Edward H. Specht was 21 years old when he found himself at the epicenter of a bitter conflict on the Korean peninsula that has come to be known as America’s so-called forgotten war.

Others may have forgotten it, but 90-year-old Ed Specht certainly hasn’t.

The things he witnessed on the firing line with an artillery unit of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division during that war, which began 70 years ago today, remain fixed in his mind.

He still remembers dodging artillery fire along the 38th Parallel, the latitudinal demarcation line between North and South Korea.

Indeed, as Specht recalls it, his artillery unit was at times north of the 38th Parallel, essentially behind enemy lines.

But Specht’s most vivid memories are not of exploding enemy artillery shells but of the agony he witnessed as a chaplain’s assistant.

In blackout conditions, with only a sliver of light seeping through the “cat eyes” covering his Jeep’s headlights, Specht drove a chaplain who ministered to wounded and dying in military hospitals.

The images of what he experienced remain locked in his memory.

During a recent telephone interview from his apartment at Keystone Villa at Douglassville, Specht was asked what he thinks of when he looks back to 1952-53, his tour of duty in Korea.

His reply: “I don’t look back. I try not to.”

Conflict or war

On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea in what would become a three-year conflict.

The U.S. came to the aid of South Korea, led by Syngman Rhee. The Soviet Union and China backed the communist government of North Korea, led by Kim Il-sung, grandfather of Kim Jong-un, the country’s current leader.

President Harry Truman referred to U.S. involvement in Korea as a police action.

The U.S. never declared war, and its involvement was conducted under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Pentagon’s “Service and Casualties in Major Wars and Conflicts” reports that 33,652 Americans died in battle and another 3,262 died of illness in Korea.

An estimated 3 million to 4 million people, mostly civilians, died during what is often referred to as the Korean conflict.

Conflict or war, it technically has never ended.

While the U.S. and China reached an armistice that stopped the fighting on July 27, 1953, the U.S. retains an estimated 20,000 troops in South Korea.

An ongoing powder keg, North Korea has amassed the fourth largest army in the world. In recent years, it has tested missiles, perhaps capable of carrying nuclear warheads, powerful enough to possibly reach the shores of the United States.

Continual flare-ups 

William Lutz of Oley Township was stationed at Camp Hovey, 15 miles from the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in 1968-69.

A mortar specialist with the 7th Infantry Division, Lutz was in country when North Korea’s People’s Army troops crossed the DMZ in an attempt to assassinate South Korea’s president, Park Chung-hee, on Jan. 20, 1968.

A few days later, North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence vessel, in what has become known as the “Pueblo incident.” One crew member was killed and 82 others captured.

Lutz, who spent much of his 14-month tour of duty on high alert, recalls numerous incidents in which U.S. and South Korean troops were wounded or killed in skirmishes with the North Koreans.

“Korea wasn’t called a war, but there was a lot of action,” said Lutz, 72, a retired farmer. “In my mind, it’s a never-ending war.”

Deep emotional wounds

Doug and Liz Graybill, founders of Vets Making a Difference in Reading, have seen firsthand the lingering emotional scars inflicted by the Korean war.

Graybill, 68, who served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1970-71, said the suffering troops endured in Korea is often underestimated.

During the month-long Battle of Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950, for example, temperatures reportedly plummeted to 36 degrees below zero.

“These guys suffered, and they never got the recognition they deserved,” said Graybill, whose nonprofit social center provides services to veterans in a rented space at Hope Rescue Mission.

The Graybills recently arranged for the burial of Korean war veteran Raymond W. Wunderly at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Lebanon County when no one claimed his body.

With the Korean war coming less than five years after the end of World War II, many of its veterans are in their 80s and 90s.

The Russel M. Butterweck Detachment of the Marine Corps League until recently had only three Korean war veterans: Herbert Hummel of Blandon, Albert Beadle of Reading and Robert A. Berns, formerly of Fleetwood. Berns died last year in Lititz.

Korean war veterans Ralph Schaeffer, 89, Grover Weir, 88, and Joseph Gregg, 91, reside at Birdsboro Lodge, a veterans personal care home in Exeter Township. All were stationed at bases in the U.S. during the war.

In recent years, with fewer vets able to attend, the Marine Corps League discontinued annual services at the Korean War Remembrance monument in Reading's City Park to mark the end of the war.

The Combined Veterans Council of Berks County now organizes the service, scheduled for July 27 at the monument.

'Made me into a man'

When Paul A. Miller of Hamburg quit school and joined the Navy at 17, little did he know that about a year later he’d be present at the start of the Korean war.

Miller was a gunner on the USS Juneau, a Navy cruiser, when they poured over the border, as he puts it, on June 25, 1950.

The Juneau patrolled an area south of the 38th Parallel to prevent enemy landings and conducted the first bombardments on June 29 at Bokuko Ko. On July 2, the Juneau sank three enemy torpedo boats near Chumonchin Chan.

“When we pulled out the bodies, they were Chinese troops,” recalled Miller, 88, who fed ammo to the ship’s 40 mm guns during the attack.

The whole thing happened so fast, Miller said, there was no time to be scared. He just did his job.

Looking back, 70 years later, Miller marvels at how fate placed a kid from little old Hamburg on the precipice of history.

“I was a cocky kid, and it knocked the cockiness out of me,” he confides. “It made me into a man.”

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