COOLSPRING TWP. – Robert Smith never got a hero's welcome when he returned home from Korea – until almost 70 years later.
Wounded in combat in 1950, the Coolspring Township resident spent several months in a military hospital. It wasn't until earlier this year that he went with a group of veterans on an Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington, D.C.
"It was like the welcome home I never had," said Smith, a Duluth, Minnesota, native who said the trip to D.C. was "interesting," especially the memorials, but that welcome is what will stick with him.
"My dad never had a welcome home because after he was stable they shipped him to Japan, then to California, where my grandmother met him and flew with him back to the hospital," Tim Smith said of his father, who spent six months recuperating at the Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago, Illinois.
But in more ways than one, that injury and return home were lucky, according to the now 90-year-old veteran, who still recalls the day he was injured.
"I was a Marine in Korea and was wounded on the 38th Parallel. They flew me back to a hospital in Waukegan [Great Lakes], and I was in the hospital for about six months. I was released and went to the Marines, but never went back to Korea.
"It was the first time they recaptured Seoul," Robert Smith said. "We did the Inchon Landing and fought all the way to the 38th Parallel [border between North and South Korea]. That's where a North Korean truck came out, crossed the border and stopped.
"They shot a 90mm mortar shell on us on top of the hill. I was blown out of the foxhole, then the shock rippled down the hill and bounced me around – I fell on my back and damaged my kidneys.
"Several others were wounded in the attack," he said. "I remember they threw the rocket up on us and it landed on a Navy corpsman; all that was left was bloody clothing."
So what's good about that? It was partly what he missed when the U.S. forces continued into North Korea and partly what he found back in the States.
"I was lucky though," Robert Smith said. "Gen. MacArthur got all those guys on ships and took them to the Chosin Reservoir, where a lot of them froze their hands and feet, and they had to be cut off ... When I got to Great Lakes [Naval Station] after being injured, there were a lot of guys there with gangrene, I felt sorry for them."
From the 38th Parallel they went north, Tim Smith said, "but they did not have appropriate clothing or enough ammunition or cold-weather gear, he was actually lucky he was wounded before he had to go up there."
Maybe even luckier because, while recovering in the Chicago suburb, he met Mary Patterson.
"We met in Waukegan," said the now Mary Smith. "I worked in a factory making radio and communications stuff right across from the base – we met there. They used to have dances and we would go to the base to hear the big bands play – it was open to local girls who wanted to go and dance. I liked the music."
She'll never forget the night they met.
"We met after he came back from Korea, after one of the dances," she said. "It was about 20 below zero, and three girls, a sailor and I were waiting for a bus when he came by in his 4-door Packard. He said it was big enough for all of us, and asked us if we needed a ride.
"We girls all kind of looked at each other, and I said I won't go by myself," she recalled with a smile. "Finally the sailor said we'll all go. I was the last to get dropped off and he asked me if I would go out on a date with him. I said, 'OK,' because I figured he had too many to drink and wouldn't even remember. It surprised me when he showed up right on time."
But he did, and the couple was married in June 1951.
Tim Smith said his father had been a Marine for many years before being called to duty.
"My dad went into the service at age 16 during World War II, and was in the reserves when he was called up to go to Korea. He stayed in the service for many years after Korea, but when Vietnam started, he got out because he had a wife and three kids to take care of. It was an honorable discharge."
"I was back in Duluth at the time and had different priorities," Robert Smith said. "I got out just before my regiment was activated and sent to Cambodia."
Robert recalls the days after he got the first call to Korea.
"I was originally from Duluth and that's where I signed up," he said. "We marched down the center of Duluth to climb onto a train – with wooden bunks – to San Diego. In San Diego they took us to an area – we didn't know where we were – to train on shooting and tossing grenades. Then after two weeks they put us on a cattle car back to San Diego and then onto a ship to Korea.
"We got off that ship on a rope ladder and had to be very careful because those little boats could wash right up and break your legs if you jumped too fast."
After his return, he received some honors, but they took time.
"He was wounded in 1950, and was awarded a Purple Heart, but they never sent it to him," Tim Smith said. "I spoke to Congressman Mike Flanagan and he felt compelled to get him that Purple Heart."
He finally got it, and with that distinction, the government of South Korea also sent him a medal.
"Most people don't realize how grateful the Korean people were to us," Tim Smith said. "It was the lost war, sandwiched in between World War II and Vietnam, and most people never realized how grateful they were for a free society. That's why the Korean government sent him a thank you medal."
He also got a much more personal thank you.
