CEDAR FALLS — By his own admission, Calvin Bouck was a “greenhorn” when he arrived in Korea as part of a Waterloo U.S. Marine Reserve unit.
“You’re a young person. You’re excited for a new adventure,” he said. “In fact, you don’t know what war is like until you get over there.”
It didn’t take long after the Waterloo native’s February 1951 arrival in Korea to get the full picture. “I can very well remember my first day in combat,” he said in the 2009 interview recorded by the Grout Museum District.
He recounted ducking artillery rounds and seeking cover in the shadow of tanks. “We were taking on mortar fire and things like that, especially to get across the river,” said Bouck, who is now 87 and lives in Cedar Falls.
As they dug into the far bank of the river for the night, “I thought, ‘Golly, if every day is like this, I don’t know if I’m going to last.’”
Bouck graduated from East High School in 1948 and worked at Chamberlain Manufacturing and then John Deere, where he remained until retiring. After a few years, though, he decided to enlist in the military.
“I thought, well, I’m going to get drafted someday, and I want to go to the Marine Corps. I always looked up to the Marine Corps,” he said. “So I went out and I joined the Reserve unit and was happy with it. I really enjoyed it.”
While going through basic training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., Chinese forces crossed the border into North Korea. “When we got back, we were activated and headed out,” said Bouck. He trained as a telephone line repairman in San Diego and then went by ship to Korea via Japan, a three-week journey.
“It was so cold,” he said of the arrival in Korea, noting they didn’t initially have winter gear. “The cold alone is a war by itself. You don’t realize how cold it is.”
The new troops immediately headed for the front lines, where they spent most of the next year. Bouck said he was “never in a building” in Korea. “You were out in the elements.”
He recalled spending winter nights in nothing but a sleeping bag. “If someone could start a fire without smoke (to avoid detection by the enemy), we’d all wait for that to huddle around that in the morning to get warm and have a cup of coffee.”
Along with feeling the intense cold, Bouck saw extreme hunger among the civilians they encountered and witnessed a lot of death. He also had some close calls of his own.
“I remember one time I said, ‘I’m going to go ahead and check the barbed wire (perimeter), see if it’s been cut.’ I had walked a few yards up there and I noticed the ground was loose in one part. I stopped right there.
“It was a ‘shoe mine’ and I missed them all walking up there,” he said, referring to a type of land mine in a wooden box. “The one wasn’t quite buried, that’s how I noticed something was wrong.”
Bouck alerted “the people that take care of the mines” and within a day they were removed.
Those experiences brought other questions to his mind: “What am I doing here? What have I done?” he said.
Bouck laughed, recalling after a year of service in Korea when his name was called to board the ship home. “And I was ready, ready to go.”
He returned to Waterloo and completed his four-year commitment in the Marine Corps Reserve. He got married in 1952, raising a son and daughter with his wife.
“I guess the Lord was with me,” said Bouck, of the year in Korea. “You survive. You learn how to survive, how you can get along with nothing, practically.”