Korean War Legacy Project

Thomas O’Dell


Thomas Duane O’Dell was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 11, 1937.  His mother moved to South Dakota when he was young and they grew up there.  Thomas O’Dell obtained a fake driver’s license at the age of fourteen and he used this fake ID to enlist in the United States Army in 1952, at the age of fifteen.  Thomas O’Dell was in a machine gun platoon and participated in battles at Pork Chop Hill.  After service in Korea, he worked for the Veterans Administration. He  published a book, Life Experiences of a Fifteen-Year-Old Boyhood Soldier, about his life including his time in the Korean War.

Video Clips

Using DDT to Cook in Korea

Thomas O'Dell used DDT for killing insects including gnats and fleas. He even used DDT for cooking C-rations by adding it to his fire in the trenches to warm he food. Hot water for baths were also warmed over a DDT-created fire.

Tags: 1952 Battle of Old Baldy, 6/26-8/4,1953 Battle of Pork Chop Hill, 3/23-7/16,Yeongdeungpo,Food,Front lines,Living conditions,Pride,Weapons

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Chinese Propaganda Leaflets and Speeches

Thomas O'Dell fought against the Chinese and North Koreans. There was propaganda slogans broadcast over loudspeakers throughout the night to try to brainwash the US troops. Leaflets were shot over the trenches by the Chinese to convince the US troops to surrender or to switch to the Chinese's side.

Tags: 1953 Battle of Pork Chop Hill, 3/23-7/16,Chuncheon,Chinese,Fear,Front lines,Letters,Living conditions,North Koreans,Physical destruction,Pride,Weapons

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Fighting the Chinese While Eating Kimchi

Thomas O'Dell was told not to shoot the Chinese, so he fought hand-to-hand combat against a a soldier with a sword. While fighting on the frontlines, he received food from the South Korean soldiers who were stationed with him. Still to this day, Thomas O'Dell makes fresh kimchi just like he was fed in the trenches by his allies.

Tags: 1953 Battle of Pork Chop Hill, 3/23-7/16,Chuncheon,Chinese,Fear,Food,Front lines,Impressions of Korea,Living conditions,Personal Loss,Physical destruction,Pride,South Koreans,Weapons

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No Fear and The Invincibility of Thomas O'Dell as a Fifteen Year Old in the Korean War

Thomas O'Dell was not scared during the Korean War because he was only fifteen years old and he felt invincible. During the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, as he was dug in the trenches, Corporal Thomas O'Dell was confronted with his commander with his birth certificate. He was caught being a fifteen year old in the Korean War, but he was able to sneak back into another battle during the mayhem.

Tags: 1953 Battle of Pork Chop Hill, 3/23-7/16,Chuncheon,Chinese,Civilians,Fear,Food,Front lines,Home front,Letters,Living conditions,Personal Loss,Physical destruction,Pride,Weapons,Women

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Video Transcript

 [Beginning of Recorded Material]

T:         My name is Thomas, T H O M A S  D.  Duane O’Dell, O’D E L L .  I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I:          And tell me about your family when you were growing up.

T:         I had, um, probably a normal family.

I:          Um hm.

T:         My mother was a divorcee, Catholic with three kids.


She married a sailor that, in Minneapolis, and when they got divorced, when my mother got divorced from her father, from my father in ’45, she married this sailor, sailor, George Sandy who lives at Buffalo Gap, and she, we moved to Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, and I lived there till about ’53, ’52, then I was working


construction as a big kid, 14 at that time, lied about my age to get my driver’s license.  So I had a fictitious age on my driver’s license.  So I went by the recruiter, and then I went into the service.

I:          I see.

T:         Buy my family, we had nine children.

I:          Nine brothers and sisters?

T:         I had three, three sisters, two sisters, and then the rest were brothers.

I:          Wow.


T:         Seven.

I:          And you are the eldest or youngest?

T:         I’m the oldest, yes.

I:          Oldest?

T:         Yes.

I:          And when did you, I mean, tell me about the school you went through.

T:         Well, I went to the Buffalo Gap school over her in Buffalo Gap.

I:          Um hm.

T:         And then I, uh, I went to the 8th grade, then I educated myself thereafter that.  I went to the, got my GED, went to college, took, correspondence courses.


I:          But when did you join the military?

T:         I joined the military September of ’52.

I:          Army?

T:         Army, yes.

I:          Was a volunteer, right?

T:         Yes.

I:          Yeah.  And where did you get the, how old was it then?  You were 15.

T:         Just 15.

I:          And you, you need to be 18-year-old to join the military, right?

T:         That’s correct.

I:          So did you get the signature from your parents,


or did you just lie.

T:         No, I lied about my age when I got my driver’s license.  So I had a fictitious driver’s license.

I:          [LAUGHS]

T:         So I went in and seen a recruiter.  I showed him the driver’s license.

I:          And they believed you?

T:         Yeah.  I was a big kid.  They needed people bad then, too.  It was the height to the Korean War.

I:          Yeah.  So you lied.

T:         Yes.

I:          You wanted to join the Army?

T:         I did.  I wanted adventure.  I really wanted the Navy, but I got


the Army instead.

I:          But, didn’t you want to finish your school?

T:         Did I finish school?

I:          Didn’t you want to finish your school?

T:         I did.  And I did.  But I did it in my own way with, in the Army and so on and so forth.

I:          I see.  But at the time when you were 15-year-old, you wanted to explore the, the foreign country.

T:         Yeah.  I wanted adventure.

I:          Oh.

T:         I didn’t think I’d get everything that I got, though, but I, I got a good adventure.


