My work as a reporter intersected with history when I embedded myself with a group of Omahans traveling by motorcoach to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009. The University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Department of Black Studies organized the trip and kindly invited me along and The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper generously picked up my tab. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I had. My diary or journal like story appeared in truncated form in The Reader.
All a journalist like me can hope to do in a situation like the frenzy around the inauguration is to try and get the facts straight and to make sense of a bigger-than-life event. I believe I succeeded.
NOTE: You can see photos from my trip and even spot me (I’m in a light blue-grey ski jacket with a blue stocking cap and I have eyeglasses on) at the following site: http://www.unomaha.edu/blst/
SPECIAL SCREENING: UNO Department of Black Studies chair Omowale Akintunde led the trip. Akintunde, who is also a filmmaker (see my story “Deconstructing What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World” about his feature debut, Wigger) directed an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trip, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom. The doc has shown at festivals and a special screening of the film is scheduled for October 26 at 7 p.m. at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street. A post show Q & A with Akintunde will follow.
Because the film has generated some buzz, I am reposting my inauguration journey story here. In this light, my story is a kind of companion piece to the documentary.
Freedom Riders: A Get On the Bus Inauguration Diary
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Fifty of us from the metro area signed up to intersect with history. The chance to be at Barack Obama’s inauguration came via a special bus trip organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies and sponsored by UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Dubbed An Inaugural Ride to Freedom: The Legacy of a People, a Movement and a Mission, the trip’s mode of transportation, a Navigator charter bus, was both practical and symbolic. Buses figured heavily in marshaling foot soldiers for the civil rights movement and addressing segregation in public schools.
The UNO trip’s “freedom riders” included folks with direct ties to the movement, including older African Americans for whom this journey held deep meaning. Some are retired now and others still engaged in the struggle. Edwardene Armstrong is a UNO Black Studies adjunct faculty member. Her husband Bob Armstrong, former Omaha Housing Authority director, consults with public housing officials across America and the globe. James Freeman directs UNO’s multicultural affairs office.
Leading the university figures along for the ride was charismatic UNO Black Studies Chair Omowale Akintunde. Several UNO students joined us. One high school student was on board as well: Omaha North senior Seth Quartey. Most students were sponsored by UNO.
Community members, such as activist Katrina Adams, Youngblood’s Barber Shop owner Clyde Deshazer and gospel playwright Janette Jones, had no direct ties to UNO but strong convictions about our mission. Friends, couples and families made the trip. The youngest rider, 10-year-old Carter Culvert, traveled with his mother, Jackie Culvert. A few folks went on their own, including this journalist. All but a few made our first D.C. visit on this ride. What a time to go.
Precursor – Get to Know Each Other
A Jan. 7 briefing at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center ballroom brings participants together for the first time. The group’s diversity is soon evident. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Students, working stiffs, professionals.
From the start it’s obvious Akintunde, a tall, lithe man with a brass band voice and a bigger-than-life presence, is in charge. Also a filmmaker, he’s chronicling the trip in a documentary. We all sign releases for our comments and images to be used.
(NOTE: The film premiered at UNO’s Malcolm X Festival in April 2009.)
As things develop the shooting threatens turning the trip into a tail-wags-the-dog scenario with all its set-ups and interviews. Some students serve as crew, holding the boom, operating lights/sound, carrying supplies. DP Andrew Koch flew in from the west coast for the gig. PA Stephanie Hearn did much of the prep work.
I leave the briefing with these thoughts: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that sweeps us along on the tide of history; and we “tourists” constitute a microcosm of the broad-based support that made Obama’s election possible.
What follows are snapshots of our group’s four-day, 100-hour, 3,000-plus mile odyssey to embrace change and to participate in history.
Sunday, Jan. 18
Rolling Out – Get on the Bus
Lot C in UNO’s South Campus is our departure point. I arrive about 7:30 in the cold dim daylight. The bus is there, its engine idling, the lower baggage compartment opened. Some early arrivals have already loaded gear and settled in seats. I choose a mid-section spot befitting my middle-of-the-road nature. Over the next 75 minutes the bus fills out and the rituals of finding a place to sit, stowing away carry-ons in overhead bins and meeting-greeting fellow passengers ensues.
Obamamania appears low key for now. Only a few folks wear anything with Obama images or slogans. One woman climbing aboard is overheard telling another, “He’s not the chosen one.” The mood is a mix of sober expectancy and fan-filled ardor.
There are the usual stragglers and late arrivals. Some of us catch Zs, others chit chat. We’re finally all together and push off on time at 9. A 28-hour grind awaits us before we reach our hotel in Chestertown, MD, about 90 minutes from D.C.
All but a few seats are filled in what are cramped accommodations. For the biggest bodies the bus will mean contortions squeezing into narrow seats and relieving pressure on sore, stiff joints. Leg room is almost nonexistent. Everyone carves out a few inches of sanctuary in the tight quarters.
By the time we cruise I-80 in western Iowa, passing brown-white splotched fields sprouting hundreds of sculptural wind turbines, Akintunde’s filming is in full swing. He captures folks slumbering, reading, cell phoning, text messaging, you name it.
