James “Jim” Wetmore
James Wetmore was born in Harvey, Illinois. He enlisted with the US Army in 1951, attended Basic Training at Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky, and afterwards, advanced to Non-commissioned Officer School and volunteered to go to Korea. He arrived at Incheon in January 1952 and was stationed with the 25th Division/35th Regiment/Company A/1st Platoon/1st Squadron near the Punch Bowl. He participated in the winter and spring campaigns of 1952 and was on the front lines as a BAR Rifleman. He was seriously wounded by a mortar and spent ten months in the hospital undergoing operations and rehabilitation; ultimately being awarded a Purple Heart.
Jim Wetmore describes an evening when he witnessed a fiery B-29 crash just past where his unit was camped. He recalls a bright light in the sky and realized as the plane passed overhead that the magnesium aboard the plane had caught fire. He remembers he heard two explosions: the first when the plane crashed and the second when the bombs on the plane exploded.
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Dead Marine in the Snow
Jim Wetmore recalls an incident when he and some fellow soldiers discovered a frozen Marine in the snow. He explains that he and some men in his unit were throwing Russian hand grenades down a hill for fun to see who could make the biggest explosion. He saw a hand sticking up out of the snow and called for a patrol to come inspect the situation. They found the body of a marine wearing only fatigues and a tee shirt. He assumes the man had escaped imprisonment and was caught in the snow and froze to death.
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You Never hear the One That Hit You
Jim Wetmore describes being seriously wounded by a mortar and his evacuation from the battlefield in the Punch Bowl area on April 11, 1952. He explains that the saying is true: you never hear the one that hit you. He describes awaking face down in a fighting hole, helmet full of blood, broken jaw and a deep face wound so badly gaping he could stick his fingers inside the wound. He goes on to describe being evacuated down a mountain on a ski cablecar and being too afraid to look down.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
James Wetmore: My name is Jim Wetmore. I was born and raised in Harvey, Illinois. That’s in the Chicago land area, about 25 miles south. I attended Catholic grammar, public high schools, and then entered the military in February of 1931.
Interviewer: So, what were you doing when the Korean War broke out?
J: I was working in a factory.
J: I was making storefront windows.
Great big picture windows for store fronts. That’s the aluminum doors that you walk through every day. I may have worked in the factory where they made those things.
I: Do you remember the moment that you heard that there is a Korean war, that a war broke out in the Korean peninsula?
J: Not really, but I do remember a very good friend that was in the occupation forces, you know, before the war.
J: And that’s how I got to know Korea, through him.
But when the war broke out, I don’t remember exactly, exactly where I was, or you know what happened there.
I: But you were in Illinois, right?
J: Yes, MHMM.
I: Could you talk a little more about your friend who was there for the occupation?
J: Yes, he and I played baseball together. We were in high school together. He left high school; he didn’t graduate. He left and went in the military, and he ended up, and all I heard when he got back was Korea this, Korea that, and he wore all these colorful jackets and everything that he brought back from Korea.
I: When did he come back?
J: Probably in 1950, there about somewhere like that, just prior to the war.
I: Just prior to the war?
J: MHMM, yeah.
I: What is his name?
J: His name is Harold Goetz. He’s deceased now.
I: What’s the last name? Could you spell it?
I: Did he say anything about Korea?
J: He said he had a good time there. You know, there was no big war problems or anything.
But what he did over there, he–it was all fun for him. He’s one of those kinds of guys, just a fun trip for him.
I: What a destiny. He came back from Korea without any trouble, and you’re about to go to Korea?
J: Well, yeah, I had different plans when I went into service. When I joined the service in February 1951, I was scheduled to go to officer school when I finished basic training.
I finished basic training, and they scheduled me for non-com school, in which I went and completed non-com school.
I: What is non-com school?
J: That’s non-commissioned officers, sergeants, and so on, you know, and a leadership school and I went to that school. I went to that school and finished it, and I waited and waited to get a date to go to officer school. In the meanwhile, I was a cadre in basic training. I’m actually going through basic training again, only teaching it.