I:          What did you want to, what did you want to do actually?

T:         I was thinking of going on one of those islands in Hawaii, and instead they put me on a troop ship, sent me to Korea, Japan and then Korea.

I:          So Hawaii, Hawaii became Korea for you. Hawaii became to you Korea, right?

T:         Yeah.

I:          You wanted to be in the island like Hawaii

T:         But I went to Korea.

I:          So Hawaii became


Korea to you.

T:         Yeah.  That’s true.

I:          So where did you get the basic training?

T:         I took my basic training at Fort, uh, Breckenridge, Kentucky

I           Could you spell it?

T:         Breckenridge?

I:          Yeah.

T:         B R I C K E N R I D G E.

I:          Kentucky?

T:         Kentucky, yeah.

I:          Yeah.  What kind of, do you remember anything from the boot camp?

T:         Oh yes.


I:          What do you?

T:         I, I remember it very clearly.  We had a lot of people that are drafted and they didn’t want to be there.  We had some ex- German soldiers that were from Germany during World War II that were in Hitler’s bunker that I’ve, I met that they, they came to the United States, and then they drafted them, put them in the army, uh.  They were very interesting, and they, about the time that I was in there, they were integrating the, the


black with the white at that time, and it wasn’t a good scene sometime because some of the Johnny Rebs didn’t like the blacks, and it was a bad deal.

I:          Um.

T:         But those were experiences that weren’t good. But we all got along, made it, you know. We took our basic training.  I did, uh, 16 weeks of it, I think, and, uh, then they sent me home for a week, and then from there they sent me to Seattle,


Washington, and that’s where I disembarked from there.

I:          Um hm.

T:         And from Seattle, we went on the troop ship, and in my bunk, I got pictures of the troop ship and stuff in there, uh.  We went on the troop ship to Japan, and after

I:          When did you leave Seattle?

T:         I think I left it sometime in January.

I:          1953.

T:         ’53, yeah.


I:          Um hm.  And when did you arrive in Korea?

T:         I think it was in February.

I:          Where?

T:         Uh, Pusan.  No, no, no,.  It was Inchon.

I:          Oh.

T:         We went to Inchon.

I:          Do you remember Inchon you saw for the first time?

T:         Pardon?

I:          Do you remember the Inchon you saw for the first time?

T:         Yeah.

I:          How was it?  Tell me the details.


T:         Well, it was kind of war ravaged, uh.  There was no lights on.  We were way out in the harbor.

I:          Um.

T:         And then they, we, to go to Ian, we had to get on, uh, landing barges and climb down the ropes on the side and then go in there, and I was kind of scared on the landing barge.  Then we got in there.  Then they put us


on troop trains or train, and then we, from the train, I think we went up to, uh, Kimcho or, I described it in my book, and there was an airport about

I:          Kimpo.

T:         Yeah, a replacement depot.

I:          Yeah.

T:         And we were there for, uh, like one or, one or two days, and I was, and, uh, I was all, awful upset because I, I got a sleeping bag that had blood on it,


and, uh, and I could hear the airplanes going in and out.  They were propeller airplanes, uh.  The next night they put us on trucks, and then they took us up to our, uh, company , and then divided us up, and some of us went to rifle companies. Some went to machine guns.


I wanted to go to a rifle company, but they put me in a machine gun platoon, and, but my Sergeant said well, you’ll thank us later on that you didn’t go to a rifle company, and I could see very well why he did because the rifle company that I would have been assigned to was wiped up at Pork Chop Hill.

I:          Um.

T:         And, uh, I had lost a couple, a lot of buddies up there that I took basic training with.


I:          So you were shipped to Pork Chop Hill from Kimpo? Did you go to Pork Chop Hill right away from Kimpo?

T:         No, no, no.  Right away they sent us to, uh, there’s a place down there in the, in a valley, uh, below Pork, below Old Baldy, and we were gonna go up on Old Baldy.

I:          Um.

T:         And at that time, that’s when the, the Colombians lost Old Baldy and, uh, so they put us in the, they had 13 machine guns


right down there on that valley floor, uh.  It was a valley floor.  Old Baldy’s right next to Pork Chop.

I:          Um hm.

T:         So we’re riding back of, uh, Old Baldy for hill 363 is, and then we were there for a couple weeks or so, you know, they’d sign us in and out, and being as I was in machine guns, they keep changing me and assigning me to differ rent regiments.


Like I’d go from Old Baldy to, uh, Eerie and Arsenal for a couple days, maybe Pork Chop a couple days, Hill 363 a couple days, and they’d send us to different places, rotate us around.  SO, but if you’re in a rifle company, you pretty much take stationary.  But they were short of machine guns I guess so that’s where I went, and I was in the 30 calibers where they had the water cooled, you know,


and, uh.  So, you know, it sounds kind of confusing because I never knew from one day to the next what was happening. I just, they said grab your sleeping bag or whatever or pack, and we’d go, you know.  And sometimes I didn’t know where we were going. They just sent us, you know.  And it, it happened like that all the time, and we got trapped behind, uh, enemy lines that way for three days one time,


and, uh, I didn’t even know where we were at.  And then they came up on the hill.  They were, and it was during the Operation Peace Treaty or something, and they said first stay there, and then we left anyway and went back and found their lines and, uh, we could, they stopped firing for a little bit.

I:          What was your unit?

T:         Uh, I was in, I was in, uh, the 17thRegiment.

I:          Um hm.


T:         Third Battalion, Mike Company.

I:          Mike?

T:         Mike, yes.

I:          Yeah.  And it was, uh, 7thDivision.