"My daughter [Lizzie Smith] went to IU and she had a classmate from South Korea," Tim Smith said. "He came over for Thanksgiving once, and pulled dad over to the side to thank him for his service. He later wrote a letter to thank him again."
"That lad from Korea, when he found out I was in Korea he was so thankful to see me," Robert Smith said. "He said if not for me, and the U.S. military, he would not be here today because none of his family would've been alive."
The Honor Flight earlier this year was also a belated sort of thanks, Tim Smith said.
"Honor Flight gets in touch with vets after a family member or friend writes a letter. They do this all over the country for World War II and Korea vets [and Vietnam vets starting in 2019] without charge. They select the older vets and try to get them all there."
Family members do not go, but volunteers travel with them on the flight to D.C., then ride along on buses so there's a one-on-one escort to all the memorials.
"It was a special day for him," Tim Smith said. "They get to Dulles [Airport in D.C.] and there is a gauntlet of American flags and volunteers to shake their hands and thank them. Then on the return flight at Midway, the families are there to greet them, along with a motorcycle group of veterans with flags – it was a great treat because he was wounded so never really had a proper welcome home."
Robert said he found the trip to D.C. "real interesting," he said.
"I liked the Korean War Memorial – it's a bunch of guys in ponchos on a hill, just like when we were there."
He also enjoyed the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial, and, "While on the bus we went through the Arlington National Cemetery. On TV it looks flat but it's actually built on a hill."
He also enjoyed the National Air and Space Museum, he said. "It was really interesting to go to the museum and see the plane hanging from the ceiling [Enola Gay] that dropped the bomb on Japan."
The trip also spurred memories for Mary Smith, who comes from a military family.
"He finally got to Washington," she said of her husband, "but so many of these guys never got to ... in our family we had one in the Navy and one in the Army; my brother-in-law was on the boat [USS Missouri] when Japan signed the peace treaty."
After the war, Robert began working, and again, his war injury proved lucky.
"I worked as a tool and die maker in Duluth," he said. "They were looking for an apprentice for the tool room and they asked me because they knew I'd already been in the service and wouldn't get called again."
After he retired, he and his wife "came to La Porte County because our kids were all here – about 16-17 years ago," Robert Smith said. "I've lost touch with all of those guys [servicemen] now – they all left Duluth and went their different ways."
But he still has his memories, medals and one very proud family.
"I'm very proud of him, oh yes," Mary Smith said.
"I was in D.C. on 9/11 so I understand how important servicemen are," Tim Smith said. "I thank them all whenever I see them and was a volunteer with Wounded Warriors. My dad instilled patriotism in us and how important freedom is to our country."
And he thinks Honor Flight is a great way to show that pride.
"I would encourage anyone with parents or family who served in World War II or Korea or Vietnam to look into Honor Flight – it's a way to thank them. We're all very proud of dad and we all wrote letters to Honor Flight."
The organization (honorflightchicago.org) is looking for more vets to make the trip if they're in good health, he said. The volunteer-run non-profit takes about 1,000 vets a year to D.C.
Robert Smith said he enjoyed the trip, and never thought twice about his decision to serve.
"I have no regrets about going over there," he said. "I was happy to go and serve, to help the South Korean people. The North Koreans were terrible to the people, especially to the women, and it was our duty to help them."
Korean says thank you
This is part of a letter Robert Smith received from a South Korean student, thanking him for his service during the Korean War:
It is such a great pleasure that I write a letter to thank you for your devotion and the past days you spent in my home country. My name is Jin, Lizzie’s friend. We met on Thanksgiving day in 2017 as I visited Lizzie’s house. I still remember that you told me you fought in the Korean War and how you contributed to the freedom of people in this land.
... I am writing this letter in my office in Seoul, South Korea. I see the bright sunlight and beautiful spring weather through the window. Cherry blossoms are everywhere outside, and birds are singing. Thinking about the painful time my country had 69 years ago, it would have been impossible to see this peaceful scenery without the great men, including you sir, who fought for freedom and democracy. From the deep bottom of my heart, thank you.
After the war, many things have changed. As you see now, Korea has been constantly curing the scar of the tragic division, and people around the globe have been calling for peace. What I feel right now is that we all still have responsibilities to take care of where we are and what we do. Still, there are serious risks from outside of our countries, and young men and women need to stay aware of what they need to do for the great value of freedom and democracy ...
That’s why we learn from the great people who have been keeping it that way, and you showed us how to fight for that way. Even though the moment was short when we met, I can still feel that you, as a veteran, made a tremendous and incredible effort. I wish that I might meet you again and listen to your great story.