Unintended Heroes

Posted on 11/01/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

Cold War Story Nr. 4; Excerpted From Cold War Stories

Milbank Main Street

This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

Unintended Heroes

Peter Houser used a scoop shovel to finish cleaning the barn gutter. Peter, called Pete by people who knew him, had been doing most of the cow chores on the Houser farm since he finished eighth grade in the one-room school half a mile down the road. Now nineteen, he had become a strapping, well-muscled six-foot-tall young man. He pushed the wheelbarrow filled with the steaming sloppy mess out the barn door into the cold February air and dumped the load on the winter’s accumulation of frozen manure.

Pausing for a moment, he watched as thirty Holstein cows wandered around the yard or lined up to drink from an insulated water tank prevented from freezing by an electric heater. He had let the cows out of the barn for their daily dose of fresh air and the freedom to move about for a while. The temperature lingered in the single digits; he would let them back into the warm barn after an hour or two.

Pete spread fresh straw on the concrete pad where the cows were kept in place by steel stanchions for most of the day during the winter. When he finished, he observed the clean barn with satisfaction.

Pete’s dad came into the barn through a side door. Emil Houser stood short and sturdy, his square German face perpetually tanned from long days outdoors. He wore his winter chore uniform—a flannel-lined denim jacket and ear-lapper cap, long johns under his overalls, and a blue denim shirt, the same kind of overalls and shirt he wore every day of the year except when going to church.

Emil informed Pete he would be going to the sale today with a pickup load of sows. From late fall to early spring, the Milbank sale barn had a sale every Saturday afternoon. Emil often went to the sale barn on Saturdays to sell or just socialize. “You can help me load the pickup,” he said. “Then maybe open up one of those alfalfa stacks. The haymow is getting pretty empty.”

Pete had just had his work plan laid out for the day. Since finishing the eighth grade, Pete had been what amounted to a full-time hired man on the Houser farm, located in northeastern South Dakota, halfway between Milbank and Wilmot. Except he didn’t think of himself as a hired man. For one thing, he didn’t get paid regularly, and he felt he had a vested interest in the farm. It had always been his expectation that he would run it someday. His sixteen-year-old brother might be assuming the same thing, but Harold was going to high school and had other possibilities.

During the past year or so, Pete had been questioning his future expectations, wondering if they were realistic. His dad had just turned fifty and would be running the show for a long time, maybe longer than Pete would want to work as an unpaid hired man. His dad had lived through some hard times. Pete didn’t know all the details, but he knew that the farm they lived on had been homesteaded by his grandfather in the late 1800s. His dad took over the farm in the 1920s and mortgaged the homestead to purchase an additional 160 acres. Shortly after he got the loan to buy the extra land, the economy went south. Insult had been added to misery when the worst drought anyone had ever seen kicked in; the only thing that grew were Russian thistles. Dust storms became common.

The original homestead and the additional 160 acres were lost. The local bank that had foreclosed on the farm went bankrupt soon after that, and the title ended up in the hands of a Connecticut insurance company. An old German farmer who lived up the road from the Housers said it wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t had the Depression and hard times both at the same time.

Things started to get better in the late thirties, got really good during World War II, and kept going good after the war. In the early forties, Pete’s dad bought the farm back from the insurance company, which had never wanted to own it in the first place. Since then, Emil had replaced the horses with tractors and added a silo to the barn. A machine shed had been built for all the new machinery. The house had been remodeled and wired for electricity and plumbed for running water. Things were much better for the Houser family, but Emil still rigorously guarded every penny and every possession.

Knowing all this didn’t make it any easier for Pete to ask to use the Studebaker, the first new car the Houser family had ever owned, the car his dad had treated like a crown jewel since he brought it home the previous fall. As much as Pete hated going through the ritual of asking for the car, he had to since it was his turn to drive when he and his friend, Chris Engelson, and his cousin, Lyle Houser, went for their weekly Saturday night outing. Chris and Pete had been in the same grades in their one-room country school for eight years and knew each other really well.

“My turn to drive again,” he said hesitantly to his father.

“Seems like you just drove,” Emil answered. “Be sure you bring it back as clean as you found it.”

That afternoon, Pete ran the John Deere and a hay rack out to the north eighty. He opened a stack of alfalfa and wrestled a full rack of hay out of it. He took the load back to the barn and used the haymow fork-and-pulley system to lift the hay into the hayloft. Four fork loads transferred all the hay into the barn. Unloading hay into the loft was a two-person job. One person could do it, but it required a lot of running back and forth. He hurried to finish the hay so he could milk the cows for the second time that day. He had to pick up Chris Engelson at eight o’clock.

