William Ralph Harriman had a job working at the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company in Mount Vernon when he received a letter advising him he had been chosen to serve his country during wartime.
He was not surprised to receive the draft letter. He was the right age to serve and in 1952 found himself in Yokahama, Japan, then Camp Drake in Tokyo in the United States Army's 135th Medical Detachment.
“They said they needed four medics for South Korea,” Harriman said.
Friday morning Harriman told his story of a country at war at the Southeastern Illinois College Veterans Day program. Harriman was the keynote speaker for the event.
In South Korea Harriman joined the 84th Engineers Detachment along with 11 others in the medical field. Their job was to patch up or transport to the hospital any of the 240 engineers injured constructing a bridge across the Imjin River.
The team assigned to care for the engineers consisted of a doctor, a dentist, sergeants who were assistants, corpsmen and two ambulance drivers. Harriman began his assignment a corpsmen but was quickly promoted to private first class driving an ambulance every other day. He believes he was given that job due to his knowledge of the roads in the country and was later promoted to corporal. With the major hospital in Seoul, an ambulance driver needed to know the fastest route.
The bridge was important to the South Koreans. Not far from the 38th parallel that divides the Communist North Korea from the Democratic South Korea, the bridge was vital to the citizens of the south being able to safely cross the river.
At the 38th parallel the United States 1st Marine Division was holding the South Korean border while the Chinese soldiers held the north. Though by the time Harriman arrived on the scene the worst of the fighting of the war was over and the U.S. had gained control of Seoul, the North Koreans and Chinese did not want that bridge over the Imjin river built.
The enemy territory was only about 3 miles away and night attacks of artillery fire were frequent.
“Every once in while somebody got some shrapnel in them and they had to go to the hospital,” Harriman said.
To protect the engineers and the bridge was a 240 mm artillery gun placed inside a mountain.
“The Marines held the 38th parallel and they tried to push through every once in a while,” Harriman said.
He remembers only minor injuries and no casualties during his time at the bridge, though he said one man fell from the bridge and had to be taken to the hospital with a back injury. There was also some minor damage done to the bridge by the enemy artillery shells.
Page 2 of 3 - The Chinese and North Koreans took over Seoul in 1950 and the United States took it back in 1951, but by the time Harriman saw it in 1952 Seoul was in ruins.
“Seoul, it was a disaster place. It was bombed all to pieces,” he said.
He understands that now the city resembles New York City with 40-story buildings, a far cry from the bombed out buildings of no more than 10 stories he experienced.
Harriman left Korea in February of 1954 and returned to the United States after having spent 14 months there. He had earned 42 points and soldiers tours were considered complete at 40 points. He had little desire to return.
“To me it was filthy. It was a filthy country,” he said.
He said the farmers used human waste as fertilizer for their crops and Harriman remembers the sight and smell of oxen pulling paddy wagons of feces.
“The whole countryside smelled all the time. It was pitiful,” he said.
Harriman said his time in Korea went by quickly as he was always busy and he never got hurt, though the artillery fire in the night did leave an effect on him.
“I just had one close call when an artillery shell came along by and threw up dirt on my tent. That was a close shave,” he said.
Harriman pays attention to news about North Korea and sometimes believes the war 60 years later is still being waged on a smaller scale.
“They're still doing the same stuff. They wanted to get into South Korea and take over and they are still not satisfied, yet. There are still snipers at the 38th parallel,” he said.
“I think North Korea is a country that doesn't want to give up. They are little, not big, but they've got China backing them. There were more Chinese soldiers killed in the Korean War than the North, South and U.S. altogether,” he said.
For his 14 month deployment Harriman earned the Korean Service Ribbon with two bronze service stars, the United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal and the Merit Unit Citation with two overseas bars.
He came back home to his old job at the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company in Mount Vernon. He moved to Eldorado and became the produce manager at Key Market in Ridgway. He left there in 1974 to work 23 years as a butcher at Terry's Market on Locust Street in Eldorado before he retired.
He enjoys lunch each day at Eldorado Golden Circle.
Harriman witnessed some history and got to cross the Pacific twice on 11-day journeys. That experience taught him one lesson.
“I'm proud to be an American,” he said, and added if he was young again he would probably enlist.
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