Merlin Mestad was born in Hayfield, Minnesota in 1931 and was drafted in March 1952. After going through basic training at Fort Sheridan, Illinois he was trained to be an Army truck driver at Fort Riley. As part of the 540th transportation trucking Company 351st group 8th Army, he arrived in Inchon and was stationed at Chinchon to transport supplies during the war. He also transported POWs during his time as a truck driver and met Marilyn Monroe. He returned home after 16 months of service in Korea to work for IBM and the Highway Department.
Basic Training After Being Drafted
Merlin Mestad was drafted in March of 1952. He explains that most men knew they would inevitably be drafted and chose to volunteer. He describes arriving at Fort Snelling, Minnesota and being told someone volunteered for the Marine Corps; thus, he was allowed to choose if he would rather join the Army rather than the Marines. He goes on to explain that he was sent to Fort Sheridan and Fort Riley for infantry and truck driving training after joining the Army.
Life as a Truck Driver in Chinchon
Merlin Mestad describes arriving in Inchon Harbor in October 1952. He explains that he was assigned to the 540th Trucking Company and drove trucks until the war was over. He describes hauling ammunition, fuel oil, troops, POWs, barbed wire, etc., day and night. He goes on to describe living in a province of Inchon called Chinchon in a tent with an oil burner and a wooden floor and experiencing cold winters.
Meeting Marilyn Monroe and Transporting POWs
Merlin Mestad describes meeting Marilyn Monroe in Korea when she performed for the USO. He recalls being surprised when she sang "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in below zero weather. He goes on to describe transporting North Korean POWs from Panmunjom to Seoul after the war ended. He explains that many South Korean people were incredibly angry with the North Koreans after the war and threw rocks at the POWs when they arrived in Seoul.
Merlin Mestad: Merlin M-E-R-L-I-N M-E-S-T-A-D Mestad
Interviewer: And your birthday and birthplace?
M: Is Hayfield, Minnesota.
I: Could you spell?
M: F-I-E-L-D 10/22/31. Date of birth.
I: Was right after the Great Depression.
I: Must be very hard
around that time, right?
I: For all the people.
M: We lived on a farm.
I: That’s good.
M: Mm-hmm. So, we had meat and milk and–
M: Food, mm-hmm.
I: So, it was okay?
M: Yeah, and it was my grandpas farm, so we didn’t have to worry about losing it, you know. I lived there with my parents. They lived there with grandpa and grandma
M: and that’s where I learned how to talk Norwegian.
I: Mestad is from
the ethnic origin of this name is Norwean? Norway?
M: Yeah, my great grandfather settled and he froze to death at age 50 bringing a load of lumber home from a neighboring town of Cassin. And he was a Civil War Veteran.
I: I see.
M: And I–I should look into that more.
I: Mm-hmm. How about your siblings? How many brothers and sisters?
M: I had four brothers and two sisters.
I: Mm-hmm. And where were you?
M: I was second from the oldest.
I: Second from the oldest.
I: Tell me about the school you went through.
M: We went to country school.
I: What do you mean by country school?
M: Well, we lived on a farm, so our country school there-they used to have one every two miles, so you didn’t have to walk more than two miles.
I: Oh really?
M: Yeah. And the Armistice Day Storm my dad
Came and got me from school, because it was storming terrible. It was a team of horses on a manure spreader.
I: Hm. So, country school means everybody in the one class or what do you?
M: Well, 8th–1stthrough the 8thgrade. And lots of times it was helpful, because if you were in 2ndgrade, you would also listen to the 3rd, 4thand 5thgraders and you could get a pretty good education that way.
I: Uh-huh, yeah, self-learning
M: Yeah, yeah.
I: and peer learning, right?
I: How many teachers?
M: Well, one.
I: One teacher, right?
M: One teacher. And–and–I would say in the total population of the school was probably 20 children.
I: That’s all?
I: [chuckled] so actually was really good.
M: Actually at times maybe I was the only one in the class. Me or maybe one other person, mm-hmm.
M: I don’t ever remember more than one person being in my class.
I: So, when did you graduate high school then?
M: In 1949.