Pete heard the tires squeak as he backed the Studebaker out of the garage through a light covering of snow a few minutes before eight. The squeaking tires were a clue it had to be below zero. The car, kept immaculately clean by Emil, still had a faint new-car smell.

The Engelsons’ yard light came on as Pete pulled the Studebaker into the driveway and stopped in front of the white two-story frame house. Chris ambled out the door. A couple of inches taller than Pete, he moved in long easy strides, like an athlete, although he had never played any sports. Chris had unruly red hair above a long face with big ears. At nineteen, Chris had never had a girlfriend as far as Pete knew, and he wasn’t surprised. Of course, Pete had never had a girlfriend either, but he didn’t blame it on his looks. He thought he looked at least average, maybe a little better than average. His face wasn’t as square as his dad’s or as round as his mom’s. Thick, crew-cut blond hair topped off a head with normal-sized ears. It wasn’t that Pete didn’t like girls. He spent a large part of his time thinking about them, but not knowing how to act around girls was a problem for him and for Chris, too. Neither of them had gone to high school and neither of them had any sisters. Girls were exotic creatures they didn’t know much about.

Chris got into the car, and they headed for Milbank to pick up Lyle. He asked, “What’s the plan for tonight?”

“Probably shoot some pool at Volk’s. What you been doing this week?”

Chris replied, “I joined the marines.”

The unexpected answer left Pete speechless. Finally, he exclaimed, “You what! How come?”

“You want to know the real answer?”

“Why not?”

“I got kicked out.”

The answer didn’t sound like the Engelsons to Pete. “I don’t believe it.”

“Maybe not kicked out, but they let me know in a roundabout way that I should find a way to make a living on my own. Guess I couldn’t figure it out for myself. I got two younger brothers. All of us boys aren’t going to be farmers. I guess I sorta knew that but didn’t know what to do about it. I haven’t been doing a lot of work around the farm, especially this winter. They don’t need me. They don’t need me around.”

“Why the marines?”

“It sorta happened. Monday I took the Milwaukee train to Minneapolis. I heard factories are hiring. I wasn’t too excited about a factory job, but I hafta do something.”

“You took off, didn’t say anything to anyone?”

“My folks knew.”

“You might not have been there when I went to pick you up?”

“I’ve been kinda screwed up.”

“You didn’t finish telling me how come the marines.”

“Well, I was walking down Washington Avenue, near the train depot. Not a good street, night or day. A sign in a window read: Be a Man, Join the Army. That sign got me thinking.”

As they drove into Milbank, a bright moon shone on snow-covered Lake Farley on the right side of the road. Lyle lived on the lake side of the tracks in an old two-story house that backed up to Whetstone Creek. They saw Lyle looking out of the window when they pulled up.

In their threesome, Lyle was the odd one. He had lived in town all his life, in a different world. He claimed to know all about women, but Pete hadn’t seen much evidence for that claim. Lyle was short compared to Pete and Chris—less than six feet by quite a bit. He had brown mouse-colored hair and a round face, with freckles over the bridge of his nose. As a counterbalance to the sober and steady Pete and Chris, Lyle compensated for his shortness by acting boisterous to the point of obnoxiousness.

Lyle trotted out of the house. “Hey, what’s the plan?” he said loudly as he got into the back seat.

“Maybe some pool at Volk’s,” Chris replied.

Lyle faked a yawn. “That sounds exciting.”

“Drink a couple of beers,” Chris added.

The Studebaker idled while they discussed the evening’s plans.

“Maybe we should do something special,” Pete said. “With Chris going into the marines in a couple of weeks.”

“What the hell are you saying?” Lyle exclaimed. “Chris is going where?”

“Marines.”

“Why in hell don’t I know what’s going on?”

Chris explained, “I didn’t know I was going into the marines last week.”

Lyle wasn’t buying it. “That don’t make a lot of sense.”

Pete reminded Chris he hadn’t finished telling why he ended up in the marines.

Chris returned to his story. “Like I was telling you, I saw this sign in the window and started thinking maybe joining the army would be a better deal than working in a factory. I asked a couple of bums sitting on the curb where the army recruiting office was. They were sharing a paper sack with something in it and asked if I could spare a dollar. I gave them a quarter. They didn’t have any idea where to find a recruiting office but said to try Hennepin Avenue. They said you could find most anything there. Well, I’m walking down Hennepin, and those bums were right, you could find just about anything there. Then I saw this sign on the sidewalk—you know, a tent sign, showing a marine in dress uniform holding a sword up in front of him, and I could see myself walking down Main Street in Milbank in one of those uniforms and the girls twisting their necks off looking. So I joined the marines.”

“I’ll be damned,” Lyle said. “I guess we’ll have to do something special.”

Silence followed while the three young men considered their options. Finally, Lyle came up with a suggestion. “There’s a dance at Chautauqua. Maybe we can get Chris screwed. Don’t want to go into the marines a virgin.”

