Sixty years after the Korean War, a soldier can't forget

Serving in Korea
One of Walter Dziedzic's old photographs shows him as a young man serving in an artillery unit during the Korean War.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Walter Dziedzic will never forget the horror of the Korean War battlefields, where he knew each moment could be his last.

That became ever so clear in early 1953.

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Ceasefire talks to end the three-year-old war and partition South and North Korea were underway. But both sides engaged in intense fighting, aiming to gain as much territory as possible before the shooting stopped.

Dziedzic, 81, recalls that his most terrifying moment came when he and other soldiers headed to the front less than 12 hours after arriving in Korea. They had guns but no bullets.

The commanding officer shouted orders: "We're gonna take this hill, fix bayonets."

Dziedzic remembers the noise of shells bursting around him and his fellow soldiers as they ran through the trenches up and down the hill. He doesn't remember how many were wounded or killed.

"You know," he recalled, "I [didn't] have any ammunition for my M-1, and thought, 'what the hell am I going to do?'"

Dziedzic is among nearly 95,000 Minnesotans who served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. More than 700 were killed in action in what has been called the "forgotten war."

Army portrait
A portrait of Walter Dziedzic.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

But for Dziedzic, of Minneapolis, it's impossible to forget.

"I never thought I'd come back," he said. "You know, when you go over there and you're in those situations you get fatalistic."

Just a couple of years earlier, fighting in a war zone would have been the furthest thing from his mind. In 1951, when Nat King Cole topped the charts with "Too Young," the Korean War was one year old — and then 18-year-old Dziedzic was living his dream.

He was in uniform, but it was a baseball uniform.

Dziedzic signed on with a Brooklyn Dodgers' minor league team and spent spring training in Vero Beach, Florida, where he hobnobbed with living legends.

He was caught speechless one day when a coach told him to help Jackie Robinson limber up his arm.

"Go on out there and play catch with Jackie," Dziedzic recalls being told. "Never said a word to him, all I did is throw the ball back to him."

Meanwhile, half a world away the conflict for control of the Korean Peninsula had already begun.

During a visit home in 1952, Dziedzic opened a letter from the local draft board that ordered him into the military.

Some historians say the seeds of the Korean conflict were planted with the end of World War II. Japan was forced to hand over conquered territory, including the Korean peninsula. The Allies carved the country into two parts, giving the then Soviet Union control over the north and the United States the south, using the 38th parallel as the boundary.

There were sporadic fights across the 38th parallel among Korean factions in the south and the north. The U.S. version of history suggests that the war was sparked by an invasion by Communist Korean troops from the north supplied by the Soviet Union. The North Korean forces swept south taking control of a large portion of the peninsula.

Walter Dziedzic
Walter Dziedzic, a Korean War veteran, photographed Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014 at his home in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

The United Nations at the behest of the United States declared a "police action" that included sending troops to counter the fighting. The U.S. military supplied the largest number of troops but 14 other countries also sent forces including Australia, Belgium and Canada.

The United Nations coalition regained control of territory lost as well as much farther north near the border with China, which brought a response from the Communist leaders. China sent waves of troops against the U. N. forces driving them back to the 38th parallel. The fighting reached a stalemate there and an armistice agreement took hold on July 27, 1953.

Dziedzic can't help but laugh when he remembers some of his military experiences.

He was more than six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds when he entered basic training at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. He shared a tent with another big guy.

"And you know in Arkansas there's a lot of snakes," Dziedzic said. "We had snakes in our pup tent. You can imagine how two big guys in that pup tent didn't last too long."

Also unforgettable about his 18-month Army stint during the Korean War was the nearly two-week ocean crossing aboard a troop ship that carried 7,000 military personnel.

The crowded sleeping quarters magnified the disgusting living conditions on board.

"And there's seven bunks, cots, stacked on one another and everybody's seasick," he said.

Dziedzic served in the Seventh Infantry Division, 49th Field Artillery Battalion, Battery B.

Sixty years later, the terror is still fresh but images have begun to blur.

That he survived the Korean War largely unscathed he attributes at least in part to the luck of the draw.

"Half the class that I was with in basic training, they got overrun and most of those guys got killed," he said. "So, luckily I was sent to the right place where the Lord looked after me a little bit."

When he returned home, no one asked him about the war.

"People didn't really say nothing,'" he recalled. "There was not a lot of interest. If you got chosen to go over there you were just unlucky."

After finishing college, Dziedzic was a Minneapolis police officer for 16 years. He then served on the Minneapolis City Council for 21 years, followed by 12 years on the Minneapolis Park Board.

He believes the Korean War made a difference, something recent night time satellite images of the two Koreas brought home.

"You see that South Korea is all lit up, and North Korea is almost all dark," Dziedzic said. "And you know if you want to look at it that way, were we successful in fighting to keep that country out of the communists' hands? I say, yeah."

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