John Levi trained as a navy corpsman who ended up serving through some of the most pivotal moments in the Korean War as a combat medic. His experiences bring us an enthralling perspective of a Native American soldier who sees a parallel between his people’s suffering and the Koreans’ experiences during the war. In this interview, John Levi reveals that he wasn’t prepared to deal with the brutal cold that accompanied winter in Chosin Reservoir – a winter that drastically altered his corpsman duties. John Levi goes on to emotionally recall the evacuation of countless Korean families in one of the largest citizen evacuations in military history. Finally, he tells us of the scariest moment he had in the Korean War – facing a mortar barrage while chasing North Korean guerrillas and living to tell the tale.
The Frozen at Chosin
John Levi shares his experience about the winter the Marines endured in the Chosin Reservoir. The brutal winter still stands out clearly as one of the most memorable parts of his entire experience in the war. John Levi recounts how the winter required an unexpected shift in his corpsman duties - from blood freezing to morphine freezing the marines had to alter their craft fast to survive.
Escaping Heungnam by any means necessary...
John Levi talks about his emotional encounter with Korean citizens in Heungnam. Fleeing the war zone, many Korean citizens looked for any way out of the war zone with backs that were loaded with children and anything they could carry. John Levi saw the plight of his people, the Native American people, in the same struggle that many Koreans had to endure during the war.
Dealing with Guerrillas
John Levi recalls his experience with guerrilla warfare of in pushing north of Pusan. One night they ran into the guerrillas. He calls it one of the scariest moments in his war experience - not knowing if the next mortar was going to be on you or not.
Veteran Interviewed: My name is John T. Levi.
Interviewer: Is there any ethnic origin of this last name? I am a Native American with the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes.
What is your birthday? November 7, 1928. Where were you born? Lawrence, Kansas.
Tell me about your family when you were growing up. You said that they were Native American, so tell me about them. Well, my father was a famous football player at the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. He also coached at Haskell on all Indian football team. All of them are Indians? All Indians. So it’s a kind of segregation, is it? [laughs] Not really. No, it wasn’t. It was a U.S. boarding school, a government school. But the students, all of them are Indian? They’re all Indian from all tribes from the U.S. & Canada…I mean Alaska. And what about your sibling? I’ve got a sister. You’re the only son? Yes, I’m the only son.
Tell the audience how was it growing up in a Native American family. Well, it was mainly growing up in boarding schools throughout the country in New Mexico, North Dakota, and Kansas. Also going to an Indian mission school, Catholic.
When did you graduate high school? Did you graduate high school? No, North Dakota Wahpeton. Wahpeton North Dakota High School, 1946.
Then what did you do? I went into the service right after high school. Well, I went to a junior college half a year. Then I went into the service. Any reason you wanted to join the Marines? I’m not a Marine. I’m a U.S. Navy corpsmen assigned to the Marines. Tell me about this U.S. Navy corpsmen. U.S. Navy corpsmen…their mission is to fight alongside the Marines and to provide immediate care to the wounded. So I’m a medic. The corpsmen are all medics? The U.S. Marine Corps does not have a medical and dental branch.
That was 1946, and where did you get the basic military training? Great Lakes, Illinois. And then where did you go? When the Korean War broke out, I was assigned to the 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, California. By the way, what was the basic military training? Was it specifically medical? Specifically medical. Tell me about that. It was, it pertained to all medical aspects of care for the wounded and treatment of the wounded and evacuation. Can you give me some more detail what kind of training you received? Well, how to treat wounds and how to provide immediate aid to a wounded Marine. So you are ready to provide the treatment for the wound? Yes.
So you were in Pendleton, right? I was. That’s where they assigned, yes. So when did you leave from… Do you want to know what unit I was with? Sure, sure. I was assigned to the Headquarters Company, 2nd battalion, 1st Marine Regiment to the 1st Marine Division Fleet Marine Force (FMF). When did you leave from Pendleton? We left on a ship to Korea on August 7, 1950.
I have a question. Did you know anything about Korea at the time? Not a thing, no. Your high school didn’t teach you? No [emphatic]. So then you went to Japan from Pendleton? Yes, went to Japan. Kobe, Japan. What did you do in Japan? Trained, got ready for the invasion of Inchon. Any other specific training other than medical treatment? Mainly just the tasks that we will be involved with in aiding the wounded Marines.
