A soldier's memory of the Korean War: bitter, bitter cold

A ghostly image of GIs emerges from the Korean War Memorial in Washington.

There is cold and then there is really, really bitter cold. Winters in Korea during the war were really, really bitter cold.

If you were on the shady side of the mountain, temperatures could plunge to 40 below zero. It could reach 20 degrees if you were on the sunny side — that is, of course, if the sun did ever shine. My friend was bayoneted in the neck, and the bitter 40 below cold saved his life by freezing the flow of blood. Otherwise he would have bled to death.

Medics and corpsmen sometimes needed to store syringes in their mouths to prevent the morphine from freezing and blocking the flow of that desperately needed drug to the wounded. Many times the rifle mechanisms froze and our weapons would not fire. Drinking water froze in the canteens. If you were near a tank, jeep, or other motor vehicle with a running motor you could place your canteen on the hood or motor to loosen the ice. But the cold also would freeze batteries for vehicles and radios, preventing communications and vehicle movement.

Frostbite often claimed as many casualties as battle wounds, and our officers and sergeants became tough task masters when it came to prevention. That stern discipline was not due to an altruistic feeling for their men. Too many soldiers were being lost in combat and frost-bitten soldiers were no longer available to fight.

We were issued a pair of warm knitted gloves to be worn under our leather gloves and still our hands froze. We wore the typical long johns with the accommodating rear buttoned-down trap door. And we were issued special fur-lined hats with ear coverings and men still suffered frostbite on the ears. It was near impossible to keep warm. All the issued items worn in that bitter weather — underwear, socks, gloves, hats, jackets, fatigues, and sleeping bags — were no match for Siberian winds and blizzards.

The government-issued boots (we called them Mickey Mouse Boots) were fur-lined, supposedly to keep the feet warm. But they had an unanticipated negative side effect. When marching up and down mountains, feet sweat — and that moisture can lead to frostbite, unless the boots are taken off and dry socks are put on immediately before the feet freeze. In fact, in that bitter cold, especially if you were positioned in a bunker or huddled down in a foxhole, sweaty socks, not removed, would have disastrous effects. Guys would lose toes or even their feet.

That’s why one of the most valuable pieces of equipment issued to GIs were that extra pair of socks. Keeping those extra socks dry was a priority, a matter of survival. But how do you keep them dry in the middle of a blizzard? By nestling them under arms or on chests!

At age 85, my blood is probably much thinner than it was when I served in Korea, which we referred to as “frozen Chosen.” Now when I ask what the weather’s like and hear “It’s cold out there,” I know I won’t be comfortable. I hate the cold. Sixty-three years ago, the cold weather of Korea was nothing to hate or love. It was just something we had to learn to endure. We had no choice in the matter.

Stanley A. Levin lives in Maple Shade. salmoors@comcast.net