NEW BREMEN — The date July 10, 1952, is imbedded in the mind of a New Knoxville native 65 years later — it was the day he joined the Army during the Korean War. But the date is remembered even deeper by his sister — it was her 13th birthday when her fourth brother was drafted during the Korean conflict.
About 30 of residents of Elmwood Assisted Living gathered recently to hear Don Preuter relate his military experiences, sharing photos and stories of his war years. Preuter, 85, and his sister, Irma, live at Elmwood.
First, the former Army corporal showed a sense of humor as he told tales of joining the service en route to being stationed overseas. During his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, in the Ozarks of Missouri, halfway between Springfield and St. Louis, “We did a lot of walking wearing a heavy helmet,” Preuter said, “but first everyone had their hair shaved off. Then we crawled under wires through mud and 4 inches of water.”
Although Preuter followed in his father’s footsteps as professional carpenter after graduating high school, he had to earn an Army carpentry training certificate before he boarded a troop transport ship in California for a 16-day cruise, initially to Japan.
“The ocean was so rough, we couldn’t go outside on deck for fear we’d get washed overboard,” he said. The soldiers slept in bunks stacked five high, “and a lot of guys got seasick — throwing up over the side of their beds. It wasn’t fun trying to sleep — I was on the second level,” Preuter said with a smile.
A surprise awaited Preuter when he arrived in Seoul, which was still reeling from the Chinese army crossing the 38th parallel and capturing the South Korean capital city on New Year’s Day 1951. The northern army had withdrawn the same year, but Preuter said, “When we got off the truck in Seoul, they (6th Armored Division) didn’t have anywhere for us to stay. So they gave us a sleeping bag and a one-man pup tent. We slept on the ground for a week and a half.”
Preuter’s first carpentry task was to use 2-by-6-inch lumber to build platforms for large tents that served as temporary barracks until permanent sleeping structures could be built. He recalled, “We (Americans) used power saws, but the Koreans we were working with didn’t want anything to do with them — they used hand saws,” he said. He laughed when he told of sprinkling lime around the tents to ward off lizards and snakes.
His humor, however, turned sober when he spoke of being away from his parents, Bertha and August, and his four brothers and three sisters who lived on the outskirts of New Knoxville, on state Route 219.
“I was homesick the first day I was in Seoul,” he said. “We didn’t get much mail. It was hard to write in a tent, and lots of times you were just too busy to write.’
Preuter’s youngest sister, Nancy Bambauer, 78, — the sister who turned 13 the day Don became a solder — traveled the 7 miles to New Bremen from her home in New Knoxville to see Don’s presentation for Elmwood’s “Did You Know” series of residents relating their lifetime ventures.
Bambauer said she was disheartened that he missed her birthday but, “He received his (draft) notice and couldn’t do anything about it.” She agreed that trading mail was scarce though four of her five brothers were in military service during the Korean conflict,
“We always worried about them and worried if they would come home,” Bambauer said. “We were always concerned and always waited for letters that didn’t come. We wrote lots of letters but didn’t know if they were delivered.”
Preuter added, “We were worried, too, but we didn’t want to write home about being bombed or anything to make (family members) worry more.”
Being bombed was Preuter’s closest call in Seoul. On June 8, 1953, nine Communist bomber planes avoided detection by U.S. Air Force radar and dropped 250-pound bombs on Seoul. “It was pretty scary seeing nine bombers at low level,” Preuter said. “We thought they were probably targeting the Han River bridge — it was the only way in and the only way out of Seoul.”
Though the bombs killed two Koreans and injured eight, Preuter remarked, “The Lord was with South Korea that night. They (bombers) didn’t hit the bridge, but they barely missed some American troops. That was the last time we were bombed.”
Three weeks later, the Korean War Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. “That was a big relief,” said Preuter, and soon thereafter he was on a troop ship heading back to the United States.
Bambauer added that news of the Armistice “was emotional, a good thing when it happened” because the family had been apart for so long. Ironically, however, brothers Paul and Jim, both of whom also worked as carpenters alongside Don and their father, were drafted into the Navy Seabees but went to different duty stations in the Pacific theater. By chance, they met briefly as they crossed paths when both were traveling through Okinawa.
Paul and Jim have since died, but the other brother who served during Korea, Elwood, 89, lives in New Knoxville near Bambauer.
Susan Preuter, Preuter’s daughter and an attorney in Lima, assisted in her dad’s talk and slide show at Elmwood. She also read some startling statistics of the Korean conflict: The United States provided 88 percent of troops involved in the war; 36,914 of them died and 103,000 were wounded. Various sources cite 1.3 million Americans serving in Korea; 8,000 are still listed as mission. Listed military and civilian casualties are much higher among South Korea (228,000) and North Korea (350,000) and China (400,000).
Preuter left all that behind during his 14-day return trip with 5,000 men aboard the USS General G.M. Randall troop ship. He had a souvenir in his photo album, a Christmas card from the ship’s crew and holiday feast menu of turkey, cornbread dressing. potatoes and gravy, and many other trimmings.
“We had a wonderful meal for Chrisrtmas, Preuter said, “but the next couple days we didn’t get much!”
The Randall landed in California, where Preuter was discharged from the Army and given an airline ticket to Dayton. He wasn’t sure of his travel plans, so no one knew when when he was returning to New Knoxville until he phoned his brother to pick him up at the airport. Preuter returned to professional carpentry for about 40 years before he retired at age 62 and woodworking became a hobby.
On July 27, Preuter and other Korean War veterans may raise a glass to the 64th anniversary of the Armistice in 1953. After nearly two years of negotiations, diplomats from the United States, North Korea and China signed documents to end the “UN peace action” in Korea without a formal peace treaty.
Both the northern and southern sides claimed victory, but Korea remains divided at the 38th parallel, and the U.S. Army and South Koreans keep watch across a no man’s land to the north.