Korean War Legacy Project

John Shea


John Edward Shea grew up in Rhode Island during the Great Depression. He was drafted in 1951 and served for two years, having little previous knowledge of Korea. He recalls the conditions of Seoul, saying that the entire city was wiped out. He describes his time working in the message center. He regrettably believes that the conflict between North and South Korea is not over. He remembers how much it rained and how cold it was while he was in Korea. He is proud of his service because he believes he was there to do a job.

Video Clips

War in Seoul

John Shea describes the conditions in Seoul, saying everything was wiped out. It was what he expected, he says, knowing what war was all about through his brother's stories of WWII and from watching war movies. He shares he knows why he was there, to do his job to free the Korean people.

Tags: Seoul,Impressions of Korea,Physical destruction,Pride

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North Korea Mission

John Shea describes his time working at the message center in North Korea, way above the 38th Parallel. He shares few details about his mission, saying "I can't say" and "it could be" when asked if it was dangerous. He reveals that unlike most privates, he carried a rifle and a handgun.

Tags: Weapons

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Fears for the Future

John Shea, while he does not wish it, says he "feels sorry" for the South Korean people because he believes North Korea will again try to take it over.

Tags: Impressions of Korea,North Koreans,South Koreans

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John Shea recalls the rain while serving in Korea. He details how it would be raining when he went to bed and still raining in the morning. He remembers freezing cold weather and trucks not starting.

Tags: Cold winters,Living conditions,Monsoon

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Video Transcript

[Beginning of Recorded Material]

J:         My name is John Edward Shea. It’s J-O-H-N, E-D-R-D, S-H-E-A.


I:          What is your birthday?


J:         My birthday is 12/30/30.


I:          You [were] born right after the Great Depression.


J:         [LAUGHS]


I:          Generations of [the] Great Depression.


J:         Yep.


I:          Where were you born?


J:         I was born in Providence.




I:          Tell me about your family and your siblings when you were growing up.


J:         I had a brother and a sister.


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         My brother served in the Second World War under General Patton, he was a tank driver. My sister — she worked for [Naragance] Electric with my brother. My —


I:          How about your parents?


J:         My parents —




J:         My mother worked. . . at different dinner parties for this here — there was a rich family, and she used to work for them. The family — [it] all depends. There was three or four different members of the family that she worked [for]. They would have a dinner party, and she would serve the table and — clear the table and stuff




J:         like that. That’s what my mother did.


I:          Mm.


J:         My father was a mechanic for Mobil Oil. At that time, they called it Standard Oil of New York.


I:          Uh-huh.


J:         That was the original name then. My father was the first diesel mechanic in Rhode Island. There could’ve been other men around, I don’t know, but they said he was [the] first.




J:         New York had diesel; Rhode Island did not have any diesel trucks at all.


I:          Ah.


J:         They were just coming out. My father went to New York for a month — he was a night foreman for Mobil here in Rhode Island, or in those days it was Standard Oil.


I:          So didn’t [the] Great Depression really affect negatively your family?


J:         I don’t really know.




J:         They were — they had to be involved in it somehow. I was born after the Depression.


I:          But still there [was a] lingering impact of [the] Great Depression —


J:         Oh yes.


I:          on so many people.


J:         Yeah.


I:          But because your father had a great job, right? So —


J:         Well, my father was just a mechanic originally,


I:          Right.


J:         And then he worked his way up to foreman.


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         He used to work nights, because at nights — during the day,




J:         most of the trucks would be on the road delivering gas, and they’d do most of the repairs at night.


I:          Got it. Tell me about the school you went through.


J:         I went to [Clairie] School, that was a grammar school, and that was named after Father Clairie. We were in St. Joseph’s Parish. They used — the original name — what used to




J:         be St. Joseph’s Clairie School.


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         That was the original name, and we just called it Clairie, because every — all our papers, we had to put down Clairie School on it. Then I went up to Hope High School for three years; I graduated from there.


I:          So that’s 1950?


J:         1950.


I:          Yeah, and how did you come to know about the Korean War?