T:         Yeah.

I:          Yeah.  And so Old Baldy, Pork Chop Hill, and you were at the Battle of Hill 6, 363?

T:         No, Pork Chop twice.

I:          Pork Chop twice.  Tell me about the, the battle


that you engaged.

T:         Well, you know, it’s real funny because they would say shoot over here, shoot over there, and that’s, that’s what we did at machine gun.  Sometimes I was a, I would do the firings.  Sometimes I would do the ammo bearer, you know, and, uh, they’d tell me to fire, cease fire, and so on and so forth, and I, I just, you know, you didn’t shoot until


they told you to shoot, and then, you know, if somebody came up there on you, you had to shoot obviously.  But many times I was told not to shoot when we’re being attacked, too.

I:          Why?

T:         I don’t know.  Because we had other people out there and stuff like that.  I remember one time, uh, on Eerie or Arsenal, I don’t know which one it was, and the, uh, the trip wires went off, and we could see the people coming and, uh,


the, the flares at night, you know, and they said don’t shoot, don’t shoot and, uh, they said our people are coming in, too.  And we had a patrol out there I guess.  So we didn’t shoot, and then they, then they, they got on us so they said come up the hill, and that’s where the command bunker was.  So we went up, I went outside, and that’s how I got stabbed in my hand, and so I went up there to the bunker, and


they put a bandage on it and all that.  But, uh, sometimes, you know, we had the machine guns, we left two machine guns in that one particular bunker.  I was with about four or five, uh, Korean soldiers and, uh, a couple of Puerto Rican soldiers.  We had Puerto Rican soldiers there, too, uh.  I think I was on


Arsenal or whatever. But I got up there one time, and the, we used to, uh, put DDT out, you know, for the fly control, and we’d put it on the sand bags in the bunker, and one night when we were being at tacked the bunker damp caught fire because of all that kerosene with the DDT.  It.  So we were, could see, yeah.

I:          What is DDT?  Explain to the audience.

T:         DDT is a chemical


that they used for

I:          Fleas.

T:         Fly control I guess.

I:          Yeah.  Flea.

T:         Yeah.

I:          Yeah.

T:         Yeah.  And we, we used it even for cooking.

I:          Really?

T:         Oh yeah.

I:          Why?

T:         Because it, it supported a flame to cook our C-rations. If you’re out in, in the trenches on the front line, you didn’t have hot chow.  You had to eat C-rations.  So we ate that.

I:          You didn’t eat the DDT?  You use it for flame, right?

T:         Yeah.  We used it for flame for cooking the


I:          Right.  That’s a insecticide, so you don’t eat that.

T:         I know.  I know.  Yeah, and it smelled, I could smell it.

I:          Yeah.

T:         We were, we were very careless with it.  We didn’t know the dangers of it at that time.

I:          Man, that’s

T:         Right now, I think it’s outlawed.

I:          Yeah.  We don’t use it anymore.

T:         Yeah.

I:          There is no

T:         But it was a good, good insecticide, did some good things and stuff, and it, it didn’t kill me at the time.

I:          Who was your enemy?

T:         The


Chinese and the Koreans.

I:          North Korean, too?

T:         Yeah.  There were some North Koreans there.  But sometimes we didn’t know which one it was.  But they had loud speakers, too, and they would tell us on the loud speakers.

I:          What did they tell you?

T:         Come on over.  Be good.  We love you, so on and so forth.

I:          Or didn’t they tell that you gotta go back to your home for Christmas or things like that?

T:         Yeah.  Oh yeah. They did that.

I:          Propaganda


broadcasting, right?

T:         Oh yeah.  And they even gave us, they would pop those shells with leaflets in there, and they would come, and sometimes if they were, they were real live shells. It would have killed us.  But, one time they, right next to us, landed, you know, and leaflets.  It would have killed us


if it wasn’t.

I:          What kind of leaf was it?

T:         Well, they were just leaflets said, uh, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday or something.  Let ‘s celebrate it.


Come on in and so on and so forth.

I:          Really?

T:         Oh yeah.  How they

I:          They told you about the birthday of Lincoln, President Lincoln?

T:         Oh yeah, in some of the leaf, leaflets.

I:          Why?

T:         I don’t know.  They just, to make a reference point I guess or something.

I:          Um hm.

T:         But they were, they were very good, very, some of them were very explicit at that time because I could relate to Lincoln and stuff like that as being or President, yeah.

I:          Hmm.

T:         Abraham Lincoln.  And then we had other people that, uh,


were really good, uh. I remember leaflets several times, and, uh, but the loud speakers at night, not so much in the daytime

I:          Uh hm.

T:         But the loud speakers at night.

I:          So were you able to see the Chinese?  How close was it?

T:         How close?

I:          You were, you were at the front line, right?

T:         Yeah.

I:          And were you able to see them?

T:         Oh yeah.

I:          Tel me about it.  Were there many? How did they attack you?

Tell me the typical, I mean the day, episode that they attacked you or you attacked them. Details.  You wrote the book, right?

T:         Yeah, but I wasn’t very explicit in there.

I:          Okay.  Tell me please if you can.

T:         Because I, I didn’t like talking about it.

I:          But, do you want to talk now?

T:         Yeah.  I, it doesn’t bother me.

I:          Yeah, please.  Talk.

T:         Well, some of the Chinese seemed to pretty good people.

I:          Um hm.

T:         But, uh, we took prisoners,


and they were very friendly, uh.  But then, you know, when you shoot them, you don’t know.  You don’t know.

I:          Um hm.

