Ralph Burcham was born in 1932 in Fort Scott, Kansas. After graduating high school, he enlisted in the United States National Guard and was about to attend West Point when the Korean War broke out. Ralph Burcham was activated into the U.S. Army in 1951 and sent to officers’ training school. He arrived in Korea in early 1952 and was assigned to the 9th Field Artillery, 25th Infantry Division, Company C. Ralph Burcham worked as a Forward Observer and Battery Motor Officer. His younger brother also served in the Korean War.
Ralph Burcham arrived in Busan in 1952. He felt that the scene was "heart wrenching" to see shoeless children running next to the trains in the hopes that U.S. soldiers would toss out food. Families were so poor and willing to do anything for food scraps.
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Fighing in Korea
Ralph Burcham was busy as a forward observer in the Army. He valued the insight that seasoned soldiers imparted to new soldiers. As a soldier, Ralph Burcham was taught important skills that helped him survive.
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Weather in Korea
Ralph Burhcam and other soldiers were negatively affected by the weather. The cold winters weren't the worst part, it was also the summer heat and mosquitoes. Soldiers tried to be creative to survive the elements, but their creativity was not always encouraged by military regulations.
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[Beginning of Recorded Material]
Ralph Jack Burcham: My name is Ralph Jack Burcham. R-A-L-P-H J-A-C-K B-U-R-C-H-A-M.
Interviewer: Ralph Jack Burcham.
R: Yes sir.
I: What is your birthday?
R: I was born on February the 13th 1931.
R: Fort Scott, Kansas.
I: Could you spell it?
I: And tell me about your family when you were growing up. Your parents and your siblings.
R: Well, I have only one brother, who is deceased. He also served in the Korean Conflict.
I: Your–your brother?
I: Younger brother or?
R: Younger brother. He was–
I: What’s his name?
R: Robert. R-O-B-E-R-T Lee
L-E-E Burcham, same spelling.
R: He’s deceased.
I: He served in the Korean War?
R: He served in the Korean War, yes sir.
I: When? When did you go to Korea? When did he go to Korea?
R: He went six months before I did. We were both in the National Guard and it got activated and at that time, I had an
Appointment to go to West Point, the military academy, but we got the guard got activated and we went on active duty in Fort Lewis, Washington. He then stayed there at Fort Lewis and I had an opportunity, instead of going to the military academy, going to officer’s candidate school
R: In Fort Bliss, Texas.
So, I went from Fort Lewis, Washington to Fort Lewis–Fort Bliss, Texas shortly after we were called onto active duty, to officer’s candidate school.
I: So Robert left for Korea, when did he leave?
R: When did what?
I: The Bob–your–your–your brother, when did he leave for Korea?
R: When did he leave for Korea? Probably in about
along toward the end of ’51. October maybe.
R: I don’t really know for sure.
I: Was–was he Army?
R: Yes, sir.
I: And what was his MOS?
R: He was a medic.
I: Medic. Okay, so I will ask this question about your brother later, Okay?
Right, so when did you graduate what high school?
R: I graduated from high school in Fulton, Kansas, F-U-L-T-O-N in 1949.
I: Did you–did you know anything about Korea at the time that you were graduating when you were in school did you learn anything about Korea?
R: When I graduated from high school, no.
R: Very little
I knew Korea existed and I knew there was a problem, but the real problems–the real problems didn’t start til a little later after I got out. I got out of high school, I went to junior college for two years.
I: What did you study? What was your major?
R: In junior college, I just–
general curriculum. Math mostly.
I: So, you were very well educated, at the time, right?
R: Well, I had some education,
R: Yes, at the time. I had two years of college.
I: And what did you –what–why did you join the military? Did you enlist or were you drafted?
R: Oh I enlisted.
R: In the National Guard.
Oh I don’t know when, probably 1948 or ’49 somewhere in there.
I: And how did you end up going to Korea?
R: How did I end up going to Korea?
R: Well, I got orders to go, that’s all I know.
I: So, you were called to serve from the National Guard, right?
R: Yes sir.
I: When was it?
R: In May of 1951.
I: So, when did you leave for Korea?
R: In January of ’52. I went to Fort Lewis to six months of–I mean Fort Bliss Texas six months of officer’s candidate school.
I: Fort police, right? And what kind of training did you get?
R: Well, the training at Fort Bliss was antiaircraft artillery.
I: Tell me about it.
