Korean War Legacy Project

Lester Griebenow


Lester Griebenow was drafted into the military in 1953 right out of high school. He recalls how he was a trouble maker for the majority of his military career including arguing with his basic training officer over his concern for being misidentified due to his incorrect dog tags.  This argument proved his grit and led to higher training.  He later refused to weld because he was told to weld without his welding gear because it wasn’t government issue.  He goes on to discuss how his job required he travel back and forth from east to west making the heavy artillery that came from Oklahoma war-ready and the friendships he made during his time in Korea.

Video Clips

Conflicts at Basic Training

Lester Griebenow describes his conflicts at basic training with his commanding officer. His First Sergeant had been calling him by the wrong name; thus, he did not reply when called. After being reprimanded and told to do pushups, he reveals his dog tags were not correct. He explains how he helped identify this problem with many of the soldiers' records and this led to his being recommended for higher training.

Tags: Basic training

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Traveling Through Korea in Cars without floors

Lester Griebenow describes traveling through Korea from Busan to Seoul in cars without floors. The soldiers stuffed their bags under their feet but the floors were open so that in case of attack, they could easily jump out of the automobile. They traveled this way for three days eating C and K rations.

Tags: Seoul,Food

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Keeping the Guns Warm

Lester Griebenow recalls an incident that he was not involved with, how an officer told a gun crew to light fires underneath the heavy artillery to keep the guns from freezing. Unfortunately, the fires notified the North Koreans of their location. The soldiers were taken prisoner and the guns were destroyed.

Tags: Cold winters,North Koreans,POW,Weapons

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They only had each other

Lester Griebenow describes how the unit of twelve men he was with had nothing but they got by with what they could. He describes eating C and K rations. He goes on to explain how they rigged a WWII Catapillar to help make their gun encasements faster and dam up a creek so that the soldiers could bathe. Their nude bathing led to complaints on behalf of some Red Cross nurses who were scandalized to see naked soldiers swimming. The men were told to wear boxer shorts from then on.

Tags: Living conditions,Women

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Video Transcript

Griebenow- My name is Lester M. Griebenow. Born in Rochester, Minnesota way back in 1933. Graduated from Rochester High School in 1952. Was drafted in the spring of 1953 into the Korean War by my friends and neighbors. I was…

Interviewer- What does that mean? You were drafted by your friends and neighbors?

Griebenow- Well that was a letter we received from the government saying that our friends and neighbors volunteered us for the draft. There’s 19 of us that are seniors in high school that had our physicals and everything unfortunately in Minnesota. We graduated in 53’, right after that we were hauled away in buses up to the city. 19 of us, we went and had our physicals again and we boarded our buses there. And went to Fort Sheridan Illinois to get our uniforms. We got on a train there in Fort Sheridan Illinois and headed to Fort Smith Arkansas, camp chappie Arkansas. We landed there, hotter than the dickens. Guys were passing out on the concrete patios and desks and whatever. But anyway we made it. There was where I took my basic training in art infantry training, artillery training, leadership school, and Kadri school. I’ll explain a little bit of each one these episodes. I was a squad leader because I was my height, and I had five to six guys under me to be trained with. As pictures in the books show I’m all over the place help training these guys. I’ll just go back on step. When I was in high school, I was a miler run and I ran the mile for 3 years and I was in good shape. So that’s why I was selected as a squad leader. Well, after seven weeks in basic training; I’m going to use some language, maybe you can cut it out; That all hell broke loose. The first sergeant came over and just chewed me out because I wasn’t answering to what he was calling my name. So one day he came to me, and he wanted to know why I was such a bad soldier. And I said, “I’m not a bad soldier. I dress my uniform, I’s presenting myself properly, and why do you think I’m a bad soldier.” He says, “You never answer when I call your name. I said, “Sir, I’ve been here seven weeks and you don’t know who we are.” I said, “My dog tags and my paper work are wrong.” And I told him then, he put his nose to my nose, and he told me I was a wise guy, a trouble maker. And I just told him he has a great sweet smile on his face, and he got all mad, and he told me to give him 50 push-ups. So I fell down and gave him 50 push-ups. In the process of the 50 push-ups, I said, “Just 50?” And the whole crew just laughed and shouted. He says, “I wanna see you after retreat tonight because we gotta straighten out this mess”. I said, “Yes sir”. So after the retreat, I report to the officer’s office. And presented myself in front of the battalion commanders and two drill sergeants. I approach the table, address myself, and Saddam told me to take a seat, so he says, “We are here to find out why you are such a bad soldier. I said, “Well Sir, I’m not a bad soldier. I’m an American citizen, they drafted me, and I don’t know what the problem is. But what you’re calling me is not my name, and I don’t answer to my name. I don’t care what you call these people out there in the drill field, but you do not know your men. I’ve been here for seven weeks. You don’t know who I am. My dog tags are spelled wrong. Now my address is wrong. Now you tell my folks if I get killed in Korea, how you’re gonna answer that because you do not have a good record of me. And being out there, there’s 408 guys. As in our outfit I was being trained. The office said, “We take it for granted that the paperwork we get from the recruiting office grabbed from the office from the government are accurate. I said, “That’s not my fault, that’s yours because you’re not doing your job”. He says, “Well we’ll look into that”. That was on a Thursday. Friday morning they made an announcement that they were going to start investigating all military records in our battalion.