T:         And, yeah.  Sometimes they, you know, sometimes they just kept going, you know? But, uh, I don’t think the Chinese had as much vengeance as the Koreans because they always said that you never want to be captured


by the Koreans because they were very mean, but the Chinese were very good.  So that’s how I think we had more Chinese than we did Koreans. But the thing is that how were they? I didn’t visit with them, but, you know, shot at them, and they shot at me.

I:          Hm.

T:         It’s hard to describe.

I:          Hm.

T:         You know, the, the things,


  1. The only one real close encounter that I really, really had was that night in the trench when they said for us not to shoot and come up the hill, and I went out, and they, they, uh, I grabbed that bayonet and got my hand, and I probably shot the guy.

I:          Were you scared?

T:         Yeah, but my adrenaline was going, too, you know. I was just all hyped, you know?


But I was following an order, and they said not to shoot, I didn’t shoot.  But we had good targets, you know?  We, and we chained them, but we just left them.  And, you know, sometimes you follow the orders, and they were stupid at the time.  But I didn’t question them.  I was an obedient soldier.  So was the, the Koreans and everybody that was there.  The Korean soldiers were good soldiers.  They were very disciplined, uh.  I,


I liked them in, one time when we got captured, we had the Koreans positioned right next to us, and they, they pulled back in the lines, and they didn’t tell us to pull back, and they didn’t tell the Koreans.  So we ran out of food after three days, and so the Koreans shared their food with us, and, uh, we gave them our corned beef hash

I:          Um hm.

T:         But they gave us, uh, that’s the first time I remember eating Kimchi and, uh,


uh, fish cakes.

I:          Um.

T:         They, they, that’s what they had for rations.

I:          Did you like it?

T:         Oh yeah.  I, I make Kimchi to, to this day.  I got some in my refrigerator.

I:          You, you make Kimchi yourself?

T:         Yeah.

I:          How, tell, explain to school kids how you make, uh, Kimchi.

T:         Well, I, I buy the Bokchoy and the, the Chinese cabbage and, uh, garlic, and I cut it up in pieces,


and I put a little salt and sugar on it, get it fermenting, fermented for a couple, two, three days, pour the salt off and, and then, uh, it, it’s good.

I:          It’s a very spicy, isn’t it?

T:         It’s hot.  I put red peppers in mine.

I:          Um hm.

T:         And to this day, I, I, I took a liking to Kimchi, and I see it in the store, but it’s so pricey I can’t afford to buy it.


So I, I, um, but I, I love Kimchi, especially with cold rice.

I:          Um.

T:         And it seems to make me more alert.

I:          So where did you get the Kimchi in Korea when you were there?

T:         I got it up in the front line when we, some of the, the other Korean soldiers next to us had Kimchi with their rations.  So I don’t know how they had it, whether it was in a jug


or what, but they had Kimchi they used with rice and their fish cakes, and so that’s where, the first time I had it.  I got to liking to it.  I was only like 15 years old, still 15 yet, and even when I was in all those battles, I was still only 15, and, uh, I, uh, yeah.

I:          You might have lost your life.  You were not afraid?

T:         At that time, believe it or not, I don’t think I was.

I:          Ha.


T:         I wasn’t ascared.  I, I didn’t believe in the reality of it.  I thought I was too invincible.  But after the war, I was scared.

I:          What do you mean?   After the war you were scared?

T:         Well, after I went and got married, I was still in the Reserves, and I had to do Reserve time.  Then they had the Vietnam deal, and they were gonna call me back, and I already had my pilot license, and they were gonna call me, train me for helicopters, and I took my


physical and ready to go, and then they found out I had kids, so they didn’t take me.  But at the time they were gonna take me, I was scared, and when I was in Korea I wasn’t scared.

I:          Because you were too young to know any

T:         And I was probably too young and gung ho and, and I didn’t have responsibilities like a family and stuff like that.

I:          Think about 15-year-old boy now, right now, in America.  What could they do, you know?  They not gonna go to war.  They gonna be scared to death.


T:         That’s why my letters are so interesting because I sit back and I read them.  I didn’t even know my letters existed till after my wife passed away

I:          Um hm.

T:         About six, seven years ago, and then I was looking at a shoe box we had.  I used, I had made a lot of money in my life, so I, and I spent a lot of money.  So she kept things very meticulously, and we had a, big walk-in closet, and in that walk-in closet she had, the, uh,


shoebox full of, uh, shoebox full of, uh, my old letters that I’m telling you about. and

I:          What did you write?

T:         I wrote things back home so my grandparents and stuff wouldn’t get scared and take me out, and then they finally found out about my age, and

I:          When did, when?

T:         When I was in Korea.

I:          Um.

T:         One of the last battles up there on Pork Chop Hill,


and then the company commander and the chaplain came up there, and when they came up there they had the birth certificate my grandmother sent them because I guess a lot of people back then, they would try to get them off of the war, they would say they, uh, they were e15, so on and so forth, and they really weren’t.  So they sent it to the chaplain, and the chaplain came up there because I used to go to where they had Catholic mass, and I knew the chaplain, and he said it’s, is it


here?  He waved it in front of me out of the letter, and, uh, I could see it was a birth certificate

I:          Um hm.

T:         And, um, I said yeah.  And he said you know we’re gonna, we can’t have you here we’ve, and I, I think I was already Corporal or something ng, and, uh, still 15, and he said, so the company commander said we are going off line tonight, and we’re going to go into lodging and sleep and stuff, and he said from there we’ll cut your orders


and then ship you out, uh, like nothing ever happened.  He said so just, nobody knows about this but us, the company commander and chaplain.  He said we don’t want to embarrass anybody.

