Inland's warriors remember Korea


Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


For aging veterans of what was termed a "police action," the combat remains vivid despite the passage of 50 years.

U. S. Army Cpl. Wilbert "Shorty" Estabrook on the war's first grim days: "We saw guys running through our lines. We had nothing to stop the Russian tanks."

Estabrook greeted the outbreak of war with decided nonchalance.

Serving in the Army of Occupation in Japan, Estabrook joined the first Americans sent to staunch the communist flood that quickly overran the South Korean capital of Seoul.

The army was ill-prepared. Cushy duty and lax training dulled soldiers stationed in Japan. Weapons issued in World War II rusted from lack of use and maintenance. Tight quarters in Japan made large-scale training maneuvers impossible. Even so, Korea didn't seem to present a huge threat.

"It was like, `We'll set up your tents, fire our guns, make a lot of noise and be home in two weeks,' " said Estabrook, 69, who lives in Murrieta. "We viewed it as sort of an outing."

Landing near Taejon in the first week of July, 1950, Estabrook discovered a collapsing front with American forces retreating in what was called a strategic withdrawal. Anti-tank weapons lacked punch, unable to knock out the marauding Russian-built T-34 tanks of the North Korean People's Army.

Estabrook's buddy, Babe Bellflower, died as they walked together in a rice paddy.

"A round came in, I heard a ping," he said. "A sniper got him right between the eyes. I've never been able to accept his death. He fought throughout World War II and survived. He and I were close. He was like a father to me. How come he got hit and I didn't?"

Later, a wounded Estabrook faced a grim choice: Surrender or die. He spent the next 39 months as a prisoner of war, enduring torture, starvation and disease.

Estabrook spent 23 years in the service, retiring as a sergeant first class. Of Korea, he says: "It was the turning point in the Cold War. We drew a line in the sand and said, `No more.' "

The advancing North Korean army rolled south unchecked, seizing Seoul and pushing American and Republic of Korea forces into the 100-by-50-mile Pusan Perimeter in South Korea's southeastern tip. Americans needed a miracle. It came on Sept. 15, 1950. U.S. Marines landed at Inchon, 100 miles behind North Korean lines, trapping 98,000 North Koreans in the south.

Boatswain's Mate First Class Richard Turbeville, U.S. Navy landing craft operator, on the Inchon invasion: "I knew it was a major blow. The Marines were shock troops. They knew what to do."

Sept. 15, 1950, dawned mostly clear. Just a little hazy. Turbeville piloted 60 Marines aboard a transport into Inchon harbor at 7 mph, taking about 40 minutes to cover the 5 or so miles. He completed his mission with the practiced skill of a seaman who had taken part in 17 Pacific landings in World War II.

The "M Boat" hit the sand. The Marines stormed ashore without taking a shot. Right out of a textbook.

"We caught them off guard," Turbeville said of the North Koreans defending Inchon. "I didn't want to leave my family and go overseas. But since I had to, I wanted to do what I was trained to do. I wanted to fight."

On the next run, Turbeville carried five Marines and a tank. As he backed his craft away from the beach, an explosion blew the boat out of the water. He woke up in a hospital completely paralyzed. Fourteen operations restored his mobility but he remains disabled. His spirit is unbroken.

"I believe in freedom," said Turbeville, 74, who lives in Moreno Valley. "I'd do it all again tomorrow."

After Inchon, Seoul was liberated by Sept. 29, and U.S., U.N. and ROK troops invaded North Korea, capturing ever-increasing swaths of North Korean territory. Communist forces melted under the onslaught. Some Americans reached the Chinese border. Rumors spread that the war would be over by Thanksgiving.

In the skies above the Korean peninsula, aviators such as Air Force Cpl. Charles Ledbetter waged a new kind of war, a war of jets and helicopters and World War II-vintage bombers. Ledbetter, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII, was the only African-American on a five-man B-26 bomber crew in Korea, the country's first conflict where blacks and whites fought side by side.

Ledbetter, on unity among his air crew: "I never experienced any prejudice. I respected what they did and they respected me."

In a briefing room at the air base at Ewakuni, Japan, Ledbetter and the crew listened as the officer in charge outlined the target, the approach and the size of the attack. Ledbetter never thought about the destruction the bombers carried, or the number of soldiers and civilians that might die.

"I don't think anyone else did either," he said. "If they did, they were in trouble."

Ledbetter flew as part of a five-man crew on a B-26, a medium bomber that dropped flares on targets below, illuminating them for other bombers that followed. He was an old hand in Korea.

He'd seen plenty of racism during his stint in World War II, when the armed services were segregated. But by Korea, the Air Force and other branches had been integrated for two years. Ledbetter felt at home beside white colleagues. He considered himself just another of the five guys who functioned as a cohesive unit.

Besides dropping flares, Ledbetter served as an engineer-gunner, taking his place in the top turret, peering into the horizon, on the lookout for enemy fighters. His only companion was a .50-caliber machine gun.

"It was routine," he said of his combat post. "We had no air-to-air combat in Korea. We worked together as a team. As a team, we accomplished our mission."

Ledbetter, 78, lives in Moreno Valley and retired as a master sergeant. He flew 39 combat mission in Korea. Still the professional airman, he remains dispassionate about his work.

"We were told to fly to a target and come home," he said. "That's what we did."

