Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — with its anxiety, nightmares, distrust and memory loss — is common among war veterans who narrowly escaped death or witnessed the deaths of their fellow troops, experts say.
Dale Kuhn, 84, still suffers from the disorder 60 years after the Korean War ended in July 1953, he told me on the phone. He thanked me for writing about the war and American troops’ sacrifices in my homeland.
“It means so much for me,” he said in a thoughtful voice, adding that a combat buddy recently called him and said that what they had gone through as U.S. Marines in Korea is something worth talking about.
I invited him for coffee to personally thank him for saving our country from the North Korean communists, and he came, leaning onto his cane, with his wife, Diana, and his granddaughter, Margaret, at his sides.
What Kuhn remembers most today is not Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom he could have touched while wading along Inchon Beach on Sept. 15, 1950, nor was it the victorious moment when the beach fell to the U.N. invasion fleet, which had been orchestrated by MacArthur himself. Instead, it was the bloody trap he and his combat buddies fell into at Chosin Reservoir in the North a few weeks later, when the Chinese soldiers ambushed them.
It was horrifying, Kuhn remembered — men dying like flies under a flyswatter.
“When we left Inchon Port in late September, after the successful amphibious landing on the beach and recaptured Seoul, and Gen. MacArthur escorted the 74 year-old South Korean President Syngman Rhee back to his National Assembly Hall, we were still wearing summer uniforms. But weeks later, in mid-October, in the North near the Manchurian Border, we were not only freezing but were low on food, too.”
This was when Kuhn realized that one man’s ambition can cost thousands of others’ lives. Kuhn said he wore three pairs of pants and a field jacket, but in 30-below-zero weather, he was still freezing. Many suffered frostbite, including Kuhn.
“Gen. Chesty Puller was a godsend,” Kuhn said. “Whenever we had time, he encouraged us to play volleyball or football or basketball to boost our spirit. His human warmth and understanding of man’s basic needs to stay alive touched us deeply.”
In early November, Kuhn’s company succeeded in another amphibious landing; this time, in Hungnam north of Wonsan. There, Marines seized a moving train and rode it north. Whenever they stopped to refill the water tank for the steam engine, North Korean villagers brought food and bowed to us.
“They were happy to see us!” Kuhn said.
Soon they fell into a bloody battle with a Chinese battalion, but by then the Marines had been so drained that they were no match. The orders came to retreat. They loaded the trucks — the sick and injured men inside and the dead on the roofs. They drove back to Hungnam Port to board the ship that was waiting for them.
“We were so sick and our uniforms, that had been soaked with urine, vomit, and diarrhea, were so dirty that we were ordered to undress and burn the uniforms on the deck!”
Kuhn stopped suddenly. “I can’t talk about it any more,” he said. “My 11 months and 29 days in Korea was a pure hell. This was why I was so bitter and resentful when I returned home on Aug. 26, 1951.”
I thanked him. I said that we Koreans are forever grateful to every American soldier who fought in the war, and that without their help, we would be starving today like North Koreans. “You veterans helped our country to be what she is today!”
Kuhn became pensive for a moment. I caught the rims of his eyes turning pink.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “I’m glad that South Korea is a vibrant country today!”
I told him proudly that she’s the world’s eighth strongest economy.
“Call me if you want to hear more,” he said, rising to leave.