Starting Monday evening that was my job after retreat. So I went through four hundred and eight of the new recruits and we found many many errors in their paper work that were not accurate. So after that I finish artillery training, and in eight more weeks they approach me to go to leadership school. Then which is a nine-week course. I said, “Yes I’ll go”. So I went. This was because you were so dedicated in making sure and proud of what you were doing and tok care of these men in our outfit and reported what you found. So that was a nine week course there. I went on then in two weeks and more of a new basic training to look at some of their paperwork. We’ve still found a lot of errors. After that then they sent me to school. That was another three weeks, four weeks, something like that to learn to be a drill sergeant. I didn’t care for that because it wasn’t my life. Anyway I spent thirty-six weeks in basic training. Most spend six to eight/nine weeks, I spent thirty-six weeks. And then after that I left Fort Smith and went home for ten days then on to Fort Lewis Washington. Aboard a ship, headed for Korea.

Interviewer- And what was that date?

Griebenow- Oh goodness, that was four days before Christmas in 1954. I was drafted in spring of 53. So that would’ve been the winner. I left there on four days before Christmas in 53. I’m sorry 53. The border troop ship, 4500 guys on. We went up to Alaska, left them off. The storm was so bad we had to zig-zag around the Aleutian Islands. We anchored off in North Korea, I mean north Japan because the storms were too bad. Anyway, we docked in Yokohama finally and there they sent me to CBR school. I bet my life has been in classrooms all my time so far, but so I went CBR School in Yokohama Hiroshima, were they dropped the bombs toward all that. And then finally sent down to southern end of Korea, Busan. By that time, it was middle of January of 54 already. They kept us there for a while. They were going to take us up to Seoul. Well the weather was so bad then they had took us back all the way to Yokohama, Japan. And then back to Pusan. We finally left Pusan in the spring by train from Pusan up the In John. There I got there at midnight, it was a three-day trip. The cars had no floors in it. They sat on benches along with cars on that side and on this side like paratroopers. And you had your duffel bag underneath your legs. That car was open as it travelled long because if he had to drop in case of an attacker and you could get out. That’s why we travelled for three days on C rations, K rations we didn’t have food. So I got there about midnight, I had no idea where I was going, what country I was in anymore. And I woke up the next morning in the boonies some place, sixty some miles northeast of Seoul. Valley was the place where I was at. They didn’t have a place for me, so I stayed in a big tent with truck drivers. The outfit I was assigned to was a heavy artillery outfit. We had a hundred and thirteen trucks, eighteen big guns, guns were eight inches in diameter and the projectile was twenty-eight inches long, and weighed 235 pounds each. They could fire range from here to cannon falls, sixty some miles up into North Korea. There was another weapon, it was to knock out roads and bridges, buildings, convoys, anything coming down. I was asked that, because I was told I find us in high school, I’m going back now. Why I ended up there where I was. I started out in metal cutting machine tooling at the age of thirteen. My father worked in a power plant and he always took me with him in the evenings to work on machines and so forth. Oil prices, lays, you name it and milling machines. So I started that way. Well anyway they saw that because of the welder they had there in the outfit went home blind. He did not have the right equipment to protect himself, he burned his eyes. So they asked me if I would

become a field machinist and a welder. So I said yes, that’s what I started out to be. We had eighteen guns, hundred and thirteen trucks, and each gun had a nine men crew. My job was to keep these weapons and equipment war ready. I had a truck assigned to me. It had a machine shop in the back, and a big trailer in the back where we had a welder power things to use. And I went from one side of Korea to the east side to the west side where these guns were mounted in so many miles apart. And these weapons came from Fort Sill Oklahoma. They were not winterized. They froze. The trucks were not winterized. Nothing was right. We had one officer, I never met him, but he told the fire crew to put a fire underneath the gun to keep it warm so it would fire. Was in North Korea with four guys are for placements of these bug guns. Something was going on. Therefore, spotter got the message that their gun emplacements over there keeping warm so they could fire. The North Koreans overrun the poor gun emplacements and these gunners became prisoners. They destroyed the guns so they couldn’t use them.

