'Baltimore's Own' to get overdue recognition Korean War veterans will be honored at ceremony today

August 30, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Mike Pezzella worked the soda fountain at a Harford Road deli for 50 cents an hour. Al Wilkins was a 65-cents-an-hour clerk at Montgomery Ward's catalog store on Washington Boulevard. Ed King was living large, earning 75 cents an hour spreading cloth for shirtmakers at the Marlboro Shirt Co. on Lombard Street.

They were the most ordinary of Baltimore boys, 19 going on 20, when they mustered outside Fort McHenry on a steamy August morning 48 years ago tomorrow. They were sorry to have missed World War II and thrilled to be getting their chance at glory fighting Communists in a place called Korea.

A few months later, at Chosin Reservoir, they were among 20,000 American soldiers surrounded by 120,000 Chinese troops -- the same Chinese that U.S. officials had believed would not enter the war. It was 30 degrees below zero, a temperature at which hands and feet froze and machine guns jammed.

"It was the dumbest military tactic in history," said Pezzella, 68, reminiscing yesterday with his two buddies in the dimly lighted American Legion hall in Parkville. Yellowed snapshots, crumpled letters with 3-cent stamps, and crumbling clippings were spread on the table before them.

"They sent us into the mountains on a single supply line, and the Chinese cut it in 22 places," Pezzella said. "They sent us with weapons and equipment, even boots, that had never been tested in extreme cold. And we were the first Marines in history to be sent to a combat unit without ever going through boot camp."

At 2 p.m today, in the drill room of the Naval Reserve Center outside Fort McHenry, a plaque will be unveiled honoring "Baltimore's Own," the 11th Engineer Battalion of the Marine Corps Reserve. Of the 603 battalion members, about 120 went to Korea. Fifteen of them died in combat, and dozens more were wounded or lost fingers, toes and limbs to the cold.

King remembers surviving on frozen cans of applesauce, half-melted in open fires, because combat was so unrelenting that there was no time for meals.

Wilkins remembers nights when the Chinese soldiers were so close that they could be heard yelling in English, "Marines! You die tonight!" In pitch-dark battles, Chinese soldiers who jumped into the Americans' foxholes would be mistaken for comrades until an exploding shell illuminated them.

Pezzella remembers how, after he was shot, he hobbled outside a makeshift field hospital, shooting at the approaching Chinese as he waited his turn with the medics.

Recognition was long in coming for these former soldiers, even by the standards of what veterans bitterly call America's forgotten war. They remember a local politician at their send-off in 1950 declaring that when they returned, they would be welcomed with the biggest crab feast Baltimore had ever seen. Instead, they came back to indifference.

Pezzella was shot through the leg. King suffered frozen hands and feet and spent five months recovering in hospitals. Shrapnel made a fist-sized hole in Wilkins' helmet, but he was unscathed and stayed to fight for 11 months.

"When the guys came home from World War II to my neighborhood in East Baltimore, there were block parties, celebrations, all kinds of fanfare," recalled Pezzella, retired after decades as a Baltimore teacher and principal and now the president of the battalion's reunion association. "When I came back, people said, 'Where you been?' "

King remembers being driven in a convoy of ambulances through Washington to Bethesda Naval Hospital and peering out the window from his stretcher to see how the injured heroes were being welcomed home. "There was no interest, no emotion, no one waving," King said.

Pezzella, who taught social studies, puts their resentment in context. "We'd just had a huge victory in World War II. Here was an undeclared war against some country nobody had heard of, and they were beating the hell out of us, quite frankly," he said.

Another factor -- guilt -- made them reluctant to talk about their war. They knew the families and girlfriends of the guys who had never come back. "We had the feeling we should have been killed," Wilkins said quietly.

They tried to put the horrors they had survived behind them and resume their ordinary lives. King found a career as a budget officer at the Social Security Administration. Wilkins became a toolmaker for a medical manufacturing company.

Only in the mid-1980s did veterans of Chosin Reservoir form a national group. Only in 1991 did the surviving veterans of "Baltimore's Own" -- a nickname bestowed in 1950 by Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. -- finally get together.

Today, they expect perhaps 100 of their members to gather on the spot where they marched off to board the train to Camp Pendleton, Calif., nearly a half-century ago. Many will bring children and grandchildren. They will get a measure of the honor and recognition that eluded them for so long.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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