Reminders of this being a Soul Bus trip are the black themed movies that light up the tiny screens suspended overhead. By trip’s end we’ll have seen blockbusters like Ray to little gems like The Secret Life of Bees to old favs like Claudine to a Tyler Perry flick to a fresh bootlegged copy of Seven Pounds.
Akintunde, with Koch manning the digital video camera, grabs establishing shots and spot interviews where he can — on the bus, in parking lots, at rest stops, restaurants, the hotel. The two seemed joined at the hip in our close confines. The director, resplendent in jumpsuits, follows “emerging stories” in our ranks.
Some of us begin our own chronicles, snapping pics and journaling. One woman strides down the aisle, clicking away on her camera as she declares, “I’m going to get me some pictures right here.” In the case of this old-school reporter, notes are jotted on a pad and interviews committed to a micro cassette recorder.
We certainly all have our own story for being here. For retirees James and Jackie Hart it’s about bearing witness to the fulfillment of MLK’s vision.
“I can’t even describe how excited I am that we’re going to have a new black president,” Jim says. “I hope I’m around to see his eight years.”
“I Wanted to See It for Myself”
For Denise Howard, a wife, mother and student, it’s about being “part of change. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was a must.”
For UNO public administration masters student Joe Schaaf it’s about being present at “a wound healing event, not only racially but politically. This is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s a momentum to change Washington. I view it as one of the top five moments in our country’s history.”
For Keisha Holloway the trip’s a homage to her late sister, Deanna Rochelle, who died only a week before. The two shared a passion for Obama. They voted together. “To kind of keep her legacy going I’m going for me and her,” says Keisha.
Bob Armstrong’s reasons are complex.
“My family’s life has been lived trying to fight for civil rights, especially for black people. Many of the civil rights leaders had been to my house to meet during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including Dr. King,” says Armstrong, who was in D.C. for King’s ‘63 address. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know it was history. It became historic. It’s a different setting though (with Obama). This time we’re going knowing that history is being made and so here we are 45 years later for the culmination of all those activities with the election of a black president.”
The way Edwardene Armstrong sees it, Obama’s achievement is only possible because of the work done by many others before him. Freeman agrees. He was on the front lines of the civil rights movement at Tuskegee University, and he said Obama stands on the shoulders of countless freedom fighters.
“It means so much to me because we’ve gone through so much getting to this point,” Freeman says. “We’re not where we ought to be but we’ve come a long, long way. It wasn’t only black folks. During that time there was a sense of commitment and frankly I haven’t seen that until this campaign. Back when we used to march there were so many people of all colors, of all nationalities, and then you saw that this (past) year. Just an affirmation that now I see that vision come to pass. It makes you want to cry. I wish my dad and mom could have been here.”
Edwardene can’t help be struck by the fact the new president has a similar biracial background as her great-grandfather, the son of a black slave mother and white slave master. A black president seemed inconceivable to her.
Bob Armstrong never thought it would happen, period. “It’s such a historic moment I felt we had to be there,” he says. “It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but it means it certainly gives black people the aspirations that they can do pretty much what they want to do if they’re willing to sacrifice and get themselves educated and do those things necessary to become successful. It’s an emotional time. You’re going to see a lot of tears shed when he takes the oath. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of wonderment of thinking could this really be happening…”
The stories go on all day and into the night. We drive through light snow showers in Illinois and Indiana. We cross the gray-slated, ice-strewn Mississippi River. We skirt south of Chicago and Indianapolis. We pass through Columbus, Ohio. By the time we hit Maryland more snow showers appear.
Sleep is fitful for most. A blessed few sleep through anything: the racket/motion of the bus; the sound from the DVDs; the din from up front, where Akintunde and his self-described “big mouth” holds court, and in the back, where there’s often a conversation or card game going on. Laughter sporadically breaks out.
Call it a lesson in multiculturalism but the “soft music” we’re promised late at night turns out to be hardcore Hot Country, courtesy Rebel 105.9. The driver’s choice. Quite a contrast from Marvin Gaye. Rumblings of a mutiny go up. Most take it in good-humored stride. Thankfully, that driver’s relieved, as previously scheduled, in New Paris, Ohio. The drivers repeat the process on the return trip. The music goes off and order’s restored with an Earth, Wind and Fire concert DVD.
Monday, Jan. 19
The Day Before – Get Off the Bus
We roll across Maryland on I-70, traversing forested ridges. Fog hangs in the depressions. Mills line the riverways. Colonial-style brick homes predominate.
At a Shoney’s I’m treated to a spirited discussion by three UNO students. They embody the youth Obama ignited. Brandon Henderson says Obama’s message of unlimited possibilities “resonated for us. It brought that a lot closer. He’s not just a black candidate. All kind of people are going to be at this thing. It took everybody to get him to where he is right now — to elect him as president. I just want to be part of the atmosphere of Everything Obama.”
Joshua Tolliver-Humpal says Obama “did a great job tapping into that youthful idealism. The youth vote really came out strong. I just have to be there to see the most captivating figure in American politics get inaugurated.”