Pete had never been to Chautauqua but knew enough about it to know his folks, Lutherans, who never missed church on Sunday, wouldn’t approve. However, this would be one of those one-time-only occasions. Feeling a little rebellious, he seconded the idea. Chris agreed with the plan, although he had never been to Chautauqua either.

Lyle guessed that not much would happen at Chautauqua until ten at least, so he suggested a couple games of rotation at Volk’s would be a good place to start.

Volk’s pool hall occupied a storefront in the middle block of the town’s three-block main street, a street bookended by the courthouse at the south end and the Milwaukee mainline tracks at the north end. A bar and a few tables and booths occupied the front half of the long, narrow interior, and three pool tables and a common restroom filled the back half. Being Saturday night, the front half of Volk’s was filled with farmers having a beer or two while talking to other farmers about farm machinery, crops, and the weather.

After a couple of beers and two games of rotation at Volk’s, Pete drove the Studebaker ten miles on Highway 12 to the town of Big Stone and another mile up Lake Road to Chautauqua Park on the shore of Big Stone Lake. The lake, thirty miles long and one mile wide, defined the border between Minnesota and South Dakota along its length. Things were jumping when they arrived, and they had to park on Lake Road, half a block from the dance hall.

“Damn, it’s colder than a witch’s tit!” Lyle exclaimed as they walked from the Studebaker to the dance hall. As they approached, they could hear an old-time German band pounding away. They bought their tickets, and somebody stamped the back of their hands with an ink marker.

The dance hall was a long rectangular building with a serving bar along the west side; long tables with benches that could seat eight or ten people filled three-quarters of the space. At the far end of the hall, the band played on a raised platform in front of a polished wood dance floor. The bar served only 3.2 beer but offered mixes for people who brought their own bottles.

Lyle spotted a table with some room near the dance floor and quickly claimed and held it while Pete and Chris made their way across the room. Three young women and two young men were already sitting at the table. Lyle signaled a waitress to bring them a pitcher of beer.

Lyle filled three glasses and proposed a toast. “To Chris, the best and only damn marine from Wilmot.”

They emptied their glasses, and Lyle started to refill them. “No more for me,” Pete said. He’d already had two beers at Volk’s, and he couldn’t forget he was driving his dad’s nearly new car.

“Hell,” Chris said, “You can’t get drunk on 3.2. You’ll piss it away faster than you can drink it.”

Pete wasn’t sure Chris’s theory held water. None of the three were seasoned beer drinkers.

As though to prove his point, Chris chug-a-lugged his beer and poured another one, then held up the pitcher for a refill.

They took in their surroundings. The three women scrunched between them and the two young men at the other end of the table didn’t seem to be attached to anyone. The band returned from taking a break and started playing a contemporary slow piece to get people on the floor. One of the women was asked to dance and left the table. Then the two men who had been sitting at the other end of the table stood up and started dancing with the other two women.

“What’re you waiting for?” Pete asked Lyle.

“I wouldn’t call them the pick of the crop. What are you two waiting for?”

“Hell, I can’t dance,” Pete replied. “And if I could I don’t know if I would. I’m not sure I’d want to arm wrestle any of them.”

Chris poured himself another beer. He agreed with Pete. “They’re built like work horses.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Lyle argued. “They can pitch hay all day and dance all night without working up a sweat.”

They continued drinking beer and observing the dancers for a while. Chris, his voice slightly slurred, remarked, “Hell, I could do that,” pointing to the dancers.

The band struck up a schottische, and most of the amateurs left the dance floor. That’s when Chris persuaded one of the husky women at their table to dance.

Pete and Lyle knew this would be bad. Chris was three sheets to the wind and had never danced before, and the schottische was not a good choice to start with. The music of the schottische prompted a set pattern of steps that would have taxed Chris’s abilities if he had been sober. It wasn’t long before the woman attempting to dance with Chris simply walked away, leaving Chris flat-footed in the middle of the dance floor.

“Did I do good?” Chris asked when he returned to the table.

“You asshole. That pretty much messed up our chances with those women,” Lyle replied.

“I did that good?” Chris replied. He hiccupped. He hiccupped again. “I know how to cure that,” he murmured. He filled his glass and drank it down without taking a breath.

Pete suggested Chris take it easy.

Chris looked puzzled. “Hell, I thought we were goin’ to celebrate somethin’ tonight.”

“We’re celebrating Chris going into the marines,” Pete said.

Chris looked surprised. “Chris going to the marines? Da poor bastard.”

To stone-sober Pete, things at Chautauqua were visibly deteriorating. A couple of fights had broken out at the back of the room. A couple at a table across from them looked like they were about to make out. Then he noticed that Chris had disappeared. “Where’s Chris?” he asked Lyle.