J:         I got drafted.


I:          When?




J:         1951, I think it was. I went in — I was in for two years.


I:          So did you know anything about Korea before you were you drafted?


J:         No.


I:          You didn’t —


J:         Well, I heard of the country, yes.


I:          How? Tell me.


J:         On the news and stuff like that. I knew about the country, I knew




J:         we went to war there, and I knew we had troops there. I knew when Japan was there, and that — I think the first part of the Korean was when they — didn’t they take one of our ships? The North Koreans?


I:          Yeah. In 19th centuries.


J:         Yeah.


I:          You talking about the one?




J:         Yeah.


I:          19th century?


J:         What was just before the war. They —


I:          Not just before the war, but it was 19th century, the black ship by the Commodore —


J:         Yeah.


I:          Perry was abducted and burned down


J:         Yeah.


I:          there, and then Americans attacked again in eight — no — and therefore we called the fur–


J:         1950. We went in in 1950.


I:          Yes. So you were drafted, and where did you get the basic




I:          military training?


J:         Down at Camp Gordon, Georgia.


I:          Oh. What kind?


J:         Signal.


I:          Signal? Tell me about it. What did you learn? Morse Code?


J:         Well, I was in Boy Scouts, and I’d do flags and I knew how to flag. When I knew how to flag, they tried to get me on radio and everything.




J:         I was mediocre.


I:          Mm.


J:         Then I got there — just sent me through basic, and then I went to Korea. There was this colonel —


I:          When did you arrive Korea?


J:         I arrived in Korea was. . . I don’t know, I forget. . . September, early September.




I:          1951?


J:         Yeah I came home ’52, I spent the year in —


I:          So it must be —


J:         Oh ’53; I got there in ’52.


I:          ’52, September?


J:         September ’52, or July.


I:          Where did you arrive in Korea?


J:         I went in through. . . where the capital was.


I:          Seoul?


J:         I came up the west coast.


I:          Incheon?


J:         Incheon.

I:          You landed in Incheon?


J:         Landed in Incheon.




I:          And then go to —


J:         The capital was completely destroyed and everything.


I:          Mm-hmm. Tell me about the first scene of capital city?


J:         My first [in] was at the capital — we went in there. We were backing up the troops to break up the — to help break up the China supply line that was going down.




J:         We went in that way. . . and that’s where we were. We were just stationary at first. Then we went further north — they opened up a base further north, and they put in the [message] center there. I worked out in the message center.


I:          As a messenger?


J:         I can’t say.




I:          Mm. What was your unit? Do you remember?


J:         10th Core.


I:          10th Core, and. . . that’s it?


J:         10th Core Message Center.


I:          What was your rank?


J:         My rank? Buck private.


I:          [LAUGHS] Private.


J:         I had no rank whatsoever. You didn’t get any rank till you came back to the States,




I:          Mm.


J:         because they wanted me — well, I can’t say. [LAUGHS]


I:          Tell me about — more description about the Seoul that you saw. How bad was it?


J:         Everything was wiped out — the capital was wiped out. [unintelligible] It was right by the capital. It was all destroyed.


I:          What were you thinking, seeing all those things?




J:         We was at war. . . . That was it. See, my brother was in the Second World War, and I went to see different war movies and everything else, and you get there and you see what war did to the — like — he was over in Europe, and you see war done over there, the France and Europe and everything else. You saw the same thing in —




J:         in Korea. You just — you took it for granted. That was war.


I:          What were you thinking?


J:         That I was there to do my job, and that was it.


I:          Do you know why you were there?


J:         Yeah, to try and free the Korean people.


I:          How was Korean people that you saw?


J:         The Korean people — I never really




J:         got involved with personally with too many Korean people, to be honest with you, but I got there, and I give them a — when — we could drive down the road and everything, when we pushed them back out of North Korea. I was stationed up in North Korea. All the farmers used to be out there, and — I can even remember the old honey buckets. [LAUGHS]




J:         You can’t laugh about them, but it’s true.


I:          Yep.


