Korean War Legacy Project

Thomas M. McHugh


Thomas M. McHugh enlisted into the Army on his 17th birthday, shortly after dropping out of high school. After basic training at Camp Pickett and Fort Leonard Wood, he was placed in a unit of Aviation Engineers to work on airstrips, roads, sewer lines, and pipelines. He was sent to engineer school, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he learned to run every piece of heavy equipment that the Army had.  Following engineering school, he became an instructor, and then a construction foreman.  He was never deployed to combat in Korea during the war, likely due to his young age at enlistment. He describes how his small size and young age may have made him more likely to have been kept from serving overseas. Additionally, he explains how his trip to Korea made a vivid impression on him because of seeing the admiration and respect the Korean people have for American veterans.

Video Clips

What is a Korean War Veteran?

Thomas M. McHugh describes his size as particularly smaller than the other soldiers because of his young age, a reason he thinks he was not sent to serve in Korea during the war. He discusses his life after the Korean War, and having difficulty finding a job in his field of expertise. He explains what a veteran of the Korean War is, and that although he served without seeing combat, he considered the combat soldiers his as his peers.

Tags: Home front,Impressions of Korea,Living conditions,Pride

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Aviation Engineers

Thomas M. McHugh tells his experience enlisting into the Army on his 17th birthday. He describes his uniquely short basic training experience in 1951, at Camp Pickett, Virginia. He explains that the military was expanding the Aviation Engineers, and needed men to run heavy equipment in airfield construction with the U.S. Airforce. He was sent to engineer school, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he learned to run every piece of heavy equipment that the Army had.

Tags: Basic training,Home front

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A Unique Respect for Veterans

Thomas M. McHugh describes the Korean people as the most thankful in the world to American veterans. He tells of his amazement at the efforts the people went to in making sure his needs were met during his visit to Korea. He explains that seeing citizens on the sidewalk respect him for his service was shocking, compared to how the rest of the world reacts to American veterans.

Tags: Civilians,Impressions of Korea,Modern Korea,Pride,Prior knowledge of Korea

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Video Transcript


[Beginning of Recorded Material]




Thomas McHugh:

Thomas M. McHugh, from Hackettstown, New Jersey. Birthday is March 8, 1934.




Tell me about family, parents and your siblings.


T:         Parents-


I:          When you were growing up.


T:         Parents, my father was a Navy Veteran from the end of World War I, right?


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         Normal, normal Americans. Went through the Depression. We worked hard and always ate, and you can’t beat that action. My




mother was a, just a typical young lady. I was teased at lot during the war, because I’m half Irish and half Italian, and the Italian part got me in a lot of trouble during World War II, but it was fun. One brother.


I:          Just one brother?


T:         Yeah, he’s w-


I:          You are the eldest?


T:         I’m the youngest.


I:          Youngest.


T:         Typical small town school. I went to Catholic school to 7thgrade, and then public school. And, went to high school.




Didn’t like it.


I:          What is the name of high school?


T:         Franklin High School.


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         Didn’t like it. I was bored because when I read something, I knew it. I basically had, I guess they, now they call it a photographic memory, at the time it was a very, very good memory. For the age bracket, I had a high IQ, and, like I said, I would read it and be bored. If I read a book, I knew the




answers and could tell you where I found them, and that’s what kept me bored in school. I graduated public school in 1950.


I:          Oh. So, that’s the year of Korean War breakout, and-


T:         Yeah.


I:          did you know anything about Korea, did you learn anything about Korea from the school or your reading?


T:         No, I knew they were in a war, or a conflict. Actually, I graduated in ’49, I’m sorry, but-


I:          ’49?


T:         Yeah, I started high school in




’50 and quit.  And I went back and q-


I:          I’m sorry, you graduated high school-


T:         I, I graduated from grammar school.


I:          Grammar school?


T:         Went to high school, as a freshman, and was bored and quit.


I:          When did you quit?


T:         When I was 16.


I:          So, that’s ’49?


T:         ’50.


I:          ’50.


T:         When-


I:          So you went high school in ’49-


T:         Right.


I:          And you quit ’50?


T:         And, I went back again, lasted three days and quit again. I asked to enlist int eh service and,




mom fought it a couple of months, and then finally, my mother and father said okay, they signed, and I enlisted on my birthday, when I was 17.


I:          So what year is that?


T:         1951.


I:          1951.


T:         On Mar-


I:          March 8th.


T:         March 8th.


I:          You enlisted.


T:         I went down and into-


I:          Army.


T:         I went down and enlisted for three years.


I:          Army, right?


T:         Army.  I requested engineers, because I wanted to run heavy equipment.


I:          Mmm.




T:         Be-, and because I was RA, they said yes.


I:          What do you mean RA?


T:         Well, they had designations. U.S. was a draftee, RE, ER was an enlisted reserve and RA was regular army-


I:          Huh.