Interviewer- What day is that?

Griebenow- That must’ve been about March of 54. It was already not quite cease-fire yet, so they had to be war ready on all times. Anyway, so when I got over there after the US or the UN pushed the Koreans back up north because they destroyed all the stuff. And see what we could use or bring back.

Interviewer- What date did you arrive in for?

Griebenow- Well it would be January 3rd or 4th something like that in 54.

Interviewer- So you arrived after the signing of armies?

Griebenow- No it just be, yes yes. But the war was still going on on the DMZ line up there. Anyways, that’s where I got him while then moving from one to the other with four guns. Gun crews working with them because the things weren’t war ready. By that spring we had artillery practice. A lot of the guns would not fire because they were just obviously World War II stuff that was sent of there. The prime movers, the big movers, the troops with ammo on it. The hundred and thirteen trucks were supposed to bring their supplies from Seoul. Their transmissions, they were froze and everything. My work, to work with a gun crew all the way across Korea back and forth until they were satisfied that when they got a call that a piece of equipment would fire. And the ammo was there for them to use. I was never back door. I was first bedded down when I arrived in Korea for nine months. I was on a run back and forth. I was living with C Rations, K rations, whatever I can talk about. I did not have a bath or a shower for nine months. And that’s the way I lived until they got everything right, and pulled the guns back to one place. And see what they could do with the weapons. By that time, that was getting towards November of 54. I don’t know where they ended up, I heard they ended up in Vietnam, but they never used them because they were too heavy for the soil. They sunk with the heavy equipment. But while I was going back and forth across Korea, the DMZ line was established but there was no marking. These big towers, like big towers where they had power lines going on. I saw a couple of them, and I went over there and started cutting them up with my settling torch. I got a tap on my shoulder and this man says, “You get the hell out of here”. I said, “I need Iron to reinforce my artillery pieces”. And he says, “The North Koreans are watching you right over

there. They can come and get you at any time.”. As I could pull my glasses down or my helmet, and they could take me as a prisoner because you’re in the DMZ line. I said, “Well there’s no marking, this is pre-marking? Okay there’s a six-mile band in there and three on that side and three on this side that is vacant and can’t go there”. So that’s why I’ve never been back to where I could, where I was I can’t get there. There was a valley near the Iron Triangle, Pork Chop hill, and all these places in the middle of the country. And we pulled back, well in the meantime, we didn’t have the equipment, I did not have the equipment for safety. I had to send my welding helmet and my settling gas goggles home, because the army didn’t have any. The lost them or destroyed them. We didn’t have gloves for welding. I got my burns yet I live with them. This gentleman came from Arkansas, he went home with burnt eyes because he was told to do so welding, and he had no protection. He’d squint, burned his eyes. And this officer says, “Well the equipment you’ve gotten us is not army regulation, you cannot use them”. I put them over here on my trailer. And I said, “Okay, get somebody else to do it”. He said, “We can’t. We don’t have anybody. We can’t wait”. I said, “Well then you want it today or tomorrow? To make the stuff war ready”. I was a troublemaker all the way through my military service. The Officer said, “Okay, but you’re the only one who can use it”. And okay I had a South Korean helper but he couldn’t use the equipment, he was the grunt. Whatever had to be done. Once in a while, we would have movies with the projectile, was in the back end of one and a half, and the other half undercover. We were told to sit in between the two trucks so we could see it so they can see the lights, so that’s what we had for movies once in a while. But there wasn’t nice movies or anything, it was old stuff. The best thing we had known was we were next to Canadian government supplied a ball that they would bring over a fifth of whiskey for us a month. Twelve of us in this service battery, so we had our own whiskey free. We had this guy from Kentucky, his mother would send him boxes of popcorn and say, “Here’s some popcorn for you guys”. Okay, we’d have popcorn. About three/four days later say, “Oh where’s the popcorn?” He said, “Oh well I sent it back to my mother.” “You what? Sent it back to your mother?” Yeah he wasn’t a drinker, I wasn’t a drinker or a smoker. But he would go around and collect the fifth of whiskeys from the guys that didn’t drink and put them in the box and out the popcorn back in it and sent it back to his mother. We had more fun. We had an Indian left over from World War II. He was a track man, made/worked on tracks on caterpillars and so forth. And this lumberjack from Northern Wisconsin, Morton we called him. He was a big guy, he was taller. I don’t know how we got into the service, but he was taller than the cot was long so he hung over both ends. And two guys when they got their fifth of whiskey, would chug it. The Indian always won and I don’t know why, but he won. He would go kickball all the time, We had the best twelve guys that could be together, because that’s all that we were. We were detached from another outfit because of our service business, we get to do what we had to do it undercover. Guard duty, we did guard duty regardless of what rank you were. There wasn’t an officer there to work with us. Our first sergeant he was in charge. So we were away from anybody, all we had was the C rations and K rations. We were up in the hills, we were back a little ways. They had good meals. I made a deep freeze for mess hall out of barrels so that it could hold some decent food up for certain areas, and stuff like that. One thing we did, we had an old caterpillar, an old caterpillar left over from World War II. With a cable went over the top, to the blade that reached it up and down. We extended the blade a foot on each side so we could make our gun emplacements

