them.
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Transcribed by ANDREW BEITER on 6/6/18
[Beginning of Recorded Material]
H: Herman Gilliam, or Herman Lee if you want to. Age 83, born December 22nd, 1931. Christian County, Kentucky. Was born at home, obviously.
H: [unintelligible] Lived in a corner of the county, about 13 [in the] family, across from the forks of a river, the Red River.
H: We didn’t get some of the county benefits such as a better gravel road and so forth for a while but my dad gave the gravel to roll up that portion of it, but I went to school in Todd County mostly. Hell, I started my wonderful education in a one-room school known as the [Lunderman] School.
H: We had a total of about 18 [students] in that school. Finally, the school bus is coming along, and so forth. We dissolved the little school [somewhat to Pembroke Schools], and I went to [Trenton] Schools over in another county simply to get away from having to cross this big creek. We call it a creek half the time, a river half the time. Had two swinging bridges there to out [to the] farm.
H: The farm was cut in three pieces by this big creek. We had plenty of good swimming holes, [the water went] over your head. [Laughs] And [they had] clean water and so forth because we would, like so many others, we learned how to garden, we learned how to herd the cattle. Had a few [beavers] step on my foot when I was barefooted.
H: I’ve been thrown from my horse [once], pulled off another [unintelligible], too.
I: I’ve had that happen. [Laughs] So can you talk about the schools — did you go to college? Were you enlisted? Were you drafted? What were you doing?
H: I didn’t go to college immediately out of high school. I went on and had a year of instruction [unintelligible] out of high school. . . well, a year or more, almost two years, I guess.
H: Anyway, I went back to college when I was on active duty in the Air Force. I went to college, started college. I never had any college education until that time. I was there at [Campbell] Air Base in Kentucky, right next to Fort [Camel]. Small base, 300 guys. [There was a] big runway for hauling in atomic warheads and all out of that area.
H: The atomic area of that storage hall was known as the “Bird Cage.” We weren’t supposed to talk about what was going on, but you could pick up a county paper, the main paper of the county, and they would explain what’s going on down there. [Laughs]
I: That makes sense. Can you tell me about the Bird Cage? What was that?
I: Are you allowed to talk about it? What was the Bird Cage?
H: The Bird Cage was, we had Army, Marines, and some Air Force stationed, and storage of warheads, atomic warheads. Well, that’s where I was. I went back, went to college, pursuing pre-dental, and I didn’t make it.
H: I had almost three years of college and I dropped out because my grades were just so-so, plus money was a factor, too. I got into hearing work, and that’s how I stayed for 38 years.
I: What made you decide to enlist?
H: It was my time to go. I was gonna be drafted, I decided to enlist. I was working on construction at Fort Campbell and I saw the boys over the fence had jobs to do, Air Force guys.
H: I said, “Hey! I want the Air Force [unintelligible]. I don’t care if we one. . . you know, I like guns, but there’s another element to it.
I: [If] you were gonna be drafted, you might as well enlist, right?
I: So you enlisted?
H: I was getting close to being drafted — I’d already been examined and all.
I: You knew it was coming.
H: Mm-hmm. I didn’t really dread it much at all at the time.
H: I knew it was a fact of life, [and I certainly wanted to do what I had. I’d seen somewhere that] . . . . Didn’t register for the draft and so forth. It was an unpopular war. My brother was in the year ahead of me, year and a half, two years ahead of me, really. He had [the] Army, and he had it pretty rough in Korea. It was five years’ difference, our age, and we were very close, so he would tell me what was happening in Korea.
H: He’d write me [occasionally], and I’d write him.
I: So you had some knowledge of Korea prior to going?
H: Yeah, some knowledge of the [unintelligible] and —
I: Did you know where Korea was?
I: You did?
H: I didn’t know until I heard about Korea, then I looked it up on the globe and all.
I: Mm-hmm. So where did you have your basic training at?
