TRAER — William Russell’s Korean War experience was spent on the front lines with a light machine gun squad.
For a year, starting in April 1951, his U.S. Army squad would “be on the front lines four to five days and then we’d draw back and get a hot meal.” He was part of the 5th Regimental Combat Team attached to the 24th Infantry Division. There were four squads in the platoon.
“At that time we had stopped the drive (of the North Koreans into the south) and we started pushing back, taking prisoners,” Russell recounted for a 2008 interview recorded by the Grout Museum District. “We started pushing, going north, and we got up to the (38th) parallel and I don’t remember how far we did go.” The 38th parallel divided the Korean peninsula after World War II and became the border between North and South Korea.
“We were generally on the move each day,” he said, and would then set up tents, usually on a hilltop. Russell, who rose to the rank of sergeant first class, called it “spooky” to come under fire at night.
“We had to set up lines and if we thought somebody was out there, we would have to go on patrols at night to see,” he said. “That part I didn’t like.” Eight or nine men would go out on the patrols.
“You spaced yourselves out, you didn’t go side-by-side,” said Russell, as they looked for the enemy. “We would be gone three to four hours.” They encountered little resistance from the North Koreans who were taken prisoner, and he never suffered a battle wound while in the country.
Russell, now 89, is a native of Fairfax, where his family farmed. They later moved near Buckingham, where Russell graduated from Geneseo country school.
He was first drafted at the end of World War II, but was released from the commitment when the war ended. Russell won a six-month deferral when drafted again for the Korean War because he was working on his brother’s farm and needed to finish the harvest.
In November 1951, he attended 16 weeks of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and was shipped to Japan. Russell spent 21 months in the Army, including the year in Korea, and then returned to Iowa.
He married in the fall of 1952 and the couple initially settled in Reinbeck. Russell worked for the Pioneer Seed Co. and, beginning the following spring, rented a farm near Eagle Center. The couple raised two daughters and a son and now live in Traer.
Shortly after arriving in Japan he was sent to Pusan, South Korea. As the troops headed into the countryside, they saw few civilians in the small villages. Initially, though, his light machine gun squad received some help from the locals.
“It was supposed to be nine of us,” he said. “There was just one other G.I. and myself. We adopted two Korean boys, South Korean boys.”
They helped the small team transport its 30-caliber machine gun. “One carried the tripod and the other one carried the gun,” he said. “In maybe a month, six weeks, there was more G.I.’s that came over” allowing them to fill all of the positions in the squad.
“I was in Korea 12 months and I never slept in a building while I was there, never seen a building,” said Russell. “I had two trips in Japan. They called it five days R&R, rest and recuperation.”
As a result, they faced a cold winter and a hot, rainy summer with little protection from the elements.
“The best home I had over there was when we started pushing back,” he said. “We called it ‘Chinese bunkers.’” They dug into the side of a hill and put logs on top.
“It was to keep you safe and they were dry and warm in the winter. It was like a hotel-motel here in the states.”
Russell had plans once his enlistment was done, which helped him get through the difficulties of war.
“I got engaged before I left and came home and I married her,” he said, a month after being discharged. “She was faithful about writing. Getting mail from home, that helped.”
His comrades also played an essential role during the year in Korea. There was one squad member in particular whom Russell continued corresponding with for decades until he died.
“He was from South Dakota, another farm kid,” said Russell. “He would give his life for me and I would for him. He was just like a brother.
“I was fortunate to always have good people around me,” he added, “understanding people.”