John Denning was born in Virginia, Minnesota on August 15th, 1934. He went to Proctor High School before enlisting with the Air Force in December 1951 at the age of seventeen. He arrived at Suwon Air Base (K-13) in January 1953 and was stationed there as part of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing (FIW) until he left Korea in December 1953. He began as an Airman Basic upon entering the Air Force and finished his military career as a Master Sargent. After his discharge on June 30, 1973, he went to Washington State. Upon earning his Bachelors degree he became a civil servant working for the Air Force.
Suwon Airbase - Combat Laundry Unit
John Denning describes his arrival in Korea at Suwon Air Base and his work in the Combat Laundry Unit. He explains that he supervised the people who were responsible for cleaning the clothes. He goes on to explain that the Papa San was a Sergeant in the Korean Army and was very effective at dealing with men who created problems and were brought in by the MPs.
Bed Check Charlie
John Denning describes the enemy's use of "Bed Check Charlie" and its effects upon the troops at Suwon Air Base. He explains that the enemy would fly low enough to drop had grenades onto the base and make the men have to get up and check on the situation. He goes on to describe the horrible living conditions of the local population outside of the Air Base. He recalls that in the aftermath of the war, people would often take packing crates and use them as shelters to live in for their families.
Life in Korea then and now
John Denning describes the living conditions of the South Korean people when he was there compared to when his son was in Korea more recently. He describes the people living in packing crates and huts with thatched roofs and the unpaved roads that were just mud and rubble. He describes the pictures he saw that his son recently took and being amazed at the vast developments and modernization.
J: My name is John Denning, uh, I was born in Virginia, Minnesota.
I: Mm hm.
J: August 15, 1934. Uh, I went to Proctor Minnesota High School and, uh, I left, uh, when I was 17 I quit school…
I: Mm hm.
J: … and joined the military.
I: And didn’t you need uh, permission from your parents?
J: Yes I did, and that’s why I went in the Air Force. I wanted to go in the Army or Marines and uh, my mother, my father is deceased, uh, my mother says no. Uh, recruiter said, well you can in the Air Force, you know you won’t be on the front lines or anything. So she knew I was determined, and, so she signed it.
I: Mm hm. How about your family? How many siblings did you have at the time?
J: I have one sister
I: One sister?
J: She just…
I: Oh you were the only son.
J: Yep. she just turned 85, my sister.
I: (LAUGHS) So when, uh, where did you get the military training?
J: I went to uh, San Antonio Texas
I: Uh huh.
J: And from there to uh, another part of Texas, and uh, went to Wyoming to school, military school there…
J:… and my first station was Hanscom Field, Bedford Massachusetts.
I: What kind of training did you receive?
J: Uh I went through a supply school, (COUGHS) learning all the different aspect of supply and what have you.
I: Can you give me some example what supply means here?
J: Well supply would be everything on an airbase, everything, every building, person, whatever. Airplanes. They all need something
I: Mm hm.
J: And our business was to order it, have warehouses to store it..
I: And distribute it.
J: And distribute it, yes.
I; Mm hm. Um, So when did you leave for Korea?
J: Uh, 19, January 1953.
I: Mm hm.
J: Uh, I think it was January, yes.
I: So did you fly there or..
I: … did you take the troop ship?
J: We took a troop ship.
I: Air Force, ha, come on! You should have taken..
J: Yeah, 17 days to cross that ocean. Uh, we had some rough water and, but it didn’t bother me. Uh, I had KP on the ship going over and uh..
I: What is KP?
J: Kitchen Police. (LAUGHS)
J: But I had a good job. There’s a, I had an elevator going from the storeroom bringing food up to the galley, the kitchen, and so I ate lots of fruit on the way up and whatever, and I never did get sick. I thought I would but I, uh…
I: Did you stop by way of, uh, did you stop in Japan by way of Korea?
J: No, we went direct into Yokohama.
I: Uh huh.