I: Then, what did you do?
M: Then I went to work for a road contractor in Minneapolis.
M: I was a truck driver and equipment operator.
M: and then the Korean War came along and I was drafted.
M: I went to work for him in ’49 and I was drafted in ’52. March of ’52.
I: So, you knew that the Korean War broke out before, right?
M: Yes. Yes.
I: And what people talk about that Korean War?
I: Did people talk about the Korean War at all?
M: Yes, oh you bet. Yep.
I: Oh, what did they talk?
M: Well, I would say that we all knew
we were gonna get drafted, you know, most of the guys did. So, a lot of people enlisted. And I waited until I was called and I went to Fort Snelling and they told me I was going to be in the Marine Corps.
I: Fort where?
M: Fort Snelling in Minneapolis.
I: Snelling? Could you spell that?
M: Snelling. S-N-E-L-L-I-N-G I think.
M: Does that sound right?
M: Fort Snelling.
I: And you go the basic military training there?
M: Well, after they talked to me, they pretty soon they announced my name and they said we just had a guy volunteer for the Marine Corps, so you can go in the Army if you want to.
M: So, I says alright, I’ll do that. I’ll take the Army so, I went to Fort Sheridan Illinois.
I: Fort what?
M: Fort Sheridan Illinois.
I: Could you spell that?
M: Sheridan. S-H-E-R-I-A-N or something, I believe.
M: From there, I went to Fort Riley, Kansas.
M: for infantry basic training.
M: And I had been a truck driver so they sent me to truck driver school. But we had infantry basic training in Fort Riley. And then, we had 8 weeks of truck driver school, I believe it was, and then I got orders that said P–or Merlin Mestad–private Merlin Mestad, EDDFEC.
And that meant expected date of departure for the Far East commands.
M: So, I went to Korea.
I: What is the unit that you were belonged?
M: 540thtransportation trucking.
M: Trucking Company, mm-hmm.
I: What division was it?
M: Well, it was the 351stgroup 8thArmy.
I: Did you know anything about Korea through your education or when you were in the state before you left for Korea?
M: Yeah. We knew that when the Japanese surrendered during World War II, that South Korea was possession of Japan and when the Chinese communists crossed the border then we went to war.
I: Mm-hmm. You knew about it.
I: Many of the other Korean War Veterans
never heard about the country of Korea before.
M: Mm-hmm and I’ve told may people that story.
M: That, you know. Mm-hmm.
I: So when you were told that you are headed to Korean War, what were you thinking?
M: Got on the boat at Seattle, Washington
M: Sat there in the rain for one day.
M: Waiting to get on the boat. And–
I: When was it? Sorry.
M: This was in
I would say September, October of ’52.
M: and when I looked at that boat, I knew that they weren’t all coming back.
M: Yeah, so I knew that. But anyway.
I: So, where did you arrive?
M: We came in at Incheon.
M: A total black out. Mm-hmm. We got out–got off on an LST and came to shore. Then we got on a troop train. It wasn’t much of a train and we could see the artillery in the sky and–
I: Still going around?
M: The war was on, yeah.
M: We could see the artillery, you know, the sky was lit up. And we got on this train and I knew–and I knew we were going North East, so I didn’t know where we was gonna wind up at.
And I had infantry training. And, oh yeah, to back up a little bit. We came through Camp Drake Japan first and got our combat–got our combat gear.
M: And fired our rifles and then, we took the boat to Incheon. Everything was total black out there, at the time. And we went ashore and I didn’t know if I was going to wind up in the infantry or
a trucking company. So anyway, they let me off at a–at this 541stcompany. And I was supposed to be in the 540th, so the next day, the moved me down to where I was supposed to be.
M: So, I drove truck for– til, until the war was over. Hauled a lot of ammunition, fuel oil, gas, troops, PWs at Panmunjom I was in on the prisoner exchange.
M: Rations, barbed wire, heck we hauled everything.
M: Day and night.
I: Where were you?
I: So, from Incheon you directly to go to Chinchon?