I:          Um hm.

T:         So I went back there, and that night and, uh, I was sleeping about 2:00 in the morning  they came through the tents and they rattled the mess kits, and they said everybody up.  They said they lost Porky again.  So we

I:          Lost what?

T:         Pardon?


I:          Lost what?

T:         Lost Porky.

I:          What is that?

T:         Pork Chop Hill.

I:          Oh.

T:         So they said, so we had got there and reassaulted because they, the Chinese had overrun Pork Chop.  That was, that was in the May battle I think.

I:          Um hm.

T:         May or June.  And, uh, so we, I went out like everybody else.  I went and got my, through the chow line, got some rations. They gave us four sandbags,


a trenching tool, couple of hand grenades, and then they put us on trucks, and then when I got up there, the, the, my machine guns and stuff was already there because they would haul them by jeep up there, and so we got up and got ready to go up on the hill, and the company commander and the chaplain are over there, they seen me, and they


pointed to the Sergeant, and Sergeant came over and said well, that I had to go over here. So I, I went in on the assault when they went up the side of the hill.  But the one section they were going to send over there, they got wiped, wiped out with a, a phosphorous round came up there and killed them.  So but, at the last minute they changed my destination, and I went up the hill but people still getting hurt there, too.


And the one kid, he was a real good friend of mine, he got wounded and wen t back.  He, he finally went in to be a Catholic priest and, uh, never heard much from him.  Um, that’s the last I heard, you know?

I:          So you were about to leave Korea because they knew that you cheated your, the, the, the age.

T:         Yeah.

I:          But on that night, you lost the Pork Chop Hill again so that you had to fight again.

T:         Yeah.


I:          So you didn’t leave?

T:         No.  I went with everybody else.

I:          My

T:         I didn’t say nothing to anybody.  I just went along with the crowd.

I:          Wow.  Your life has been really

T:         Yeah.  I wrote a story about that, too.

I:          Wow.

T:         So you read that.  But I, in my letters that I wrote home, I, a lot of things I can’t find out, uh, because of the time and stuff I was over there, there was always confusing.  The, but my letters would tell me pretty much we had turkey that night for supper


or I went down and I took a shower, got clean clothes, uh, pretty much that way.  We were at one place.  We were behind enemy lines 20 miles or something, uh, but it gave me a time reference, too, where I could kind of sit back and t h ink, you know, because I had to be careful because they, I didn’t want to even tell them I was in Korea, and, you know, at the time, the communications at that time, they weren’t like now.


It, it would take maybe two or three weeks for correspondence then where now they, it’s instant, you know.  So, but my grandmother she, when she found out I left, she just thought she had to call up and on the phone back then, but it wasn’t that east because they’re trying to get everybody out because they didn’t want them going to Korea.  So, but she finally got my birth certificate, my original birth certificate from Minneapolis.  She was in Seattle, and then she, um,



I:          Alright.  So Tom, what, what, what are you holding?  What is those?

T:        These are my letters that I wrote when I was in Korea that my wife retrieved from my grandmother and them and saved for me, and I did not discover the letters till about five or six years ago when my wife passed away.  I looked in a one of her old shoeboxes

I:          Could you show me one envelope with the address to the, to the camera?


To the camera. Where is it?


What does it say?

T:         It should say Corporal Thomas D. O’Dell or, and give the company name.

I:          Uh huh.  And whom did you write to?

T:         That was my grandmother.

I:          Tell me the name.

T:         Myers.  She was in Minneapolis.

I:          Uh huh.


And when was it? Do, do you see the stamp there? Can you

T:         It was in ’53.

I:          1953?

T:         Yeah, from Korea.

I:          And what did you say?

T:         Uh.

I:          She’s the one who send, uh. your birth certificate to the Headquarters, right?

T:         Yeah.

I:          So what did you say?

T:         I just said everything was going good, and we had good showers, good food.  I never complained in any of my letters.   Not one of them did I ever complain in.

I:          So you were lying again [LAUGHS]

T:         Yeah.


I’m not gonna tell them what was going on.  I’m not gonna say we got shelled by 50, uh, by 50 bombers or got attacked.  I’m not gonna tell them that.

I:          Did you have actually good time with your grandma when you were growing up?

T:         Yeah, I did.  She was my favorite.  She,

I:          Um.

T:         I was the, the oldest kid, so she took me. She was Catholic and, uh, yeah.  But, you know, when I, I got out and


got working, so I, I made money when I was 14.

I:          Really?

T:         And I was on my own.

I:          Uh huh.  You very independent man.

T:         Yeah.

I:          Um.

T:         Independent, yeah.  So then I, you got the letter?

I:          Man.

T:         So I, um, had a good, good time with everybody, and I just, I, uh, I could, I, one of the things I noticed back then when I was 15 I could write very good.  I had good handwriting,


Better than now.

I:          Um hm.

T:         But I tried to get some of the reference points when I was there and when I wasn’t there, you know?  I, um, oh, here’s an old picture I had there, too.

I:          Um.

T:         When I was in Korea.  Some of that stuff was all together.  But, uh,


I don’t know what to tell you because I, I wrote down most of everything I’m telling you, but it’s all written

I:          In your book.

T:         Well, in the book and then other deals, too.

I:          Um hm.

T:         Because later on I tried to, I found out I was the youngest one ever to receive the Combat Infantrymen’s Badge and, uh,

I:          Now you have all those letters.  What do you think?  What do you think, looking at those letters that you wrote 65 years ago from Korea?  What are you thinking now?