R: Well, you get there and officer’s candidate school is, besides the academic part of it, is very disciplined. You keep everything neat,
you keep everything clean, you say yes sir, you salute, you scrub the floors, you do pushups, and you seem like stay in trouble more than not, but that’s the purpose of it is discipline, plus the education you need.
I: So you inaugurated as a second lieutenant?
R: Yes, sir.
I: Very good. You must be proud
I: You must be proud of yourself.
R: Well, yes. Not ashamed at least. [laughing].
I: [laughing] so, what kind of training did you get to have to do with this antiaircraft?
R: Well, we learned to do the mathematics involved with positioning the weapons.
The mathematics involved in trying to hit a target. We did a lot of mathematics, ballistics and that sort of thing, that’s the main–main things.
I: And did you like it?
R: Yeah. Yeah.
I: So, where did you arrive in Korea? When?
R: I got in Korea
in first part of ’52, maybe January.
I: Mm-hmm. Where did you arrive in Korea?
R: Where? Pusan, which is now Busan.
I: Yeah. How was Pusan? Did you–do you remember the scene of Pusan or people?
R: I sure do. I–very much.
I: Describe it. Describe in detail because this interview will be listened by the school children. And teachers can use this
for history class, okay, lessons. So, describe the Korea that you saw in 1952.
R: Okay, we got there. Well, to get there, we flew from California on flying tiger airlines into Japan. From there, we flew from Japan on the old DC3
prop driven planes to Pusan. We got to Pusan it was night. They issued us weapons and ammunition and told us we were going to get on the train and there were snipers along the road. And it was winter, very cold. Issued some winter clothing, not much,
but enough to keep you warm. There was a steam powered locomotive. And, at that time, there were little children running alongside the track begging for food or whatever they could get. They weren’t dressed well. They were cold, some even barefoot in the winter tine. And it made a very lasting impression. It told us to be real cautious
in our journey north, because of snipers along the way. Well, that put everybody on edge.
I: What were you thinking when you see that this children even with the barefoot during the winter and asking for food. What were you thinking? What was the image of Korea to you? Be honest.
R: Well, the image of Korea was a very war torn country. I didn’t get an image
of pre-war Korea at all. I–I just saw the ravages of battle and death and that sort of thing. And various things go through your mind when you see that. How could I help this child? Well, the fact was, all you could do is throw something out the train window because that wouldn’t be a problem, the windows were all broken out.
R: So, if you got a little more than you wanted to eat or something in a–in a package you could throw it out and that’s why the children were there. They were primarily after food. So, but it–it was very heart wrenching to see what can happen.
I: By the way, what was your unit?
R: I was in the, well at that time I wasn’t in a unit. I didn’t get a unit until I got up near the 38th parallel and I was assigned to the 90th field artillery battalion.
I: 90th field artillery.
R: And the 25th infantry division. And after I got
to the battalion I was then assigned to battery C. and there were 955mm Howitzers.
I: What was your duty? How many soldiers did you have to control and so on? Tell me about those.
R: Well, when I first go there, I was made battery motor officer, which is probably
one of the first things most officer’s second lieutenants get assigned to maybe. We had a very good motor sergeant. [Gito Sharetta] was his name. And I remember the Capitan when he assigned me to that, said be sure and listen to Sergeant [Sharetta], because he’s been here before. This is his
I think third tour in Korea, so he knew all of the ropes.
R: From there, I just went onto other assignments. Into being a battery executive officer, forward observer, that’s what a big functions for lieutenant junior officers.
I: So, you had to do that too.
R: Oh I did a lot of that.
I: Oh, tell me about those.
R: Well, it’s kind of creepy. You’re out in front of everybody else because you’re trying to see into the enemy and I remember on several occasions, one in particular, where we were overran. And there were Chinese troops all around.
You could look out the aperture on that bunker and see them walk by, but they never discovered or well camouflaged bunker. So, the object was stay quiet, and stay in. And the next morning, they were all gone and lots of artillery fire coming in. We didn’t call it in, somebody else did. Cause we basically stayed off
of the radios with them right there. And that is probably the biggest thing I remember from being a forward observer.
R: It was–
I: That’s–that’s the most dangerous job, isn’t it? In the battle, right?
R: Probably is.
I: You have to be far front line, right?
R: Yes. Yes.
I: Were there any dangerous moments during that forward observing mission?
R: Yes, there was.
I: Tell me about it, please.
R: Well, just the troops being all around you. Walking in front of you and it was good moon lit night and there were hundreds of them. But there was lots of artillery fire coming in from us, into that area.
