The Korean War is often referred to as the “forgotten war.” One Sidney, Ohio, hero has not forgotten this time in history that changed his life forever.
Weldon Oakley grew up in the humble coal mining town of Prestonsburg, Kentucky. At the age of 11, Oakley’s family suffered an incredible loss when his father, at the age of 43, died of black lung, silicosis, after years of working in the coal mines and left behind eight young children and a wife. Oakley’s older brother stepped up to join the Navy and sent money home in support of his struggling family. Oakley had various jobs growing up, but at 17, after graduating early from high school, had reached an age of choice: to work in the mines that ultimately took his father’s life or to join the military.
Oakley had hoped to join the Air Force, but the draft board was only accepting three men per month in his area. An Army recruiter contacted Oakley and offered him an opportunity to work as an engineer. Little did Oakley know how this single decision would impact him for the rest of his life.
He boarded a beat-up bus from Prestonsburg to Ashland, Kentucky, for his physical. After his physical, a more modern bus awaited to take him to basic training in Fort Knox. Although, he boarded the bus alone, it didn’t take him long to make friends at Fort Knox because of his outgoing personality. During his 13 weeks of basic training, Oakley recalled funny stories. One story in particular, was when a drill sergeant approached his platoon mate for a rifle inspection, and his mate dropped his gun on the ground. The drill sergeant ordered the mate to sleep on the floor while the gun took his place in the cot. Night after night he would tuck the gun into bed and repeat, “I’m going to take care of you, and you’re going to take care of me.” Through the laughter, Oakley admitted that basic training was hard. Drill sergeants often conducted marches at 1 a.m., making soldiers carry 50-pound packs for hours out in the elements or stay out in the field all day. Yet, even with all the training, nothing could prepare Oakley for what was to come.
Oakley left Fort Knox and headed to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for engineer training. There, he learned how to assemble pontoon bridges that would later be used in Korea to transport equipment to soldiers in war-torn, or impassable areas, and on Sept. 15, 1950, at the age of 18, Oakley was commissioned out.
All of the equipment that Oakley and the troops were supplied with in Korea was left over from WWII Germany, including the food. They made best with what they had and often had deliveries for additional bridge supplies. The bridges consisted of eight separate compartments that were inflated, using generators. The design was made so that if one compartment was destroyed, it was still fully functional. Steel tread ways were affixed to the tops that were strong enough to hold convoys full of rations and supplies. The bridges were left as permanent fixtures but were often shot at by enemy forces. Oakley recalls an instance when the enemy was throwing mortars while he was trying to assemble one of the bridges. A piece of shrapnel pierced his arm, so he reached for some gauze and tape, wrapped up his arm, and kept on working. These attacks were often, but worse times were ahead.
General McArthur vowed the soldiers would return home by Christmas, 1950; however, after a dispute with President Truman, he was removed from his position for insubordination, and the fighting continued.
On a day like no other, Oakley, as well as 30,000 allied troops, including Americans, Australians, Turks, Greeks, British and French, found themselves in a seemingly impossible situation. Surrounded by 120,000 Chinese soldiers, they were encamped at the Chosin Reservoir in sub-zero temperatures. Six-ton trucks would arrive with supplies, but rarely before the enemy would intervene.
Trying to find heat any way they could, Oakley and others would stand behind the trucks to absorb heat from the exhaust for their hands and feet. Food and water were scarce, so they often used snow to stay hydrated. For 17 days, tens of thousands of casualties took place in the Reservoir. Oakley recalls scores of dead soldiers piled together. As the days raged on, they often found themselves going through the pockets of the dead, looking at the pictures they had brought with them, and wondering what their lives might have been like. Scared, numb, and sometimes so miserable they wished they would die, the men — who would later be dubbed “The Frozen Chosin” — managed to overcome.
As fighting in the Reservoir came to an end, minus 30-degree weather began to wear on the Chinese soldiers who were ill-equipped and wearing tennis shoes. With Chinese soldiers succumbing to the freezing temperatures and dwindling supplies, they surrendered and were taken as prisoners of war. Through translators, Oakley found that his enemies were only taking orders and had nothing personal against the Americans. Oakley was ordered to transport the Chinese prisoners to camps. As he drove, walking Allied wounded soldiers lined the roads. He often felt guilty for transporting Chinese soldiers while his comrades were forced to walk. When he questioned his mission, he was simply told of the importance of his role, which came to fruition when a prisoner exchange later took place in 1953.
In October of 1951 after 13 months of war, Oakley was sent back home to Kentucky. He had contracted malaria and was sick with a fever that left his clothes and sheets wringing with sweat. He eventually recovered, but the thoughts of war rarely escaped him. Many nights he spent drinking, trying to forget the sights and sounds that filled his mind. During that time, there were no programs available to war veterans. Oakley stayed in Kentucky for two years before joining friends from Alabama, Indiana, and Tennessee to seek work in Ohio.
Oakley was hired on at Stolle Corporation in Sidney, Ohio, where he spent 39 years before retiring. After retirement, Oakley devoted 28 years of his life helping Veterans for the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as being in charge of hundreds of veterans’ funerals for the American Legion. Oakley is also part of an organization dedicated to those who fought in The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, known as “The Chosin Few.”
In 1965, The Chosin Few, 32 at the time, were located and participated in a reunion. Two reunions have been held in Sidney, Ohio, and these veterans have spent time together at other places including The Dayton Air Force Museum and the Neil Armstrong Museum. To date, only five of The Chosin Few are known to be alive.
Oakley is the recipient of four Major Campaign stars, a National Defense medal, an Occupation of Japan medal, a Korean Service medal, a United Nations Korean Service medal, a South Korean Presidential medal, and a medal for good conduct.
When asked how we could support our troops today, or show our appreciation, he simply said, “Just saying ‘Thank you for your service’ is worth more than any medal I can receive.” With that, we say, “Thank you, Weldon Oakley, for your years of service, and for your continued support of our troops and our country.”
Shelley Fisher, of Troy, is an Edison State Community College student. Fisher was inspired to write Korean War veteran Weldon Oakley’s story after he spoke to her writing class.