WATERLOO — Marvin Staker grew up in small towns in Iowa, farmed most of his life and had four children with his wife, Verona.
Born in Dysart in October 1931, Staker graduated high school in Rhodes and began farming with his father. He enjoyed playing baseball and basketball through school, then worked in construction and for a factory before his marriage.
Staker was about 11 when the first planes struck Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. His oldest brother served in the U.S. Navy during World War II on the island of Saipan. His other older brother served in the U.S. Army in Korea.
Staker was drafted into U.S. Army toward the end of the Korean War in 1952. He served in Korea for 13 months, including time as a combat engineer near the 38th parallel line.
“I had to go serve my country, wasn’t much else you could do,” he said in an interview with the Grout Museum.
Staker was transported to basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He attended camouflage school, where he learned how to disguise clothing and items based on the colors of the land you’re hiding in.
“Other than that ... I shot a rifle down there and learned how to clean my gun,” he said.
When it was time to go to Korea, Staker left with his troop to San Francisco.
“That’s where I got on the ship. I was on the ship for 15 days. I know for the first two or three days I was sicker than a dog,” he said.
Landing in Korea was beautiful, he recalled.
“But when you got near the front line ... it wasn’t too pretty.”
Dotted along the countryside were towns filled mainly with huts. Staker and the soldiers with him lived in tents about a mile from the front line.
“There was probably about eight men in the tent, and we each had a bunk.
“My first job was standing guard at an ammunition belt ... artillery rounds were coming in and it scared the heck out of me,” he recalled.
He later began driving a Jeep for the lieutenant before receiving rank as sergeant, about two months in.
“I got my rank fast, but I think you get ranked fast when you’re in the lines in combat,” he said.
Every now and then, the soldiers would get word the enemy had crossed their front line. “They were coming our way, so we thought we better build a foxhole,” Marvin said, noting nothing ever ended up happening while he was there, but that he could see the Korean soldiers from the front lines.
“We stayed at the bunkers (trenches with sandbags around) a lot like you see in the movies,” he said.
One of Staker’s main jobs was hunting for mine fields, typically in places with a lot of traffic.
Detectors would signal for metal in the ground, and if it was a mine, it then had to be probed from the ground.
“As far as I can remember, I know they took their bayonet and just sort of heaved them up,” he said.
Through the years, many memories have faded for Staker, but a few will always remain.
“One Sunday we went off swimming ... there was a body without a head on it. That stayed with me all these years. It didn’t take us long to get out of the water.”
He also recalled being in Seoul for a day, but the only real memory that has stuck with him of Seoul is the foul smell from fish markets.
Rest and recouperations, or “R&Rs,” were times allotted to soldiers to break from the hostile area and travel. Marvin was able to tour Tokyo and went to the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. His second “R&R” was in Osaka.
“That was pretty, I really enjoyed that,” he said.
The United States signed an armistice with Korea in 1953 — four months in to Staker’s deployment —ending the war. But Staker and many other soldiers remained in Korea.
He then became an inspector for South Korean camps, “which just about every base had a Korean camp.”
He enjoyed when his wife would send him crackers and Velveeta cheese, but stayed away from the local food. He said the climate was similar to Iowa, cold in the winter, hot in the summer.
In 1954, Staker’s time in Korea was over, and he was stationed back in the U.S. to finish his two-year draft.
He sailed for 15 days on a battleship converted to a transport ship into Seattle, then traveled to Fort Carson in Colorado, then to Fort Riley in Kansas, where he was a squad sergeant for two or three months until he was discharged.
Staker was relieved his deployment was behind him.
“It wasn’t a difficult adjustment, I was just happy to be out of Korea,” he said. “I don’t think there was any good part, but I’m glad I served.”
The worst part, he said, was the risk of getting killed.
“But probably a lot of them, I’m sure, had it a lot worse than me.”
He described a friend of his who was killed the second day Staker arrived in Korea. “He was a machine gun operator. That was a scary point.”
Staker returned to Traer to his wife and finished off his farming career, retiring in 1993.
Staker, now 86, enjoys building birdhouses, woodworking and living in Iowa where all four of his children reside.