So then finally I got to talking with a personnel officer and asked him if I could get out of the officer’s training program and do something else. And he said, “Well, what would you like to do?” I told him I wanted to go to Korea. And he wanted to feel my forehead to see if I was sane. You know, to volunteer to go into a war zone when everybody else in my position was volunteering to go anywhere in the world, you know?
I: Why did you say you want to go to Korea?
J: I didn’t put on a uniform put on a uniform to go work in an office somewhere, you know?
And that was my idea was to be part of the program to defend these people that were in trouble, you know? And that, you know, that was my always helping people, and that was the reason I wanted to go to Korea. So, I enlisted February of 1951.
I: Okay, and where did you go to receive basic training?
J: Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. Camp Breckinridge is no longer there.
The 101st airborne that was there is now at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I waited over in Seatle for about three days to get a troop ship over to Tokyo. While I was in Seatle, I have a cousin who was a colonel at the Fort Lewis up there, and I just stopped in to visit him and he had some fellow there and I found out he was a master sergeant. The personnel at Fort Lewis asked me, “Did I really want to go to Korea?” They were trying to help me get changed my orders and stuff.
I said, “No, I volunteered to go to Korea. I’m going to Korea, you know?” And, so, it was nice of them to take that in, to get me off orders. Anyway, that was just the start of going to Korea, of being on the troop ship, of heading out to sea. I had never been out to sea before.
I: How was it? How many soldiers were on the ship? Do you remember the name of the ship?
J: Oh, heck no. I don’t remember the name of the ship.
I’m inside, and the names are outside. I don’t know what the heck the name was, you know?
J: I really didn’t care, to be true with you what the name of the ship was.
I: Many people throwing up mess?
J: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Here’s a story I got to tell you. You know on the bulkheads of the troop ships, they got this polished metal, they’re not even mirrors. They got these sinks on the bulkhead. Well, I went up one morning and oh that place was a mess. The guys were sick that day and during the night, you know?
I go there and I’m trying to get some water in there so I could shave and clean up. The boat went up; the boat went down. The boat went right; the boat went left. The boat went up, the guy next to me, when the boat heaved like that he just, “Brahhhhh” into my shaving water, you know? Made me sick so the next time the boat moved, I did it into his.
I: Ha Ha Ha!
J: So that’s the story about the troop ship.
I: So, give and take?
J: Yeah. But yeah, I was kind of an adventurous guy. I used to like to go find different places abroad ship. I went to places I shouldn’t have been. You know, I went down the engine room even, and I finally found an officer’s mess where they had cold cuts and all kinds of stuff. They could make sandwiches and everything. I come back to – I don’t know what they call it – it wasn’t the barracks but the cabin where we’re all with the guys. I’m eating a big old sandwich. “Where’d you get that?” I said, “Somewhere down the hall, I found it.”
But some of the experimental things that I did when I was a nut kid, you know.
I: Didn’t soldiers complain, “Why am I here? I’m sick, you know? Like?”
J: No, I didn’t hear any complaining.
I: That’s awfully nice.
J: Yeah, they seemed like they were all just quiet and you know, they knew where they were going, and you know they got a job to do. We’ll do it. Get it over it.
I: When did you leave from Seattle to Japan?
J: It was early December of 1951.
Tokyo, Japan. I spent a few days there being reassigned. Took a ship, probably a troop ship, I guess it was, around to Incheon. We landed at Incheon.
I: Remember the date?
J: It had to be the very, very first part of January, probably the second or third part of January of 1952.
I: That’s the historical place where MacArthur, General MacArthur, landed, right?
I: And cut off the supply lines to North Korean soldiers? Did you know about that?
J: No, no I didn’t. I heard and was told that some of the soldiers had to, because of the sties and stuff, they had to take in land, landing craft, from these places. I’m going to have tell you right now that I don’t even remember how I got off that ship.
I remember riding on the back of a truck to some place once we got off the ship and passing all of these poor looking houses. You know, the shacks and stuff like that. It’s just a lowly type of life from what I was used to in the Chicago area. Anyway, I felt sorry for these people but when I got this replacement, they assigned me off to a unit. My first stop was at the Hwacheon reservoir.
Do you know what where the Hwacheon reservoir is?
J: Hwacheon reservoir.
I: Was it east side of the west side?