J: Put us on a train under guard, uh, took us to Fuchu, I believe.
I: Mm hm.
J: Not sure. And we were in a fenced in under guard. Uh give us our clothing and whatever we needed then took us to Tachikawa, Japan and put us on a C1-24 aircraft. Double deckers, full of troops.
J: Uh, first the airplane didn’t get off the ground. Hit the brakes and scared everybody. Uh, the second one we made it. I think we went into uh, Daegu. Uh, I was offered a job there , it’s not like an interview but, this officer calls me in he says hey I need a guy in the gym. I said well no I didn’t come here to go in the gym.
I: What do you mean gym?
J: A gymnasium, uh..
I: You had a gymnasium at the time in 1953?
J: Uh they did on uh, Daegu.. But I knew I didn’t want the job.
I: Mm hm.
J: Not that I really had the choice but, uh, the officer got kind of angry, he says OK we need a guy up at the Suwon K13
I: (LAUGHS) K12
J: No, 13, Suwon
I: Suwon was K13?
J: Yes sir.
I: I think it was K10 or K11, no?
J: Uh, interesting thing we, put me on a, I don’t know if it was a C-46 or C-47. We landed at Daeg-, or uh, Suwon, uh, it was rainy and muddy, and the PSP were talking about, and they had quad 50’s on half tracks around the hills which I didn’t know at the time
J: but is seemed like that was the time to check the guns when we got off the plane. You should see a bunch of 18 year olds hittin’ the mud. (LAUGHS) We didn’t know what was going on, guns going off so, so that was my introduction.
I: So what did you do there in Suwon?
J: Uh, after they assigned me down to combat laundry units.
I: Combat laundry units?
I: What does that do?
J: Well it’s, uh, big vans with big washers and dryers in. Gasoline operated stuff. Uh.
I: So cleaning the clothes.
J: Uh, we had people there to do it. We were just overseeing everything.
I: Overseeing that.
I: Mm hm.
J: Uh, we had, uh, Papa san boys on that and uh …
J: Papa san was ex-sergeant in the Korean army and every once in a while when the military police would catch something they would take papasan up to talk to the gentlemen and apparently he’s pretty good at it (LAUGHS). Uh..
I: Do you remember his name?
J: No I don’t.
J: Papa san, so, that’s how it was.
I: Was dangerous in Suwon at the time?
I: What was the situation, did enemy flight attacked you ever?
J: We had uh, snipers in areas around once in a while, uh, Bedcheck Charlie
I: Mm hm.
I: Could you spell Bedcheck Charlie, BED right?
J: No, BED, I’m sorry Bed
J: check Charlie
I: C H E C K?
I: What was the..
J: No, Bedcheck CHARLIE.
I: C H A R L I E?
I: What is Bedcheck Charlie means?
J: Means like, we were in our beds and he would come over in a little low-flying one engine aircraft, plip, plip, plip, dropping hand grenades. So everybody would run out..
I: And check, and check is C H E C K, right?
J: Bedcheck, yes.
I: C H E C K. So that was the kind of name that you gave to the enemy aircrafts who sneak in throw the hand grenade.
J: Yeah, it was a harassment.
J: But we had to jump up, jump and uh, sandbags, reventments, whatever. Uh, grab our weapons, whatever. But uh, one interesting night uh, we had a First Sergeant…
J:… who was an ex-marine during World War 2 and I think he was a little, still living that war, and apparently a hand grenade went off somewhere close.
J: He pulled his weapon and made us all march up and down the roads, all, all through it. Next day, he was gone, he went, I think, to a hospital in Japan or something like that.
I: What happened to him?
J: Probably went to a hospital, mental.
I: Oh mental.
J: Yeah, I mean it didn’t make sense. Yeah. But, uh, it was an interesting tour, uh, I uh, we made a few trips to Seoul.
I: Mm hm.
J: Uh, like on a Sunday after, things close after the war shut down uh, armistice. That was in July..