“Really this is the first significant, world-changing event in my lifetime,” Joseph Lamar says. “Everybody’s going to remember where they were at this particular time and I can say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”
Upon reboarding the bus after bathroom/food breaks Akintunde takes to saying, “Is anybody here that wasn’t here before?,’ or, ‘Is anybody not here that you saw before?’ It’s the ghetto roll check,” he explains.
We never lose anyone, but we do gain two members our second night. They’re Nigel Neary and Tom Manion, whose public housing corporation in Manchester, England Bob Armstrong consults. They “crash” our trip at his invitation. Their addition lends our trip an international perspective.
A sign of the times finds many wired to their cells, Ipods, Blackberries. A few break out lap tops, too. The result is a running commentary or living blog about this trip.
We cross the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the fog shrouded ocean spread out before us and make it into Chestertown by mid-afternoon, where we’ll encamp overnight at a Comfort Suites. There’s a snafu with some room assignments but we manage checking in and freshening up for an evening sightseeing tour of D.C. Signs leading in and out of the capital warn of major delays tomorrow.
“I’m Going to Take My Foot”
In response to a Fox News report that space on the Mall will be constricted to one square foot per person, Clyde Deshazer says, “I’m going to take my foot.” Given the congestion no one’s sure what we’ll actually see tomorrow. “Whatever there is to see,” Deshazer says, “I want to see it. I haven’t seen any part of history.”
Like many elders on the trip Deshazer grew up in the South. He’s struck by how a fractious nation moves toward solidarity at Obama’s lead. “I am so glad all races are coming together and focusing in one direction. The people coming together for one common purpose — that’s what gets me. That’s a soft spot in my life.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Henderson.
For tonight’s jaunt into D.C. we’re joined by Willistine Harris, a former student of Akintunde’s who lives and works in the area. She’s the trip’s consultant.We spot our first vendors. Once in the thick of the government district we get an on-the-scene sense for the immensity of it all. Streets are choked with vehicles, including buses like ours. Tourists overrun the sidewalks. We sneak peaks of monolithic buildings and famous monuments. But we don’t leave the bus until on the waterfront, where we take in the harbor and an open-air seafood market. Dinner’s an everything-you-can-eat buffet at Phillips, which Akintunde selected “so you will see some flavor” of D.C., where he once taught.
On the bus back to the hotel Sharif and Gabriel Liwaru say what they most look forward to is being amid masses who crave the positive social change Obama advocates. They see his inauguration as a catalyst for themselves and thousands like them to go back home and inaugurate change in their communities. Sharif is president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
At the hotel it’s soon lights out as we have an ungodly early-to-rise call. We’re slated to leave by 4:30 to beat the rush to the Mall.
Tuesday, Jan. 20
Inauguration Day – Get on the Mall
We’re psyched for the siege ahead. Braced for swarms of people. Schooled on the Metro rail system’s dos and donts. We’re to stay as one group. Harris has secured us Smart Cards to expedite our way through the stations. We pack all the necessities — sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps. Layered clothing means double pants or thermal underwear for what will be hours in the frigid cold
As we gear up Akintunde tells me our diversity reflects the Obama phenomenon.
“What Barack Obama says is true. That despite our differences what really bonds us as a people is our commonality as Americans. And when we can get beyond the pettiness of racial divisiveness, difference of religious opinion, and start to think of ourselves as a collective unit, we can become a more powerful, more resolute people who can achieve anything we set our minds to.”
He’s pleased how smoothly the trip’s went thus far. “I mean, this could have gone so many different ways,” he says.
On the bus we’re sleep-deprived adventurers eager to grab some rest before the main leg of the journey unfolds. Janette Jones says our tiredness will soon seem trivial once “we see the fruit of our labor,” meaning the inauguration. “We’ve gone through the wilderness and we’re stepping over into the promised land now.”
“It’s worth it,” adds Andrew Gaines.
Nearing D.C. we get stuck in a traffic snarl on the Capital Beltway. Many others headed out early, too. Some folks abandon their vehicles and walk to the New Carrollton station. We inch along and after an hour or so finally make the station exit. Akintunde emphasizes, “Don’t panic…be vigilant…stay together… We’ll be cool.” We’re let out a couple blocks from the station. Parking’s at a premium. We break into small groups, huddling near for warmth. Prayers are offered. My group’s leader, Sharif, looking sharp in his dreds, says:
“Lord, we ask you this day to bless us on our journey, to keep us safe and to keep us warm, that we may enjoy this opportunity and that we may utilize this in our lives and in our communities when we get home, and to take the energy we’ve gathered here and use it to do good. Amen.” Amen.
Moving in formation, we come upon an ever-growing line outside the station that eventually stretches for blocks. Akintunde’s plea, “No gaps,” becomes our tongue-in-cheek clarion call. It’s easier said than done in what Deshazer calls “belly press” tight conditions. Our difficulty closing the gaps prompts Miletsky to crack, “Our civil rights marching is a little rusty — we haven’t had a movement in awhile.”
“Gracious and Great”
Everyone’s in a good mood. The positive energy visceral. You can’t help observe and feel it. A woman behind me sums up the vibe with, “This is how I feel — I’m feeling gracious and great today.” Perfect gratitude.