H: Lochlan Air Base in San Antonio.
I: Yeah! Alright.
H: I was the [second man] to ship out, I asked to be a mechanic. My brother had a business, and I had been a mechanic. [I did] some in his business, plus [I was] an old farm boy — new maintenance and all that. Anyway, they gave me a [unintelligible] test, and I didn’t have to go to the. . . well, I won’t call it Mickey Mouse school, but anyway the introductory school to maintenance. [unintelligible]
H: They sent me to Reece Air Base immediately out of basic and. . . [unintelligible] that little school. I went out there for almost a year [before I was] assigned to the Far East [in] October, late October of. . . ’52.
I: Late October of ’52, huh?
H: Yeah, I got orders to go to the Far East, which could have been some of the islands, or Japan, or Korea.
I: Didn’t really know.
H: [And] I was married at that time, and my wife. . . [we thought we’d just] [unintelligible] in October, yeah, I guess it was. Anyway, I was glad to go to Korea because the quicker the time, [unintelligible] come on back, still be in Japan 18 months [unintelligible] given then and Korea, you get one year. Those are the boys of World War Two, they were gone for the duration.
H: I had a lot of respect for those guys. They went through the big Depression, they went through some hard, tough times. Some of them still around, you know, they were tech sergeant, master sergeant. . . barely ended World War Two, when I went in. I’ve heard one of them say he spent the last money he had for a bowl of chili, and then take a bottle of ketchup, put it in there, simply for more food [unintelligible].
H: This was America. [long pause] Well anyway, you want to know about me, I’m sure.
I: That I do!
H: I went to the. . . one-room schoolhouse. I had an occasion to go back [to get the key], I go back every year or two anyway but I met my old schoolteacher.
H: I’d kept in phone contact the last ten years of her life. She remembered everything and all, but she was getting a bit seedy, and I waited one year too long for her to enjoy me being there, and me enjoy her. Unless the — because the big creek goes along this way [laterally], then I went to school in another county. Small school, we’d play basketball.
H: We’d have maybe fifteen to play, to make up two teams and substitutes. I was one of the bigger boys. [Laughs] Wasn’t all that much of a storied athlete, either.
I: Neither was I, neither was I. [Laughs] So whenever you were enlisted and you were deployed to Korea, where did you land or where did you fight in Korea?
I: Where did you land in Korea?
H: I landed first day of January of ’53, I flew from Japan to Seoul, Korea. I got there on New Year’s Day, and as I said earlier, kidding, I think I missed the highest day, or was it New Year’s Eve to [get to] Japan?
H: I got to Japan on Christmas Day, 1952.
H: I turned 21 years old out in the middle of the Pacific on December the 22nd, 1952. [My] first wedding anniversary was in Japan; my wife was 8,000 miles away. [Laughs] Okay, back to New Year’s Day of 1953.
H: We landed, and then I was stuck in Seoul for five hours, or six, six [or] seven hours to just catch in and kinda fly [unintelligible] to go to K13 down to [Suwon]. By road — it was like 35, 40 miles. It was 11 minutes in the air. Sometimes [unintelligible] [down] [unintelligible] [low] C-40 saved my life, was flying in. Of interest, there was a combat zone in Seoul.
H: I wasn’t issued any silverware yet, just in transit, so New Year’s Day, we had a turkey dinner and [there was] no silverware for me to eat with, so I used my pocket knife and crackers and enjoyed the turkey dinner.
I: You do what you gotta do. [Laughs]
H: And then I got to Suwon, I was assigned to Ground Power, which was [just] in support of aircrafts.
H: I was repairing heaters, air compressors, power units. . . power units out on the Yellow Sea or national bomb rangers, we’d practice bombing out there. I’d go out [unintelligible] mechanics would go out once a month, check the power units, keep everything going that way. I was asked to go out across the rice paddies.
