CEDAR FALLS — Robert “Bob” Welter knew how cold hell could be.
Hell was a place in Korea known as Chosin Reservoir.
Welter, who passed away in 2015 at age 86, grew up in Waterloo and later farmed north of Cedar Falls. He was one of several local Marines who, encircled by Chinese Communist forces at Chosin in the winter of 1950-51 in bitter cold, fought their way to the port of Hungnam and safety, along with a group of U.S. Army soldiers, British Royal Marines and a large number of refugees — along with their dead, wounded and equipment.
The Marines had landed at Inchon and advanced to the Yalu River between North Korea and Communist China in late 1950, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese forces attacked, entering the war and driving the Americans back. Many units were overrun but the Marines made a stand at Chosin.
Welter and his comrades had their rocket-launcher-towing truck blown out from under them when it hit a mine near the Yalu River at the Korean-Chinese border. Welter was the only one who survived.
“I got blown out of a truck full of rocket ammunition, lit in the middle of a mine field and they rescued me,” Welter, now deceased, said in a 2010 Courier interview.
“It blew me out through the top of the truck, through the rods that held the canvas,’ said Welter. “It didn’t explode any of the ammunition, but I landed in a mine field.”
Welter’s voice was thick with emotion as he recalled lying in the field just hollering for help.
“I had a good friend in another unit, we had just been talking and I went back to my unit and that’s when the truck went up.” His friend’s commanding officer told him not to go down because he couldn’t help.
Some years later, when Welter was back in Iowa, he ran into that buddy from the war.
“He turned white as he said ‘I thought you were dead.’ I wasn’t. All I got was a little cut to my head,” Welter said.
“I didn’t get any decoration. I didn’t want any medal anyhow. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”
The Red Army would rapidly fill openings in the lines. “It was like stepping on an anthill there was so damn many Chinese,” Welter said. “Lot of times, you let them run through you, and shoot them on the way back.”
Welter said soldiers and Marines would sleep with their weapons to keep them warm and in firing condition in case the enemy overran them in the night. Similarly, despite subzero cold and wind chills approaching 100 below zero, they dare not completely zip up their sleeping bags, lest they be scooped up by the enemy and spirited off into the night.
“Most of the time it was so damned cold you had to take a leak on the bolt of your rifle so it would function; thaw it out,” Welter said. “Then after a couple of rounds it would freeze up again.”
Welter had joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1946 when he was just 17. In his first stint, serving on the island of Guam, he guarded Japanese prisoners of war awaiting trial or execution for war crimes. He also served in China as non-combatants when Communist forces took over the country from the Nationalists.
Serving in the Marines “just appealed to me, me and three of my buddies,” Welter said in a 2011 Courier interview. “We (had just) seen a Marines show (‘Battle Cry’). I guess that inspired us to join.”
For Welter, the mystique of the Marines soon changed.
“I remember the rude awakening I got in boot camp. Oh, they were so nice to us when we signed the papers but once we raised our hand and were sworn in things changed in a hurry.”
Welter was thankful for that “rude awakening” because that discipline kept him safe later in Korea when recalled to active duty in 1950.
He was going to re-enlist after his Korea service, but met his wife Rita. That changed his mind, she said with a smile. They were married or more than 60 years and had four children and 13 grandchildren.
In 2011, Welter finally received the medals he never sought — the result of efforts by friends and the Black Hawk County Veteran Affairs Commission. Earlier, in 2001, he received an honorary high school diploma from Cedar Falls High School with his graduating grandson, John.
It was his Korea experiences that earned Welter not only an envelope full of decorations, but a positive outlook on life.
“I saw my duty and decided to do it. It made me a better man. I realized what life was all about because the (enemy Communist) Chinese had no respect for life,” said Welter.
His wife of more than 60 years, Rita, and son David, a longtime Cedar Falls educator and coach, said his father struggled with post-traumatic stress for years, haunted by the memory of a comrade killed during the Inchon landing.
“If Dad was taking a nap or sleeping, you never wanted to walk up try to rouse him because he came up from the chair right at you,” David said, as if resisting abduction by enemy troops.
“I’d say the last five years, we worked with that through his doctors. But up to that point, Dad really never talked about much from the war. That was (like) so many of that generation. they just kept to themselves. And I’m so happy we got to hear that story. I’d say the last six, seven, eight years, he opened up more. That helped him, too, with the post-traumatic stress, being able to share some of that.”
He also battled Parkinson’s disease for eight years. “He had a real hard end to his life,” David said. “But he took that on like the other things. He was strong.”
“He never complained,” Rita said.