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Korean War 'no place for a normal guy'

ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- Living along the scenic banks of the Coal River in St. Albans with his wife, Nancy, Korean War veteran James DeCarlo still thinks about the tense times he spent on Pork Chop Hill and in other battles back in 1953.

His service earned him numerous honors, as well as a Purple Heart medal. It left him with other, less-pleasant reminders, as well.

"Today, I still can't watch movies like 'Platoon' or 'Band of Brothers,'" DeCarlo said. "They bring back too many sad, bad memories.

"And today, I still dream about the war," he added. "It was so long ago, it is almost like it happened to another person. In other ways, it seems like it all happened yesterday."

Born in Windber, Pa. -- a small town in the coalfields near Johnstown -- on Oct. 31, 1932, DeCarlo graduated from Weir High School in Weirton in 1951.    

In June 1952, when he was 19, DeCarlo joined the U.S. Army and was sent to basic training in Fort Meade, Md.

Boot camp lasted more than 26 weeks, including 18 weeks of infantry training and eight weeks of leadership training for new leaders.

"I was shipped to Korea in January 1953," DeCarlo said. "We spent about 36 hours in Japan, where we picked up rifles and [ammunition] shots."

Soldiers in his company in the 31st Infantry Regiment ended up fighting three battles along the 38th Parallel in Korea: on Alligator Hill, Hill Eerie and Arsenal, a military outpost.

"All the soldiers in my company got Bronze Stars because of these battles," DeCarlo said.

The fighting on Pork Chop Hill on March 31, 1953, though, is probably DeCarlo's most memorable battle.

"Pork Chop Hill changed hands a dozen times during the war," he said.

"One night, North Korean soldiers were looking right down on us from Old Baldy, a nearby hill about 150 meters higher. There was a full moon that night," he said. "A 61-millimeter round landed six to eight feet from me. It should have killed me."

Instead, the round had a delayed fuse. DeCarlo got hit with, as he says, "a bushel of dirt" -- and a bunch of shrapnel

"About 100 pieces of shrapnel hit my left side -- my knee, thigh, hand, arm, neck and face. I ended up in a MASH [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] hospital for two weeks. Unfortunately, they had no female nurses.

"That MASH hospital also had no X-ray machines, so they sent me to a Norwegian evacuation hospital to get all my shrapnel out," DeCarlo said. "There were beautiful Norwegian nurses in that hospital, dozens of them."

After spending time in the second hospital, DeCarlo returned to the battle zones for "light duty."

"I wanted to be sent back up front. I had probably recovered by 90 percent within three to four weeks, but I lost hearing in my left ear" he said. "Since I was hit, I have never been able to even hear a wristwatch tick from this ear."

DeCarlo was discharged from active duty in April 1954. He joined the Army Reserve, where he spent seven years as a master sergeant.

Today, DeCarlo's home is filled with photographs, medals and other memorabilia from his life, including several framed photographs of an iconic movie star.

"I got to see Marilyn Monroe at the 7th Infantry Division headquarters in Korea in February 1953," DeCarlo said. By waiting in line for hours, he got to sit in the front row for her performance.

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea. After weeks of negotiations, an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 that ended the fighting.

DeCarlo said he remembers "my buddy Jim Summy, a cook in the infantry. He was the toughest friend for me to lose.

"I wanted to get into the battle up front that day. Jim stayed back. But a mortar round hit the tent where he was working and killed him on July 17, 10 days before the end of the war.

"We lost 53,000 soldiers in three years. Between 33,000 and 35,000 of them died in battle," DeCarlo said. "A little over 100,000 got Purple Hearts.

"This was the first military challenge to the spread of Communism. It worked. They wanted the whole Korean peninsula. They didn't get it."

In February 1954, DeCarlo left Korea "and spent the next 36 days on the ocean. We went through the Panama Canal and dropped off allied troops we were bringing home to Colombia and Puerto Rico. I am sorry I missed getting onto another boat which went around the globe, near Greece and France."

DeCarlo says infantry troops play the critical role in any war.

"You can drop all the bombs in the world, but in the end, it is the infantry that has to go in."

He says war was different during the 1950s.

"If Vietnam happened in the '50s, and not during the '60s and '70s, we would have won that war. We really saw the horrors of war, starting in Vietnam."

The Korean War also had other permanent impacts on DeCarlo.

"I don't enjoy fireworks very much. One night in Korea, 1,200 rounds of ammunition landed in an area the size of a football field in just two hours.

"I got knocked out that night, too. I was in a trench. A round landed outside my trench. It knocked me over. But I did not have a scratch on me. If I had been three feet closer, it probably would have hit me on the head," DeCarlo remembers.

"This was no place for a normal guy. Single young soldiers make the best soldiers. They think they are never going to die."

DeCarlo remembers one MASH doctor who told him, "We treat as many people going into shock as people who get wounded."

In addition to receiving a Purple Heart, DeCarlo also earned a Combat Infantryman's Badge, awarded to soldiers constantly under fire for 30 days or more.

Things might be even worse today, DeCarlo said, "for the poor guys in the Middle East, who are constantly under fire in towns and villages. They all deserve the Combat Infantry Badge."

DeCarlo got married to his wife, Nancy, on Dec. 11, 1954, not long after returning home.

The next year, he enrolled in a two-year college program in Steubenville, Ohio, which helped him get into the finance business.

Over the years, DeCarlo lived in Weirton, Cleveland and Baltimore, before moving to St. Albans in June 1977.

After he returned to civilian life, DeCarlo got a job with Beneficial Finance and worked in the finance industry for 40 years. After he retired, he worked for the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee for three legislative sessions. He also became executive director of the West Virginia Consumer Finance Association, a group of finance companies, and lobbied for it for 10 years.

Last November, the state Department of Veterans Assistance named DeCarlo as the newest member of the West Virginia Veterans Council, after being appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

DeCarlo also serves as president of the Korean War Veterans Association's Mountaineer Chapter, which has 30 active members today.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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