I: During the night?
R: During–all night long.
R: And the next morning, this is rather gruesome,
but there were bodies all down in the valley and, of course the Chinese often times didn’t recover their casualties. And I suppose one of the reasons for that is, if you tried it there just might be more. I don’t know why, but they didn’t. And after that,
then it was pretty quiet there for the rest of the time. You’d stay up there about a week at a time and there would be usually at least one second or firs lieutenant, a sergeant, maybe two sergeants, and a corporal, three to four of you is all that would be there in that observation post.
Because you had radios, and in many cases, you had a landline, a telephone where you could talk and give your instructions and take your instructions. That was really the–the most dramatic forward observer job I encountered.
I: Even though you were officer,
second lieutenant but you didn’t have any war experience and you were almost like a same to all other soldiers, other foot soldiers. Were you not scared? And did you feel burdened that you had to lead them even without much experience?
R: Well sure, but I learned right away that there were older
more experienced people there. And the reasons they were there, sergeants, corporals, is because they had the experience and you would consult with them and most often, take their advice. Because they had been there before. We–we had some very good enlisted personnel. We had–our leadership in the–the battalion I was in and in the
25th infantry division, we had good leadership. Our battalion commander, our other officers, I remember a major in particular, and a Capitan or two and several sergeants that were very capable people, experienced and common sense.
I: So, you got along with them?
I: Mm-hmm. That’s the leadership that you have to get along with them.
R: Yes, yes.
I: And get the best out of them, right?
R: Some people don’t.
I: But–but at the same time you served as artillery officer too, right?
I: So tell me about hat part of your service. What did you do and where were you and so on?
R: Well, we moved so frequently, I mean so often that it’s hard to tell actually where we were, because you would go into an area, you’d stay a few days and you’d get orders to leave. Sometimes the whole battery and the whole battalion wouldn’t relocate, but often times it would–each battery has
six Howitzers, sometimes a–a platoon of three–of two would move into an area where it only took two. They were going there for a one day stay.
R: To try to do something and I got one of those that was particularly scary.
And I brought some articles about it, which I can leave with you, if you’d like. And it was–we went way–way into enemy territory and, under darkness, and our purpose was try to destroy this enemy position. But, when it got daylight,
and we were ready to start doing something, they obviously figured out we were there. And we started getting small mortar, 60mm mortar rounds and stuff in. And that’s when I –I have an article there I’ll leave with you about it, if you’d like.
I: Yes, I will–I will read it later.
Did you know why you were there?
R: Did I know why I was there? Yes I did, yes.
I: What was it?
R: Well, it was freedom. Freedom. We had freedom here. And it was freedom. Those people, freedom was taken away in a very inhumane manner. And, yeah I–I knew why I was there and I
understood it. I didn’t like it, but I understood why I was there and I also understood that if you’re going to be successful, it has to be made up mostly of younger people, because of their physical capabilities. Now, I don’t think 20 year-olds ought to be generals, but–
and I don’t think all generals–good generals, all of them can’t get out on the battle field, they just aren’t able to physically, but they have the knowledge on how to conduct things.
I: Let’s–wee there any dangerous moments that you might have been killed?
R: That one that I mentioned.
R: Yes, because we got hundreds of
rounds of–of–mortar and–and Howitzer rounds in on us. And fortunately, nobody was hurt.
R: So, a piece or two of the equipment was damaged, but we were able to after–well, I call–I had a–I was a first lieutenant at the time
And there was a second lieutenant with me. And we called and I ask Major Knott to get us out of there. And I have an article on his reply that was–these articles were in the new–in the newspaper there. And he said, stay there do what I tell you, so that’s what we did. But, we called in and
directed our own artillery on those people, which was just over a hill. And it quieted them down and then we were able to get out and finish our mission and actually destroy the target that we were set up to do. So, it was real gratifying to have accomplished something.
R: And not have anybody hurt. One thing, when we first got there
it was probably 12 o’clock at night, we had time in the darkness to position the Howitzer’s, dig some fox holes and get in them and that’s how we survived not having any injuries, is everybody had a place to get.
I: What was the most difficult thing to you when
you were there in Korea? If I ask you one thing to tell me. Was it weather? Was it living condition or was it the kind of fear or what–what is it? What really bothers you?
