This Tuesday will mark the 63rd anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War on June 25, 1950.
Jack Wilroy, an 80-year-old Woodstock resident and Purple Heart recipient, said he arrived in Korea just two days later and stayed in service there until the war ended July 27, 1953.
Barely 18 years old when he flew into Korea, Wilroy said he wasn’t at all prepared for the “chaos,” bitter cold and relentless enemies he found there.
According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 33,000 Americans were killed in combat in three years of the Korean War, putting the death toll for the conflict about 14,000 behind the Vietnam War, which lasted for more than a decade.
Wilroy said in spite of these numbers and the vivid memories he has of the hundreds of soldiers he saw die there, he is often surprised by the lack of knowledge most people have about the war.
“Nobody remembers what we did,” he said.
And with the numbers of living veterans of the Korean War growing smaller with each passing year, Wilroy said, soon, there will be no one left to tell the tales.
Wilroy is a native of Fairfax, Va.
He joined the Maryland-Virginia Army National Guard at 16 years old and went to basic training at Fort Benning, outside Columbus, where he was trained to be a mechanic.
Shortly after Wilroy’s 18th birthday, he was deployed to Japan to fill an open spot for that same job.
He arrived in Japan on June 15, 1950, he said, but his stay was short-lived.
Ten days later, the Korean War began when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — commonly known as North Korea — invaded the Republic of Korea — now South Korea.
It was a Sunday morning.
Wilroy said he was sitting in the barracks when a sergeant came in and told him, “Get your gear, we’re goin’ some place.”
Two days later, Wilroy arrived in Seoul, South Korea, along with 27 other men who had also been stationed in Japan.
“The Korean War started for us that day,” he said.
Making it through
Once in Korea, Wilroy said he was thrust into his new role as a regular infantry soldier. And, like his fellow soldiers, he found a dire situation there.
Supplies, equipment and training were all short, Wilroy said, and his platoon quickly began getting “pummeled” by the enemy.
“All we did for the first two months was run,” he said.
Wilroy said during those first few months, the enemies were the North Korean and Chinese armies, which were both better supplied, equipped and trained than the Americans.
These armies used the Americans’ weaknesses to their advantage, killing hundreds of men and still coming back for more.
They were relentless, Wilroy said.
“We lost whole platoons in 15 minutes,” he said. “Had it not been for the people who were there from all the UN countries, we would’ve been pushed right off the peninsula.”
Wilroy said it was those first months of the Korean War that were the worst for his platoon, particularly the first winter.
In late 1950 and early 1951, America’s troops not only had to fight the forces of a tireless set of enemies, but also the crippling cold of the Korean winter.
Sixty-three years later, Wilroy said he still hates the cold because of what he saw and felt that season.
It wasn’t just the discomfort; the cold also took many, many lives, he said.
“You see guys who can’t walk because their feet are frozen, and you know what’s gonna happen to ’em if you can’t get ’em out of there,” he said. “And a lot of times you couldn’t.”
With so much death and the constant turnover of new recruits coming into his platoon to replace the dead, Wilroy said he learned quickly that “you don’t get too close to anybody.”
To cope, he carried a canteen of Scotch whiskey “to keep my sanity.”
It helped, Wilroy said.
“Guys handle things different ways,” he said. “Eventually you get to a point where if you can just make it through the day, you’ve accomplished something.”
After the Korean War, Wilroy went back to Virginia and stayed with his National Guard unit, the 29th infantry division, for several more years while he attended college. He eventually put his mechanic training from Fort Benning to use and opened an automotive repair shop in New York state. He lived there and ran the business for almost 30 years before moving to Georgia 16 years ago.
Today, Wilroy lives in Woodstock with his wife of almost 60 years, Joan, whom he met after the war.
He is a member of the Woodstock American Legion and often goes to veterans’ gatherings and shares his experience with those he meets.
Wilroy said he likes telling his stories about the Korean War to keep the memory alive.
He’s also happy to show off the medals he received from his service in war — one of which is a Purple Heart he was awarded for a shrapnel wound.
Wilroy said his wife jokes that he’s just “blowing” his “horn.”
But it isn’t about him, he said; it’s about the thousands and thousands of men who lost their lives in the war — lives, he said, which are far too often forgotten.