CEDAR FALLS — Robert Kunkle was trying to protect the wounded when he got injured in battle.
The U.S. Army paratrooper fired his automatic weapon to suppress enemy fire early in the Korean War. When he ran out of ammunition after several minutes, he had no choice but to continue bringing up the rear.
That’s when Kunkle was hit.
He didn’t hear what hit him. He doesn’t even know what it was.
“You’re scared. Don’t ever let anybody tell you you’re not scared. Because you are. You just make up your mind. They asked me to do a job, and I’m going to do it. And that’s the way I’ve always been,” Kunkle recalled in an interview with Grout Museum staff.
He continued, “I didn’t have enough time to think about it, because the people I was protecting were down there, and our lines stabilized, and it was just one of those things. I never heard what hit.”
Kunkle’s memories are spotty of the immediate aftermath. He remembers the Bible in his left pocket that prevented shrapnel from killing him. He remembers asking God for a second chance. Kunkle remembers waking up during surgery inside a MASH, or mobile army surgical hospital, unit. After that, there’s nothing until he woke up in Japan.
In all, he had 22 surgeries and most of them were at that MASH unit he barely recalls.
“I had shrapnel all over my body, in my head, in my arms, my chest, all over, but I’m here,” Kunkle said.
Kunkle, now 85, had been in the theater of operations for about a year before he was injured, and it took at least that long for his recovery from physical injures.
The traumatic injuries were by far the worst he suffered during his service. But Kunkle also had to recover from other injuries before he ever reached the theater of operations.
His father disapproved of his decision to join the U.S. Army at 18. Kunkle, a Waterloo native, hated communism and wanted to stop its spread, so he joined and went to jump schoop to train as a paratrooper.
He got injured on the fourth of five jumps.
“My chute opened, and there was nothing but pine trees under me, so my chute caught on the top of one of those, about 35 feet high, and it ripped loose, and I fell 35 feet,” Kunkle said.
It took some of his teeth out and broke one of his legs. He took about six weeks to recover, but didn’t hesitate to make his fifth and final jump to serve.
But nothing prepared him for what would come in Korea.
“You know, war is something. It’s unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen, how many of your friends are going to die, what the outcomes will be, any of that,” Kunkle said. “You just get over there and do the job the best you can and hope you survive, and I was scared. Don’t think I wasn’t.”
Kunkle said the most difficult part of being in Korea was to keep his mind active — and away from the fears. He said he spent most of his time dreaming about home and family to keep his mind in a good place.
Family was key to keeping him sane during the war, and he also credits his wife Marilyn, and their two children, with helping him get through what is now called post-traumatic stress.
“It’s awful when you can’t trust anybody, and you have to overcome it. That takes one hell of a long time, and like I said, my wife is a big part of me being here. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here,” Kunkle said, but added he still has nightmares about the war.
He added, “My family has been my number one thing, and it always will be.”