Spring of 1949
Today I had a great idea. I told my friends “Hey guys! I got a great idea. Let's join the National Guard. We'll be summer camp soldiers, and we did.
Bill, Bud, Eddie and I were all Arkansas Ozark mountain boys, only 17 years old. We were just boys when we left, but that would soon change.
Summer camp 1949 Little Rock
It was a real blast! Shoot the big Howitzer! Be a field soldier! You can go to any beer joint in North Little Rock in uniform and they say “What will you have soldier? Let me buy you one.” On the jukebox plays Hank Williams singing “The Lovesick Blues.”
The year 1949-1950
We drill every week, rifle drill team with the Bolt Action Springfield. The same one used in military funerals. I’m the bugler now. I’ve got a stripe. Private First Class. I’m the captain’s jeep driver.
Summer Camp 1950
Not much has changed since last year, except Hank Snow is on the juke box singin “Movin On.” Rumors are flying. It’s August, and the Korea thing started in June. We didn’t know what Korea was at first; thought it might be some kind of intestinal disorder. In a way, that’s what it turned out to be.
The last day - Sunday afternoon
We were all in formation to hear the big announcement, “You are all in the US Army for the next two years.”
They told us to go home, get our lives organized in 30 days. The 936 FA (Field Artillery) would be going to Camp Carson in Colorado. Nobody said we’d be going to Korea after that, but we knew.
Some tried to find a way to get out of going. Most didn’t. Some who failed, mostly the WWII vets, were in tears because they couldn’t go with us. Bill, Bud and Eddie decided to join the Navy instead. They got four years with clean beds, showers, clean clothes and three hot meals a day. That sure looked good later on, but I became a soldier instead.
I was 18 when I had that physical. The Army doctor looked at me and said, “You don’t hear very well.” I explained I had a bad infection when I was 6 years old. He said, “I can fail you if you don’t want to go.”
“NO! I have to go!” I told him.
Each unit (Battery) had only about 50% strength or 40 men. Most of those men grew up together. Some were related, even brothers. All from small towns in Northwest Arkansas.
All of us, with our equipment, left on one big train — a sight that will never be seen again.
Camp Carson, Colorado — August-December 1950
More everything, men, equipment, total of 18 guns now. I’m a corporal now, driving the tractor, pulling the #5 gun and I’m the bugler for the battalion.
We’re in Korea with all our stuff now. The Pusan Perimeter held and is now expanding north. We get on the LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) and go all the way around Korea to the west side battling a storm that made even the sailors sick. We rode the high tide in to Inchon for the second amphibious landing of the war.
The tractor is running with the crew and me aboard. The ship hit the bottom. The door opened and the ramp went down. I got a small taste of what it must have been like at Omaha Beach in 1944. This time, there is no shooting. The Marines have secured the place.
Now, we are on the beach. It’s getting cold, and nobody is saying anything. We can hear the war to the north, and we are scared. Then, Bob Pratt, son of the local chiropractor, said it all, “Boys, I kind of wish we were fighting the war tonight over a cup of coffee in the Horseshoe Grill.”
We are heading north now. The Han River Bridge was long ago destroyed. We are crossing the river on what?...a pontoon bridge?...two steel tracks on some boats!
It’s pitch dark. Our headlights are no help. The bridge is sinking as we cross. We weigh 20 tons and are depending on two guys with flashlights on the front bumper, and I’m driving! If I goof this, we are all dead. My pucker meter on the peg all the way across. Lordy! What next?
Snow, ice, rain and mud, mud, mud! Shooting our way north. We eat and sleep when and where we can. Sometimes there is no cooking. We eat C-Rations out of a box packed in 1943. Yummy! The C-ration box had a pack of cigarettes in it, Camels or Lucky Strikes. Their motto was, “Not a cough in a carload” and we added “Not a smoke in a trainload. Korean money was worthless. Cigarettes were money, and we got a lot extra.
The water trailer holds only enough for drinking and cooking, so we are dirty, and we stink. Navy life is looking better and better.
We stop at the North Korean border, shoot more and wait for what we know is coming — 700,000 Chinese troops. (If you want to learn more about this, check Wikipedia.)
It comes at midnight, We packed up and shot up all we had, the last few by looking right down the barrel at them. The infantry is with us, shooting. We ignore it. We had to get those guns out and go, so we did… just barely.
Move back, more ammo, shoot it up and move back, again, again, again…
It’s late April now, and we are on a university campus south of Seoul. There is a cool light rain falling, but we’ll sleep safe and dry. The cooks are working. Mail call comes, and I get a big box filled with Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. They were immediately shared and gone. Also in the box was a .45 caliber Army WWI Colt Revolver. Dad paid $25. Happy birthday son. Today, I am 19 years old. Dad later sent me four more automatic pistols. He paid $25-$30. I sold them for $100 each. Guess I was an arms dealer.
Dad changed a lot while I was away. Instead of dropping Mom and me off at church and going fishing, Dad went to church with Mom till I got home. Of course, then he went back to fishing.
We found ourselves shooting our way north. Stop, wait. Here it comes again — four more times, each less intense than the one before.
The men who came into our unit were from almost every source in the military. There was no race problem. We had Black, Hispanic, Asian. They all melted right into our band of Arkansawyers, and we became brothers on a mission.
We looked after each other, a plus, but when someone was hurt, we all hurt. When someone was killed, it was worse than hurt.
July 1951 - Captain Douglas Morrow
A WWII vet, he was our mailman. I saw him daily walking with his big leather bag. In July of 1951, I said, “Doug, it looks like we are about halfway through this.” Doug said, “Frank, I’ll be glad when it’s over. I don’t want to be a hero, just do my part. I just want to go home and be a mailman.
Doug was killed two weeks later.
I went out into the woods and cried until I was empty. After 70 years, it still hurts, and I still hear him say, “I just want to go home and be a mailman.”
I was sent back to Service Battery to take a clerk’s job. I didn’t want to go. It was supposed to be safer back there though, and they were shorthanded. I spent my days sleeping and doing paperwork and my nights driving a truck. I almost bought the farm the very first night.
Late January 1952
We were finally headed home. The troop ship was heading under the Golden Gate Bridge. We’re home! Just like when we left the U.S., the band is on deck playing “Dixie.” And just like that, an 18-year-old kid came home a 19-year-old man.
Today, as I drive to work, I’m following a Korean-made car. On the back, it says Kia. This means “Rising from East Asia.” To me, it says the precious way of life we Americans have, that all people should have, that Americans would risk and sometimes give their lives for others to have, that South Korea now has — freedom. That’s why I and others said, “I have to go.”
I turned 91 yesterday. I still work part-time with Wes Abney as an engineer. I don’t reckon I will ever quit. I will just die. This is my life.
Cpl. Frank Cunningham NG25-425-166
Battery C 936 Field Artillery Battalion
Arkansas National Guard