J: It was not too far from Seoul, east of Seoul. I remember being on a troop train and the troop train only moved at night, and I remember it was heavy snow. It was a lot of snow. It was cold. That train wasn’t heated. I remember that,
especially the washrooms when you see the rails and the tracks going by when, you just down (splashing noise and laughter) down the bottom. I was given an automatic rifle, a B.A.R. because I’m tall, big, strong guy, and they gave it to me. That’s what I had the entire time I was in Korea. We then went by a truck convoy to the Punchbowl, the Punchbowl area. I was up probably on the eastern lip of that Punchbowl.
And there were Turks on my left and U.S. marines on the right, and I remember the Turks. They’d have bonfires, and they’d get drunk and shoot and everything, everything they could shoot, you know? But the most exciting part of that thing up there for me was that one evening looking out over the distance, over North Korea, I saw a bright thing looking like a star.
It looked like a bright star, too bright and too low to be a star. And this thing kept coming at me. It wasn’t falling but it was coming right at me, and I couldn’t understand what the heck it was but until the darn thing went right over the top of me and it was a B-29. It was burning one of the hinges of magnesium in one of the engines. That’s why it was so bright. Well, that thing came over the top of me, went down, went over the first mountain in front of us and crashed in the valley behind it.
It crashed. There were two distinct explosions, one when it hit and the second one, I guess, they had armed the bombs. You know, before they bailed out. Anyway, that plane went down right smack in front of me. It hit the valley. I couldn’t actually see the explosion, but it sure shook them mountains over there, and we had heard stories where the guys had bailed out in the MLR in front of us. There were two of them coming back toward the marines
and one marine called out a password and didn’t answer it right now. This is a story that I heard on the front line. There’s no proof to it all, but I heard that the marines shot these two guys. But I don’t know if that’s true.
I: But you saw that the plane, the B-29, was smacking into the mountain?
J: Well, it went into the valley just over the mountain in front of us.
I: You saw it?
J: Yes, I saw it. I saw the thing fly right over top.
I: Was that around January 1950?
J: I can’t tell you the exact month on that. It was probably more like March, early March.
I: Who the main enemy, Chinese or North Korea?
J: All Chinese.
I: All Chinese?
J: Yes. And yeah, the reason I know that was because I left an outpost a couple of times and I seen them up there. They wore the padded uniforms. You know, kind of a gray color.
They kept sniping at me, you know, and we had a 50-caliber machine in our bunker and they kept sniping at me, and I got mad and I saw two of them up there, and we were not allowed to fire a weapon. We could throw all the hand grenades, but I couldn’t throw a hand grenade over to the next mountain. So, I got on a 50-caliber, you know right up that valley. I never heard from them guys again. I don’t know whether I got them or what, but they used to tunnel through the mountains, the top of the mountains.
I don’t know if I got those guys or not, but they didn’t bother.
I: How far between you and the soldier, the Chinese?
J: Well, I would guess probably the better half of a mile. You know, it’s pretty far, but you know, it’s hard to judge the distance, and I would say somewhere less than a mile.
I: Able to see them?
J: Yeah, yeah I saw them. Yeah, yeah, it was a very interesting trip there.
My fun times over there were we run across a box of German, Russian hand grenades. That’s those tin cans with the handles on them.
I: Yeah, yeah.
J: Well, we were, we were just throwing them down the hill and watching them go poof. See who could make the biggest poof, you know? Well, I threw one down there, and I saw a hand sticking up out of the snow. And I thought, “Stop everybody, stop!” I tried to get a patrol to go down there. Well, they wouldn’t let us go down there, the front-line guys.
They brought somebody else in there, and there was about six guys who went down there. And they found a body, a marine, who had just fatigue pants on and a t-shirt, no shoes, no nothing. It looks like he escaped being a prisoner and got back that far and froze to death. He froze. He was like this. I saw him by the CP. You know, they had to break his arms to get him in a bag and haul him out. That’s some of the nasty things I’ve seen over there.
The day I got wounded the jets from the aircraft carriers, they come in and they strafe the bottom or the back sides of the mountains where these guys were lobbing mortars and stuff at us, you know? These guys would come in and do their job and then of course.