M: Yep. In a tent for 6 months and 21 days. We had a little drip, drip, drip oil burner and it had a–it had a wooden floor, though. And I remember one day we hauled a bunch of plywood and I lay–nailed a piece up because so the wind
would keep the wind away. And the winters were about like they are right here.
M: But, we had good clothing. My truck didn’t have no doors, no back, just a roof and a windshield.
I: That’s it?
M: Yeah. And the first winter, my nose was this far from the windshield all winter long,
M: You know?
M: So…But we had a lot of good drivers, very good.
I was never sick, no.
I: Very fortunate.
M: Yeah. Never was, no.
I: Hmm. Lucky you.
M: The food was–oh I remember it was Christmas and I’d been on convoy all day and I was all dirt and dust and crawled in the sleeping bag because I was tired. I got in that truck that morning at 5 o’clock and never got to bed til midnight. So, I got to the mess hall to get something to eat, two pieces of cold fish and a baking powder biscuit and a cup of water, you know. You think about those…
and everybody else eating lutefisk, and, you know, and having good meals to home.
I: So, you mostly had the hot meal?
M: Generally. What we used to do too, we’d take our canteen container, or I mean our mess kit container and put–dip it in the gas tank, they had a big fuel spot, you know in the fuel tank, dip it full of gas,
light it on fire and put a can of beans on there or a can of meat or something. And by the time the gas was burned up, it was ready to eat. We’d do that a lot.
I: What was the most difficult thing for you to remember while you were there?
M: Hm. I don’t know. I really didn’t worry about nothing.
I thought everything, you know I thought, I wanted to do it.
I: The, were you able to write letter back to your family?
I: How often did you do that?
M: I would write pretty often, but sometimes people wouldn’t write back.
M: The VA’s been good to me, very good.
I: Tell me about it.
M: Well, of course when you get old you can’t hear good, so I went for hearing. And they ruled 10%. And so then I was entitled to 100 and some dollars a month. And the guy told me, don’t be afraid to get reevaluated as time goes on, because your hearing will only get worse it won’t get better. So, I was reevaluated and then I went t–to a private person
That would give you a hearing test for–for nothing.
I: So, when did you leave Korea?
M: I left let’s see the–the war ended in June or July ’53–
I: July ’53.
M: Yeah. It–so, my–my enlisted time served or my time served was in March of ’54. So I hadn’t had any leave time so I was entitled to 45 days
early discharge. And I was discharged at–we went over on the Marine Phoenix and came home on the General Gordon, was the ships. And I was discharged at– we came in at–at the West Coast in California I remember coming under the Golden Gate Bridge. And we went from there to Fort Carson, Colorado and that’s where I got discharged.
I: So, you left Korea in 1954?
I: Around March?
M: Yes. Yeah and–
I: oh you told me that you actually carried the prisoner of war.
I: Tell me about this story.
M: Okay, I had a load of–of North Korean PW. And then we–we were supposed to take these PW’s to Seoul. And there was a South Korean officer in the truck with me and Marilyn Monroe
had been to Korea and I was right amongst her. In fact, I had my arm around her. She was there for a USO show and sang Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. I had my wolf parka on and it was cold. I don’t know how she did that.
I: Did you take a picture?
M: Yeah, I had a picture of this.
I: When did you pick up the North Korean POW from the Panmunjom when?
M: You mean what time of the year?
M: Well, I’m not sure how much after the war, but it was–they had a prisoner exchange after the war ended. And I remember hauling them and when we came into Seoul, there were people throwing stones at–at those prisoners. Because they hated them, you know, South Korea didn’t like the North Koreans.
I: I–I’m I’m sorry, you helped–you have to help me understanding.
You said that it was after the cease fire, right?
I: Yeah and you picked up North Korean people?
I: From Panmunjom?
I: And bring them–bring them to Seoul?
I: Got it.
I: How was them?
M: How were they?
I: Yeah, how were they?
M: Well, we didn’t have any trouble, you know. Mm-hmm. In fact, the day before, we did kind of a dry run,
so everything would go smooth. Is what I remember and everything went okay. Mm-hmm.
I: How many trips did you make to do that?
M: I just–
I: Just one?