H: And in the process of crossing the rice paddies, you go out there one day, the next time you’d come back two or three weeks later they’ve been plowed up. You had to just go your own way. But anyway, I would eat out there sometimes, and the food out there, the [sea] rations doctored up with the Korean cooks was better food than we had back at the main base. That sounds crazy now but it actually tasted better. . . we had junk.
H: Of course I was a lower rank, all I had was two stripes [unintelligible] third but we still ate in a — very poor quality [unintelligible]. The first three [unintelligible] had a better system, of course the officers — all that.
I: How were the other living conditions? How were your clothes? How much were you getting paid? How were sleeping arrangements?
H: I don’t know what I was getting paid now.
H: I think like. . . I don’t know, 96 dollars a month, something like that. Then I got to make [unintelligible] first class, and we got a bigger quarters [unintelligible]. Like from 40 to 60 — 60 dollars I believe. Never sent home. Of course, I arranged to have a [unintelligible] allotment sent home to my wife and so forth, but the pay was nothing to brag about, [laughs] considering [it] now.
H: We had a Px over there. He had a few things, not much. [I hadn’t needed a watch,] I was at Seoul Px one time, going through there later on. I bought a watch. I still have it, it still works. It’s still a good watch, just amazing, just another off-brand watch.
I: How ’bout that?
H: I thought about looking for a brother-in-law of mine. He tried to get in touch with me. He was on the way for an R&R in Japan and came back [unintelligible]. Anyway, I couldn’t find him up in Seoul because by the time I got there he’s already gone to Japan and so forth. [That’s what I was doing in Seoul,] I was in Seoul three or four times, going through.
I: What was your reaction to whenever you found out about the Korean War, like the outbreak?
H: Well, I was an old farm boy and I was working. I came to the house about 10:30 in the morning. I heard that we were going to be or we were in a war or so forth. I wasn’t surprised at anything — my dad had been in World War One, we had just got through World War Two.
H: My dad always had a saying — talking about over there, when he was in Germany [for] World War One — he [would say], “We come home fiddling and dancing, except they got ready for another war over there.” Well, it’s kind of [unintelligible] in my mind, thinking we’ll have wars on horses as the Bible says, you know, until the end of time. War [renders a] war. So that’s how I felt, it didn’t surprise me. Then we began to listen to the news and read the newspaper and so forth related to the war, but like you asked — did I know where Korea was?
H: No, I didn’t know where Korea was until I looked it up [on the] globe. In my aptitude — I’m mechanically inclined, I’m not much of an administrative person. Last night at 11 o’clock I was still trying to get started on putting my income taxes together.
H: I was good on equipment and so forth, good in mathematics.
H: I would still ride down the road and figure percentages in my head. . . just, you know, to keep active. I was in hearing work for, like I said, 38 years and we did [unintelligible] payments, and I’d sit down and figure them up real quick on paper, talk to someone [unintelligible] I wanna hear an estimate today and so forth, and then I said, “Well I’ll use a calculator,” after 30 years of not needing it.
H: I started using a calculator and [unintelligible] keep my brain alive, and by George, I got a little more dumb mathematically, so I said, “The heck with this! I’ll start back to using the old brain and my pencil and paper.” Just thought, I’m sure, it’s good to keep active. Am I leading too. . . I don’t know what you, you’re . . . .
I: No, you’re doing fine!
I: Now, did you exchange any letters with family or friends when you were fighting in Korea?
H: Oh yeah.
I: Yeah? Back to your wife, mainly?
H: Wife and family, [unintelligible], yeah.
I: Did you build up any close relationships with other foreign troops, including Korean soldiers?
H: Did I go back to Korea?
I: Did you build up any relationships with other troops or foreign troops?
H: Oh, yeah. Good buddy, we worked together — he and I could. . . make something work, for what we had to do.
H: [Dwayne Oaks], [from the] little town of [Shahana], Wisconsin. We’d call and talk to each other four or five times a year.