When did you arrive in Inchon? Was it the first day, September 15? Yes, September 15. The LST that I was on broke down on our way, and we had to be towed in to Inchon. How was the Inchon landing? Give me the details. Did you see any resistance? How difficult was it to land? Well, we arrived on the 15th, or rather the 14th, and the first group of Marines—the 5th Marines I believe it was—went in the shore in the morning. We had to wait until the tide came up so we could land at 4:30 in the afternoon. In the meantime, there was bombardment and there was shelling from the ships and a light rain was coming down I remember. We landed on Blue Beach. That’s Operation Chromite? Yes. Was there any resistance from North Korea? There was not any resistance in our area.
You didn’t know anything about Korea and now you are in Inchon? Yes, and I’ll never forget the smell. Tell me. Well, it was different. I don’t know how to describe it. Tell me what smell you are talking about. We are talking about the human waste that they fertilized—honeypot. Where did you smell that? I smelled it when we landed. And you never used it before in the United States? Yeah, that’s the first image of the Korean War by the Korean War veterans. You must be shocked. I was. But that’s what you have in your intestine. That’s right, that’s right. That’s the country that used the human waste for fertilizer. Now Korea is completely different. Do you know that? Yes, I’ve been back.
When did you go back? 2000. Did you smell the honeypot at the time then? None [smiles]. We’re going to talk about it, but give me the brief description of the 2000 Korea you saw. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe the change and how much the country has changed as far as buildings and way of life and very, very gratifying to see that because I had seen a lot of suffering by the Korean people that stuck in my mind. That’s the country you saw in 1950—honeypot and so much suffering. 2000 Korea? I just can’t describe it. It’s such a change. Everything in modernization and how they treated us. That’s the legacy of the Korean War, isn’t it? Right. But we don’t teach about this. No. We say it’s a Forgotten War. Isn’t it ridiculous? It is ridiculous. What can you do about it? Spread the word. That’s all I can say. That’s why we are doing this. Yes.
Did you see the picture (yes, pick it up and unfold it) and could you show that to camera? And do you know who they are? They look like a lot of veterans. Chosen few people. There are veterans, but mostly they are the 90 teachers from 25 states. My foundation hosts an annual conference for those history and social studies teachers. The reason is to educate those teachers about the Korean War and post-war Korean developments that you are admiring and so that they can teach the students in the K-12 system. It is one of the most successful wars, and Korea is now the strongest ally to United States. We were at the Vietnam together. We were at Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other U.N. peacekeeping missions with the United States, but we don’t teach about this. Good example. That’s why I am here. That’s why I am a little bit upset about it. Our educational system has a real problem. I might add something there. It’s the same way with the Native Americans: how they were treated and how they are still being treated. The treaties that were broken and the battles that took a lot of innocent lives. I want to talk about that, so let’s talk about it.
When you received basic military training or in any moment of your service as a Navy [corpsmen] working with the Marines, were [sic] there any unfair treatment, any discrimination? None. Not for me, no. But I know there was for some of my Native American brothers. That’s what I know. I have done interview[s] with the Native Americans, and they were treated real [sic] badly. They were completely segregated. Yes, they were. What do you think about this whole thing? Native American presence in North America and cleanse? I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be, but it is still prevalent on the reservations, especially in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
What are the things that need to be corrected? Well, I think we’ve got to get education. Education. That’s what I stress to my Native American brothers because education got me an awful long way. And that’s how Korea advanced to what it is right now: education, education, education. That’s right.
So, from Inchon, where did you go? We went along the road to Seoul, and we ran into a battle where we lost a lot of men: Yeongdeungpo. Tell me about it. How did it happen? Okay. On the way to Seoul our battalion ran into some tanks, and one of our men from our battalion, 2nd battalion, knocked out three tanks and was awarded the Medal of Honor. But then when we were advancing into Yeongdeungpo, I was with the battalion aid station treating, and the battle was going on in Yeongdeungpo, and the casualties were starting to come in. We received a lot of casualties in the Yeongdeungpo battle. This was mainly the 1st Marines.