Zebulon Miletsky, UNO Black Studies’ resident historian, puts the situation in context. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be here, to document it, and that’s what we’re all doing — we’re all documenting this history for ourselves, and to me that’s the highest form of history. That’s our history as African Americans — oral tradition. To pass that oral history along to each generation And this story will be passed down and it will be written about. It’s already being written about. And so many times our history has been written by other people. Here we are as a people witnessing and documenting our own history and serving as the primary source.”
Gaines says he feels “so blessed” to be here with family — daughters Frelima Gaines and Gabriel Liwaru and son-in-law Sharif Liwaru — “and to experience this with so many diverse people. We’ve all come together for this historic moment I think in hope and great expectation for that better part of us that’s being expressed today,” he says. “It’s an excellent feeling. Indescribably great.”
Katrina Adams rode the Obama Express to this place as a grassroots supporter. She prays this is not the end. “This is one of those moments when I stepped up and felt like I could do something — to open the lines of communication, to let people know that regardless of what stance you’re taking you can always do more. You can speak your voice and let that be heard,” she says. “I just hope that feeling we started off with when Obama announced his candidacy replenishes itself and that people are not only touched and inspired but they’re called into action.”
Her fondest wish is that as her son “grows up as a biracial child he’ll understand there’s no limit to himself.”
Speaking of mothers and sons, Jackie Culvert brought 10-year-old Carter “so he will be able to see the change for America and be able to remember this moment.”
Every few minutes cheers go up as trains arrive and depart, moving us nearer the station. Security helicopters hover above. At 8:45 we finally make it inside. There, the crowd packs in even tighter. No shoving though. We’re connected to some living, breathing organism that moves in fits and starts. We’re one.
Akintunde says, “I don’t know why I’m not getting angry, I’m just getting more excited.” “More energized,” a woman says.
Terri Jackson-Miller marvels how “everybody’s in the same spirit…very cooperative. No one’s pushing or throwing attitudes, and I just think that’s all part of what’s out there right now, what’s happening today. Truly a blessed day. This breaks ground. The unknown is now known. It’s going to be a life changing experience.”
Between the magnanimity of the people and the cool-headed actions of cops and Metro workers, who closely monitor traffic flow, thousands safely snake through the station. Only a certain number are allowed on the platform. Once out of the crowd’s grip it’s a release and relief. Amazingly, the entire UNO contingent makes it through intact, amid hoops and hollers, all boarding the same Orange Line train. The empty cars fill in no time. It’s 10:30.
Our prearranged stop: Foggy Bottom. A half-hour ride. From there, a 20-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, our target area for watching the big event.
Jackson-Miller says the teeming crowds who’ve come from everywhere “really show the magnitude of this whole thing.” Confirmation is as near as the woman sitting beside me. She’s with the Red Rose Sisters from Miami, Fla. She “just had to be part of history.” Later, a man from Ireland joins me. He says Obama’s election night victory speech inspired him to cross the pond for this moment.
Akintunde announces our Foggy Bottom stop and we’re off, charging into daylight on the George Washington University campus. Vendors galore greet us, hawking Obama caps, buttons, key chains, T-shirts — “My President is Black” reads one. Food trucks do a brisk business. As Akintunde promised, “Everybody and their mamas’ selling things.” The cordoned-off district funnels a constant stream of people into the street, onto the sidewalks. A few on bikes. One atop a skateboard. We move in unison. So much activity, yet so quiet, so still. We’re like a great flock of believers bound for church. Serene. Sharing a sense of purpose and faith in a new era. A placards reads, “We Have Overcome — A New Age of Freedom.”
National Guard troops patrol select intersections.
We reach the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 11:15 and soon find the monument overrun with spectators. We make our way down to a grass field lining the reflecting pool, where thousands gather to watch a jumbo screen. We’re a mile from the Capitol, the whole of the National Mall spread out before us. It’s a grand sight with all the people, the flags, the monuments, the pageantry. Magisterial.
So many families are here. Indeed, it’s like a giant family reunion picnic. You don’t know most of the faces but you’re all linked. It’s our Woodstock.
“This is It, This is It”
Though removed from the pomp, circumstance and fanfare we’re still participants in this ritual and reverie. We angle within 25 yards of the screen, our eyes fixed on the ceremony. The mood, upbeat and solemn. Respectful. Swells of cheers and muffled applause rise as Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are intro’d. Aretha Franklin’s soulful “My Country, Tis of Thee” sets it off again. Biden’s oath of office elicits a big response. Rick Warren’s invocation is well-received. The buzz for Obama’s oath grows. When a classical musical interlude ends the crowd senses what’s next. “This is it, this is it,” a mother tells her girl, holding her tightly. The swearing-in rates a huge response, chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” lifted up. Many folks hold cameras aloft to steal away what they can for posterity. Others share the moment with friends and loved ones on their cells. Tears well up in Katrina Adams’ eyes. Mine, too. Hugs and kisses.