Lyle looked around. “Hell, he slid under the table.”

“We have to get him out of here,” Pete said. “I’ll get the car and park it by the door.”

Pete brought the Studebaker to the entrance and went inside. He and Lyle half-dragged, half-carried Chris out and dumped him in the back seat.

As they drove away from Chautauqua, Pete wondered out loud, “Now what? We can’t take him home like this.”

“We could set him in a snowbank,” Lyle suggested. “That’d sober him up pretty quick. What time is it?”

“Little past midnight.”

“The Bright Spot is the only place in Milbank open this time of the night. Maybe we can get some coffee in him.”

They headed for Milbank. About halfway there, Pete heard some coughing before retching sounds erupted from the back seat. “Oh, shit, no! Lyle, what the hell is going on back there?”

“Chris just heaved all over the back seat.”

“Jesus Christ!” Pete said. “My dad will kill me, actually kill me.” He stopped the car and they dragged Chris out of the back seat, but Chris had finished doing whatever he was going to do.

Pete removed the floor coverings and wiped them clean with snow, but nothing could be done about the mess adhering to the fake mohair seat fabric.

They crammed Chris between them in the front seat and continued toward Milbank. Pete’s mind churned, trying to conjure up a solution to the unsolvable problem of the messed-up back seat. As they approached the town, Chris suddenly wrapped himself around Pete, pinning his arms and completely blocking his view. Pete couldn’t move his legs to step on the brake.

“Get off me, you big ass!” he shouted, trying to push Chris off.

He felt the car veering off the road. It slowly tipped and finally rolled over completely. The sound of grinding metal preceded the complete stop. The three found themselves on the car’s ceiling. Pete couldn’t open his door. Lyle managed to get his open and crawled out. Pete crawled over Chris, and then he and Lyle dragged Chris out. Pete observed that the beautiful Studebaker had rolled over on top of a rock pile. The front and back windows were broken out. Pete didn’t investigate further. He knew the end had come. The world as he knew it had ended.

Pete asked Chris, “Can you walk?”

“Why walk?” Chris answered. “Damn cold out here.”

“That’s a good sign,” Lyle noted. “He knows it’s cold.”

“Come on, let’s walk,” Pete said. “It’s less than half a mile.”

“Can somebody tell me why we are walking?” Chris asked.

“‘Cause you barfed all over Pete’s new car,” Lyle answered, “and then wrecked it.”

“Oh,” Chris answered.

When the nearly frozen young men arrived at the Bright Spot, a friend of Lyle’s saw them come in and greeted them. “You guys look half frozen. Car heater out?”

“Worse,” Lyle replied. “Wrecked the car a ways out of town.”

“Jeez, anybody hurt? Sheriff know about this?”

As far as Pete was concerned, he would prefer that nobody ever know about it. It had to be a bad dream he would wake up from any minute. Unfortunately, Pete, still shaking from the below-zero temperature outside, knew he was wide awake. He borrowed the Bright Spot’s phone and dialed the county sheriff. A sleepy Deputy David Larson answered Pete’s call.

“Where did it happen?” Larson asked. “Okay, I’ll drive by, take a look at it. I’ll meet you at the Bright Spot, write up the report.”

The young men slumped into a booth. They had gone through a pot of coffee by the time Deputy Larson showed up. Chris was asleep in a corner of the booth.

“Looks like you did a pretty good job on the Studebaker,” Deputy Larson said. “Good for scrap and parts.” He looked at Pete. “Want to have it towed in?”

The question surprised Pete. Like there was a choice. All the wrecks were towed into the Standard station. He didn’t own the car. Maybe it didn’t matter at this point. It had become a piece of junk littering a Highway 12 ditch. Pete reasoned that it would be easier to tell his dad that the car was at the Standard station than lying on its roof on top of a rock pile. At least now he wouldn’t have to tell him that the back seat had been messed up. “Sure, tow it in,” he said.

Deputy Larson filled out the accident report. Much of Larson’s formerly muscular body had converted to fat since he’d left the farm to become deputy sheriff five years earlier. He had bulked up into an even larger presence. The forms he filled out with a stubby pencil seemed miniature in comparison to his large, fat hand. Pete guessed that filling out accident reports wasn’t one of Larson’s favorite chores. There were cross-outs and inserted words; the result was a general mess. Larson pointed to where Pete needed to sign.

As he signed the form, Pete felt strange. He had never signed anything important in his life and signing an accident report that described the totaling his dad’s car didn’t seem like a good way to start. Deputy Larson dropped the three young men off at their homes and said he would take care of getting the car towed in the morning.