H: He called me about three weeks ago — [he] almost got killed in a car wreck. Anyway, he and I were sitting on the runway. I heard the siren go off, knew there was gonna be a crash, a K-13.
H: The plane came in — a Marine Panther jet, the type [that’d] take off. . . aircraft carrier. Came in, went down the runway zig-zagging like this [moving his hand from side to side] — no hydraulics, just lowered the landing gear and all. And then he, being a camera buff, the next day he went up and took a picture of the plane, and he and I both were back taking more pictures, I believe the way it happened.
H: Marine officer came up, and we got to talking — it was Ted Williams that crashed the plane, the baseball player. So that’s not the end of the story — then they put the plane over an oil [barrel], 65-gallon oil drums and worked on it and all that, and then he got it going pretty good, pretty quick — within five or six days. Cranked it up, here it is — got a big thrust. Nothing behind to catch your balance.
H: They forgot to look, [because there’s a] plywood building over the dispensary, made out of cheap plywood we had. The darn thing blew the roof off that building! [LAUGHS]
I: Oh my gosh.
H: 11 o’clock in the morning, heard medics [flooded up], “Yeah!” [LAUGHS]
I: [LAUGHS] So that was definitely a —
H: So anyway, his pictures that he took, some of them are [in] Ted Williams’s museum.
I: And where is that at?
I: Where is that at?
H: I believe it’s in Florida. . . I can’t recall. . . .
H: Maybe around Tampa, I don’t remember. Of course, Williams died eight or nine years ago at age eighty-two or -three or something like that.
I: So that was definitely a memory. Do you have any other really memorable moments, whether they were good or bad or dangerous or — during your duty? Or difficult?
H: Well, I fell and hurt this foot.
H: I fell and stuck a rod in here once, it just. . . but that’s. . . nothing interesting. Let’s see. . . I re-enlisted once, and I was [going back to Korea] and I changed my mind. I went further — I’d already started back in college anyway, but anyway then I got changed my FSA to. . . Special Services, and I ran the auto hobby shop for the boys on the base. [LAUGHS] Teach them how to repair the car and do various things that way.
H: The base [unintelligible] enough to re-enlist — it was right near my home. . . where I grew up.
I: Can you tell me a little bit more about what your job was, what your duty was while you were in Korea?
H: Ok, I was ground power. Now AFSA was automotive repair. . . and I was fortunate to get in ground power. It was a better deal.
H: And all I worked on was [so much odd] stuff.
H: And I said before — I didn’t go to the basic mechanical school. I didn’t work in the automotive. . . repair. . . even though that was my FSC. I didn’t work in that until. . . I’d have to figure it out. . . two-and-a-half. . . three years. I was in vehicle inspection a lot, and [several] bases and all that.
H: So then I got to Florida, December of ’53. . . right at Christmas, and I stayed there until I was discharged in October of ’55. And [unintelligible] they finally put me in charge of one of the shops, and again I hadn’t worked as a automotive mechanic.
H: There was only one thing I didn’t know how to do, and that was set the backlash of the rear end — how much clearance you need per vehicle — and I said to one [government] employee — city and government employed most of Marshall — and I said, “I see you’re setting that rear end, and backlash and all.” And I said, “That’s the only thing I don’t know how to do; I’ve never done it.” I had worked for my brother, too, in the city in [Layatogo],
H: and I said, “Show me how to do it.” He showed me how to do it.
H: I didn’t want anybody to know — by that time I had four stripes, and I didn’t want anybody to know that I didn’t know something that I should know. I was [unintelligible] to be serious. Had some older guys, a few years older than me, [there was] staff sergeant, I [unintelligible] chosen me. My mother got sick, had to go have surgery, so I went home to see her. I was hoping to get somebody else to shop, because I couldn’t make it to the stripe. [I wasn’t dealing] with the responsibility.
H: So anyway, I stayed on to Florida and was discharged there in October 15 of 1955, immediately went on to Kentucky. I re-enlisted in that little Campbell Air Base.