The love-in’s repeated again upon Obama introduced as the 44th President of the United States. People’s faces betray awe, joy, pride. His address merits rapt attention. He hits all the right notes with his call for resolve, common purpose and a new era of responsibility, moving the crowd to shout out approval.
At “Thank you and God bless you” another crescendo, more words invoked, the Star Spangled Banner, and then it’s over. In the afterglow people don’t quite know what to do. Many, including our troupe, tour the Lincoln Memorial, lingering to soak in the panorama. One more tangible link to this moment. Much picture-taking. We do the same at the Vietnam War Memorial. The procession out of the Mall an orderly exodus. Even two hours after the inauguration the people file by.
Some of us get separated in the human stream. After the long walk back getting inside the Foggy Bottom stop takes an hour due to the logjam of people. We’re exhausted, chilled, overladen with souvenirs but still of good cheer.
Impressions from our members:
Janette Jones: “It was exhilarating. It was not so much the fact of him being black, it’s just the point America has come together for the first time in unity, and that’s what his message was all about — unity. It was very inclusive.”
Daryl Hunt“I feel like I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. It’s an awesome feeling.”James Freeman“It gives everybody hope because the door has been opened and so now we can come in.”
Katrina Adams: “It’s confirmed, it’s done, he’s safe, his family’s safe, and we’re going to be OK. I can’t feel my fingers but I’m happy.”
Andrew Gaines: “I’m ecstatic. I feel very hopeful we’re going to experience a new resolve as a country — to reenergize, refurbish, redevelop, reexplore…to make this American Dream we have more of a reality. I’m excited for the future. I’m engaged now.”
Omowale Akintunde: “Wasn’t it beautiful? We actually have a black president. It means we’ve evolved as a nation. You can literally feel the weight lifted. I’m amazed.”
Seth Quartey: “I feel real proud. I know with this change everything’s going to be alright.”
We all make it back to the Carrollton station and bus. Akintunde leads us in singing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and the “Star Spangled Banner.” Linda Briggs offers a prayer thanking God for seeing us through. At dinner that night the event-filled day’s relived over and over. It’s a blur. Sleep comes easy.
The Day After – Get on Home
The enthusiasm’s waned some. We’re still recovering, still digesting. The trip home is long but we have the satisfaction of achieving our mission. James Hart gives thanks for our being delivered back where we started. The bus empties, the cameras record. Goodbyes said.
Joining the enormous throng for this slice of Americana gave each of us a personal stake in history, in something far greater than ourselves. Whether riding the human waves on the Mall, milling about the masses on monument row or navigating the gridlock in the Metro, we found ourselves literally and figuratively carried away. No matter how small, we played our parts in this celebration, culmination, commemoration. We made this more perfect union and fervent prayer sing. Hallelujah!
- Dan Beckmann: So Where Did All the Hope and Change Go? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Obama: ‘Much work to be done’ (politico.com)
- Letters: Why Is the Seat Next to Me Empty? (nytimes.com)
- Greenest Inauguration in American History (envtalengg.wordpress.com)
- Obama’s Second Inaugural Address (themoderatevoice.com)
- Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Journalists look for hooks to hang their stories on, and anniversaries of major events are always convenient pegs to use. On the 50th anniversary of the Korean War I profiled the combat experience of Bill Ramsey, an amiable man who made a rich life for himself after the conflict as a husband, father, PR professional, and community volunteer. He has devoted much of his life to veterans affairs, particularly memorializing fallen veterans. He’s also authored a handful of books. He’s still quite active today at age 80. Anyone who survives combat has a story worth repeating, and it was my privilege telling his story in the New Horizons. Now, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, I offer the story again as a tribute to Ramsey and his fellow servicemen who fought this often forgotten conflict.
A Korean War Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Fifty years ago, Americans were piecing their lives back together in the aftermath of World War II when the best and brightest of the nation’s youth were once more sent-off to fight in a distant land. This time the call to arms came in defense of a small Asian nation few Americans were even aware of then — Korea. In June of 1950, Communist North Korean forces (with backing from the Soviet Union and Red China) launched an unprovoked attack on the fledgling democratic republic of South Korea, whose poorly prepared army was soon overrun. With North Korea on the verge of conquering their neighbors to the south, the United States and its Western allies drew a line in the sand against Communist expansionism in the strategically vital Far East and led a United Nations force to check the aggression.
Among those answering the call to service was a tall, strapping 20-year-old Marine reservist from Council Bluffs named Bill Ramsey. His wartime experience there became a crucible that indelibly marked him. “The war will always be the most defining experience in my life,” said Ramsey, 70, whose full postwar years have included careers as a newsman, advertising executive and public relations consultant. He and his wife of 46 years, Pat, raised five children and are grandparents to 14 and great-grandparents to one. This is his Korean War story.
In the fall of 1950, Ramsey was preparing to study journalism at then Omaha University. His plans were put on hold, however, with the outbreak of hostilities overseas. He followed the unfolding drama in newsreel and newspaper accounts, including the U.S. rushing-in army divisions grown soft from occupation duty in defeated Japan. The invaders pushed South Korean and American forces down the Korean peninsula. Ramsey sensed reserves might be recalled to active duty. He was right.