faster. Then I get the guns in faster, and we had to dish out a mountain stream and we made a dam then. I got pictures of it here, I’ll show you. That was our bath and shower. We didn’t have anything up there. We were in the nude, we thought we were all by ourselves. There was a country road over there, or a path, just for military vehicles, trucks and supply. Well we were in there in the summer time, anyway it was nice, Water was clear, twelve of us in there in the nude. The next day we got hell because there’s a truck load of Red cross nurses, it went by and saw us and they were about a hundred yards away, and they complained. From then on we had to wear our boxers in this little bed. The officers go, “What do you think of that?” I Said, “Well sir, I think it’s quite ridiculous. Why didn’t they stop and take a good look at a soldier instead of a sailor. We didn’t have nothing, we had one guy that was throwing his bayonet for practice through our tent door made our of ammo boxes file supplies, practice stuff like that. We didn’t have nothing. We finally moved out overnight, split us up. I have no idea where the other guys went. Nobody knows where I went. Two of us get together out of the twelve. He lives in Chicago, and that’s the way it is.

Interviewer- What’s his name?

Griebenow- Now you got me on the spot. I’d have to look it up. It’s been many many years. Coleman is his last name, but every time I would go through Chicago I’d go and see him. And he was an engine mechanic, and I was voice to harmony with these guys, unless it was a welding or something had to be cleaned up. See some of these truck drivers from Seoul coming up would run into farmers that were walking along roads. And across their A Frame on their backs the would carry big long poles or barrels or anything. Well truck drivers that are coming by would see if they could just spin them into the ditch. Well if the damaged the truck up, we had to fix it. And they would ask to keep it off the record will ya? Yeah we can keep it off the record. It’s going to cost you a case of beer or whatever you can get your hands on, or alcohol. We had ten cases of beer in this little moms dream. Flash Flood government took all of our booze away from us. It was quite an experience; I’ll tell you that. No I don’t want to go back because I can’t get there. I didn’t see the good side of going into Seoul. So I never got there until early spring of Korea. Went around onto Tokyo. There’s a camp called Camp Drake outside of Tokyo. And that’s where I landed for sixty days, and I was discharged and sent home.

Interviewer- What was your date of discharge?

Griebenow- I think it was April or May of 55. Then I came back home here and went back to where I was working before in this machine shop. And I said, “I can’t cut this”. I have to find something. I went back to school for a while to work on my GI Bill, finishing my toolmakers apprenticeship. Been certified, by that time I be almost have an announcement in Minneapolis. Many were looking for toolmakers in Minneapolis, so I applied there. I got hired and sent out to cut in New York and started there and then transferred back here to Rochester in 56. And I was with them for twenty-seven years. But that didn’t end my career path in the military. You people heard of Night Vision Goggles that they use over in the Gulf War. I was a manufacturing engineer on them. And they were assembled, tested, and proven for the United States Government. And our troops right here in Stewartville, Minnesota. We built them for two and a half years before the Gulf War was even going. We sent a hundred and twenty-five units a week

out. Eighty women put them together, but then the Gulf War ended, and that was my job was gone to. I moved on to another place, and finished my career and jet fuel down there were they manufacture and make fiberglass structural stuff. I retired at 96. Now I am still active with the Korean War color cards here in town, been a commander, you name it. I enjoy our club, and having a good time.