H: It’s since been. . . I think there’s no Air Force there anymore — it doesn’t exist, the base doesn’t exist. The runway obviously is still there and all that — the big runway that handled any kind of plane, pretty much.
I: What was the impact that Korea had on your life after you returned home?
H: What’d it have — impact —
I: Yeah, was there an impact on your life? Did it. . . affect you at all?
H: Well, I had been living in that community where I was discharged from finally,
H: You know, after six years, 10 months, 15 days — of military time. It wasn’t that big a change — I started back to college full-time then, going to Austin Peay’s College over in Clarksville, Tennessee.
H: [unintelligible] My grades wasn’t quite up to par, really and I knew it’d be hard to get into dental school, so I dropped out and got into hearing work.
H: Any problems with getting back in the swing of things? Not really — I was in my community, and, you know, bought a house. Bought a house before I got out of the Air Force — that way immediately when I was re-enlisted there I bought a house in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and we lived there until moving to Texas.
H: I guess what I got, as I said earlier, I put on the paper: self-reliance, take care of yourself. . . gotta keep moving.
I: No, you’re fine!
H: Anyway, I prided myself on that, and honor your word. . . .
H: Heard the politicians say about Mitch McConnell, the old Kentucky. . . Speaker of the House, I believe it is. Somebody, one of them said to [Helen] on TV, said, “Well, he said so-and-so said can you really honor that?” He said, “Yep!” He said, “He’s one of those old Kentucky boys, he’ll honor his word.” My dad always taught me this. Honor your word; let your word be your bond. I try to live up to that.
H: If somebody doesn’t to me, it gets to me pretty quick. I just. . . anyway, you got one or two good answers.
H: Hang onto those.
I: Well, have you been back to Korea at all?
I: Nope? Do you have any interest in seeing how it’s developed and it’s changed?
H: No. We will probably take another trip to Washington, D.C. this year. I’ve been there four or five times now — various things, various groups and all.
I: Are you going with the KWVA?
I: Are you going with the KWVA — the Veterans’ Association?
H: Oh, I’ve been to all of those [unintelligible] and all, yeah.
I: Are you going with them to Washington, D.C.?
H: I don’t — no, no, I won’t. I don’t like being [unintelligible]; I like to be free to go wherever I want to when I get there,
H: And me and my wife and my son and his wife will probably go this year. We were thinking about going back to England and Scotland — that’s too far for me.
H: I get tired, I want to sit down occa– you know. Anyway, the question you asked that I got away from. . . what was it, now?
I: Just have you been back to Korea,
H: Oh, Korea.
I: or do you have any interest in going back to see it?
H: I really don’t care to go back.
H: I don’t want to be [that and] someone’s gonna take me to see all these wonderful things. I’d wanna go back where I’ve been. I could sit on my computer and pull up an air base,
H: on Global Earth, and it’s miles and miles of. . . progress. The runways are three times wider. . . two runways, you know, and all that.
H: I don’t resent anything of being there, but I wouldn’t enjoy someone. . . you know, not going where I wanna go.
I: Yeah, that’s understandable.
I: So back in 2013, we witnessed the 60th anniversary of the armistice, which was signed by China, North Korea and the UN, on July 27th. There’s no war in modern history that lasted 60 years after an official cease-fire. What do you think that we have to do to put a closure on it, or do you support a kind of movement to petition to the end of war officially and to replace the armistice with a peace treaty?
H: If I understand your question, number one. . . well, we’ll go to the latter part of it.
H: I don’t think we’ll ever have the Korean War declared as a war [that’s over with]. I mean, we’ve gone and said, “Let’s quit fighting,” and we learned something. We learned that America got involved in a war they couldn’t win and didn’t win in some ways, and in other ways, yes, we won.
H: We stopped the Communists. We gave a nation economic security.