He was assigned a front line unit in the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Reinforced. He was excited at the prospect of seeing action in a real shooting war, even one misleadingly termed “a police action.” His anticipation was fed not by bravery, but rather heady youthful zeal to be part of the Corps’ glorious tradition. The conflict offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to test himself under fire. After all, he was too young to have fought in his older brother Jack’s war the previous decade. This would be his war. His proving ground. His adventure.
“I wanted to be in the front lines. I didn’t want to go all that way to end up sorting letters in Pusan,” he said. “I was curious to know how I would hold up in action.”
No stirring salute or fanfare saw the Marines off as their Navy attack transport ship, Thomas Jefferson, pulled out of San Diego harbor in March 1951. Ramsey was one of hundreds of young men crammed in the hull. They had been plucked away from factories, offices, schools, homes and families. Ramsey left behind his mother, brother and an aunt (his father died when he was 12). The GIs were going to defend a land they did not know and a people they never met. Their mission lacked the patriotic fervor of WWII. There was no Pearl Harbor to avenge this time. No, this was a freedom fight in a growing global struggle for people’s hearts and minds.
Before ever setting foot on Korean soil, Ramsey smelled it from aboard ship in the Sea of Japan. Nearing Pusan harbor in the far southeastern tip of Korea, the heavy acrid odor of the war-ravaged countryside permeated the air. It was the stink of sulfur (the discharge from spent armaments), excrement (peasant farmers used it as fertilizer in their fields), fire and death. “That all mixed together made for quite a pungent odor,” he said. “It’s a stench that you never forget.”
Ramsey and his Able Company comrades were flown into a staging area near Chunchon in east-central Korea to await transport to the front. The city had sustained heavy damage. “It was pretty well leveled at that point,” he recalls. Standing on a wind-swept tarmac, he saw snaking down a road from the north a convoy of trucks carrying combat-weary GIs being rotated out of the line. These were veterans of the famous Chosin Reservoir Battle who defied all odds, including numerically superior enemy forces, to complete a withdrawal action that featured hand-to-hand combat. Ramsey and his green mates were their replacements.
“I remember when they got off the trucks they looked like zombies. Their faces were covered with a fine white powdery dust and their hands were blackened from the soot of the fires burning everywhere in the country,” Ramsey said. “I thought, ‘God, I’d give anything to have gone through what they’ve gone through and to be going home.” Among the dog-faced vets was a friend, Phil O’Neill, from Council Bluffs. “He tried to tell me what it was like. He didn’t exaggerate or try to make it any scarier than it was. He didn’t fool around or joke. He just gave me some good advice, like keep a low profile and keep your weapon dry.” After seeing and hearing what awaited him, Ramsey felt an overpowering desire to join the departing GIs. “They were going home. That really hurt. I was so envious.”
Ramsey’s unit headed for a position along the central front. Every village and field they passed was scarred and charred. “We drove all night. We could see fires burning. Again, we could smell the countryside,” he said.
Movement was the order of the day in a war of quickly shifting positions along the long and narrow Korean peninsula. “It was a very fluid war. We were moving constantly, sometimes by truck and sometimes marching 20 or 30 miles in a day to the next spot,” he said. Rough mountainous terrain, bad roads and inclement weather — marked by extreme temperatures, torrential rains, floods, snow and ice — made the going tough. “The farther north you go the more mountainous it becomes. You always had to go up a hill or some rocky face. No flat open fields. This was trees and rocks and cliffs. A really difficult place.” While he never had to endure the brutal winter, he described conditions “as miserably cold. And when it rained, which it did a lot, you were soaking wet, cold and knee-deep in mud. You thought you could never get through it, but you kept going.”
When his company first arrived, U.N. forces were striking out in a series of bold counteroffensives. By the summer, the war was bogged down in a stalemate. A single position (invariably a hill) would be taken, lost, and retaken several times. “It was pretty much hill by hill,” Ramsey said. Platoons were like firefighters rushing from one hot zone to another. A hundred yards or less might separate opposing forces. The basic objective was usually capturing or holding a perimeter on one of the endless sharp-edged ridge lines. Upon reaching a position, the Marines set-up machine gun posts and prepared cover by digging fox holes. Not only did the metal shards from incoming mortar and artillery pose threats, but splintered rock made deadly projectiles too. “
You always had to get some protection for yourself from shrapnel,” he said. Sleeping accommodations were standard-issue pup tents or makeshift bunkers (for extended stays). “Most of the time you stayed one night or two nights and then walked to another position, where you’d dig another hole.” The premium was on moving — no matter what. “You have aching feet. A sore back. You’re tired, discouraged. You’re cold, dirty. You’re sick (dysentery, encephalitis, etc.). But you can’t stop. You’re there, you’re on the move and there’s no way out unless a doctor says you just can’t go on and sends you to the rear.”
On rare occasions when his platoon remained in one spot, barbed wire was strung across the perimeter. The men had to be on constant alert for all-out charges or smaller probing raids looking for weaknesses in the line. “A lot of times they were through the position or in the position. They weren’t always stopped at the wire,” Ramsey said. Nightfall was the worst. The enemy preferred attacking then by frontal assault or flanking maneuvers. To keep a sharp defensive perimeter, men took turns sleeping and watching — two hours on and two hours off — through the night. “You never let your guard down. We were always ready,” he said, adding that the last two years of the conflict it got to be “almost like trench warfare.”