T:         Well, I think of some of the good times I had, and I can’t remember the bad things as much as the good times.  But I think some good things are easier to remember than bad things because I don’t like to think about the battles and stuff like that, and I know that we got shelled a lot and attacked,


and I remembered one time I seen the, the MIGS come down through the valley, and that was very rare that happens.  The, the MIGS fighter jets, and I could watch, watch them dog fighting up in the sky.

I:          You did?

T:         Yeah.

I:          Wow.

T:         Not very many people could do that.  They used to have dog fights.  Yeah, and we’d,


we would set back and watch them.  I remember when the, the battleship USS Missouri, uh, shelled, uh, Old Baldy, and I sat up there and we watched the shells go over.  We could actually see the shells, and they were big, big, big, you know.  They were, because the naval observer came up there, and he said, he gave everybody ear plugs by me, and he ran out of ear plugs        before.  But they, the shells,


they really made a lot of noise when

I:          Was it Napalm?

T:         No.  They were, uh, just regular, uh, I don’t know.  They, I even took pictures of them in my book, but they didn’t come out, and I, go ahead.

I:          Any, any letter that you remember still about the story that you wrote there?

T:         I remember them all.  My memory is very good.

I:          Any story that you want to tell me now?


T:         About the letters?

I:          Yeah.

T:         Well, the only story I can really tell you for sure is to condense it real small that I never complained when I wrote home.  I always remembered their birthdays, stuff like that, and then I remember the turkey dinners, I’d tell them about it. I’d say the chow was good, so on and so forth, uh.  But I never complained. I don’t think you could find wherever complained in the, one of the letters.


I:          Did you have a hot meal?

T:         They tried to give us a hot meal every day.

I:          Every day.

T:         Yeah, either in the morning

I:          Even in Pork Chop Hill?

T:         Yeah, yeah.

I:          Ha.

T:         Yeah, they had a chow bunker up there.  A, a chow a place where they had chow.

I:          Who, who cooked it?

T:         I guess the Army cooks.  I never thought about that.

I:          But you had a Korean food too, right?

T:         Oh yeah.

I:          Whenever you have a chance.

T:         Well, yeah.  I, had that Kimchi.


Not many of the, the GIs liked Kimchi, but I was young enough.  I liked it.

I:          Um hm.  What was the most difficult thing?

T:         Over there?

I:          Yeah.

T:         Huh.  Huh.


I, I guess it was all, I didn’t like the cold. um.  But I, everything else seemed to be pretty good.  The, the most difficult thing that I had in my life over there was we had to go back and identify one of the, my Sergeant that got killed over there, and ,Sergeant Rodber, I didn’t think he got  killed at the time they evacuated him, and they evacuated him out, and they’d lost his identification, and so we went back there


and they, you know, had the bodies covered up in, the deals I’ve seen a lot of bodies before, but having to go back and see him, and they unrolled him, he was in some kind of greasy stuff, you know, and, uh, but on the deal, they, they thought he had malaria, and he was, he was wounded up there they, they, on the line, and they evacuated him out in the helicopter.  Not malaria.  But anyway,


they got his identity mixed up with somebody else.  So we had to go back there and identify him.

I:          Um.

T:         Me and another Sergeant.

I:          Did you like him?

T:         Pardon?

I:          Did you like him?  Was, was he your favorite Sergeant?

T:         Yeah.  He was a favorite, he was a, he was a good Sergeant.

I:          Um hm.

T:         He was, uh, from North Carolina, and, uh, Rosebary was his name.  He was National Guard


Sergeant .  He was all the time reading the Bible.

I:          Oh.  And he was killed.

T:         Yeah.  They, then they, he evidently died of shock or something because they, I could see the, they had a card on his toe

I:          Uh huh.

T:         when they pulled the deal out because I didn’t want to look at his face and, uh, and I could see malaria on there.  And, uh,


I don’t think he could have had malaria and died, but then somebody said later he died and, in shock, shock, and the helicopter ride, they, they weren’t that good at that time. They put him in a pond, you know?

I:          Uh.

T:         So, but I didn’t think his wound was that bad when they took him back, but evidently it was.  I got pictures of it in my book.

I:          When did you leave Korea?  Oh, by the way, let me see


your book. Could you show it to the camera please? What is the title of it?

T:         Boyhood Soldier.

I:          Huh?

T:         Boyhood Soldier.

I:          Boyhood?

T:         Boyhood, yeah.

I:          Why did you say that?

T:         Because I was still a boy.

I:          Just 15?

T:         Yeah.  I wrote about the experiences.

I:          And what did you tell?  I mean what is the main id, main message there in your book?

T:         Well, the message of the book was when I, many


years later I went to the VA to try to get some, uh,

I:          Benefit?

T:         Yeah, and, uh, when I did, they wouldn’t believe my story that I was as old as I was and, uh, so the doctor says you ought to write a book about it.

I:          Um.

T:         So I had a lot of money, so I wrote a book, and that I, I didn’t put a lot of the nasty stuff in it.  I just tried to put the good stuff in there.

I:          Um, you were very handsome.


T:         Yeah, at that time.

I:          Fif, 15-year-old boy.

T:         Fifteen year-old, yeah.

I:          Korean War veterans.

T:         Yeah.  I was in the Army nine months when this picture was taken.

I:          Wow.

T:         It was taken in Japan when we went on five-day R and R.

I:          Um.  Are you proud of your service?

T:         Pardon?

I:          Are you proud of your service?

T:         Oh yes.  Very much so.  Yeah.


I:          When did you leave Korea?

