OELWEIN — Ask Vidal Mendez why he volunteered for the U.S. Army in 1951, and he’ll give you a popular answer from that time.
“I wanted to see some action,” Mendez, of Oelwein, said. “I wanted to go overseas.”
Up until that time, the only action Mendez — whose parents, Frank and Juana Rodriquez Mendez, were born in Mexico — had seen was picking corn, working in a warehouse in Kansas City and working in the hog kill room at Rath Packing Co. in Waterloo.
But he would see plenty — maybe too much — action in the Korean War.
Mendez, the oldest of five brothers, and his brother Joseph both signed up for military service. Joseph served in the Navy, while Vidal signed up for the Army. He was bused along with other recruits to Fort Riley, Kan., and assigned to Company K-87 with the 10th Mountain Division.
Soon after, he found himself on the Marine Phoenix, a transport ship bound for Japan and then to Incheon, Korea, where his company went straight to the front lines.
“I remember when I left Seattle (on the Marine Phoenix), the band played ‘So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,’” Mendez said. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
The song — written by Woody Guthrie in the 1930s as a Dust Bowl ballad and popularized by The Weavers in 1951 —was an inauspicious choice of songs to send off troops headed to war. But Mendez didn’t fret.
“I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I heard so much about combat, I wanted to see for myself.”
He got to the front lines in March 1951 without knowing what to expect beyond his training as a rifleman. His first few times in combat were illuminating, and he finally felt fear.
“My mind was blank, really,” Mendez said. “In a way, I was scared. It’s sort of a funny feeling, and then you see people get killed, get wounded. Thank God I wasn’t one of them.”
The first time he saw a dead soldier, “that night I couldn’t sleep at all,” he said.
By October, his company had lost their platoon leader, platoon sergeant and squad leader, Mendez said. He had also been trained as a medic in that time.
“Nobody wanted to take over the company, so I was platoon leader and medic both for about a day and a half,” he said.
Then, Mendez was wounded.
His company was on patrol between 7 and 9 p.m. on Oct. 18, 1951, when the Chinese began firing artillery over them.
“The Chinese, they had that valley zeroed in,” Mendez said. “They started shelling us.”
Mendez and six others were hit at the same time — Mendez in the left leg, knee and shoulder. He said he never heard the shell coming.
“When I got hit, I felt real warm,” Mendez said. “Then I see the leg — blood on my arm and leg.”
He discovered he could still walk, so he wrapped his injuries with bandages and used his medic’s training to help the others who were injured until the helicopters and tanks came and brought them to aid stations.
“The first day I was in the hospital, they asked me, ‘What do you want for breakfast?’ I said, ‘What do you mean, what do I want for breakfast?’ It’s the first time I’d seen milk” since landing in Korea, he said.
After two weeks, he was released to return to his company, where he eventually made it back to the front lines. He said he had mixed feelings about going back.
“I always wondered how many guys were left,” Mendez said. “I was surprised quite a few guys made it through.”
An infection in his wounded leg sent him back to the hospital, and he was never sent back to the line. Instead, Mendez worked in an aid station, helping stabilize and clean fresh battlefield wounds.
“We got this one kid — he was covered with shrapnel all over his face, all over his body,” Mendez said, noting the soldier’s bunker had received nearly a direct hit from a shell.
His division was finally replaced in February 1952, and Mendez spent time as a medic in Japan before being discharged in November of that year.
“I didn’t do nothing, really — I just ate and slept,” in Japan, he said. “It was really different. ... It was the first time I had slept in a bed.”
Mendez and his wife, Shirley — who died last year — visited South Korea 15 years ago. Mendez said it was much cleaner and more modern than it was in the 1950s. He even located a foxhole he slept in about 25 yards from a bridge that was standing more than 60 years later.
“I loved the Army,” Mendez said. “It made me grow up, made me think that I’m an American.”