J:         You know?


I:          Yeah.


J:         And how they used to be out there, and the farmers used to be there in the fall. They used to bring their lumber down back home — and there, what’s it — the house that they lived at at home in South Korea. They [would nail] the wood, so nobody would steal their wood so that they would




J:         be able to take it back up north wherever their rice paddies were.


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         And those guys — I can remember those guys and those rice paddies. The guys, they’d take me there all day long working.


I:          Yep. Do you — have you been back to Korea?


J:         I wasn’t back — at all.


I:          At all, but do you know what happened to Korea now? Do you know how Korean economy is?




J:         Yes, I know that the — [unintelligible] — [bro,] I was in North Korea before I came home, and they was moving us back, back to the 38th Parallel. We were much further north than that.


I:          I’m going to ask about that, but I want to — I want you to tell me about knowledge of — your knowledge about modern Korea right now. Korean economy, Korean democracy,




I:          and so on.


J:         From what I read is that the Korean people — the southern part of Korea — I think the people are doing well for themselves. They earned it, they’re working for it and everything else. Now on the North Korean — I feel sorry for the people, on the North Korean. It just seems like the capital is the only one that’s surviving




J:         there. Those are the only people that’s really working — is the people that’s got involved with the capital. Those are the only ones. The other poor people, they’re starving. What they could grow or whatever —


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         is what they’re living on. That’s all I actually know about it, to be honest with you. Anything that I read — we had that




J:         book that. . . in fact, I got it at home — the Korean book I read, the — I guess it was printed in Korea, and half of it is about the war. First half’s about the war, and the second half is about all the new business — this is all South Korea.


I:          So it’s full of pictures, right?


J:         Yeah.


I:          It’sReborn Korea, isn’t it?


J:         Reborn!




I:          Yeah.Reborn Korea


J:         Korea Reborn.


I:          Yeah, Korea Reborn, and you were able to see the pictures before the war, during the war and after the war, right?


J:         Yep, and the capital — the capital city — it must’ve been 50,000 people there when they was having the. . . what was it —


I:          Olympics?


J:         They were having the matches for — soccer matches, or was it?


I:          Yep, yeah, yeah.


J:         They showed all the — all the women and everything




J:         lined up down the street. That’s all you could see was people. They were all dressed up, and they all looked beautiful.


I:          So what do you see — this contrasting picture, what do you think about this thing?


J:         I think the people worked for it. You gotta give them credit, and I give them credit because making automobiles, they’re doing oil, they’re doing — they’re doing just about everything. They’re working for it. They’re taking away — they’re taking away from the culture of




J:         just rice paddies.


I:          And honey bucket.


J:         And honey buckets. They’re taking away from that.


I:          What is the credit that you want to give to yourself?


J:         To myself?


I:          Yeah, about that.


J:         The only credit I give to myself, I was there to do a job, and I done what I was told.


I:          You’re too modest.


J:         No.


I:          We were able to build that nation because you fought for us




I:          and you gave us chance to rebuild our nation.


J:         You people deserve a lot of credit. You people are the one — all that we did in my opinion is drive the — drive them out South Korea. You people are the one that rebuilt South Korea. You people deserve the credit, because you lived with




J:         nothing and you made something out of nothing.


I:          But we were not able to do it if you didn’t fought for us.


J:         Well, you had been under Chinese rule. All that we did is what we had to do, then we pulled back to the 38th.


I:          Mm-hmm. Tell me about your routine — service




I:          during your stay stationed in Korea.


J:         Well, I — I was a messenger and. . . just routine stuff.


I:          Like what?


J:         Routine stuff like what a messenger would do. Drop this off to here, drop that off there.


I:          Did you walk, or did you ride —


J:         I walked.




I:          Walked?


J:         Well, everything was inside —


I:          of the compound?


J:         of the compound.


I:          Where? In Seoul, or where?


J:         Oh, this was up in North Korea.


I:          Up in North Korea?


J:         North Korea, yes. There was 10th Core.


I:          10th Core, so you arr–


J:         10th Core Headquarters I was at.