T:         I left Korea in, uh, I think ’53 or ‘5, ’53, yeah.

I:          Fifty, no ’54, right?

T:         No, no.  Fifty

I:          How, how long did you stay there?

T:         ’53.  Well no. Let’s see, fifty

I:          You arrived, you arrived in Korea ’53.

T:         Yeah, and I was there for 11 months.

I:          Eleven months.

T:         Nine or ten.  Nine or ten.  I don’t know for sure.

I:          So maybe at the end of 1953?


T:         I, I, either that or starting in fifty.  Wait a minute.  I went in the service in ’52. ’53, yeah. Fif, fif, fifty-four I think I left there.

I:          Um hm.  And do you have a DD214?

T:         Yeah.  It’s in the book.

I:          Okay.

T:         Pictures of the DD214?

I:          Yeah.

T:         And my birth certificate

I:          Yeah.

T:         Because they weren’t going to give me the royalty


on the book because they, I couldn’t prove my age.  So I had to get my birth certificate.  So that’s where I sent, got it and changed my birth date, but it didn’t, I don’t make that much on it anyway.

I:          You didn’t know anything about Korea before, and you went to Korea.  You wanted to be somewhere in Hawaii

T:         Yeah.  I knew about Hawaii.

I:          So tell me about your Hawaii in Korea.  How was it?  What is Korea to you now?


T:         Ah, it was a very fond place.  I have a lot of good memories about it, and I see how productive they are and how the cities look.  I can’t believe how Seoul looked.  In one of the books that I got, they got a magazine that will give you a free trip back to Korea if I want to go.  The, the Grey Beards or whatever.

I:          Yeah.  Grey Beard.

T:         And, uh, but my wife’s gone, and my, I’ve got a disabled son I take care of, so I don’t know if I could, uh, uh, I wouldn’t be


able to go back with him.  And t hen I have some health issues myself, my eyes and my narcolepsy, my arthritis, um, and all that stuff, you know.

I:          So what did you do after you returned from Korea?

T:         Uh, I started working for the government. Veterans’ Administration.

I:          Um hm.

T:         And that, I started right here in Hot Springs in 1955, and that’s where I had my physical, and then in, uh, I got, I was young enough


I got, I still went to school and got my college and high school and all that.  T hen I transferred around, and then I was up there with, uh, the VA, and they wanted to, people to go to Tuskegee, Alabama because it was an all black hospital.  You know, America used to be, have black places, black schools,

I:          Um hm.

T:         Black hospitals.  Well down there in Tuskegee, they had a VA hospital that was all black, and


they wanted to bring white people in there.  So they gave me a promotion and a transfer to go down there, and I was already married at that time.  So I took my wife and kid and went down to Tuskegee for a year, and then when I was down there they gave me another promotion, and then I just kept promoting me out, and I got to be a, in the Director’s Program when I retired in 1976. But, so I retired, and then I went into private business,


made a lot of money

I:          What did you do?

T:         I did government contracting.

I:          Ah.

T:         Yeah.  That’s, and, uh, I did contracts all over in Alaska and all over.  I just, I was a adventuresome person all my life, you know? My wife helped me, and, and, uh, I was down there in Miami, Florida.  We lived down there in the Keyes for four or five years, and, and we just had a good time.


I:          How many kids do you have?

T:         I’ve got four.  Two are, uh, three are living, and one passed away in a car wreck.  So, but, um, I got a bunch of adopted kids.

I:          Do you have, so you know how Korea now is advanced in this economy and democracy.  Do you know?

T:         The what?

I:          How Korea big is now?  Korean economy.  Do you know anything about Korean economy now?


T:         They say it’s very good.  They, they gave me an, a, award, they gave me a medal up here about six, eight months ago, Korean War medal, and, uh, I looked, they gave me a book.  It looks like Seoul.  When I seen it, it was all burned out and everything and, uh, I think there was even smoke coming out of some of the buildings.  And now I can’t believe it, and then they, they go back and forth, and I see about this guy up there in


North Korea, that, that fanatic they got up there.  But yet I guess South Korea and North Korea, they got a factory together.

I:          Yeah, in Kaesong.

T:         Huh?

I:          Kaesong Industrial Complex.

T:         So what do they make there?

I:          They make, uh, many different thing.  They make watch.  They make sneakers, clothes, may different thing.

T:         Do they do good with them together?

I:          They actually making good products there, but it’s closed right now.  But, um, so you know now that Korea is very small country.


You know that.

T:         Oh yeah.

I:          Right?  South Dakota is two times big as Korea.

T:         South

I:          South Dakota.

T:         Oh, I, okay.

I:          It’s a twice in this size.

T:         Oh really?  I didn’t know that.

I:          Yeah.  And Korea is now, as I told you, 11thlargest economy in the world.  Seoul is one of the 10 biggest metropolitan city in the world.

T:         Oh, I didn’t know that.

I:          Yeah.  Have you been to New York City?

T:         Yeah, many years ago.

I:          New, Seoul is much


bigger than New York City.  There are many, many high rise, and there are more than 20, 20, around 24 bridges.  Can you believe that?

T:         No, I can’t.  But it’s, it ‘s interesting.  I wonder how the front line looks up there.

I:          Yeah.  You should go back.  You should go back.

T:         Nah, well, I, I, I don’t drink anymore and, uh, stopped smoking, and I, I enjoy a cocktail every now and then.  I used to.


Yeah, I should go back, but

I:          Yeah.

T:         I don’t.

I:          So you let me know if you want to go back, okay?

T:         When?