So you had to treat them? Treat them, tag them, evacuate them. Do you remember any specific episode? No, there was [sic] so many casualties. We just took care of who we could, mainly evacuating them and getting them back out. Or the ambulance? Ambulance, helicopter. What were you thinking when you had to treat this [sic] so many wounded soldiers and about to die? You don’t have time to think; you just do your job. But you remember certain things that I try to forget. But please tell for the teachers and students. Well, it’s the dying. The wounded and their wounds.
From Yeongdeungpo where did you go? Next, we advanced into Seoul, crossing the Han. Then we had to battle through Seoul street by street fighting. A lot of snipers. Had a lot of casualties from snipers. How did you cross the Han River? Was there a bridge? No, no. We crossed with Amtracs. Tell me about the street fight. There were many North Koreans? Well, there were pockets of them, snipers that had left behind a lot of destruction. That’s what I remember about Seoul. It just seemed like it was leveled and then when I went back in 2000, I just…it’s not the same place. So completely devastated? Yes, yes. That’s why you need to tell us because nobody really knows in the American public about the Korea in 1950 and now the 21st century. You have such a clear before and after picture and that exemplifies the success of the Korean War. Yes.
So what did you do after that from Seoul? We got on a ship at Inchon and went clear around the peninsula up to Hong Sung. Do you remember when you arrived in the Hong Sung? No, I don’t know. Well, it was in October. I don’t know what the day or date was. All of the October [sic]? Yes, early October. We weren’t able to land for about three or four days because there was so many mines, so we just went back and forth until they cleared the mines. Did you see them clearing? No, no.
So what were you doing in the ship? Well, mainly our medical duties, just passing the time and getting ready. And you didn’t know where you were headed? No. You didn’t know what weather you were going to deal with? I didn’t know what was ahead of us. What do you think now looking back? Oh boy, it’s just, I just can’t believe it. To me, that bad weather. I’ll just always remember it. Describe it. Don’t just say weather, weather, okay? Describe that weather. Tell me. Well, it was real nice in—you know—later October. Then as we moved up the Hamhung, and then up to the reservoir and how the weather changed and how it got cold each day. And then having Thanksgiving Day dinner that it was so cold, everything froze. Our room was too cold by the time we got it to eat, but we ate it. It was Thanksgiving Dinner. Many veterans tell me that even the medicines froze. Yes, the morphine. We had to carry them in our mouths to keep them warm. But not all of them? No, not all the medicines, but mainly the morphine. It would freeze literally unless you would keep it in your mouth and keep it warm. How many did you keep in your mouth, do you remember? One or two? Two. So all the time you had to put that morphine in your mouth? If you were treating people, then yes.
What did you have in your bag for treatment? I had dressings, mainly stopping blood. That was the main thing and frostbite. How did you treat them…frostbite? Get them into a warming tent, get warm blankets on them, warm them up, warm those feet up. Was there any warm tent? Oh yeah. There was warming tent, but not very many. Not very many at the battalion aid. We even had some Chinese come in, but you know their feet were just caked with ice. Did you treat those Chinese too? No, not really. I mean we treated them as much as we could, you know, but our men came first. But I felt sorry for the Chinese soldier. They went through an awful lot.
So from Hong Sung, where did you go? We went to Hungnam. And then? Then up to Chosin. That’s where we set up. That’s where my unit was at. What’s so cold so that even the blood just froze? Yes. So you didn’t have to do much about stopping the blood. That’s right. How soon is it actually frozen? Minutes. It didn’t take long, fifteen, twenty minutes. Just froze? So like a natural self-treatment? That’s right. But it must have hurt so much? Right, it hurt, but the freezing cold numbed it. How long did you stay? Okay, we’ve been up there probably about the 29th of November until the 10th or 11th [of December]. We were the rearguard coming out of the reservoir. The other units that had gone up further to the reservoir went on through us and then we brought in the rearguard. But the refugees—thousands and thousands of them—were behind us.
Do you remember the typical day when you had to treat the most of the wounded? How many? No, no. It was just…it depended on the casualties as they were coming in, but I do remember air drops. Supplies were dropped, and a tent that we were…the medics were in, there was a tent next to us. One of the supply parachutes went right in that tent; wiped out everything. People killed by that? Yeah, yeah. There was people [sic] in there.
