How I Joined the Navy

(and Became a Korean Vet)

Well, to begin with, I am a Korean vet only in the sense that I was in the service during the qualifying period. I never served in Korea as did the true Korean vets. It is not inappropriate to say that I "fought" the Korean War in the Mediterranean. That aside, here is my story.

In the summer of 1950 I had just finished my second year of college. The first year had been a breeze academically, but socially I had been pretty much little boy lost. My second year I had found my way around a little, had a crush or two, maybe a love affair, and had begun to have a little more of a challenge with the academics. My sophomore year completed, it was late June and I was home for a brief visit, killing time until I was scheduled to report for my summer job as a counselor at Camp Van Schoonhoven, a YMCA camp near Troy, N.Y. I had set myself up for the afternoon on a blanket in the sun in the side yard of my parents' house with an my mother's old bakelite tabletop radio from the kitchen at the end of a long extension cord. It seemed important that I get my tan well started before the beginning of the season at camp. During that afternoon I heard the news that the North Koreans had crossed the 38th parallel. Truman went to the UN, and the "police action" was soon under way.

The summer passed with mostly bad news. In September the Inchon landing improved the news for a few months. (Although I did not know it at the time my high school friend Harold R. was in the first wave that landed early in the morning on Wolmi-do Island at the entrance to the harbor at Inchon. Later he went on to Chosin, which he survived only to be killed by a sniper  two months later in February 1951.) Those of us of military age were watching the situation carefully. Most were willing to serve but wanted to avoid the Army and the Marines, both of which had suffered so terribly in those first months. I, my friend Ken W., and my friend Henry S. made a pact that if one of us were drafted then the three of us would enlist together in the Air Force. Throughout the beginning part of that semester we were all pretty much distracted from our studies. However, since my draft board was in the same county with the City of Syracuse which contained a large pool of eligibles, there seemed very little likelihood that I would be called before either of the others. Ken W., on the other hand, from small rural Tioga County, was in imminent danger of being called up.

So it happened during the first or second week of January 1951, Ken W. was ordered to report for his preliminary physical at Owego in Tioga County. Henry S. backed out of our agreement, but I cut classes and went  with Ken to his home in Waverly. The next day we borrowed his grandfather's car and drove to Owego, where we thought his physical would take place. We thought the physical would take only a short time, and our plan was then to enlist that afternoon. Instead the group of prospective draftees was scheduled to be sent by bus to Port Dickinson, near Binghamton, for their physicals. Since I did not then have a licence to drive and since it was a bitterly cold day and there was nothing for me to do and no place for me to go in Owego, I was taken along with the group and watched carefully all day by the sergeant in charge as if I were some sort of spy. It was a completely ridiculous situation. The others were fed lunch, but I was not. I was made to sit in one room all day with just a few magazines to read. I guess I should count myself lucky that I wasn't conscripted on the spot. By the end of the day when we arrived back at Waverly it was too late to enlist. The very next morning all enlistments were closed. What timing! Ken's uncle Walter was a Navy recruiter in the area. We tried to get him to sign us up and backdate the papers, but he wouldn't. He tried to find us a recruiter in Pennsylavania who was willing to do so, but he could not. Our plan was stymied, and we had nothing to do but give up.

We had no way to get back to Albany, but we did find someone who would give us a ride to Geneva. From Geneva we hitched a ride east on US 20 to a point south of Utica where NY 12B joins US 20. To this day I cannot pass the intersection without remembering that night. For two or three hours we were stuck there, freezing. Finally about 11 o'clock at night we were picked up by a couple in a big Buick. There names, Trit and Bill, are engraved in my memory. He was in the Air Force, and they were changing duty stations. Although their back seat was crammed full, they somehow sandwiched us in. They revived us with hardboiled eggs, coffee, and scotch. We were dropped off in the wee hours of the morning near our off-campus residences in Albany. We had missed more than a week of classes, the semester had about one week to go, and I had failed to write a required paper for a sociology course. I ended up failing the course, a fact that I managed to conceal from my parents.

There we were, neither drafted nor able to enlist. That spring all male college students were given the draft deferment test. I scored in the 99th percentile, and Ken W. did almost as well. Both of us were given student deferments. We settled down to finish our degrees. Having learned my lesson in the sociology course, I never cut a class again in the remaining three semesters, got an A in every course I took, and managed to graduate cum laude in spite of my somewhat mediocre start.

By my senior year things in Korea had pretty much reached stalemate, although obviously it was a terrible place to be. As I approached graduation it was quite obvious that I would probably never be required to serve. Not liking the uncertainty that I would probably be placed in for several years, I concluded that I should join the service. First I applied for a direct commission in the Air Force for training as an aerology officer. I made it through several steps of the process only to receive my rejection notice the day before college graduation. Actually my parents delivered it to me when they came for my graduation. It was a very great disappointment. Two days after graduation, I applied for Navy OCS. I was accepted and told that I would not be called until after the termination of the next college semester. As a result I enrolled in grad school, only to be told less than a week after the beginning of classes that I would be called to duty on 1 November 1952. At that point I managed to get most of my fees back, dropped out of school, and waited for the appointed day to report at Newport, R.I. And so my Navy career began. It was one of the greatest and best adventures of my life. I cannot now imagine what life would have been without it.