At three a.m. Pete crept up the stairs to his bedroom as quietly as possible. He got up at six a.m. as usual to feed and milk the cows. Pete had just about finished milking when Emil came in the side door of the barn.

“Where’s the car?” he asked.

The moment had arrived. The world as Pete knew it would end. “The car is at the Van Dorn Standard station. I wrecked the car last night,” Pete said. “Totaled it.”

Emil, whose red face looked like it could explode, said, “Shit.” He repeated himself. “Shit. You’re a big help. Try and get ahead and you bust something. Always busting things.”

Pete listened. There was some truth in what his dad said. Things did seem to break down where he was working. Last summer he was pulling a load of grain with the tractor, and somehow the load came unhitched, went in the ditch, and tipped over. A big mess. A week later he backed the pickup into the granary door. Took two days to fix the granary door, and the pickup bumper was still hanging. Then the worst—early this winter he forgot to drain the water out of the radiator after using the John Deere tractor. The water froze and busted the block.

Pete took a deep breath. “You won’t have to worry about that anymore. Chris and I are joining the marines. Be leaving soon.” Pete watched as the redness and angry look leaked from his dad’s face.

When Pete had finally gotten to bed that morning, he laid awake, worrying about what had happened and what would happen. He couldn’t imagine any good scenarios that would get him out of the mess he found himself in. It got him to thinking about another problem he had become aware of recently, the same problem Chris had. Pete had come to realize that his dream of someday farming the home place might never happen. He wasn’t any closer to being a farmer than he had been five years ago when he finished the eighth grade, and he likely wouldn’t be any closer five years from now.

Then a solution suddenly occurred to him. He would join the marines like Chris had done. It would diminish the current car wreck crisis by merging it with another attention-getting situation and at the same time get him out of the going-nowhere rut he was in. After resolving the matter in his mind, he fell into a deep sleep until the alarm went off at six.

Chris and Pete were inducted into the marines in Minneapolis in March 1950. A train carried them and half a dozen other marine recruits to the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Pete and Chris’s world view began to expand as they rode the rails in a Pullman car and ate their meals in a dining car served by Negro waiters. They saw their first mountains and deserts, plus an ocean.

A bus took the recruits from the train depot in San Diego to the training depot, where a man in a marine uniform wearing a wide-brimmed hat stepped into the bus. He started shouting, “Listen up recruits! You will get off this bus and plant your feet in the yellow footprints! STAND UP AND MOVE!” There was general confusion about what and where the yellow footprints were, and Pete was thinking, there is no need to shout—we can hear you. People around Milbank didn’t shout. They didn’t even talk loud.

Chris must have been thinking the same thing. “Why is he shouting? Yellow footprints?”

“Shut up, shitheads!” the drill instructor yelled. “I talk, you listen.”

Thus, the recruits were introduced to the drill instructors who would yell, curse, slap, and browbeat them for three months when the conversion of green farm boys to the earth’s best fighting men would have been completed.

The recruits found the yellow footprints and stood in them. The recruits were informed about the silver doors. They would walk through the silver doors only once. When they walked through them, they would be leaving their past behind and would be where becoming marines began. As they stood at attention in the yellow footprints, they were lectured to for so long they thought they would die. Finally, they were allowed to pass through the silver doors.

As farm boys, Pete and Chris were used to physical activity. They found that part of the training challenging but nothing they couldn’t handle. But as young men raised in a culture of independent thinking, other aspects of training took some getting used to, such as obeying without question the commands of superiors. One example of this was the close-order drill, in which a platoon is trained to act as one. However, by the end of three months the drill instructors had worked their magic. At the graduation ceremonies, each company of recruits marched like a well-oiled machine.

Upon graduation from recruit training, Pete and Chris were given a twenty-day furlough, with orders to report to the First Marine Division stationed at Camp Pendleton upon return.

They chose the bus as the most economical way to travel to their homes in South Dakota, where they would meet anxious parents and enjoy home cooking for a while.

Although they didn’t wear the blue marine dress uniform in Milbank—Pete said he would feel like a peacock in it—they attracted considerable attention by wearing the less formal marine green trousers and khaki shirts with ties. The town was proud to have these tall young marines as members of the community.

Pete and Chris agreed to observe their traditional Saturday night get-together with Lyle on the last Saturday before they returned to California. They thought they should do something special. After considerable discussion and shared doubts, they decided to repeat the disastrous Chautauqua visit but do it right this time. They were successful in that Chris did not demonstrate that one cannot get drunk on 3.2 beer and the women sharing their table didn’t reject them. The Chautauqua retake was pronounced a success.