T:         was an enlistment. And they gave you your choice of sections. They didn’t always keep it. Some areas of the country lied like the heck and guys wound up infantry when they thought they were going to do something easy. And I was




extremely lucky.  I had a skill they needed right at the time. They were expanding the aviation engineers.


I:          So where did you go for basic military?


T:         I was only in Camp Pickett, Virginia four weeks for basic and they transferred me up to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.


I:          I’m sorry, the town name, could you spell it?


T:         Camp Pickett, P-I-C-K-E-T-T, named after the-


I:          P-I-C-K-


T:         T-T


I:          E


T:         T-T, E-T-T


I:          E-T-T.


T:         Named after the Civil War general.

I:          And only four






T:         Yes.


I:          Why is that, I mean normally


T:         They-


I:          people got eight weeks.


T:         Normally it was supposed to be eight weeks or 10 weeks. I went up to St. Louis, w-, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and they were forming the aviation engineers, and expanding it. Okay, aviation engineers at the time were going to do airf-, airfield construction. When they formed the Air Force from the Army, they didn’t bring engineers. They




Hired contractors.


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         When the Korean War broke out, they had nobody to work on the airstrip, so they brought back the World War II aviation engineers, and expanded it and I was lucky enough to be moved into that unit.


I:          Ahh, so even though you were joined, enlisted Army, but you worked for the Air Force.


T:         I wound up in the aviation engineers and then it was transferred so that we were attached to the Air Force.


I:          Yeah.


T:         It was called SCARWAF






I:          F-C?


T:         S-CA-R-W-A-F.  Scar Waf. We were army engineers, living on an Air Force base, and that was it. We were extremely rare. There were some units around the country and there were some in three places in Korea and there was some in Germany.


I:          So, because you had, you worked, working with the bulldozer, and so that you volunteer




for engineering, and so you actually building up airstrips and all those?


T:         Airfields, road, sewer lines, extensions on airstrips.


I:          Very inter-


T:         Pinelines, some, some drainage pipes size on the airstrips were 12 feet high inside the pipe. We used to ride in the trucks inside, fixing the pipe.


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         I was sent there in May of ’51.


I:          May. And tell me about




you, during the time there was a Korean War broke out, why was you not sent to Korea?


T:         Some, some SCARWAF engineers were sent to Korea,-


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         but they couldn’t send them all. They had to keep training more-


I:          Uh huh.


T:         to replace ’em I wound up going to engineer school, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and I could learn, I learned to run every piece of heavy equipment that the Army had.


I:          What kind? Tell me




the details.


T:         Bulldozers, road graders, turnapulls, pans, cranes, back hoe, shovel, just you name it, we could run it. Rollers. I came out second in a class of 88 for scores and wound up being assigned as an instructor and acting construction foreman. Our rank structure in the United States was actually, not legally, but it was actually




limited to corporal, even though the positions called for, you know, sergeants and master sergeants. As people came back from Korea, they would assign them into our unit with the rank, they wouldn’t do the job, but combat veterans came back and they promoted them, and then they were discharged.  So, I had a master sergeant with me for almost a year that it was a challenge for him to drive a truck, but he




was in charge of all of the equipment and he, he got the rank, he earned it, he was wounded three times, and, you know, I didn’t mind being a corporal and letting him hold the rank, he earned it, you know.


I:          So, you don’t know why you were not sent to Korea, but some of the-


T:         Well, yes, yes-


I:          some of the soldiers that you used to work with been sent to Korea?


T:         Right.


I:          Yeah.


T:         Actually, I was not sent at first ’cause they would not sent you at 17 years old.


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         So, the first




year I wasn’t gonna go anyway. They, unless they-


I:          But there were many soldiers who were 17 and sent to Korea.


T:         A lot of them lied. Honestly.


I:          Right.


T:         They, they said they were older.  They were, I think there were a 13 and a 14 year old guy-


I:          Right


T:         that I heard about.  But, you know, legally you normally were not sent, unless it was, I don’t know, maybe if I was bigger. When I enlisted, I was 118 pounds and five foot, three and half. I probably looked like I




was 12 years old and, actually, it’s lucky that I didn’t go.  Physically, I probably never would have survived, that’s the way I look at it. I mean, the way the guys talked about carrying bags and doing the job, you know, mentally and, and toughness I would have survived. I was a fighter, [chuckles] you know. I’m just lucky


I:          Yeah. Yeah.


T:         I’m lucky I’m here. And, I served, but I didn’t go to combat.




I:          Uh huh.


T:         And that, and I looked at a combat veteran as my peer.


I:          How much were you paid during your service? Because I want to compare the-


T:         I believe when I enlisted, I was getting $59 a month.


I:          Yeah?


T:         We eventually got $67 and then $97 and when I was a corporal, I was getting a whole $137 a month.


