ENTERPRISE — It may have been dubbed “the forgotten war,” but 90-year-old Bill Norman has never forgotten it.
“We didn’t think so, the ones who were there,” the Wallowa County Senior Living resident said. “Nobody who was in Korea has forgotten it, that’s for sure. You were in a country where you got worms. … There was a lot of man-made disease.”
While World War II a few years earlier may have been bigger and Vietnam a decade later was more controversial, veterans of the “police action” in Korea, as then-President Harry S. Truman dubbed it, always remember. The war ran from June 1950 to July 1953 in what was the hottest of the early Cold War conflicts.
“We haven’t forgotten it,” the Marine Corps veteran said.
And that’s not to mention the combat.
“You’ve heard of ‘Frozen Chosin’? We were trapped up there,” Norman said. “We had to fight our way out of there when it got down to 50 below. We lost a lot of guys whose fingers and toes were frozen. We had no trucks to haul the wounded. But that’s all we could bring out because we didn’t have enough trucks to bring everyone out. So we got the wounded out, and then got up on the mountain there.”
He was referring to the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where United Nations troops were nearly surrounded in a fight that lasted from late-November to mid-December 1950.
He also has not forgotten the most-decorated-ever Marine who led them.
“Heard of Chesty Puller? He was our commander,” Norman said.
Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller was a career Marine Corps officer who enlisted near the end of World War I, began fighting guerrillas during the “Banana Wars” in the 1920s and 1930s and went on to serve with distinction in World War II and Korea. Puller retired from the Marine Corps in 1955.
It was during “Frozen Chosin” that Puller said the famous line, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”
As a staff sergeant, Norman was a radio relay repairman in charge of a radio station that kept contact with headquarters from the forward area he was assigned to. He said when his unit arrived near the Chosin Reservoir, they were told they’d have a Marine Corps infantry squad to protect them.
But true to the Marine Corps concept that every Marine is first a rifleman, it didn’t quite work out that way.
“When we got here, we were told, ‘Here’s your Jeep, here’s your equipment, go up there and set up a station.’ I said, ‘Where’s our guard?’ They said, ‘You’re it.’ They gave us weapons, grenades and told us ‘Do it yourself,’” Norman said.
As he recalls, the communist Chinese had the American troops nearly surrounded near Chosin and the UN troops had limited ways out.
“We got up on this mountain and there was this bridge … that the Chinese had blown up,” Norman recalled. “We went up there in December and six divisions of Chinese were around us so we had to battle our way out. … We had so many guys with frozen feet so we had to put them on the trucks. We just stacked the bodies (of the dead) like cordwood on other trucks. … Chesty, he got on the radio and told (his base) we need a bridge up here. So they parachute one in. It was in six sections. When we got that built up, we could move on down. Got down toward the ocean and they had ships waiting for us.”
In what Roy Appleman’s Escaping the Trap called the “greatest evacuation movement by sea in U.S. military history,” a 193-ship armada assembled at the port and evacuated not only the UN troops, but also their heavy equipment and roughly a third of the Korean refugees. The last UN unit left Dec. 24, and the port was destroyed to deny its use to the Chinese.
Having enlisted in 1950 at age 20 when North Korea invaded the South, Norman returned home to Omaha, Nebraska. The war would drag on until July 1953 when an armistice was signed that to this day has not been resolved into a permanent peace agreement.
But Norman didn’t stay in Omaha long.
“When I got back from the war, there was nothing for me back in Nebraska,” he said. “My folks had moved to San Jose, California.“
He took advantage of his service to begin to reestablish himself in civilian life.
“The Marine Corps had taught me some electronics so I started college courses on the G.I. Bill,” he said. “After the first semester, my grades came out and IBM was evidently following my progress so they hired me.”
He married his late wife, Gina, while still in California, but with the prospect of children on the way, the Normans began to think of alternatives.
“It worked out pretty good, except living in California,” he said. “We started having kids and we didn’t want to bring them up in California, so my wife and I decided, let’s go to this spot here” as he motions pointing to spot on a map. “That turned out to be Wallowa County.”
Moving here in 1960, the Normans looked over businesses and homes in the area, some near Wallowa Lake and one upriver from Imnaha.
He ended up operating a flooring store and they bought property up the Lostine River they turned into sheep ranch.
“We bought 250 head of ewes on 150-200 acres,” Norman said. “I farmed hay and raised sheep and eight milk cows.”
He’s lived in Wallowa County ever since, but hasn’t forgotten the “forgotten war.”
“It’s nice when someone says, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but a lot of them don’t bother,” Norman said wistfully. “I always think the politicians are the ones who ought to go to war.”