Pete turned on the radio as they drove back to Milbank, and the song “Harbor Lights” emanated from the speaker. Pete’s folks had replaced the wrecked Studebaker with a new one and he was surprised they let him drive it. The prodigal son had apparently been forgiven. A voice broke through the music and announced, “WCCO radio is interrupting this program to bring you breaking news. An Associated Press report confirms that at dawn Sunday, the twenty-fifth of June, elements of the North Korean Army crossed the border into South Korea, and it appears that a full-scale invasion of the south by the north is occurring. Stay tuned for further developments.” WCCO switched back to normal programming, and the sounds of “Mona Lisa” drifted into the Studebaker.

“What the fuck?” Chris exclaimed. “Where is Korea?”

Pete had a pretty good idea where things were in East Asia. “Hangs off northern China,” he replied with an air of certainty.

“Okay,” Chris said. “I remember now. You think we’ll get involved?” he asked in a manner that sounded like he knew the answer.

Lyle didn’t think so. “Can’t be very important if I never heard of the place.”

“Because you don’t know shit about Korea doesn’t mean it isn’t important,” Chris declared.

Pete followed current events closely, like other people followed sports. “It isn’t about Korea,” Pete said. “It’s about communism. North Korea is communist and South Korea isn’t. That’s why it’s important.”

“Don’t like what I’m hearing,” Chris said. “This isn’t in the plan.”

“What plan?” Pete asked.

“Our marine enlistment plans. It’s about seeing the world and meeting some wild women, nothing about war.”

“Never told me about any plan,” Pete said.

“Not on paper,” Chris replied. “But that’s what I’ve been thinking. No war in the plan.”

Lyle chimed in. “Sounds like you need to update your plan.”

“Don’t get too smug, Lyle,” Pete said. “They could crank up the draft again.”

“You think so?” Lyle asked. “They wouldn’t.”

“You can beat that. Join the marines,” Chris suggested.

“That sounds like shooting yourself in the head to save your foot,” Lyle replied. “No thanks.”

After the chatter died down, the young marines worked the unexpected news over in their minds. Things out of Pete and Chris’s control were happening that could affect their lives in a bad way. This wouldn’t be something Pete and Chris would  read about; it would be happening to them.

The next day, Sunday, June 25, the Houser family went to church. His mother insisted Pete wear his uniform. “You look so good when you wear it,” she said.

Pete had not said anything about the news he heard the night before, and since his folks hadn’t mentioned Korea, he assumed they hadn’t heard anything. They were walking from their parked car to the church when Ralph Shuman, a neighbor who lived south of their place, asked them what they thought about the Korean news.

“What news?” Pete’s dad asked.

Shuman replied, “Something about the north invading the south. It’s all over the news.”

They listened to the car radio while driving home after church. Korea dominated the news. There were emergency meetings in Washington, and the United Nations would meet on Monday to discuss the crisis.

“What’s this all about?” Pete’s mother wanted to know.

“Just hope we don’t get involved,” Pete’s dad declared. “Let ′em fight. Who cares?”

From what Pete heard on the radio, it seemed clear that the United States would become involved. It wasn’t being described as a war between two parts of a small divided country; rather it was part of a bigger picture, a part of the Red Tide, the communist threat to the free world.

Pete’s mother didn’t seem concerned about the big picture. She was concerned about how it would affect her boy. “Will you have to go to Korea?” she asked Pete.

“Don’t know,” Pete replied. But privately he believed that if the United States did get involved, the First Marine Division would be ripe for participating.

Pete and Chris got together Sunday afternoon. Korea dominated their thoughts. By this time, they had little doubt that Korea would involve Marine Corps participation.

“Marines will lead the charge,” Chris mused. “Guess it’s what we trained for. War and killing people.

On June 29, President Harry S. Truman ordered a naval blockade of the Korean coast and authorized General Douglas A. MacArthur to send US ground troops into Korea. General MacArthur began moving army troops stationed in Japan to South Korea and requested of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that a marine regimental combat team be deployed to the Far East.

These events answered any questions in Chris and Pete’s minds with regards to how the United States would respond to the invasion of South Korea.

When it was time for Chris and Pete to return to California, they and their families waited outside of the drug store where the Greyhound bus would stop to pick up passengers. When they’d left for boot camp, only Pete’s mother had been there to send them off. This time, current events drew everyone in their immediate families to the departure. Although not discussed openly, the possibility of these young men going halfway around the world to face unknown dangers weighed heavily on these families. Pete’s mother, who had become emotional when they were leaving for boot camp, hugged Pete long and warmly but remained stoic during the sendoff, as if to demonstrate strength during a crisis. Even Pete’s dad moved outside his comfort zone and gave Pete a warm hug.

When Pete and Chris arrived at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in California to report in at the Marine First Division, they were directed to a place where the First Provisional Marine Brigade was being formed in response to General Douglas MacArthur’s request that a marine regimental team be sent to Korea as soon as possible.

