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The Korean War began exactly 70 years ago – on June 25, 1950 – and soon afterward I was there as an Associated Press photographer and war correspondent, under fire many times. There were times I thought my life was about to end – and I never dreamt I would still be writing about the war all these years later, at age 93.
“War is hell,” Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said during the Civil War. He was right. Wars have been waged since before recorded history, but no matter how many people are killed and how much destruction takes place, wars keep breaking out and taking more lives.
The Korean War was nasty. The weather was terribly hot in summer, snowy and bitter cold in winter. I traveled with troops through rugged mountains, pouring rain and clouds of dust. And worst of all, of course, was the death all around me.
Growing up, our parents teach us to be peaceful and love thy neighbor. War makes troops leave those lessons behind, focusing instead on hate, killing, fear and loneliness. Hell on Earth is a good description.
Like everyone who’s been to war, I have war stories. Let me tell you a few.
Associated Press photographer and reporter Gene Herrick in 1950 and in 2019.
I landed in Pusan, South Korea in early August 1950, just a few weeks after the start of the war. I was met by three other AP war correspondents, including Max Desfor, the photographer who took the famous picture of hundreds of North Korean refugees climbing over the Han River Bridge fleeing to the South.
Immediately, my fellow correspondents taught me some lessons of war. One was how to “scrounge,” which means to get what you need without paying. A bottle of liquor was a favorite tool we used for scrounging.
On that first day, my colleagues drove me to the front, dumped me off in the middle of a battle and left. I was suddenly in a war for the first time in my life. I stood in the middle of a tiny dirt road and saw U.S. fighter planes bombing and strafing the enemy. Smoke rose and in the foreground as American soldiers carried a stretcher bearing a wounded fellow soldier.
“What a great picture,” I thought, as I took the photo. At the same time, I heard snapping near my ears and I saw little puffs of dirt popping up at my feet.
That was this young amateur’s welcome to war. It’s amazing that it wasn’t my last day alive.
First Lt. John R. Grimes (left), Milledgeville, Ga., and M/Sgt. George H. Trout, Richland, Pa., examine mortar shells left behind in a roadside ditch by North Koreans hastily fleeing the town of Waegwan in Korea on Sept. 27, 1950. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick)
From then on, I moved from one battle to another and another and another – going from the southern end of South Korea to the most northern point in North Korea, on the Chinese border.
Every morning I checked out where the worst battles were being fought that day. Then I would scrounge, beg and hitchhike my way to the front.
I remember one night I went to bed on a metal cot fully clothed, including my helmet. At dawn a fighter plane flew right next to where I was sleeping and fired bullets at something. I figured our building would be next. I jumped out of the cot and dove under it for protection. Then I felt like a fool as I looked up through the bed springs. What kind of protection was that?
Correspondents wore military clothing during the Korean War but we didn’t wear a war correspondent’s emblem. Too much of a target! We had to constantly scrounge for our food, transportation and a place to sleep.
One day I was pinned down by enemy shelling and machine-gun bullets in an apple orchard. I joined GIs in a ditch – knowing enough by that time not to stand in the open. Moments later I took a picture of two wounded American soldiers lying on stretchers on a jeep. They were holding hands. Very moving. I have no idea if they survived.
Leaving the orchard with our troops, we drew more enemy fire. A soldier handed me a rifle. I gave it back to him, telling him I didn’t know how to shoot it. And besides, I said, it was against the Geneva Rules of War for correspondents to carry weapons.
Moments later, we came across a big contingent of U.S. soldiers readying for another battle. A GI lying in a ditch looked up at me and said: “Sir, are you in the Army?”
One day I traveled to the British front near the Naktong River in South Korea. I had to walk through an open beach and across a military metal bridge to get to a small command post, where I made an acquaintance with a young British officer.
Suddenly, the radio blared that American fighter planes had attacked the British troops. The tragic mistake was caused by the British troops calling for an airstrike on North Korean troops in front of them. Big, colorful banners were placed on the ground to let the U.S. planes know where the British were located, to ensure the Americans didn’t attack our allies.