What bothered you most during that time? Cold weather. That’s what bothered me. Passing the casualties and seeing the Korean people suffer. Did you do anything about them, the Korean people? No, no. That wasn’t my job. But where I really saw the suffering as in Hungnam boarding the ships, and those people trying to get out of there. Evacuated, getting on the ship. The little ones were the ones I remember; I remember the little children. Were they with parents or all by themselves? They were with parents, some of them. Some of them were being carried. Some little ones holding their brother or sister. They really wanted to get into the ship? They wanted to get on that ship and get out of there. They were carrying heavy loads. I don’t know what they were. Maybe their only belongings. What were you thinking dealing with this reality? Well, I was thinking about those people, and I was thinking about my Native American people that had gone through something like that. But I was just, just… I won’t say happy. I was just, just glad to get out safely.
From there, where did you go: Pusan? Masan. And then did you go up again? Then we got re-equipped, got replacements, and then I was transferred to a line company: Fox Company. We went—what was the name of that place? Ah yes! Operation Killer. [Pointing to a map] At the bottom, there is Masan and Pusan. Yeah, but we didn’t go to Taegu. We went up a different way towards P’ohang. [remembers] Hoengsong! That’s where we were going up that way. Yeah, yeah. Tell me about the Hoengsong battle. It was mainly, we were going on scouting parties and trying to find the enemy because they were starting to retreat now too. And so, we ran into some guerrillas, some of those people that stayed behind and tried to harass and everything like that. One night, we really ran into some bombardment. Shells were coming in. That was one of my scariest, scariest moments when you hear the shell come in, where’s the next one gonna land? Is it going to land on you? And so, a few days—well, not a few days, but later on—I was replaced. I had enough points to come back home.
When did you leave? I left in April. Did you want to forgot about the whole war? As much as I could. And you didn’t really talk about it? No. That’s why it’s been forgotten. You should have talked, but you were busy with the life, right? Yes, yes. Looking back all those years, why did it happen? Why did it happen to you? Do you regret it? How do you link the dot [sic]? I don’t regret that. I’m proud to be a veteran of Korea, and I’m proud to be a member of the 1st Marine Division and a Chosin few. I don’t have any regrets. I just feel like I did my job, my duty. What is it like to join the Marines that you fought with in the reunion when you see them? Meeting old friends and old—you know—comrades. Talking about it, bringing up good times, and times we really enjoyed being together and comradeship.
Were there any other Native Americans? There was a couple in our battalion, yes. I think I had an interview with the president of the Native American Korean War Veterans Association. I belong to that. Do you remember his name, the president? No, no. But I had a good friend that won the Medal of Honor in Korea. He was Army. Witty Keeble, a Sioux from Wahpeton. He was from Wahpeton where I was at, where I went to school. I knew him.
Where do you live now? I live in Arizona where it’s warm. Did you have a frostbite at the time? Yes. You don’t want to be near to cold? No [laughs]. You know, I told this guy whom [sic] I did interview, the president of the Native American Korean War Veterans Association, asking him to organize a series of interviews because I want to do a section on the Native American Korean War veterans. And also, my daughter who talked to you, right? She’s going to go to Dartmouth College as Indian studies there. Indian students have free tuition to Dartmouth. I’ve had friends go to school there, yeah. Because Dartmouth has concentrated on Indian Native American Studies there, did you know that? [nods] Do you think you can help my foundation to organize a series of Native American Korean War veteran interviews? Do you know someone in South Dakota? I know some Indians in North Dakota. I have a good friend there. The Southwest Indians I don’t know as much because the tribe I belong to is in Oklahoma.
But you mentioned there are some sort of similarities between Native American history and the Koreans who suffered during the Korean War. What do you think it is? Well, it’s just the treatment that they received. So after you returned from Korea, what did you do? I went to college, got a degree in teaching. I became a coach and a teacher. Coach of what? Football? Track and basketball and little league baseball. And then I got a commission in the Army. Army? So Navy to Marines to Army? [laughs] And I spent twenty-seven years in the Army Reserve. Next, Airforce. No, I’m done for now. No, no. Airforce. [laughs]
Remember how I asked you if you knew anything about Korea in the beginning of our interview? Now you know about some Korea, right? Right. What is Korea to you now? Korea is a nation that is striving and a wonderful country. I really think it’s a wonderful country and especially their knowledge of electronics and automobiles. Those are the things that are coming out of there now.