I: Who was?
J: They were navy guys, I think. They were navy airplanes.
J: U.S. They were strafing and dropping napalm and stuff like that.
I: Was it in the Punchbowl Area?
J: Yeah, in the Punchbowl Area. This all right there, and when they would leave, here comes the mortars and they’d start shooting at us. They’d do anything because they’re mad, you know? We’ve been bombing them over there. Well, anyway, they always told me that you’d never hear the one that hit you. I never heard the one that hit me, and I got hit in the face, both arms.
I: By multiple mortar?
J: Yeah, and I woke up heard first down in the fighting hole.
My helmet was full of blood. I had a head wound broke my jaw and hit the side of my face. This arm and this arm, you know, but I’m here to tell you they did a good job saving me, but it was that far from going into my brain, you know? But I put this finger up in my cheek over there, and I could, this finger just disappeared up into my head when I felt the wound. I had teeth in the middle of my mouth
because my jaw was over so and so.
I: You remember that day?
J: I do remember that day, yes. I didn’t hear the bomb. I didn’t feel it or nothing, but when I woke up, and I saw the blood in my helmet. I said, “Oh my,” you know? I still wasn’t hurting. I was probably still in shock, and I heard the guys hollering, “Medic! Medic!” and they hauled me out with a tank right behind us. They took me back by the tank and patch me up. Here’s the thing: they put me on the stretcher.
They call me, I think, I was walking and I’m looking straight and I can’t talk, and I can’t turn my head to see anything. They put me on a cable car. Now this cable car they use for skiers to go up a mountain, or they were hauling ammunition up and the wounded and stuff back. Well, they put me on this thing, and here it was kind of funny. I had a medic sitting on my belly, and he had his knees in my armpit, and he was holding onto that cable thing. I could see the look in his eyes. I didn’t have to look down.
I looked in his and knew that he was scared to death, you know? And we got that bottom of the hill, and here’s when I really started to hurt. They put the stretcher in a jeep with my head out the back, you know? On the back end of the jeep, and of course, there’s no paved roads, and it’s off-road bouncing around there. My jaw was doing one of these things, you know? Just bouncing all over? And I was in agony. I think when they got me to the mash on the helicopter, they put me in a helicopter, and they closed the lid
on the side of helicopter, and I thought I died because I don’t remember anything, you know? I think I just went to sleep because I hadn’t slept in probably in week. But, anyway, I got on the helicopter, went to the mash outfit and don’t remember a lot of stuff. They probably had me sedated while they were operating and stuff like that. They cleaned me up and got me ready to go to Japan. That’s when I come back from the first surgery.
They put me in this room with all kinds of beds and the beds had purple hearts on them. Mine had a purple heart with my name and everything on it.
I: Do you remember the date of your…?
J: Yes, I got wounded on April 11, 1952.
I: So, you were there in January, and it’s been just three months?
J: It was 93 days or 92 days, I think. On the front line, yes.
And then when I got there, there were 27 guys in my squad, the original squad up on that front line. Well, the day I got wounded there were two of us left, two of us. I’ve always tried to contact this fellow. I have his name because he wrote a letter in the hospital.
I: What is his name?
J: His name was Bill Kelly, and he from somewhere in the East. He was a great big Irish kid, and he and I were B.A.R. men and would go on patrol. He’d have left, and I’d have to write or something like that you know? We’d always be together.
But I often wanted to look him up, but I have no way of contracting him, you know?
I: What described the typical day of your service in that Punchbowl line?
J: Well, basically, it was survival with the heavy snows. The snows would fill up our fighting hole. We’d spend the morning all cleaning them out, you know? And then the rest of the day, you’d be observing.
And again now, the rule they had where we couldn’t fire a weapon. They could have had a whole bunch of these guys coming at us and couldn’t fire a weapon. But that was–
I: That was the rule of engagement?
J: That was the rule of the army. I could throw all the hand grenades I wanted, but—
I: Unless you hear from your superior?