But in the heat of battle, the British had crossed over their banner to charge the enemy. The American pilots – flying jets very low and fast – didn’t know this and thought the British soldiers were North Korean forces. In a horrific case of “friendly fire,” the Americans bombed the British, killing and wounding many.
I joined my new British officer friend and others to wade across and river and up a bank, just as the wounded were coming back. I found out that British forces suddenly didn’t like Americans.
One wounded soldier angrily came at me with his bayonet just inches from my chest. My officer friend grabbed the man’s hand and weapon, saving my life.
Moments later, the seriously wounded on stretchers passed us, being carried to the rear. The British were very short-handed. I had to make an instant decision. Should I, as a newsman, continue taking pictures of the evacuation? Or should I help carry a stretcher?
I grabbed one of the stretcher handles. The enemy kept bombarding us as we crossed the river on that rickety bridge. The shells whistled and we hunkered down and water splashed us. Repeat. Repeat. Finally, we raced on the sand of the beach.
We were running with our wounded soldier, who was bleeding when another shell landed so close that the explosion knocked us down. Getting up. I noticed a body lying on the sand, with the top of his head missing. I could tell it was the officer who had saved my life just minutes earlier.
Today anyone can upload pictures from a cellphone or camera onto the Internet and send them anywhere in the world in an instant. But that was many decades away during the Korean War. One of the biggest challenges photographers faced was getting our film to Tokyo, where it could be processed and transmitted to newspapers, magazines, and TV networks and stations around the world.
I vividly remember covering the amphibious landing at Wonsan in North Korea, taking photos from a helicopter. I did the same when U.S. troops landed at Iwon, just north of Wonsan.
Then I went by boat with Gen. David G. Barr and Col. Herbert Powell to scope out the area. We were sitting ducks for enemy fire, but made it to the beach unscathed. I told the general I had no idea how to get my film to Tokyo and he could see I was upset.
The general turned to an aide and said: “Take his film to my pilot and have him fly them to Wonsan and put them in the courier pouch!” The three of us became friends.
Later I was with U.S. troops as we charged into Hyesanjin in North Korea, right at the Yalu River on the border with Manchuria in China. I walked backward into the town, which was pretty much destroyed, so that I could get pictures of the American troops and tanks coming in.
I grabbed six soldiers and took them down to the frozen river. They were heavily clothed, waving their guns in the air, with Manchuria in the background. To me, that was the “victory” picture.
I immediately flew to Wonsan, caught the last plane out of Korea that night, and landed at an airbase south of Tokyo, where I had to stay overnight (still with hot film). Next morning I gave my film to a fighter pilot going to Tokyo. The pictures were transmitted, and we had a world beat of eight hours!
Next morning, I got on a plane to Tokyo, my tour of duty in the war coming to a close. However one of the engines almost fell off before takeoff. I had made it through the war, but now came close to losing my life getting out of it.
I soon found a fighter pilot who was returning to Tokyo. He took my film and connected with our messenger, who processed, printed and transmitted the pictures around the world. I caught a later plane to Tokyo and after several days I returned to the U.S.
A few years later, I was assigned to cover a PGA golf tournament in Oklahoma and stopped at a roadside diner on the way. The waitress and I talked and I said something about the Korean War. She responded that her brother had fought in the war. She said she had a picture of him at the Yalu River.
I asked if the picture showed six GI’s standing in the river and waving their guns over their heads. Stunned, she asked: “How did you know?”
Looking back, my experiences covering the Korean War for the AP were interesting, challenging and dangerous. It’s sad that too many of the journalists and troops who were there with me never made it back home alive.
I did my job like any good war correspondent, keeping the world informed about the fighting that raged. But how I wish that the job of war correspondent could disappear, with wars ending and becoming a part of our past but not of our present or future.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. ©2020 FOX News Network, LLC. All rights reserved. All market data delayed 20 minutes.
News – Gene E. Herrick: Korean War memories from a 93-year-old retired journalist on 70th anniversary of war’s start