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Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

August 30, 2010 5 comments

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Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years.  But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.

The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.

 

 

Jim Hendrickson

 

 

His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.

Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.

The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”

Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.

As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.

 

 

  

©Images by Jim Hendrickson

  

 

 

“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”

His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”

As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.

“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”

In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.

“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”

He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”

In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.

“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.

As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.

“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.

“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”

While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”

He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.

Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.

 

 

Morrie Camhi

 

 

Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.

“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.

A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.

“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.

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Bill Ramsey, Marine: A Korean War Story

June 26, 2010 2 comments

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.

 

 

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Bill Ramsey, Marine: 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.

 

Bill Ramsey

 

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.

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