Vets recall a `Forgotten War'

Korea: Fifty years after the start of the war, veterans struggle to piece together their parts in it, find their comrades and make others aware.

June 25, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

For 43 years, the old gang from the 7th Infantry Division wondered what had happened to their buddy Foy Garris, the moonshiner's boy from North Carolina.

Dead, they figured. Wasted away by the fever that left him sagging in a ditch in 1951 while they surged north across the 38th parallel, toward their own little hells. Years later they checked a few archives but found nothing and gave up.

Wars are like that. Buddies die or get separated. Fathers and sons vanish without a trace, or come home with so little to say that their families wonder what must have happened. And in the case of the Korean War, such mysteries have often stayed unsolved. It was the war no one talked about much or documented to any great degree.

The big picture was well known: the grim arithmetic of 37,000 Americans lost in a three-year Cold War standoff. But, sandwiched between the triumph of World War II and the televised ignominy of Vietnam, much of its vital information always seemed just out of reach.

Then came the Internet, and one day a few years ago Patricia Layne began gushing about its powers to her dad, a retired aluminum worker in Richmond, Va., named Foy Garris.

"You know, I'd love to get in touch with my old Army buddies," Garris told his daughter. So she posted his name in a chat room. His phone began to ring. In September, Garris and four Army pals will hold their third reunion, happily rejoined in a kinship of memories only they understand.

So it goes with the soldiers of the "Forgotten War," which began 50 years ago today. Only belatedly did they get their memorial on the Mall in Washington, and only belatedly have many of them and their loved ones come to terms with the ghosts of loss and memory.

One need merely browse a few Korean War Web site to witness the bloom of rediscovery: A son seeks the buddies of his late dad, a veteran zeroes in on the guy who saved his life, a daughter pieces together her father's final moments.

"I'm not sure why I waited so long to ask questions," said Vincent A. Krepps of Towson, a veteran of Korea who didn't find out until last year what had become of his twin brother, who died in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Korea veterans "waited too long to do everything," Krepps said, "and I think if it wasn't for the Vietnam veterans we probably wouldn't have done everything we've done. ... There are still a whole lot of records that families are trying to get a hold of that are classified. But it is tough to get information anywhere on the Korean war."

"My dad was in the 2nd Division, 38th Regiment, Fox Company. ... I am 31 now, and yet there are still stories Dad won't tell me. I don't think it's because he believes I can't handle it, I just don't think he wants to remember it. Since I've been on the net, I've found other people in his unit and have brought out a few more stories and perhaps better memories that he will talk about."- Web site posting by Lance Azbell, Chicago.

Foy Garris, 70, can tell you plenty about things he'd rather not remember. There was the 10-year-old Korean boy who was watching Garris' unit clear a mine field until an explosion blew a rock toward the boy, tearing his arm off. There was the Korean mother Garris noticed seated against a wall, eyes closed, with her baby crying in a backpack. He went to see if he could help. The woman was dead.

"I had nightmares for about the first five years I was back," Garris said. "I'd wake up screaming. It's probably the reason I drink a lot of beer."

It's one reason he always had a yearning for his pals from his old infantry unit. Who else would understand what he'd gone through, yet could also remember the better moments - the laughs, the beers, the way none of them even knew where Korea was or what it looked like until they went ashore, tossed into the frenzy of battle?

To his buddies, Garris was the mountain boy from Elkin, N.C., population 3,000, the guy who knew a thing or two that they didn't.

"I was sort of a leader when it came to drinking and smoking," he said. "My people made moonshine whiskey. I grew up eight miles away from Junior Johnson," the NASCAR legend who got his driver's training running "white lightning" through the hills.

His buddies' most lasting memory of Garris was the image of a feverish young man moaning in a ditch. They were advancing, but he was too sick to move, perhaps too sick to live more than a few days.

He lost 40 pounds in three weeks, and doctors later called his ailment hemorrhagic fever, a malady that still takes lives. Even after he recovered, the Army wouldn't discharge him until he gained most of the weight back.

For a year, he worked for a friend in Elkin. Then he moved to Richmond to work for Reynolds Aluminum, staying there for 30 years, until his retirement. His four best pals never knew, although one from Minnesota checked records in North Carolina, only to come up empty-handed.

In the meantime, Garris married and raised four children. They all heard his war stories, including Patricia, now 41 and married.

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