Old soldier remembers Korean War

Killings: A retired sergeant in Elkridge hopes American GIs don't become the bad guys.

October 15, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Henry Matthias hasn't talked much about his fighting days in the Korean War, never felt as if he was living with some deep secret, never was ashamed of what he and his Army unit had done, even if he wished it hadn't been necessary.

Now, though, he's a bit nervous because other people are talking about his Army days and what American soldiers did in Korea half a century ago.

"I'm worried we're going to be the bad guys now," Matthias said yesterday, sitting at the kitchen table in his mobile home in Elkridge, smoking one cigarette after the other -- no filter. "People's going to say we were killing babies and didn't care."

For Matthias, 67, and other Korea veterans, battles fought long ago are echoing again. An investigative report by the Associated Press concludes that U.S. soldiers deliberately killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of South Korean civilians during the war -- sometimes refugees crowded onto bridges that had to be blown, sometimes because the Americans feared that North Korean combatants were among refugees.

Matthias' unit was responsible for spilling some of the innocent blood.

He grew up in West Baltimore, dropped out of Polytechnic Institute and lied about his age so that he could join the Army at 16.

In July 1950, barely 18, Henry Matthias arrived in Korea. It was the second month of the war. The United States and its allies were trying to prevent North Korea from taking over the south, but at the time the U.S. forces were in retreat toward the south. Tens of thousands of refugees fled in the same direction.

Matthias and other soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division set up machine gun positions on a hill overlooking railroad tracks about 100 miles south of Seoul.

In the midst of the chaos, from that vantage point, he was faced with perhaps 100 South Korean refugees fleeing toward him, recognizable because they were dressed in the flappy white clothing common among Korean peasants. There were reports of North Korean troops with guns mingling with the civilians. Orders had come down that nobody -- including civilians from the country the United States was trying to protect -- was to pass through their lines.

"We fired shots over their heads to warn them not to come any further," Matthias said. "They stopped, then they come again. We warned them again, and they kept coming. That's when we called the mortars in."

Suddenly, 81 mm mortar shells were flying and people in white were going down. There was small-arms fire, too, although Matthias said he did not fire his weapon.

Grim memory

"I still remember this old man," Matthias recalled, blue eyes staring as if he were reviewing the scene on a movie screen. "He had this walking stick he was using, and he got hit but he just froze right in position. He was dead but he was still standing, just leaning on that stick. He didn't fall over or nothing. He's the only one I remember. The others I don't."

The day isn't something Matthias dwells on.

Not until a reporter from the Associated Press came to talk to him about his recollections and he became a small part of the AP articles circulated around the world documenting the killing of South Korean civilians during the Korean conflict.

Federal investigation

The U.S. Department of Defense has said it will investigate those charges. Attention is riveted on those summer days of 1950, and Matthias can't help but think of what happened.

And he and other veterans can't help but discuss the attention a couple of blocks from his home, at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8097, where draft beers are 50 cents on Thursdays and talk is free every day.

"It's not like we talk about it every minute, but of course it's been coming up," Matthias said. "What are people going to think? All they know is we was supposedly killing a bunch of innocent people, but that's not what we were doing. We were in a war. A woman sniper had just killed one of our guys the day before."

Career soldier

Matthias was a career soldier, serving 20 years until his retirement in 1968 as a staff sergeant after a final stint in Vietnam, where he came close to being killed.

He used to go to the VFW hall just about every night for some beer and talk, and he still has friends from the Army, though their numbers are dwindling.

The killings at the railroad tracks probably came up during one of the many conversations he and his buddies have had at the hall.

Probably, he said, but maybe not.

The killing of the civilians hasn't been talked about much, he said, simply because it might have been tragic, but there were 3 million people lost in the Korean War. The dead included 1.3 million South Koreans, many of them civilians. Many people are killed in wars. What about the 54,000 Americans who were killed? And how many more Americans would have been killed if more North Korean soldiers had infiltrated with the refugees?

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