November 1950. Communist Chinese "volunteers" poured into North Korea, forcing Americans and their U.N. allies into headlong retreat. Seoul fell for the second time and U. N. forces on the entire Korean peninsula were threatened. Len Maffioli, a Marine corporal, fought his way from Inchon to near Chosin Reservoir. On the night of Nov. 29, 1950, thousands of Chinese troops attacked the 900 men in his convoy. An all-night firefight ensued, leaving 40 U. N. soldiers dead and 160 wounded, including Maffioli. He was ordered to surrender and became a prisoner in a war in which the enemy played mind games with its captives.

Maffioli on Chinese brainwashing: "We were told we were tools of capitalistic, imperialistic Wall Street warmongers."

The actions of the Chinese soldier who took Maffioli prisoner threw the veteran Marine off guard. The man shook his hand. Maffioli later learned that the soldier made the gesture in hopes of winning over the American to the communist way of life.

"They believed we had surrendered to people who would lift the yoke of capitalist oppression off our shoulders," Maffioli recalled.

So began six months of Chinese indoctrination, seven days a week, three to four hours at a time, to convince prisoners of the evils of America. They heard about bankers who made fortunes off the sweat of blue-collar workers and about homeless people dying on American streets. They also were told about Chinese war heroes "who ripped the top off American tanks with their bayonets."

But his captors were also fascinated with details about his family in San Diego. They asked Maffioli how much money his father earned and whether he could drive a car.

" `Sure he does,' " Maffioli remembers telling his interrogators. " `Mom does too. ' They refused to believe it."

Prisoners were divided into "progressive" or "reactionaries." Progressives acted as if they bought into the propaganda line. Reactionaries were openly hostile.

"It did no good to be a reactionary," said Maffioli, 74, of Murrieta. "Just play along. Don't disgrace yourself or your country but don't make things any more difficult for yourself. They've got the guns and food."

Maffioli and 18 other Marines escaped their captors in May 1951, the only successful group escape of Americans during the war. Of 7,140 Americans taken prisoner in Korea, 2,732 died -- nearly 4 out of 10.

Maffioli spent 33 years in the Marines, retiring as a master gunnery sergeant.

By early 1951, as the enemy faltered and negotiations, not military victory, became the goal, operations with names like "Killer" and "Ripper" were launched. Their objective: Kill as many of the enemy as possible. Brute force was employed to drive the Chinese and North Koreans to the negotiating table.

Army Col. Lew Millett on combat: "You go berserk and lose all sense of civilization. You go crazy."

Fix bayonets, follow me and charge.

On Feb. 7, 1951, Millett placed himself at the front of his 100 battle-tested troops and led them up Hill 180, near Seoul.

The enemy outnumbered Millett's force 2 to 1. It didn't matter.

As he ran forward, a grenade exploded, hurling fragments of burning steel into his leg. Infuriated but undeterred, Millett moved on, swearing and wielding his bayonet with deadly efficiency.

"War is hell," said Millett, 79, who lives in Idyllwild. "But it's also exhilarating and exciting. You run to the sound of the guns."

Millett charged a foxhole. The first enemy soldier died from a bayonet thrust to the chest. His comrade turned too late to face Millett. A bayonet through the throat killed him. Millet dropped the last man by driving his bayonet through the man's forehead.

Driven by courage and rage, the two platoons swept the Chinese from the hill. Those who could fled in wild panic. The rest died. The frenzy was so great that Chinese pack animals were bayoneted in the heat of battle.

Afterward, the bodies of 47 Chinese soldiers were heaped on the hill. Eighteen died from bayonet wounds. Historian S. L. A. Marshall later called the taking of Hill 180 the "greatest bayonet attack by U.S. soldiers since Cold Harbor in the Civil War." Millett lost nine men.

Millett, a captain in Korea, earned the Medal of Honor for leading the attack on Hill 180. He is one of 131 recipients from the Korean War.

After the U.N. advances, the fighting in Korea settled into a stalemate. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was fired in April, 1951 for advocating the bombing of China. Cease-fire negotiations began in July but the combat and the killing continued.

Army Sgt. Robert Moreno on the war of attrition: "We'd take a hill and give it back. Two days later, we'd take it again and lose guys for no reason. It didn't make any sense. We didn't need the practice taking the hill."

While his buddies received their diplomas at Redlands High School, Moreno was at the front lines, part of a machine-gun squad.

He'd lied about his age, 16, to join and arrived in a country of extremes. Scorching hot in summer; frigid in winter. Desert-dry or monsoon-wet, depending on the season. And hills. Lots of hills.

"You walk to the top of one and there's a taller one just up ahead," Moreno said.

His outfit saw combat for most of 1951, once for 90 days straight. He didn't bathe the entire time. His underwear disintegrated under his uniform. Other times, the outfit blasted rock from mountainsides so the infantry could make foxholes. One time, when supplies couldn't reach the battle line, he ate garlic, brown rice and chili peppers for five straight days.

"I went through misery," said Moreno, 66, who still lives in Redlands. "My youth is what pulled me through. I was young. I took chances."

He saw civilians die as well as friends and enemies. During one firefight with the Chinese, a little girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, walked into the crossfire. She fell dead.

"It was heartbreaking," he said.

Moreno left the service in 1952. He returned to South Korea in 1989 and 1996 and toured Seoul and other cities. Korean civilians shook his hand and thanked him for his service. The gestures drove home that his sacrifice was not in vain.

"There was a purpose to it all," he said.

Joe Vargo can be reached by e-mail at jvargo@pe.com or by phone at (909) 587-3130

ON THE INTERNET: For a link to a multi-media Korean War site, go to: www.InlandEmpireOnline.com