J: 27th. Yeah. But I was still there. But uh, we go to Seoul, the sad thing, I don’t have any pictures today but, everything was rubble. Ah it was just uh, leveled and the bases would get packing crates with supplies and they’d
J: end up outside the base with people living in ‘em and, very sad.
J: Children, yeah. But uh.
I: Did you know anything about Korea before you left?
J: Never heard of it till I read it in a newspaper.
J: Really, you know. But uh, you talked about school. I got my uh, I graduated in Korea. I got GED.
I: What is GED?
J: Uh General Education Development Test.
I: Mm hm
J: In other words, I was granted a high school diploma from my homeschool.
I: Uh huh
J: I wrote, signed everything to my sister. She took it to the principal, and I have a, after I completed 22 years in the Air Force, I got a job and then I went full time to college.
I: Oh, what did you study?
J: I had sociology, criminology
J: And I got a 4, I got a Bachelor’s degree.
J: Uh huh. We had 4 children, I was working full time, going to school nights and weekends. And uh..
I: What kind of job did you have?
J: I worked for the Air Force, civil service, civilian. I was in civilian personnel…
…ended up in labor relations but I worked personnel items like insurances, maybe if people were not good we’d terminate them. Worked with the Supervisors …
I: I see
J: … to reprimand employees, those type things so, we had ‘em coming and going.
I: Were there any more dangerous moments in your service in Korea?
I: Except uh, Bedcheck Charlie?
J: Oh, Bedcheck Charlie. No uh, not from the enemy no.
J: Uh, one of our people went out of his head one night and …
I: What do you mean, how?
J: Well we had a room in back of the laundry where we slept.
J: There was 1 2 3 4, 5 or 6 of us back there nice and comfortable and I think he’d been drinking something from downtown. (LAUGHS) But we heard that carbine lock and load, and he was going around the room crying, talking about his mother, and he was gonna kill this guy and uh, for a long time. Funny, the guy that slept next to him, they were very good friends from the states.
J: Kept talking to him and he broke down and, that was the end of that. But uh, no, nothing, I had no danger from the outside.
I: Uh, did you write back to your family?
J: Oh yes.
I: Your mom?
J: Oh I had to. They’d call you in.
I: What did you write?
J: Things are doing good, things like that. We’re okay, yeah.
I: Did you receive the letter from your mom?
I: What did she tell you?
J: Oh, what’s going on, my dogs they’re doing this and so and so.
I: You had a dog?
J: Oh yeah, yeah. Every boy did I think. But uh, just things about whatever’s happening, neighbors and friends.
I: How much were you paid at the time, Do you remember?
J: I think it was 60 dollars a month. Yeah. Which, I got by.
I: What did you do with that?
J: I did send some home. Course cigarettes I smoked at the time. I think they were a dollar a carton. 10 cents a pack.
I: Uh huh.
J: Yeah, those type things. A few beers once in a while, on base, club.
I: How many aircrafts did you have in Suwon at the time?
J: How many? I don’t know the number, I know what we had.
J: Oh we had a couple squadrons on our side of the base. Uh, F-86s.
I: F-86? That’s what my father took.
J: Uh, Foxtrot eight-, F-86 yeah.
I: F-86, yes. What other?
J: Cross the field, I don’t know that. Uh, fighter bombers I think, I’m not sure We didn’t go over there so.
I: How was the pilots there?
J: Uh, the pilots?
J: They were just normal people, young guys. You ever heard of uh, well, McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas?
J: Is named after a fighter ace from the 51st fighter interceptor wing where I was. And they used to have us – we’d go to a theater and watch the films from the gun cameras. You would come up, and all of a sudden you see debris flying all over. He was an ace. Went back to states and he got, uh, he got killed on an aircraft.
I: What was his name?
J: I think it was Joseph, well, McConnell was his last name.
J: They named the Air Force base after him.