His first taste of combat came early in his hitch. His platoon was dug in for the night on some anonymous ridge line, the men extra wary because reconnaissance had spotted enemy massed nearby. “We were told the Chinese were going to be coming in some force. It was pretty hard to sleep anyway, and anticipating my first night under fire made it that much harder. Sure enough, they came that night. I remember a lot of noise. Mortars. Shots. All that firepower. I remember thinking, “I would love to be able to cram myself inside my helmet.” I somehow got through that night. The next morning they brought in some of our killed. They were in ponchos — their feet sticking out. They were carried down the hill.”
Sometimes, a noise from somewhere out in the pitch black warned of encroaching danger. Other times, a fire fight broke loose with no warning at all. “You would hear something or you would sense something. You laid down fire if you heard anything at all out there. Their movements might trigger a flare, which made it easier for you to see them moving but also made it easier for them to see you,” he said. “On occasion, they would purposely make some noise to try and shake you up. They would produce some tinny sound or blare a bugle or just shout out. It was a psychological ploy.” A dreaded eerie sound was the “zzziiippp” made by the infamous Chinese burp gun, an incredibly fast-firing tommy gun-like weapon.
Perhaps the most terrifying action he saw came the night his outfit’s position was nearly overrun. What began as a cold damp day worsened after sunset.
“We got to our positions pretty late that night. It was raining. We dug in as fast as we could. We’d been in quite a few fire fights in the days preceding that. We thought with the weather this might be one of those nights when the enemy didn’t do anything. We were wrong,” he said. “Our machine guns started firing, and when you heard those you knew they were coming. A few of the enemy broke through our position and came right in the camp. I was quite shocked. We’d never had that before. I saw them through flashes of fire. It was very confusing. A real nightmare. We finally pushed them back.”
There were casualties on both sides. Ramsey said the enemy took advantage of the night, the rain and his unit’s complacency. “They knew Americans were not that big on night fighting and that with the bad weather we might be more inclined to worry about staying dry than steeling for attack. I think what happened is somebody in our ranks did let down. That was the only time they got in our camp that way.” He said an enemy breaching the wire could “demoralize” the troops and, if not repelled, result in a much larger breakthrough.
He described “plenty of close calls” on Able Company’s grueling march north across the 38th Parallel to engage the Chinese in the Iron Triangle stronghold. There was the omnipresent threat of mortar and artillery fire. If you stayed in the field long enough, he said, “you could hear the difference in the sound” and distinguish mortars from artillery and what size they were. Where a mortar round or artillery shell whistling high overhead gave men time to find cover, the report of the Chinese mountain gun, which fired shells in a low trajectory, allowed little or no time to hit the dirt. “You heard the report and, BOOM, it was right there. It fired in on like a straight line.” And there was occasionally the danger of friendly fire, especially errant air strikes, raining hell down on you.
Fording the streams that flowed abundantly from the mountains in Korea presented still more hazards. As heavily weighed down as the men were with their poncho, pack, boots, rifle, helmet, and ammunition, one slip in crossing the clear, fast-rushing streams (more like surging rivers) could be fatal. “A few times I felt like I was going under for sure,” Ramsey said. “I wouldn’t have had a chance.” Carrying their rifles overhead to keep them dry, the men were sitting ducks for snipers. “We were exposed,” he said.
Once, he recalls his platoon just making it to the far bank when shots began splaying the shore from the hill above. “We couldn’t see too much because it was fairly steep. We finally did draw fire on this hill.” But when Ramsey got ready to fire his M1 rifle, he got a rude surprise. “I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. That was a terrible feeling. In all that sloshing through the water my weapon must have got wet. I used a wounded buddy’s carbine instead.”
A fire fight Ramsey will never forget erupted when his 1st squad was returning to the lines after completing a mission and saw the point squad ahead of them “get hit” in an ambush of machine gun fire. Several men were cut down in the ensuing action, including 1st’s squad leader and Ramsey’s good friend — Don Hanes. “He was shot in the chest. Another fellow and I went back up this hill to get him. The fire was really intense. I was amazed we weren’t all killed on the spot. We started taking him down and Don looked at us and said, ‘No, no, no, no, no…Just leave me. You’ve got to get out of here. I’m not going to make it.’ He was a brave fellow. He was hurt so badly. Well, we did get him out of there — across an open rice paddy. He was evacuated to a hospital, but it turned out he was mortally wounded. He died later. We had a number of other casualties we carried too. It was a grim day.”