J: Yeah, MHMM. That was the rule on the front line, yes. And when I fired that fifty-caliber machine gun, there was sergeants, officers, everybody come over the top of that hill. You know, I thought that I was starting the war
all over something. “Who fired that gun?” I said, “I did.” Why now, and it’s about that time one bullet went over the top of us, and I said, “That guy’s been after me, you know, for a couple of days.” I said, “I’m going to get that sucker.” But that’s what that was all about.
I: Have you any bugle, or any instrument from the Chinese?
J: No, I heard about that. No, I heard about that where they charge at you with screaming and hollering and things like that. No, we never experienced that right there in our area. The only thing–they didn’t bother us.
I wasn’t attacked at all. We’d go out on patrols and infiltrate for a while most, almost always at night, and come back but the only activity I ever heard over there was to my left. There was a ridgeline that went out, and it was all Turkish fighters, the Turks. They didn’t care for nothing, those guys.
J: They’d have fires and drink beer and drink vodka or whatever it was. But one time, we were getting a lot of mortar shells where
how could they be seeing what they’re shooting at, or mortaring at. We find out that they had infiltrated through the Turks, a scouting troop of Chinese, and they sent the Turks. They sent a patrol of Turks back there to get those guys. Well, one morning, we hear, “Boom, boom, boom!” A little bit of rifle fire, you know? A couple hours later here comes these Turks right by me. There were five of them. And they had smiles on their faces.
But they got these great big knives on their belt, big old bowl of knives and machine guys and stuff. They had this jug of vodka. They hand it to me to take some. Well, I took some. I’ve tasted better gasoline, I think. It was terrible. But I had to smile and give it back to them, you know? Because I don’t want them to [gestures cutting throat] my neck, you know? But the Turks were hell of fighters.
I: Yeah, they’re known for bravery, right?
J: Yes, yes, they’re great. I think they had to be drunk.
and that’s what they were most of the time. But yeah, they were the nicest bunch of guys, you know. But I think if I was their enemy, it’d have been a whole different story, right?
I: Have any Korean KATUSA or Korean civilian worked with you?
J: Yes, we had Korean scouts that went out on patrols with us, and they had their own little enclaves on the back side of us but when we went on the patrol, they were always there. I think they were more because they knew the land.
If something happened, they could interpret, you know? What I thought they were along for because they were so small, and they were carrying these heavy ammo belts for the B.A.R.s. They were half my size, I think, and they could walk on the top of the snow that crusted snow. It’s 4, 5, 6 inches deep. They’re walk kind of on the top, and I come along with this 90 pounds of B.A.R and ammunition, and I fell through.
One time I looked up and all I saw was a hole in the sky. You know, I fell into this snow drift.
I: You’re kidding me?
J: No, no, I fell into a snow drift. It took three or four guys to get me out of there. They bust in the snow and kind of pulling on me to get out, and that was one patrol. Another patrol, one guy stepped on a trip flare and kind of like, well, I think it blew his leg off, I don’t know, the lower part of his leg. It ended up because I’m the big guy
I had to bring him back. Well, I had him on my back, and he was holding me around my neck like this here, and I had dragging the B.A.R. all the my equipment, got him on my neck, and bringing him back. We got up near around our line, and he got a stranglehold on it. You know, he was choking me. I couldn’t holler. I couldn’t do nothing. So, I just fell out. I guess it took a couple of guys with rifle butts and stuff to pull his arms off of me to save me. But he again got into shock.
There’s another thing. I don’t know who this guy was, had no idea, I had, you know, never would I ever know who this guy was that I was carrying back, but you carry your body. He’s got a uniform on it. You carry him back, you know. But that was, unfortunately, the thing that, because I was a big guy, I was tall and strong. But anyway, that was pretty near the end when I got hurt.
I: What the happiest moment in your service?
J: The happiest moment–
I: Or rewarding.
J: Well, the happiest moment was the five minutes they handed me my discharge.
J: It was Fort Knox, Kentucky. When I got out of the hospital—
I: When did you?
J: I got out of the hospital, let’s see, it was….[ponders] It was the end of 1952 or the early part of 53. I don’t remember
it was around that part of the year, it was wintertime. But I had spent time in the hospital about eight, ten months in the hospital. But anyway, they sent me to Fort Knox, and I immediately struck friends with the personnel sergeant. He just kind of took me under. He saw my combat infantry badge, my purple, and he kind of grabbed me on, you know? He set me up with a job Fort Knox that any soldier in the world would die for.
