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Korean War veterans reunite, reminisce

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson City Press Staff Writer

(Published Monday, March 23, 1998)

GRAY, Tenn. — Shortly after their field artillery battalion broke through the critical Pusan perimeter in 1950, Charles O. Beckett and Clarence Gingerich decided to take a respite from the Korean War and get some much-needed rest.

During the night, as they lay in their pup tent, several North Koreans ambushed their camp. After a lone bullet pierced their tent, the two decided they didn't have time to sleep and rejoined the fight unharmed.

"They like to have scared us to death," said Beckett, a 66-year-old Gray resident. "We wondered if we would ever make it home again. But we didn't have time to be scared. We had a job to do."

For one year, the two served in the 3rd "Marne" Infantry Division, 9th Field Artillery, B Battery, and were shipped back home in 1951. Little did they know it would be 47 years later before they would see one another again, share fond memories or talk about their wartime experiences.

Thanks to countless phone calls and letters to the editor sent to newspapers in several states, Beckett's wife, Anna, located Gingerich in November, and he and Beckett immediately planned a reunion date.

On Saturday, Beckett and Gingerich, 68, Bunker Hill, Ind., were reunited at Beckett's Old Stage Road home, along with Samuel R. "Ralph" Finley, 65, Greenville, S.C. — a fellow soldier who served in the 9th Field Artillery's A Battery.

"Clarence and I met in Fort Benning, Ga., in 1949, and we shipped out together at sea for Korea in August of 1950 and landed in Pusan, South Korea," Beckett said. "The Army was afraid saltwater would rust the guns — 155mm howitzers — on the trip over, so they covered them in Cosmoline, which is a thick oil. After we got to Pusan, we pulled the guns into a schoolyard and got them cleaned up. Then we got on a little train to Taegu. The guns were taken to Taegu ahead of us so they would be ready for battle."

Gingerich remembers well the docking at Pusan, which he said was originally an unplanned event.

"During that time, we were supposed to land in Japan, but the United Nations discovered that the North Koreans were going to attack Pusan and they were going to take it," he said. "So they changed the orders and we didn't land in Japan. We went straight to Pusan and landed on Aug. 25, 1950.

"They only gave us three days to prepare for the front line. They needed our artillery to break up the tanks and soldiers there. We had six guns per battery and there were three batteries — Able, Baker and Charlie. The shells weighed 95 pounds each. Then, three days later, we were up in what they called the 'Bowling Alley Battle' near Taegu."

Although Beckett and Gingerich never met Finley during the war, Finley located Beckett's name in some old orders from the war and contacted him in 1996. The two have been close friends since.

While the three all suffered malaria several times during and after the war, Finley was the only wounded in battle, thus the only recipient of the Purple Heart award.

A 155mm shell exploded inside a howitzer when a safety latch failed to work. Two men — one a South Korean soldier assigned to the battery, the other an American — were killed, and Finley and three other American soldiers were wounded. Finley spent 57 days in the Osaka, Japan, Army Hospital recovering from shrapnel lodged in his stomach, side and head and powder burns to the face.

Nevertheless, Finley said he is proud of the battalion and division in which he served.

"In the beginning, China was not in the war," he said. "The North Koreans were the enemy. We were one of the first outfits from the states to be sent to Korea. The 9th Field Artillery was one of the first outfits from the states to get involved in the Korean War. Also, the 9th Field Artillery Battalion supported every division — including all of the Republic of Korea or ROK divisions — in the campaign except the 7th Infantry Division."

Beckett, Gingerich and Finley said they have considered revisiting their old stomping grounds; Finley said it would be nice to revisit Korea in 2000 — the 50th anniversary of the "Forgotten War."

While death, destruction and sorrow epitomize any war, Finley said he has a few nice memories of the Korean War.

"The 9th FA's A Battery was first set up in an apple orchard," Finley said. "The Army told us not to eat the apples, because the North Koreans occupied that territory and may have poisoned the apples.

"But after we got our equipment set up, all of us picked that apple orchard to death. The apples were really large and probably some of the best I have ever eaten."

Story © 1998-2004 Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press, 204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

596th Signal Support Co., 97th Signal Battalion
47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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