M: If I remember right, yeah. I think we had so many trucks that I suppose everybody–you know, we had so many trucks that I suppose they had enough trucks so that everybody made one trip.
I: Wow that’s quite an experience, right?
M: Well, yes it was, yep.
I: And with also Marilyn Monroe.
M: [laughing] Yeah I know it. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, people are never going to believe this, you know. Yeah.
I: How was she?
M: well, of course she wore clothing you know so she wouldn’t be recognized.
M: So she had some clothes on that we thought were made out of those MOD blankets. You know, her slacks and her top and everything. So, but I would say that she probably
wasn’t as gorgeous as a lot of people probably thought she might be.
M: But I give her credit for the–I would say it was about 0 that day, when she was singing that song. We were amongst the sand bags there, you know, in Seoul, and yeah. So, you know all these soldiers got a story that they can tell.
I: Yeah. Let me ask the soft side of your service.
How much were you paid as a truck driver?
M: I want to say when I was in Korea I was getting a little over $100 a month. And I would send home so that I had about $45 for myself. And that was plenty. So when I came home I think I had $1500 to buy a car with.
I: Wow that’s quite good. But–
M: And then we’d–we’d get $100 a month for 90 days til you found a job.
Any Korean boy or Korean people that worked with you?
M: Well, we always had these house boys, you know that would kind of take care of the tent. And like our clothing, you know, they knew–we used to have a papasan that would come in and pick up our laundry and he’d take care of that, the house boys.
We called him a house boy. And you know, they would do our clothing for little to nothing, you know, didn’t cost us hardly anything. And then we finally got a shower up at battalion headquarters. But I never had a cookie or a donut or anything for 16 months. But one time a guy got a package in the mail and we were eating these cookies and God, we thought them cookies were so good. And we got to the bottom of the box,
and we got to the bottom of the box, and there was nothing but worms in there. Worms crawling all over.
M: And what had happened, this was the January of ‘5–
I: 4? 53?
M: well, I’m trying to figure out, they had mailed them at Christmas, you know, like maybe if it was in ’53
M: No, it wasn’t ’53–maybe it was ’52. At Christmas they had mailed it, and we were eating these cookies in January of ’54.
They’d been in the mail for a year.
I: [laughing] you’re kidding me!
M: They’d been in the mail for a year. And it was nothing but crumbs when we got to the bottom and all these worms crawling around. But it didn’t hurt anybody.
I: After you returned, what did you do?
M: I went back to work in Minneapolis for the road contractor that I had worked for before. And then we was going to get married, so I thought I better get a steady job, so I
Went to work for IBM and I spent 12 years there, but I never liked it.
I: Why you didn’t like it? IBM is one of the biggest company.
M: Yeah, well it was tedious small work, small assembly and I was used to construction, being out side and hard work.
I: I see, I see.
M: So, after 12 years, I gave it up and I went to work for the highway department and I was a snow plower, truck driver for the highway.
M: And I put in 25
years doing that. And after I retired from that, I went up to the MAC dealership and I said I’d like to move a few MAC trucks around and you know what the guy told me? He says you’re not wearing a pony tail and you don’t have a chain drive billfold, and I’m going to hire you.
I: Have you been back to Korea?
M: No. And I don’t really have any desire to go back.
I: To do– uh-huh.
M: Mm-hmm. But, I can’t believe the way things are now, in Korea.
I: How–how did you come to know that?
M: Well, by watching T.V. and stuff.
You know, what a prosperous country, yeah.
M: Because when I was there, I can remember we’d haul garbage away and dumping the garbage. And there was pork chop bones in the garbage and water puddles and pouring those things out and telling the ladies to move so you wouldn’t pour it on them. And they were washing these pork chop bones off in the mud puddle
and putting them in a–in a container to take home. I remember doing that, or seeing that.
I: Anything you want to add to this interview?
I: Any other comments? Please.
M: No, I was kind of wondering what we was going to talk about, you know. I don’t know why I get so humble when I talk about this, but I just do.
M: The same way, you know, we all get together
and say The Pledge of Allegiance or, you know, say a–say a–
I: You are too–too good.
M: say a prayer or something, you know, it makes me humble
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