H: [unintelligible] be in the world for 1966, I believe it was, and I saw the boom that South Korea had, and I said, “Boy! Gee, their manufacturing.” You know, it was. . . I could see [that manufacture], not just read about it. I just don’t. . . . They’re a great power, and I hope we keep going with them, and they’re great people, and they went through so much in their war, gave so much.
H: I still have in my mind such sights as seeing a kid walking down the street of [Soowon] with a dried fish on a string — that was gonna be his meal. The South Koreans were faring better when we were there in wartime than they were. . . they didn’t want us to leave — the short-minded thought.
H: When we began to talk strongly about truce in the spring and summer of nineteen and fifty-three. We would have incidents at the end of the runway — our fighter jets going out would have 30 in them. Who was doing that?
H: The South Koreans was doing that to keep us. . . thinking. . . keep us there in that war. We had Air Police on the main gate shot — I don’t know how many was killed, but it went through a period of time every week our Air Policeman on guard on the main gate would be shot. Create an image — instance, because the South Korean, again, did not want us to leave them there. They had blankets they got from us.
H: You can imagine a war zone — they’d take anything that we threw away
H: and make something useful out of it.
I: So the South Koreans shot some of your airmen?
H: When they what?
I: Did you say that the South Koreans shot your airmen, other airmen that you were stationed with?
H: Yep. The guards on the gate.
H: That’s — I know it sounds so foreign,
H: but here was people so desperate that they didn’t want the war to be over because we would leave, and the many items that they got, and we would bring a load of them each day to work at the base. I mean, this is a [Lowboy], 40-foot Lowboy. They would come in standing up on that with a cable around it so it wouldn’t fall off. One load of 40 — I don’t know how many times it came [unintelligible]. We had one to work in our shop.
H: I’m saying that the physical system was so malnourished. We’d bring in food for a child — he would take plain old dried bread, or plain old bread, and the equivalent of four or five slices. . . just crammed it in his mouth, and he’d say, “Number one job,” you know. We’d give him stuff and give him clothes. . . gave him our clothes.
H: He would take them out, get them washed, fold up [unintelligible], bring them back. You know how they would wash those clothes? Get by a little stream, use that water — any stream, any way they could get water.
H: Laid the clothes on a rock and beat them all with a piece of wood or something. That was their washing. . . .
I: I can’t imagine I would do that I would do that today especially. [LAUGHS]
I: I’ve been spoiled. [LAUGHS]
I: What do you think that the legacy of the Korean War Veterans and the Korean War would be?
I: What do you think that needs to be passed down for younger generations to understand? Is it important for them to know what sacrifices were made in Korea?
H: I think it was odd, it was started out, it was a forgotten war, and that’s what it kinda turned in to be,
H: but again, we helped get a nation economically fixed, we stopped communism there, and. . . .
H: I guess they. . . I commented outside in the hallway long ago, one of my other Korean buddies there, and. . . .
H: We are being forgotten. It’s time to pass on, and to Vietnam and to Afghanistan and to so forth. I’m being noticed more, because it’s a lot of old guys like me — you know, they just. . . going in the sunset.
I: Well that’s what we’re doing here!
I: We don’t want you guys to be forgotten, and it’s important for your legacy to be heard. It’s important to know —
H: Well, not really forgotten, but not paramount. . . as we think of veterans.
I: What? I mean, we believe, and you guys deserve just the same amount of recognition and appreciation.
H: I can appreciate some guys who gave a whole lot bigger sacrifice than I did. I was just gone awhile, and not much food, clothing, shelter. . . .
H: My first night in Korea, I was in a [Quonset], that’s what I stayed in most of the time there anyway, but the door was frozen half-open and half-closed, but to try and. . . . I know we’ll be. . . history will be. . . well, [I don’t wanna say] kind to us. We participated, we performed, we did what we had to do,
H: and. . . it’s amazing though.
H: We’ve gotten in the trend, we don’t win wars.