R: It’s probably–for an ongoing period of time
it would have to be the weather. Because you had the very cold winter and we had a very hot, wet summer and there wasn’t any way to get comfortable. In the winter time, we had this motor sergeant that I mentioned, [Sharetta]
had made some heaters that we could put in–we lived in a bunker–and made some heaters that you could put in with dripping fuel in and burning. They’re very dangerous things really and we had an inspection by Colonel Maxwell, and he made us get rid of all of them. So now, we’re back down to no heat. We did have a good sl–sleeping
bag and you had clothing and boots and things so, you could take it. Summertime was just as rough, but just the opposite. And there were a lot of mosquitos and that sort of things, but I’d say that for the duration of the time that you put up with the weather
was problem the most difficult thing because usually if you got engaged in combat, which you did, but it usually lasted a day or two and it would be over for a while and you’d move somewhere else and get involved so, it had to be the weather the most.
I: Mm-hmm. Did you sleep with your–your platoons?
You were in charge of platoons or what was it?
I: What was the unit that you were in charge?
R: Well, I finally got in charge of the entire battery.
I: Entire battery.
R: Yes, but before that, I was in charge of the–the–just the Howitzers and making sure the gun crews were intact and that talent that people had
For artillery was distributed among the gun crews, not all the talent in one. And we had constant rotation of people. You had to decide where that person was going to be assigned. So, besides being a–a war type thing, there were some administrative things had to be done.
Like assignment of people. We had R&R, rest and recuperation, where you could go over to Japan or, well that was the only place I know you could go, but you had to make arrangements for somebody to fill that persons position while they were gone, especially if they were
gun crew commander or something, you had to have somebody to fulfil that positions. So there was a lot of that to be done.
I: Let’s talk about the soft side of it. What was–how much were you paid as a first lieutenant, at the time? Remember?
R: No, I don’t remover, but it seems to me like it was about
$200 or $300 a month, it wasn’t bad, the pay.
I: Mm-hmm. And what did you do with that money?
R: Well, I took $50 and–and sent the rest of it to the bank and saved it.
I: For yourself?
R: [nods yes].
I: Were there any Korean people that you worked together?
I: Even Korean bus boy or children?
R: We had Korean bus boys and we had
Korean soldiers, military personnel assigned to our unit. We had several of those and we had a house boy, or a bus boy, that, well a few of them, two or three at a time.
I: What did they do?
R: Well mostly they would do laundry and things like that.
Basic things. Housekeeping I’d call it. And–
I: And you pay them, right?
R: Yes, and they ate good. Or as good as everybody did. We had pretty good rations. We had a real good mess sergeant. He was really good. So we had lots of warm meals. And in an
enclosed tent. And it was warm in there because they had the–the heaters to cook with and that sort of thing. And we had several Korean military people. I could remember one young man in particular, he was
in the military, very not tall, but very muscular and so forth. Ben, we called him Ben. Well, Ben was a real good soldier, plus he was good to work with people. He got along well. With our guys, there was a set of
wheels that came off of a mining truck, had and a wheel here, a wheel here and a little wheel to fit on a rail or an axle or shaft between them. And these guys used it for weight lifting.
R: Well, nobody could get it over their head. And I used to watch them try. And they’d work and get it up chest high and they couldn’t go on. Well, one day
I’d noticed ben watched all the time, he never tried it. One day, Ben just blurted out, Ben can do.
R: Ben goes over, grabs the thing, shoots it above his head, just wham.
R: I always thought Ben maybe sneak around at night and practice or something.
R: But he was really a strong physical individual.
I: Very good.
R: And a good guy. Cause if he hadn’t
have been good, somebody could’ve got a black eye. Ben could’ve done it.
I: So, you like Korean people?
R: Sure. Yes. We went back on a Korea revisit trip, my wife and I did.
I: Oh you did?
R: In 2007. She’s deceased now, but we–
we were at– to Seoul and that’s where we flew into. Really its over on the coast where they’ve made a land for an airport, but anyhow, we were there and it was a great trip. Korea was so developed and–and
so modern. All modern things may not be good, but it was so modern, I wondered how it could change that much in the 50 or so years’ time. There were beautiful buildings. Good highways. When I was there the first time, all the bridges across the river, the Han River, were out.
If you want to cross the river it was on an old pontoon bridge. And I believe there was something like 17 bridges now in that ci–city’s metropolitan area across that river. Double decks with trains on one level, automobiles and trucks on another level. Industry, beautiful stores, and
Very, very appreciative people from little children up through the adults. The little children would come up and thank you for what you did for us, they would say. Lots of people spoke better English than I do, at least more correct. [laughing] of course that’s, that’s the way that it is. If you’re learning it, you learn it better.
