CEDAR FALLS — Eugene Holmes knew how to turn on the heat in Korea.
He operated a flamethrower.
But what he remembers is the cold — especially his first meal in country, when two hot fried eggs froze to his mess kit before he could finish them.
He served in Korea with the U.S. Marine Corps. It was his second hitch. He served from 1946-48 in security at the naval base at Coronado, Calif. He had returned to Waterloo, got a job at John Deere and had been married four months.
But he was still in the Reserves, and Uncle Sam came calling again. It was 1950. It was fortuitous to some degree, because Deere and the United Auto Workers were embroiled in a strike at the time he was called to duty.
He and a friend, Bob Mundt, headed to Des Moines to report for duty, accompanied by their wives. They thought they would have 30 to 60 days before shipping out. Their wives ended up returning home alone.
“We were put into advanced combat training at Camp Pendleton,” in California, Holmes said. “We had infantry training. I was trained in demolition, sniping, all kind of training. On Jan. 27 (1951) we boarded a ship in San Francisco and headed for Korea. I was seasick the whole time.
“I figure I got to Korea as a replacement for the guys at the Chosin,” Holmes said, referring to encircled Marines surrounded at Chosin Reservoir who fought their way through Chinese Communist forces to the coast and safety in bitter winter conditions.
“Those were real men” he said of those Marines.
Their ship took too much water and could not pull up to the docks. They went ashore in amphibious vehicles called “ducks.”
It was after supper hour but the cook whipped up a meal for the incoming troops. “I got two fried eggs and went to the mess tent. Before I could get them completely eaten they froze to my mess kit. So it was a little bit chilly.”
Holmes was assigned to the weapons company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division. They were north of Pusan, in the southeast part of the peninsula, but didn’t stay there for long. After having been pushed back the unit was back on the move against enemy forces, advancing up the center of the peninsula to the 38th parallel.
“The first night in the lines, I got stuck in the lines after dark. We were keeping the enemy awake with mortars. It was keeping us awake, too,” he joked. When daylight came, he found it was a good thing troops had held their position through the night. “There was a drop-off 100 feet from our position,” he said. “Korea is mostly mountainous.
“We moved north and we just kept moving,” Holmes said. “As a weapons company, we had heavy machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers. We were a support company to the line troops. If they got in trouble and needed heavy fire, we were available to support them. At night we’d set up roadblocks. That first go-round, we were in the field 45 days.”
One night he rode “shotgun” on an ambulance up to the line to pick up wounded. He took a Garand M-1 rifle with him which he also kept with him when carrying a flamethrower. He was in charge of its maintenance and upkeep, but seldom had to use it because the enemy rarely dug in to pillbox positions.
The worst of the service was “probably the cold,” he said. “I could not keep warm.” He took advice from a Chosin veteran who told him to lay his sleeping bag on top of his heavy parka. He also remembers taking a warm shower was a rare luxury. On one occasion though, he and comrades hiked to a shower tent only to find the heater was out.
“The captain said, ‘We walked 2 miles to take a shower. Turn the water on,’” Holmes said. “We took a shower in mountain stream water. Didn’t take long for a shower.”
And in summer, he said, “the monsoons were God-awful.”
During the advance to the 38th parallel, the North Koreans opened up the floodgate on a reservoir and flooded the lowlands to impeded the Americans’ advance. He recalled the amphibious ducks they used to cross a river after that flood were swept downstream in the swift current and had to angle their way across to ford.
U.N. planes blew out the floodgates so the enemy couldn’t close the gates and build up the water again to cause flooding.
While mainly in reserve, Holmes said. “We took artillery fire. We took mortar fire, usually at night. Some of our contingent was killed not very far from where I was standing. We were on a hillside. It snowed 4 inches overnight and some guys were injured sliding down a mountain. They’d lose their footing and fall.”
They were supported by tanks equipped with searchlights. “They would shine that searchlight against the clouds and the reflection would light up ahead of our lines. We could see any kind of (enemy) movement ahead of our lines. But it got real scary when those lights went out.”
The U.N. forces also delivered rocket attacks at night. “They moved in one night and fired. And we didn’t know they were there until they started. Got your attention.”
They also received air support form Air Force North American P-51 Mustangs and Marine Vought F4U Corsairs, fighter planes. “They were known for close air support,” he said. “As we were advancing, they were tied up with a machine gun nest. And they called in air support. Two Corsairs came in below the mountaintops, down a valley. They fired on this position. They were close enough and low enough you could see the empty .50s (spent machine gun cartridges) falling out of the wings” as they fired on the nest with the wing-mounted machine guns.
They also received artillery support from the battleship USS Iowa. Holmes imitated the whistling sound of its large battery shells hurtling overhead.
One of the rewarding parts of his service was a teenage Korean boy his fellow Marines took in. He learned English and they used him as an interpreter. He also made a lot of money for his family selling bartered cigarettes. They had been separated for some time. When they reunited with his mother and siblings, “he loved up each one of those little siblings and he gave his mom a roll of Korean money two or three inches in diameter.”
He was sent home in August 1951 when his deployment was up, taking another troop ship back to the states. This time, after his Korea experience, “I was not seasick coming home.”
Reflecting on his service, Holmes said, “It’s a completely changed world” today. “For our kids and grandkids, it’s a scary thing. Really scary. And what’s going to happen with North Korea, you know?”