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Harry Wiedeman missed the big war.
He was a student at Norfolk (Neb.) High School when he enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II. But the war ended in 1945, and Wiedeman didn't graduate until the next year.
Wiedeman served with postwar occupation forces in China, Japan and the Philippines. He was honorably discharged in 1948, came home to northeast Nebraska, enrolled in junior college business courses and served in the Marine Reserves.
Two years later, the United States was in a new conflict — the Korean War — and Wiedeman was called back into uniform to be one of America's first warriors in the Cold War.
“No one thought there would be another war immediately ... and just like that, they were all gone again,'' Mary Wiedeman said of her late husband and other men. “There wasn't any time between World War II and their discharges and they were in Korea.''
The Korean War was America's first battlefield clash with communism, and it militarized and hardened the Cold War.
The sides were clear: Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, which was led by a U.S.-supported regime. The Soviet Union trained and equipped North Korea's army. A United Nations coalition led by the United States fought beside South Korean forces.
China's entry into the Korean War in late 1950 in support of North Korea raised the stakes for America and accelerated the need for U.S. ground troops. Besides enlistees and reservists, more than 1.5 million Americans were drafted into the Army and Marines. Draftees represented 30 percent of America's Korean War servicemen.
One of those draftees was 23-year-old Gene Livingston, a farmer and rancher from Atkinson, Neb., who now lives in Omaha.
“The war was bad,'' Livingston said. “They were desperate for anybody warm.''
Drafted in the fall of 1951, Livingston was given a choice: Army or Marines.
“I told them, ‘I'd like to be the best. I'd like to be a Marine,''' he said, although he got a deferment for a few months to finish picking corn.
Livingston had a hot introduction to combat in Korea. He and hundreds of new arrivals heading to the front in railroad cattle cars were ordered off the train to help stop an enemy breakthrough in late summer 1952.
Under fire, Livingston and his M-1 rifle landed in a ditch. He didn't fire a shot, but a Navy corpsman grabbed him and started an arm-to-arm blood transfusion to a Marine wounded by a burst from an enemy burp gun.
“I was so scared I did just what they told me,'' Livingston said. “I had a good life and planned on having more.''
Livingston, a corporal, was assigned to the historical section at 1st Marine Division headquarters northeast of Seoul. He gathered daily reports from Marine units to create daily and monthly war diaries to run up the chain of command. He collected hundreds of photographs to accompany the diaries.
Livingston's job kept him on the front lines of history. He photographed President-elect Dwight Eisenhower, who visited troops in Korea in late 1952.
“We thought he was the right guy to take care of the war,'' Livingston said.
Livingston traveled to Panmunjom, where truce talks eventually ended the fighting with the negotiated armistice — not a surrender — that endures today.
“There were more guards than negotiators,'' Livingston said.
Livingston's captain was a WWII veteran and reservist called back to war from a job as a college history professor.
“He was upset,'' Livingston said. “He said that he had served his time and didn't know why he was in Korea.''
Reservists led the expansion of the corps during the war, to 261,000 Marines from a force of 75,000 regulars at the start.
Manpower demands on the battlefield made President Harry Truman's post-WWII order to integrate the military a reality during the Korean War.
The number of black Marines grew to 17,000 men by the end of the war, compared to 1,525 (nearly half of them stewards) in 1949.
Livingston worked with a black staff sergeant, Walt Damon. Livingston, Damon and other clerks regularly shared monthly liquor rations passed along by officers.
Koreans suffered greatly during the war, Livingston said.
Refugees and locals often congregated near 40-gallon barrels that Marines used to wash their mess kits. Troops dumped garbage in one, flushed their mess kits in and out of another with soapy, hot water and rinsed in the third.
Greasy scum that spilled out of the barrels and mess kits flowed into a ditch where Korean children skimmed it up with their rubber sandals and ate it.
“I don't know how they survived,'' Livingston said. “North Korea did wrong with these people in starting the war.''
Livingston returned to the United States on the same ship carrying the first prisoners of war released by North Korea at the end of the conflict in 1953.
When Wiedeman, the WWII veteran from Norfolk, had shipped out from Camp Pendleton with the 5th Marines in March 1951, the war had raged up and down the Korean peninsula for nearly a year.
A bookkeeper in civilian life, Wiedeman trained for three months, then took a day off — March 1, 1951 — and married his hometown sweetheart, Mary Putjenter, in San Clemente, Calif.
A few days later, he went to war.
“I was left heartbroken in San Clemente when my husband sailed off to Korea,'' Mary Wiedeman said in a recent interview.
She and Vonnie Williams of Grand Island, Neb., the wife of Marine Maurice Williams, rode a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles and boarded a Union Pacific train for Nebraska.
Wiedeman was a squad leader with the 5th Marines. He arrived in Korea when the war had settled into a bloody stalemate.
Mary Wiedeman, who lives in Tulare, Calif., said her husband's letters home hinted at the futile fight. She has Samsonite luggage full of his letters.
“They'd take a hill one day and lose it the next,'' she said. “Then they'd go over and take it back, then lose it again. They moved north, then south and the next day do it all over again. They didn't complain much, but no wonder they wondered what the war was all about. They weren't making any headway.''
Harry Wiedeman wrote about enemy soldiers surrendering en masse and American troops quickly erecting barbed-wire holding compounds.
And he wrote about the human toll. A note from 1951:
“We really had a pitiful job, had about 3,000 refugees and prisoners, mostly old men, women and children. They were carrying bags and bundles that were as big as they were, even the little kids no bigger than a bump on a log. Some of the little ones were lost and were just crying their eyes out. Had two hours of it, all walking single file, tired, hungry and hurting. We could not understand them, and not a thing we could do about it anyhow. What a big mess!''
Although the United States reversed the course of the war in less than three months after its outbreak, the conflict was unpopular, bloody and seemingly unending.
But in the nearly six decades since the end of fighting, democratic South Korea has prospered, while North Korea remains isolated and impoverished.
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