And but–but we took tours, saw lots of things. And it’s hard to explain the difference, unless you saw both times. I have been active in some organizations since I got out of the service.
And as a matter of fact, I have two grandsons, one of them has got the most pretty little girlfriend and her mother is Korean and her father isn’t. But, she’s a great girl. She’s in college also, but not the same college.
That’s probably good. But, that–they–they and then there’s a Korean church here that’s real active in real appreciative and there’s many, they do many things for the Korean veterans. And we have a good leader in our Korean War Veterans Association.
I: What is the chapter name? Your chapter name?
R: 180–I don’t know
R: 181 I think, but don’t–don’t count on that.
I: Don’t worry about it, but let me ask this question, the Korea you saw in 1952 and the Korea that you saw in 2007 is completely different.
R: Totally different.
I: I mean, how do you describe it, such transformation?
R: Well, the transformation was in 1952, if you were out in the countryside away from the front lines, you saw people out in rice paddies in water, people trying to farm, people walking along the roads,
which weren’t paved with big back packs. I’m talking about civilians. Older civilians and young ones that could barely walk. You saw no buildings that didn’t have windows out, hadn’t been caught on fire. Many places didn’t have–most places didn’t have much electricity. They even the larger cities, you know, they had a few lights at night
some times and sometimes they had no electricity. Water, you had–you couldn’t drink the water. They didn’t drink it without boiling it. You couldn’t drink it because it was contaminated. Sewage. There was no sewage disposal. Sewage disposal was just wherever you were. Now, you go there, there’s
tall buildings, new buildings, there’s bridges, there’s paved highways, there’s four lane highways there’s six lane highways there’s tractors out in the field, no oxen. You don’t see anybody walking along the road with–with this pack on their back anymore looking for another place to try to get safe and the hotels
were great. The restaurants you get any kind of food there you want. There were not restaurants when I was there the first time. We there were various American businesses there.
I: Simply to put it, that is more country miserably destroyed now
11th largest economy in the world.
R: That’s right, yeah.
I: And I think that’s you’re legacy, right?
R: Well, I hope. I hope. And I worry constantly about the future of Korea, not because of the Koreans,
but because of one of them.
I: In the North.
R: In the North, totally nuts. And how i–I do not understand how somebody gets that much power but it’s historically it has happened many, many times. He’s not the first nut. We got close a time or two here, but
I: What do you mean?
I: What are you talking about?
I: What are you talking about?
R: I’m talking about we’ve had a few funny leaders over time,
R: But they weren’t that bad.
I: Of course I think that North Korea is beginning to get some–
feel some heat from the Chinese hopefully,
R: Because they’re the ones, if it wasn’t for China, they probably wouldn’t–
I: Yeah. 90–almost 90% almost all oils imported from china provided by china and most of the food also provided by China.
I: So, it’s a lifeline to North Korea.
R: And allegedly
China has quit buying their coal that could put a hurt on them. And if the people start feeling it enough, they will rise up and change things, because they can change. And it’ll take time and I think it will. And just hopefully it’ll do it before there’s any real catastrophic
Events. But, you know, you never know with a guy like the North Korean leader,
R: Whether he really is going to do that stuff, or if he just gets to feel a good feeling out of being in the headlines and causing trouble and dictating to the people. And
I–I don’t know.
I: Hm. I–
R: But I do know it can’t last forever that way.
I: Exactly, yes, that’s right. What is Korea to you now, personally? You didn’t know much about Korea before, but now, what is Korea to you now?
R: Well, Korea to me is what I believe one of the better
medium sized countries in the world. They believe that–I’m talking South Korea.
R: Which don’t even like to say South, I just–to me its Korea.
R: But their–their people are energetic, they get–they’re educated, they’re very talented seemingly
in things which are close to me, and that’s engineering. Because when I got out of the service, I went to the University of Arkansas and got a degree in engineering. But I find not just from Korea, but from that part of the world, those people seem to be very interested in that sort of a
field and that might be because of oppression that they’ve had in the past, or something, but they’re very good with math and design work and that sort of thing. That’s the impression I have of Korea now.
I: Are you proud of your service?
R: Sure. Yeah, very proud.
And I guess I would try to do it again if I–if the need was there.
I: You are wonderful. Very, very thankful for your service.
R: Well, thank you.
I: And you need to be proud of what you did for Korean people 60 years ago. So, I want to thank you.
R: I am and all the Koreans are very thankful too.
[End of Recorded Material]