At 20, Ramsey was named temporary squad leader. He already led a four-man fire team. In addition to M1s, the team carried a single Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR. Their mission: flushing out the enemy or scouting enemy lines. Sometimes, they ran sniper patrols. If the enemy was sighted (with the aid of a sniper scope), the team’s job was to “throw some fire in” and try to pick-off or pin down targets. “We wouldn’t necessarily hit them all the time,” he said. Days or weeks might pass without enemy contact. Once, Ramsey came face-to-face with his foe. It happened when taking a hill. He and another Marine surprised a North Korean soldier. “We both fired at him, and he fell dead. We went over to where he was lying on his back. There was a pouch. We opened it and found a photo of a woman and a child. I thought, ‘He’s just like me.’ We had been thinking of the enemy as a bunch of faceless fanatics, and here was a man with a wife and child. It made an impact.”
By November 1951, Ramsey had been in-country eight months. Despite steady combat, he’d escaped unscathed. He hoped his luck held out just a few months more — then his hitch would be up and he’d be back stateside. “You see people dropping everyday. You see friends maimed and killed. You see guys going out of their head. You wonder when your number’s going to come up next. You ask yourself, ‘How can I ever get out of here?’ It’s a sinking feeling,” he said. He feels what keeps men going in such awful conditions “is your intense desire to survive and to see your loved ones again. That kept me driving.”
On the morning of November 17, his fire team “headed out on a routine sniper patrol” down Hill 834. “It was one of our more permanent lines. The hill was a muddy mess. We weren’t out long when one of us tripped a land mine, and a piece of shrapnel caught my right arm.” The impact sent Ramsey skidding face down the hill. “I was in shock, but I knew it was pretty bad because my dungaree jacket was shredded and blood was all over the place.” Metal fragments had severed his ulnar nerve and fractured bones. His mates brought a Navy corpsman to his side. The corpsman applied a bandage and administered a shot of morphine. Ramsey’s buddies then carried him up the hill and down the reverse slope to a small, level clearing. There, a second casualty from down the line was stretchered in — missing a foot. Ramsey recalls an officer giving him a cigarette to drag on and saying, “You got a million dollar wound there, Bill…you’ll probably be going home.” Still, Ramsey worried he might lose his shattered arm, which burned with pain. A helicopter evacuated he and the other casualty to a nearby MASH unit.
Rushed into surgery, Ramsey awoke the next day to the news doctors had saved the arm. Wearing a cast, he was taken (by ambulance) to an Army hospital in the devastated capital of Seoul. “There was nothing standing,” he said. From there, he was flown (on a transport plane stacked with wounded) to an Army hospital in Osaka, Japan, spending days in agony (receiving no treatment as a non-Army patient) before transferred (via train) to a Navy hospital in Yukosuka, where he finally found some relief for the pain and slept for the first time in nine days.
In early December he hopped a four-engine prop bound for the states. He landed at Travis Air Force Base in southern California. His first impulse was to call home. He next reported to Oak Knoll Navy Hospital near Oakland, where he underwent skin grafts and three months of physical therapy. During his rehab, the Purple Heart recipient recalls being torn by two emotions: “I felt sick about leaving and letting my buddies down. But the other side of it was I was really thankful to get out. Eight months there was enough.” His long voyage back ended almost a year to the day his Korean odyssey began. A relieved Ramsey arrived to “the quiet of my wonderful home.” He downed a beer and thanked God the journey was over at last.
Upon his return (he graduated from Creighton University) he was dismayed by the indifference civilians expressed toward the raging conflict. From its start in June 1950 to its conclusion three years later, it never captured the public’s imagination. Many observers feel it came too quickly on the heels of World War II for Americans — then preoccupied with living the good life — to care. Cloaked under the murky misnomer “police action,” it became a shadow war.
President Harry S. Truman summed up the national mood when he called it “that dirty little war.” Its status as “the forgotten war” was sealed when it ended not with victory but an armistice leaving Korea still divided at the 38th Parallel (with a permanent American military presence there to keep the peace.) Lost on many was the fact the true objective — preserving a democratic South Korea — was accomplished. In the larger scheme of things, a free South Korea has emerged as a thriving economic juggernaut while a closed North Korea has withered in poverty. Ramsey saw for himself the economic miracle wrought in South Korea on a 1979 trip there. He met a people grateful for his and his comrades’ sacrifices. Monuments abound in recognition of the U.N. “freedom fighters.”
It is only recently, however, these veterans got their due in America. In 1995 the Korean War Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. (Ramsey was there). In the late ‘70s Ramsey, whose post-war life has been devoted to causes, spearheaded the erection of a joint Korean-Vietnam War monument in Omaha’s Memorial Park. The monument has received a recent refurbishing and the addition of a flower garden. This year, he started a Nebraska chapter of the National Korean War Veterans Association.
For vets who went to hell and back, the war is never far from their thoughts. “I’m proud to have served. We stood fast. We saved the south. I can think of no higher compliment than to be called a freedom fighter,” said Ramsey, who, in 1997, faced a new enemy — prostate cancer. Aggressive treatments have left him cancer free. In August, he attended a reunion of his 1st Marine Division mates. “My admiration continues to grow for the Marines with whom I served,” he said. For their heroic actions there, the division received the rarely bestowed Presidential Unit Citation.
- Korean War veterans reunite to share memories (knoxnews.com)
- Legacy of the Korean War (theworld.org)
- The Korean War 60 years on: Images from the conflict (independent.co.uk)