I:          Yeah, you arrived September of 1952, and you left when? When did you leave Korea?


J:         I left in ’53 in the end of May.




I:          ’53 or ’54?


J:         ’53. They signed the peace treaty in July of ’53.


I:          Right, so —


J:         I left just before we signed. Well. . . we signed — I’m wrong, we signed a cease-fire in ’53.


I:          So when you say that you were in North Korea, that was very close to 38th Parallel, right? Not, not really deep in North Korea.


J:         No, it was actually North




J:         Korea we were up.


I:          Hmm.


J:         I forget what towns —


I:          You don’t remember?


J:         We were up on the right-hand side, and they were on the left-hand side, the enemy.


I:          Was it west or east?


J:         If you looked at the map, I would say the right side was east, because that’s where




J:         the water was,


I:          Yep, yeah.


J:         so I was up on the east side, but we were over on the side [thing].


I:          Yeah.


J:         We had a message center.


I:          Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Was it dangerous mission?


J:         Could be.


I:          Tell me if — if there were any —


J:         I didn’t go no [end-to-end] — I did not go any [and in-fighting].


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         I was armed — in fact I was double-armed. I carried a rifle,




J:         and I carried a handgun.


I:          Mm-hmm. Normally the private doesn’t carry handgun, right?


J:         Normally no.


I:          No. So, were you able to write letters back to your family or friends?


J:         I used to write — I used to write to my mother and write to my girlfriend.


I:          Girlfriend. Tell me about what you write.




I:          Unless this is another secret. [LAUGHS]


J:         See, that’s what I’m up against, because I swore I would never reveal —


I:          No, I’m talking about the letter that you wrote.


J:         The letter —


I:          Yeah.


J:         I wrote to my wife. She was just my girl–


I:          Oh, you were married?


J:         No, I wasn’t married then, but I was engaged to her.


I:          Mm-hmm.




J:         I went to my mother-in-law and asked my mother-in-law about giving her a ring for her birthday, because I was leaving in June and her birthday was in July.


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         They get there, and her father always came home for lunch because he worked just down the street in the mills. He was a textile [chemist]. She got there, and




J:         I asked him about giving her a ring and everything else, and my mother-in-law. He said was perfectly alright. He says, “Under one condition,” and she says that you wait till you come back from Korea to get married.


I:          Hmm.


J:         “But you want to give her a ring — but make it her choice. If she wants it for her birthday, or wait until you come back from Korea.”


I:          Mm-hmm.




J:         So I get there and I says to her, “Would you like the ring?”, and I brought it out of my pocket and I showed it. She said, “You bought me a ring?” I says, “Yeah!” And then she looks at it, “You bought me a ring?”


I:          [LAUGHS]


J:         She asked me twice. I said, “Yes.” She got [unintelligible], she put out a hand, she said, “Well, put it on my finger!”,


I:          Mm.




J:         so I put the ring on. And then we got married — I got out of the Army on 11th November, we got married on the 26th of November.


I:          19–


J:         ’53.


I:          ’53. Must been very hard for you to be separated from your fiancée.


J:         Yes and no.




J:         If I had time, yes. If I didn’t have time, if I was busy doing something, it’d be no because you’ve [unintelligible] your mind on what you have to do.


I:          You stayed there, you fought there, you carried very important mission — you know, carrying those secret messages to each other within your compound, and you coming back to country that you remember and




I:          the country that now is completely different. What do you think about this?


J:         Someday I’d love to go back. . . to be honest with you.


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         I’d love to go back to — just to see the country.


I:          Yeah. You know about what’s happened in Korea there, right?


J:         Yes!


I:          Yeah, what do you think [about] whole thing?


J:         I feel sorry for you people because, for an honest answer, I still think that North Korea’s gonna try and overtake South Korea.




I:          Yeah.


J:         My personal opinion.


I:          Mm-hmm.


J:         Not wishing them any bad luck to go to war, because war is hell.


I:          Yeah.


J:         And if you were involved with it, you would [take and] know what it is, but like I say I feel sorry for the people.