The two South Dakota farm boys who had just recently been pronounced marines when they graduated from the Marine Corps Training Center in California realized they were on a fast track to go to war. What had seemed only a possibility was now reality. Each of them absorbed the information and processed it in his own individual way.

It made Pete’s whole body feel strange for a moment, as if the news had affected his whole being and it was reorganizing itself to adapt. Like one life had ended and a new one was beginning.

Chris used to enjoy watching the war newsreels that were shown before a movie. Now he felt like he was in one of those war news films. In a way it was scary and, in a way, exciting. Now the First Marine Brigade would be in the news, and the people in Milbank would be watching it.

The brigade quickly organized. Pete and Chris ended up partnered on a fire team, Chris the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) man with Pete as his assistant. The fire team was part of a squad that consisted of four fire teams and a squad leader. Their fire team leader was Corporal Brad Hautman, a World War II veteran, and their rifleman was Adam Anderson, a farm boy from North Dakota and a recent recruit. They were the First Fire Team in the Second Squad in the First Platoon, Easy Company, in the Fifth Battalion. Within days the First Marine Brigade was loading onto ships at San Diego Navy Base and departing for Korea.

The brigade quickly unloaded upon docking at the port of Pusan and joined the United Nations (UN) coalition, fighting to maintain the Pusan Perimeter, the last tenuous foothold left on the Korean Peninsula.

Pete and Chris soon learned that war for an infantryman entailed more than fear and excitement. The lot of the infantryman at war has not changed fundamentally since time immemorial. It involves imminent contact with the enemy, terribly dirty conditions, sleeping on the ground or in holes in the ground, eating cold rations, and lots of spilled blood, human suffering, and death.

Most men who serve as infantrymen adapt; some don’t. Those that do normalize their existence. They form a close bond with those who share their experience.

After five weeks of almost constant combat and substantial losses, the First Marine Brigade was pulled back and retrofitted, their losses replaced. The First Fire Team suffered only minor wounds in all the action. Pete’s back was peppered with grenade shrapnel, and Corporal Hautman, the fire team leader, had a bullet pass through his helmet and graze his forehead. In both cases the minor wounds were treated with first aid.

Most of the marines thought they would be put back in the line after some rest, but instead the brigade and its men and equipment were put on ships and seagoing landing craft. The First Marine Brigade ships joined a large convoy of other ships and landing craft carrying the First Marine Division and the Army Seventh Infantry Division. The marines in the First Provisional Marine Brigade found out that they were now part of the First Marine Division and that they would be making an amphibious landing at a place called Inchon.

The landing at Inchon took the North Korean enemy completely by surprise. After a few days of sometimes intense fighting, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was occupied by Allied troops.

Once Seoul was secured, the First Marine Division moved back to Inchon, where it was again retrofitted, and lost men replaced. It soon became known that the First Marine Division would again be loading onto ships and making another amphibious landing. Where that would be was unknown.

On October 15, 1950, the convoy carrying the First Marine Division to its next destination set sail. What was supposed to be a three-day sail to Wonsan on the North Korean east coast turned into an eleven-day back and forth in the Sea of Japan while unexpected mines were cleared from the Wonsan harbor. In the meantime, Wonsan was occupied by UN forces traveling overland.

After the inauspicious start, the First Marine Division and other UN forces began moving into the Taebaek Mountains on a primitive mountain trail hardly wide enough for ox carts to pass. Even the men in the First Fire Team suspected it was not a good tactic to string out a marine division and other UN forces on this mountain trail that hardly deserved to be called a road. There were no alternative ways to get to or from the trail from anywhere else. All the supplies for over thirty-five thousand men and their equipment would have to move on this road.

The First Fire Team and some of the other members of the squad discussed the situation. Pete suggested that the Inchon landing had been so successful General Douglas MacArthur thought he was God.

Pete continued, “MacArthur is in his Tokyo office looking at a map and sees this road running from the coast and through the mountains almost straight north to the Yalu River and the China border. So, MacArthur says, ‘We’ll just have some marines drive up that road and occupy that part of the border.’”

Sarcasm is a common trait among men involved in combat for long periods, and there was no shortage of it in Easy Company, First Platoon, Fifth Battalion, men who had fought in the Pusan Perimeter and Inchon landing before entering the tenuous trail.

Marine General Oliver led the First Marine Division and apparently had similar concerns as the men in the First Platoon, Easy Company. He had his orders to advance along this mountain road to the Yalu River. He was following orders but slow-walked the division’s advance along the mountain road. He assigned men to guard their flanks along the roadside. He built supply depots in villages along the path of the advance, occupied them, and built defense perimeters around them. He had two air strips bulldozed out of the frozen terrain.

