SUMNER — The South Korea Allan Mattke saw in broadcasts of the 1988 Summer Olympic games looked nothing like the war-torn landscape he found in 1954.
“I couldn’t believe the difference in the city of Seoul; it was built up and beautiful,” Mattke said. “But when I was over there it was bombed-out shells of buildings, burned out, just devastation.”
Mattke, 83, of Sumner, served 14 months in South Korea as a member of U.S. Army forces working to rebuild the country after three years of fighting ended in 1953.
“We were building roads, air strips, buildings,” Mattke recalled in an interview for the Grout Museum District. “We were trying to get the country back on its feet again, helping them get started again.”
A graduate of Fredericksburg High School and Iowa State University, Mattke spent his childhood milking cows and helping on the family farm, staying active in the 4-H Club and winning a judging contest at the National Dairy Cattle Congress in Waterloo.
His older brother served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Allan volunteered for the draft during his second year in college and was drafted by the Army in January 1954, six months after the Korean armistice.
“He spent his time during the conflict in California,” he said. “I spent my time over there after the conflict.”
Mattke had 16 weeks in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., before attending engineer foreman school at Fort Belvoir, Va. He learned to operate heavy equipment and construction skills which helped guide his post-war career.
An Iowa farmboy who’d barely left the state before the Army found himself on a flight to Seattle, a ship to Busan, Korea, and a train to Incheon where he was assigned to serve in the 439th Engineer Battalion.
Mattke and a sergeant would inspect job sites and maintained a gas line before he was reassigned to an infantry division, elevated to a sergeant’s rank and sent out on foot patrols near the demilitarized zone.
“Sometimes we’d run day patrols in the hills outside our compounds,” he said. “Sometimes we’d run night patrols.”
Part of Mattke’s job involved top secret information, something he took very seriously.
“At that point in time top secret meant top secret,” he said. “Today I just marvel at what the press and media come out with telling you what’s what and who’s where.”
Mattke left Korea on a tanker ship in December 1955, landing in San Francisco before heading back to Iowa.
“They knew I was coming home but they didn’t know when,” he recalled. “I walked through the door and my mom was under the kitchen table waxing the floor. She about raised the table.”
Mattke taught high school shop classes for two years before buying a hardware store and later becoming a carpenter. He then taught carpentry at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge before returning to Sumner.
He said he didn’t regret his military service, which helped him pay for college and “grow up.” But he was disappointed about never seeing Europe.
“We all thought when we graduated from Fort Belvoir that we were going to get a European assignment,” he said. “I’ve never been to Europe.
“Just before I came home from Korea they guaranteed us a European assignment if we would re-enlist for three more years,” he added. “At that point in time I said no.”