They were there during the Inchon Invasion, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, and at Heartbreak Ridge. They fought valiantly in a land where, 60 years later, repercussions from that “forgotten war” are still felt.
They are the former soldiers from the Commonwealth who tell their stories this month in the new KET documentary In Their Own Words: Kentucky Veterans of the Korean War, premiering Sunday, Nov. 10 at 2/1 pm on KET and Monday, Nov. 11 at 9:30/8:30 pm on KET2.
“There is lot of emotion when these guys are retelling their battle experiences,” said KET producer Tom Bickel, who produced Kentucky WWII Veterans: In Their Own Words in 2007. “There are some tears—and some humor.”
In the program, Richard Zapata, a Marine from Louisville, tells the story of his beach landing, quaking from both the stench of diesel fuel and the nauseous action of the flat-bottom landing barge.
“Someone fires off a flare and we’re going full-bore for the beach and it’s like a race,” Zapata remembered. “In the meantime, you’ve got all these shells flying over—rockets are flying, shells are coming back the other way. And it’s really hard to keep your head down and not watch it! I know, that sounds silly—but it’s like watching the movies!”
Kentucky soldiers in Korea couldn’t have been more proud of a very special participant in the war effort who went by the name of Sergeant Reckless — a Thoroughbred mare who earned her stripes on the battlefield, packing supplies and munitions up the steep hills to the Marines.
“Reckless was a beautiful little animal,” said Paul Hammersley of Bowling Green. Trained to avoid the hazards of war, Reckless was led up a mountain by her trainer only three times before she was able to make the journey 51 times alone.
“They would load the little mare up with her six or seven canisters and send her up the mountain, under heavy fire the whole time,” Hammersley said. “She knew when to duck enemy fire, she knew how to hide in little alcoves and get out of the ways of shells until she made it.
“We didn’t know how she made it,” he added. “The good Lord took care of her, I guess.”
In one of the program’s most serious moments, Ernest West of Wurtland, the only surviving Kentucky recipient of the Medal of Honor, stoically retells the story of how, again and again, he went back to save wounded members of his squad who’d been injured by enemy grenades on Heartbreak Ridge.
“I took the point, the point man…and I hit my rifle twice with my knuckles and he crawled up to me and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘They’re sitting up there waiting on us, George,” said West, who’d been chosen for the assignment that night by his lieutenant, a West Point graduate, specifically because of his abilities—and his cool head.
The enemy ambushed the Americans, rolling grenades down the hill into the advancing men. West sent some of his men back to cover them and crawled ahead to retrieve the wounded—all the time returning fire himself.
“I found a couple of them laying there and I carried them back, and I went back and found another one. I counted noses again and I still had one gone, so I crawled back up there and found George and said, ‘Can you walk?’ and he said, ‘Walk? I can’t even crawl!’ I said ‘All right’ and picked him up and laid him on my shoulder and started back with him.”
The horrors of war can lead to close friendships—even friendships that take more than five decades to rekindle. Jack Armacost of Lexington was wounded in battle, just moments after he tried to save a wounded friend. That friend, whose foot had been sheared off at the ankle, bled out and died in Armacost’s arms.
And then, wounded himself, Armacost was taken down the hill to safety in an unlikely place—beneath a tank, where the wounded would await transport to a MASH unit. There, under the tank, Armacost was cared for by the tank commander, a man he wouldn’t see again until 2007, when Hervey Hilen walked into Lexington’s VFW Post for Korean War veterans.
“He asked if he could join, and I said, ‘Sure,’” said Armacost. “I started reviewing his [paperwork] and I said, ‘You were covering what?’ And he said ‘24th Division, 19th Regiment Able, Baker, Charlie, and George Companies.’ And I said, ‘That’s what I was in!’ And he said, ‘Yeah. I know!’” After that the two became close friends, for nearly seven years until Hilen’s recent death.
“He was very brave,” Armacost said of his friend. “He commanded five tanks, he was very much a taskmaster but he was very dedicated to his job. What a great guy Hervey was. What a brave man he was.”