Although North Korean forces had evaporated for the most part, there were rumors and concerns about the Chinese entering the war. The further the marines advanced into the mountains, the more obvious the Chinese threat became. At one point there was a pitched battle between a marine regiment and a large force identified as Chinese. Soon they were seeing more signs of the Chinese presence and seeing figures in quilted jackets in the distance on a regular basis. Patrols moving out from the perimeters were skirmishing with Chinese patrols. Still the orders remained to advance toward their objective.

Another enemy was the weather. The marines had been advancing during the month of November; winter was firmly established in the Taebaek Mountains. The marines had advanced sixty miles and occupied a village called Hagaru near the Chosin Reservoir. By this time, they were experiencing temperatures as low as twenty below zero. Pete and Chris had grown up in South Dakota and had seen weather twenty below and colder but had never lived in it twenty-four hours a day while they had to sleep in fox holes. Weapons wouldn’t fire; trucks wouldn’t start. Frostbite became a common occurrence. Rations froze.

After spending an extended period of time at Hagaru, the First Fire Team had begun to feel at home, despite the worsening weather and the almost daily patrols outside of their perimeter. That changed on Thanksgiving Day, when they were told the Fifth Regiment would be moving up the mountain road fourteen more miles to another small village called Yudam-ni.

When the Fifth Regiment arrived in Yudam-ni, the First Fire Team learned that the regiment would be leading a diversion the next morning, advancing over a primitive mountain road to the west to link up with the Eighth Army advancing to the east.

The advance started the next morning and soon ran into stiff resistance from Chinese, who were dug into the hills in line with the advance. The Fifth Regiment made little progress and dug in for the night, planning to continue in the morning.

The temperature dropped to twenty-five degrees below zero. Chinese began probing the Easy Company line. Everyone in the First Fire Team was awake. Ominous feelings ran through the First Fire Team members. Bugles and whistles began sounding down the slope from where Easy Company had established their line of defense. A mortar flare lit up the area. Pete and Chris peered at the scene below. Masses of men were advancing in orderly columns up the slope, headed for their line of fox holes. Everything in the line began firing at the masses advancing toward them—machine guns, M1 rifles, and BARs such as Pete and Chris used started to pump out lead. Mortars began dropping rounds on the columns. The withering fire stalled the lead columns and they evaporated, but other columns kept advancing and began to overrun the line of fox holes. Reserves filled holes in the line, and eventually the attack was stalled. The Chinese fell back. The first light of a new day appeared. The attack was over. Corsair fighter planes appeared and began attacking any visible surviving enemies.

The gruesome work of locating wounded marines needing care and locating and removing the dead began. Among the dead were Pete and Chris in their foxhole, Chris still gripping his BAR weapon and Pete holding a clip of ammunition in his hand, ready to slam it into the BAR when needed.

The Fifth Regiment was not the only unit under attack that night. Every unit defending the perimeter that ran for miles in hills surrounding the Yudam-ni plateau had been attacked. The Chinese had the best fighting elements of the First Marine Division in their trap and were now going to kill them. The Chinese had put twelve divisions into the Chosin Reservoir area with the mission to destroy the Marine First Division. The marines at Yudam-ni and those strung along the mountain road along which they had advanced had a different plan. They would fight their way out of the trap. Marine General Oliver summed it up: “We’re not retreating, we’re attacking in a new direction.”

The seven-day battle in which the marines fought their way back down the primitive mountain road to the sea with all their equipment has become an epic chapter in United States Marine history.

They were not able to bring out all the dead. They had difficulty finding transport to bring out the wounded in the advance to the sea, so most of the dead were buried in mass graves at sites along the mountain road. Pete and Chris were buried along with other marines killed at Yudam-ni in a mass grave before the marines fought their way out of that valley. On a cold February day, people who lived in and near Milbank, South Dakota, gathered in the city auditorium to honor Peter Houser and Chris Engelson, local sons and heroes who died for their country in a cold and desolate faraway place. Lyle Houser, close friend of Pete and Chris, was among those in the auditorium. Next to the immediate families, Lyle felt the loss of his good friends as much as anyone. As Lyle listened to the words praising Pete and Chris for their patriotism, bravery, and sacrifice, he questioned the accuracy of some of what was being said. He didn’t question that they were brave and had sacrificed their lives but did question the notion that patriotism was what drove them to enlist in the marines. Lyle, being aware of what had led them to join the marines, knew that it had little, if anything, to do with patriotism or willingness to sacrifice their lives for flag or country. Pete and Chris had no intention of becoming heroes. For Pete and Chris, the Marine Corps provided what they believed to be an opportunity to move into the next phase of their lives. They were focused on their future, not the country’s future. However, despite their original intent, they had become unintended heroes and sacrificed their lives for their country. That was reality, and Lyle did not question that

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