MARQUETTE — As Jim Hein, then a 20-year-old private in the U.S. Army Infantry, prepared in 1953 to enter the trenches of the Korean War, the reason for his service was painted in vivid detail as he rode a troop transport train from Busan, South Korea, to Chuncheon, South Korea.
As Hein sat on a wooden plank, peering through an empty window pane, smoke from the train poured into the car and the train came under fire from enemy forces. But all of that faded into the background as he looked outside.
“You could see the hardship of the people living in wooden shacks,” he said. “The South Korean people were so abused and their living conditions were beyond belief.”
And soon, this understanding would grow even deeper.
After arriving in Chuncheon, Hein was trucked over the 38th parallel in to Inje, the site of the 45th Army Infantry Division base camp. When he went outside after breakfast one morning, Hein was shocked to see starving children sorting through the camp’s garbage bin to find scraps.
“They would scoop out this mixture in cans and drain it off. And this is what they would eat and take home to their parents,” he said. “I never saw starving children before. It was astonishing to me. I was filled with anger…. When I saw that, I knew why we were being sent over there — to assist these poor people who were being so badly abused.”
Just about two years before he witnessed these grievous conditions, Hein, who was born in Milwaukee, had graduated high school in June 1951. This was about a year after the war began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea.
Around a year and a half after Hein’s graduation, he entered the U.S. Army on Dec. 12, 1952, at age 20. He attended basic training at Camp Atterbury in Indiana for 16 weeks in 1953. After basic training, Hein was given three days to go home before taking a troop train to Fort Lewis in Washington state.
While it’s hard to imagine or learn what it’s like to fight in the trenches, Hein was prepared for the experience by returning Korean War veterans who gave “extra pointers and survival skills that they had learned when they were in the trenches” to the men training at Fort Atterbury, he said.
This information would be invaluable to Hein as he entered the trenches.
“It started at 12 midnight, when the flares went up,” he said as he recalled his first night in the trenches at Outpost Queen, a foothill of Christmas Hill that was just a quarter mile north of the main line of resistance in Korea.
As he watched the flares go up and the enemy approach, Hein told himself to remember their advice: “Stay in the shadows.”
“And take your shots while you’re in the dark; not in the rays of the light coming down. You can save yourself,” Hein said of the words of advice that ran through his head that night.
At one point, Hein felt something — or someone — brush against his back.
But to stop firing and look back would have been a dire — and even deadly — mistake.
“I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop,” he said.
Hein went through all 200 rounds of ammunition he had during a period of one to two hours that night.
When the attack finally stopped at around 1:30 or 2 a.m., it was time to survey the trench for injured and dead men. They were taken to the battalion aid station, which was a large hole dug into the mountainside. It was outfitted with two empty oil barrels and lit by lantern.
“That’s where we brought the stretchers of these wounded and killed guys,” he said.
The first man that Hein took from the trench to the aid station was the man who had fallen down next to him in the trench. The man had been shot in the head.
After hauling the dead and the injured away on stretchers, Hein laid his helmet down and fell asleep sitting up in the trench. Several hours later, he awoke to a strange buzzing sound. As he opened his eyes, the source of the sound became clear: Flies were swarming around pools of blood in the trench.
“I never saw anything like that,” he said.
After that night, Hein felt something shift within him.
“It was a terrible place. And I was scared the first night,” he said. “But ever since then, I wasn’t scared anymore. I figured I was a goner; I would never get out of there alive.”
The days and weeks would blend together in a seemingly endless loop of midnight combat in the trenches, resting hours, and meals, which took the form of C-rations.
But a change in routine and assignment would soon follow. Hein was assigned to an 81-millimeter mortar squad on the reverse side of slope with a crew of men who he would never forget. The men worked diligently to hold their lines.
But then, in a single silent moment, disaster would strike. Hein was looking off into no man’s land when he saw something shocking, yet soundless.
“(The round) hit the ground, it bounced up, it turned red and exploded. Shrapnel went everywhere,” Hein said. “The guy next to me got shot and wounded with shrapnel in the knee. He went down. Several other guys got wounded.”
And then, everything would change. The 180th Infantry Regiment — which Hein belonged to — was replaced by the 179th Infantry Regiment.
“We lost too many men to carry on,” Hein said. “The replacements weren’t trained enough. They didn’t have enough experience to hold their jobs.”
Due to this, Hein and his fellow crew would train new men as replacements for several weeks.
And at long last, there was a piece of good news: The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. The agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone to separate North and South Korea and allowed the return of prisoners.
“Hostilities stopped for the time being,” Hein said. “But we weren’t sure if it was going to last. So we were prepared to go back. We didn’t know what’s going to happen — that demilitarized zone might or might not hold. So we’d have to return to the trenches up there. Or some new trenches. But … time passed and everything seemed to work out OK.”
A new assignment followed: Hein was transferred to become a guard for Gen. Maxwell Taylor at the Eighth United States Army Headquarters in Yongsan, near Seoul, South Korea.
This assignment would continue until Hein arrived home in 1954. He left from Inchon, South Korea, and traveled by ship to the United States. He returned to Fort Lewis before boarding a troop train to Fort Sheridan in Illinois. He had completed the first two years of his eight-year obligation in the U.S. Army. Hein had six more years of inactive reserve duty to fulfill and was assigned to the 32nd Infantry Division in Milwaukee. He returned to his wife-to-be, Barbara, and his parents.
“Fortunately, no other hostilities did occur. I was not recalled,” he said.
However, no peace treaty was ever signed and North and South Korea are still technically at war to this day.
Hein was formally separated on Sept. 28, 1954, and received his final discharge in December 1960.
He went on to attend forestry school at Michigan State University in 1955 and graduated in 1958.
Hein then began a long career with the Michigan Department of Conservation — a precursor to the organization now known as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — where he had assignments that took him across the state of Michigan, including some of its most beautiful places. He even worked as a park supervisor for Tahquamenon Falls State Park near Paradise in the eastern Upper Peninsula.
Reflecting back on how he made it through the Korean War, Hein says a prayer book given to him by an Army chaplain was a source of comfort during the seemingly endless days of trench warfare — especially during the moments when he doubted he would make it home to see his loved ones again.
“I kept praying in my prayer book day after day,” he said. “It’s amazing. I didn’t get seriously injured at all.”
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.