I:          Actually money, not the script, right?


T:         No, no, no, in the-


I:          Was the script?




T:         United States, it was money.


I:          Money, right?


T:         Yeah.


I:          Yeah.


T:         And one occasion, the town where the base was in Mineral Wells, Texas, Walters Air Force Base, were complaining that the GIs are bad for the town.


I:          When were you discharged from the Army?

T:         I was discharged on April 12, 1954.


I:          What did you do after that?


T:         Well, being skilled on every piece of heavy equipment in




the world, I could not get a job in a heavy equipment field in New Jersey, because you had to be 21 years old.


I:          Hmm.


T:         It was a union. So, I wound up as a mechanical draftsman for a while


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         and I worked for the telephone company for a, a couple of years,


I:          Mm-hmm.


T:         and then I entered the postal service.


I:          How do you see the relationship between Korean War era veteran, like you, never been in Korea and




those Korea veterans of American who were in Korean after the war? 1955.


T:         Quite frankly, we are quite similar in my mind. I served, didn’t wind up in Korea, but I served during Korea. I am a Korean War veteran. I am not a combat veteran. I made that very clear in each one of my resumes when I run for office. The persons that serve, the, the personnel that served in Korea




are just individuals that the Army said you’re going this way and others went a different direction.  But they served in good standing and they are our future. There’s no questions about it. If we, if we can’t have them grow with us, and I hope we get a lot more in now, so they do it, you know, so they do it like, you know, we’re doing it.


I:          How many Korean War veterans in New Jersey? Do you know?




T:         At one time, I think they said there was still around 9,000, but, it wasn’t that much long before it was 1.2 million, so unfortunately we’re, we’re losing ’em.


I:          You’ve been back to Korea right?


T:         Yes, I was. I didn’t go as a revisit.


I:          Right.


T:         I, I requested it as a national director and I was invited by the President of Korea.


I:          What is Korea to you, even though you were not in the Korea here when you were in the war, but still




think you have some ideas about what is Korea to me, Korea to the United States?


T:         It was an education for me, to see what it really was. I had heard how nice it was. I had heard what they accomplished. I knew some of the things, I mean, I’m, as an engineer, I, I know they’re ship building and the, the metal work that they do in armament is, surpasses the majority of the world. And I, I really like that, that’s the kind of stuff I watch.




I like racing cars and engineering and anything that’s fast and hard and whatever. [laughs]. But, to see it and then to actually be in the country and pass someone on the sidewalk and have them actually respect the fact that I was there, it just, it was shocking. I mean, I know from meeting people in Washington, I know from meeting people in the United States, the Korean




people are probably the, the most thankful people in the world. With all the people we’ve helped, they’re the only ones who pay attention to the United States the United States veterans.  Half the other ones just say send more money and then they’ll ignore us some more. But, I went there, and I had a camera and I had a, a chip, an extra chip for pictures. It was too big, it wouldn’t fit in it, it held too many pictures. So, I had to




go out to the store to buy a chip. And, when I said to the hotel where do I get a taxi, and what’s a store I can go to, they wouldn’t hear of it, right? People ran around and somebody came out and said, he’ll take you. This gentleman wasn’t even, wasn’t part of the hotel. Was just a Korean gentleman that had a car there. I walked into the store and I said to the first boy, I wanna buy a, a




chip on a camera and I was, it was amazed first of all, that the store is, is like, a, a high rise apartment. It’s, it’s one store, but it was about eight stories high and they took me upstairs and this, this young lady that was walking with me stayed with me the complete time. When I said to ’em I wanted, I wanted a chip, he said we don’t have that. So, I said then I’ll buy a camera, and he showed me a camera, said this is good. I said, well I don’t want good, I want best.




So, he brought me another camera and said well this one costs less. I said I don’t want price, I want best. And he didn’t understand me, and I said that to the girl, and she said wait. She got on the radio and called them. Some young lady literally was racing down the aisle to get to me, ’cause she talked English better. And I told her the same thing, what I wanted. She told the man in Korea, and I wound up buying a camera, literally, that was less money than what,




the best one I thought on the shelf and it, it was just, that was an education. And, you know, I said, ok, and I said, I, is the book in English, ’cause I gotta set the camera up.  They said, oh, we do it all, I mean, you’re a veteran. And, just amazing. I, I almost felt embarrassed that I was not a combat veteran and they’re treating me like I was mister m-, you know, super general. But it was just a,




a trip that I will never forget.


I:          Thank you for sharing your stories. I think it’s extremely for you to continue in your leadership so that the KWVA is not dying institution, it will growing bigger and larger and deeper and one, one of the component you should think about is to embrace the youth corps that I created, into KWVA somehow as a community. We need to work together. Thank you very much.


T:         Thank you.



[End of Recorded Material]