I:          You know that Korean government has a program called Revisit Korea?


J:         I know that,




J:         and I talked to — I talked to a couple of different guys about going over, that if they got a program that, if I payed my flight over, that you live for 10 days or something for nothing in Korea.


I:          After World War Two, U.S. has involved about dozen war,




J:         Yes.


I:          including very limited, but —


J:         It was strictly Korea.


I:          Yep. That’s why I think we need to learn more about Korea, and I want our young generations to learn more about the Korean War.


J:         Yes! I agree with you.


I:          But do you know our history textbook really tells about Korea, or not?


J:         I would say it gives you a good idea of Korea. They don’t tell everything that’s going on,




J:         no.


I:          It has a very short coverage. One paragraph, two maximum, a page.


J:         Yeah.


I:          Compared to the Vietnam War, it’s just one-third of it.


J:         Yes! I a–


I:          And the history textbook doesn’t tell about modern Korea at all.


J:         See, I never bothered looking through — you know, history book on it, to be honest with you. All I read was a book that




J:         you people printed up. I was in charge of — part of the books, and I put a couple in the [eastbound’s] library.


I:          What are the things that you vividly remember out of your service, and what other final message that you want to leave to this interview?


J:         What I remember, I can remember the shelling. I could remember the —




J:         what I never forgot was the rain. That [foolish] rain would come and it’s raining, you — you hit the sack at night, and it’s raining just as hard the next morning. [BOTH LAUGH]


I:          The monsoon.


J:         The monsoon.


I:          Yep.


J:         I can remember the monsoon, and I can remember the freezing.


I:          Mmm.


J:         I had — what actually happened is that




J:         there was a colonel, and you couldn’t start the Jeep. It was — I don’t know, it was, say, 10 below zero. He’s over there and he’s pumping the gas and pumping the gas, and I said — I was on guard duty — and I says, “You’ll never start it like that!” He said, “You think you can start this?” I says, “I don’t know, but you got a swimming pool in there




J:         with gasoline.”


I:          [LAUGHS]


J:         I said, “I can smell it!” So I get there, and I start playing with just — you know, the starter, you know? Then I get there, and when I get the gas pumped out — it didn’t kill the battery or anything. I got it where it could click a couple times, and then it would stall out, you know, flood itself out. Then I got it




J:         where it started, and he says to me, he says, “Don’t go too far!” He’s seen the sergeant, and he says to the sergeant, he says, “Have this man — stay over in this area.


I:          [LAUGHS]


J:         Don’t put him over [unintelligible],” because we used to be broken up in half. We had, like, the Inner Guard, and out there was the Outer Guard. I never went Outer Guard anymore. I [sent] in




J:         a guard right near the headquarters.


I:          Are you proud of your service?


J:         Yes.


I:          About the Korean War?


J:         Well, I didn’t do any hand-to-hand fighting, but I am proud of what I did do. I am — yes, I put on that uniform, and I walked the walk.


I:          Mm-hmm. Any other message to this interview that you want to leave with?


J:         Again, I feel sorry for the




J:         Korean people for what’s down the road, of my opinion.


I:          Mm.


J:         I don’t know, I could be 100% wrong, which I hope I am, but I still think there’s gonna be a day where North Korea’s


I:          Yeah.


J:         going to wind up taking — take over the South again, because they’re running out of money up north. Now, that’s my opinion of what I read,




J:         and. . . that’s all I do know, to be honest with you.


I:          You’re right. You’re right. Yeah, it’s very unfortunate that our country is still divided, and North Korea is suffering from —


J:         Yep.


I:          brutal dictatorship,


J:         Yeah.


I:          so that’s why I think it’s impor–


J:         And North Korea — and you got tons of people who lives down north of — the other part of their family lives north,


I:          That’s right.


J:         and they’re going, and they can’t get




J:         them anything. Anything they send, the North Koreans grab.


I:          Mm-hmm. Thank you, John, again —


J:         Okay.


I:          thank you.

[End of Recorded Material]