I: Mm hm. So how was the Suwon, the city? Was it devastated, what was it? Could you tell me the details about the landscape of the Suwon at the time?
J: Well it was a lot of uh, I guess I would call huts. Straw roofs, thatch roofs.
J: Uh, those type things. Uh packing crates, areas. People lived in whatever. Uh, streets were muddy. All those kind of things. I really didn’t, other than going to Seoul or we would make a run down to Osan the other way for things, different things.
I: What was in Osan?
J: Uh, I think we used to run down there and get some parts. Aircraft parts.
I: There was an airbase in Osan too?
J: Yeah, I think, and my 51st wing is there now at Osan.
I: So you were in the first, uh, 51st I mean fighter..
J: 51st fighter interceptor wing.
J: Yes. Uh, my son went in the Air Force and uh, spent 27 years, three tours in Korea. One with his…
I: Oh, your sons were in Korea too?
J: Yeah, and uh, one tour he had his family with him and they all enjoyed it.
J: And uh, some of the pictures and, pictures I seen when they had the Olympics, I was just amazed. A brand new world, everything was. Korea’s 60 years old right. I mean the new buildings and all that stuff.
I: The actual history is 5000 years.
J: I know, but..
I: Yeah but, but, we were all devastated and now we..
J: 60 years old in my mind. Somebody brought that up out here today.
J: Beautiful buildings and roads. I saw the highways one time and I remember the bumpy roads going to Seoul. That’s about it.
I: Have you, you never been back to Korea right?
J: No I haven’t. I uh, we before they started all these revisits and all this stuff…
J: … I had a few heart attacks back ‘88, before that. Then I had a stroke and my legs are going. You know my wife said “Well you ought to try it”, well I didn’t want to. I made it the first time, I didn’t wanna die.
J: But, and I’m amazed that uh, I get my hair cut at a Korean barbershop.
J: Yeah, Seoul barbershop. Uh, all Korean ladies, they treat me like a king. And my buddies. Uh, you see people downtown and they stop you and.. It’s nice. I was shopping with my wife yesterday and uh, this young lady come up to me, little blonde gal, she says “I was over in Korea!”
J: And uh, apparently she was in the military stationed at Tegu. Yeah. And uh, she told me some of their experiences and all that stuff. Yeah, it’s funny.
I: So, are you proud of your service?
J: Yes I am. And the service was good to me and my family. Medical, for my family all that stuff. Yeah.
J: I said yesterday I’d do it all again.
I: Mm. And you proud about what Korea is now?
J: Yeah, it’s just amazing how they built up. Like I said, my son was in the military, I have a grandson just became an Officer in the Coast Guard, Friday. Uh, I have a granddaughter whose in the Navy. I have another young grandson…
J: … waiting to go into Coast Guard. Everybody’s proud, what they do.
I: When did you leave Korea, and back to the state.
I: Uh huh.
I: You were in only 1953.
J: Yeah so I left, must’ve been December.
I: Oh, ‘53?
J: Yeah. Went to Japan again. Uh, boarded a ship.
J: I guess Okinawa, or, Yokohama. This time we went to uh, Okinawa. Picked up a couple thousand army troops. Then into California. And uh, we’re coming into California and I thought I bought the farm because I just come out of the shower and got dressed and my hair was wet…
J: and everybody’s hollering “a bridge!”, “a bridge!” So I’m trying to run and get my hat, and I had a top bunk. I broke a light bulb, my hair was wet and I had to hold a metal pipe. I thought I was gonna.. (LAUGHS) Oh no! But uh, there was, uh, they had a band out there playing California, here I come, and you know, real nice.
I: Comments about your service and message to the young generations?
J: Well like I said I’m proud of my service and my message to the younger people is don’t forget that war. I mean, a lot of people didn’t know what it was.
J: Be aware of what’s going on around you, and the world.
I: John Denning.
J: It’s beautiful. (LAUGHS)