What it was I worked at the headquarters of the outfit because I had clerk typist training. I worked the headquarters outfit and had the duty roster for all the officers on Fort Knox. I was to tell them when they were having duty on Christmas or something like that. They had taught me who to slide rule, how to do all the quotas, and how this guy was on here, and how to figure it out. They had a plan. I followed the plan but when some lieutenant colonel
hollering and he said, “Well, I had Thanksgiving last year!” or something. I said, “Well, hold on sir,” and I just pushed the button and the general was on the wall just behind me. The general pick it up and I never hear from these guys again, you know? He says, “If Jim tells you’re on duty, you’re on duty.” And that was the end of it.
I: You had such power?
J: That was fun, and I was sitting right behind the sergeant major, you know? Our office was the headquarters of Fort Knox.
I: Did you write back to your family when you in Korea?
J: Yes, with my mother. I used to tell her that wellness night in Korea, it’s daytime in Chicago. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be all right. When I got wounded, I couldn’t write. First off, I couldn’t hold a pen, and secondly, it was so shaky, you know, I had a medic write a letter to my mother as best as I could dictate because I couldn’t talk either. So, they wrote letters to my mother,
and Western Union, I don’t know if you know Western Union back then, where all telegrams were all sent.
J: Western Union was on strike, and I could not get a telegram to my parents. So, they sent registered letter to my parents. I have that letter in my possession at home.
I: How much were you paid?
J: When I was in the military?
I: Yeah, in Korea.
J: Ninety-five dollars a month, I think. And they give it to you in little brown envelopes.
I used to send it home. I sent all my money home. When I got home, I had about six or seven hundred dollars that my mother saved up for me. I bought a car. The first thing I did was to buy a car.
I: What was the impact of your service?
J: Well, my biggest problem is my hearing. I lost the high frequencies in my ears. For example, the biggest problem is my wife has a high-pitched voice. I have a problem hearing her, so the radios in the car never get played.
Nothing while we’re driving down the road, and she has to almost poke me and talk loud. And I read lips. I read lips pretty well. You know, I had such good hands with the military. They took such good care of me. I really lost any fear. I didn’t have any problems with them taking care of me. I was worried when I got out I had married just before I got discharged, and at Christmas time, she left me because she didn’t like the military.
She didn’t like Fort Knox. So, I would have reenlisted. I was going to make a career out of it, but when she left me, till death do you part, you know, so I took my discharge and went back to her. I spent twenty-eight years with her before we got divorced. But anyway, I forgot the Korean War. I really did. But, as I went along, the ringing in my ears was really bad for me. It was causing hypertension and everything.
And every time, I got to the VA, they’d re-evaluate me. I went to thirty to forty to sixty percent to seventy percent, all these times I’m hollering, and I got seventy percent, and somebody said I could get a hundred percent by filing unemployability. My wounds never changed. It’s the same wounds that I come out of the service with, you know. Nothing got any worst. Maybe my hearing got a little worse, but the fact is that I didn’t really get involved with the Korean thing again
until I got involved with all these reevaluations. I met Jim Hall, who was a prisoner of war. He was a prisoner of war thirty-three months in Korea. I met him actually at the VFW, and he was the one that got me to come to the Korean War
J: Chapter, yes. It wasn’t that I got in the chapter that Marvin Dunn was communications. He used to call everybody
to tell them we have a meeting tomorrow or whatever. He asked me if I would help him. Well, next thing I know, I have a whole thing. The telephone committee has been a real joy as part of the Korean veterans group here in town. Yes, with this responsibility, and with knowing this group of guys, I am involved in the Korean thing again. I’m real proud of the fact that we fought a war that did some good.
You can see that the South Koreans, they’re practically better off than we are today, you know? So, it was worthwhile. Some of these guys that fight these wars, they’ll never have this experience that we’re having now that makes you feel proud that you did something.
I: No regrets at all?
I: Your wounds and everything?
J: None at all. You know, I just did my job, and I was real happy to it.
[End of Recorded Material]