I:          I’ll let you in that program, Korean government program.  They pay for hotel, meals, and you just pay half of the air fare, and you will be able to go to DMZ, Pork Chop Hill, the parks that you fought, and you will be in Seoul, too.  It will be fantastic.  You not going to believe your eyes that you are seeing there.


T:         Yeah, that’s, well, I can kind of vision it too, you know.  And the lady I met and everything and, and, um, the Kimchi, I’ve, I got it in my refrigerator right now.

I:          So what do you think is your legacy of the Korean War?

T:         Pardon?

I:          The legacy of the Korean War and Korean War veteran, what is the legacy of it?

T:         I wrote the letters.

I:          No, I mean, so


Are you proud of your service?

T:         Huh?

I:          Are you proud of your service?

T:         Oh yes, very much so.

I:          Um hm.  And personally, what is the Korea to you now?  What is Korea to you now?

T:         Well, let’s see.  It’s a, a pretty country, um.  I’m fond of their people.  I have a, a good friend of mine that has a Korean wife, and she cooks some fantastic food, and she’s a very good person.  I’ve loved the Korean food, uh.



I watch these cook shows, you know.  They got one on Vietnam, but they don’t have one on Korea.

I:          Um.

T:         And I love their food, um.  The, I, I don’t know what to say.  I just, it was a culture that I was interested in

I:          Um hm..

T:         And some of the, the Koreans, when I was, uh, there, they would, they would, they didn’t have the Christian religion, but they had their own religion I guess.

I:          Oh, at the time there was a Christina in Korea.


T:         Yeah.

I:          Yeah.

T:         But, we had some of our people that were still illiterate that we had to read the Bible to and stuff.

I:          Yeah.

T:         And I mention that in my book.  And

I           And do you know American history textbook, they don’t talk about much on the Korean War.

T:         They don’t?

I:          They don’t.  They have only one paragraph coverage about the Korean War.

T:         Why?

I:          Because, I don’t know.  That’s been the American case.  They don’t know,


They don’t talk about much.  Why?

T:         That’s not right.

I:          That’s not right.  That’s why my Foundation have annual History teachers conference.  We invite them, and teach them about

T:         [INAUDIBLE] them if it’s their round.  You said Rushmore next year?

I:          Yeah, yeah.

T:         What, what time next year?

I:          July 10thto 14th.

T:         I’d really like to it if I could.

I:          We’ll let you know.

T:         How much does it cost to come?

I:          No, you just, just come


to there, and we’ll provide you

T:         I’m not very far from, I remember when they were building Mt. Rushmore.

I:          Yeah.  So I will let you know, and my Foundation pays for the whole expenses.  But you may have to pay but very little, you know. It’s a, it’s going to be not much, okay? If you have to.

T:         Yeah.

I:          But we’ll talk, okay?

T:         Yeah.

I:          Alright.

T:         Do you want some more papers?

I:          Yeah, yeah.  But later.  You, any other story you want to tell me about your service in Korea?


T:         No, I just, yeah, well like I said, I was in the Machine Gun platoon, and they transferred us around, and I was so confused from one day to the next and, uh, uh, one of the bad things that it, it, it bothered me to this day that death didn’t seem to bother me at the time that I was over there because at night I remember one time we, I slept


in the trench, and I had a bunch of dead people right by me. It didn’t bother me.  And, uh, they, the Chinese, they had real good, uh, Chinese and Koreans, they had the quilted jackets, you know.  They were real warm, and a lot of the people would take them off and put them on, and then they’d put their coats on over them. But they were, uh, most of them real small, you know.  But they had that kind of a cordless deal, and they, they liked doing that.


I:          Um.

T:         They’d take them off and, for, and it just, one of the, the things that I can remember and I remember this to this day because we were carrying ammunition up the hill to Pork Chop,

I:          Um.

T:         Or not to, uh, behind the Hill 363, and a, a round came in.  We had these, what they call the Korean Chogie birds, do you know what they are? And they would carry the ammunition,


and there was about, oh it must have been 12 or 13 of them, but a round came in, and it, it hit them and, uh, they were all laying there, and they was moaning and moaning they’d say, I think they’re saying hi.  iti, eti, something, you know, whatever they were hollering.  I could remember, but I was 15 that first time I, I ever seen anybody get hit with


that many people at one time.  And there was six or seven of them, you know, maybe more, and they were all wounded, and so I seen everybody running over, and the Koreans, the other Koreans, they ran over and, uh, you know what they did?  They took their shoes off, and they said they’re gonna go to aid station, and shoes were a precious commodity for the Koreans at that time.  And so they, they,uh, the first


aid guys came and got them, took them up.  But they, they took their shoes.  But, I mean they were, everybody was thrift.

I:          Right.

T:         Everybody did what they had to do, and it was a, it was a bad deal and, uh, I know there was a lot of killing and stuff went on. But the, the shot, the round that came in and that, that’s the first experience I had where they really, um, I could see it happen, you know.

I:          Thomas, I, I think your life has been full of expedition and something new, and you were really independent, and I want to thank you for your service for the Korean nation so that Korea now become very successful, and I want you to be proud of that.

T:         It’s, yeah.  And I, they gave me the book, and I really, I’ve, I read that book, and then I’ve even read about this Gray Beard, about going



back over there, and I just, I didn’t put in for it.

I:          Alright.  But I want to thank you for your service

T:         Well, I appreciate that.  You’re welcome.

I:          Thank you, sir.

T:         I had a good experience over there.

I:          Thank you.

T:         Even if it was good and bad, how do you put it?

I:          That’s the life.

T:         Yeah,.

I:          Yep.

[End of Recorded Material]