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Brainerd veteran works to remember the forgotten war

Don Pederson was only on the Korean War's front lines for about six months, but it's taken him 60 years to come to terms with what he saw and did there.

Don Pederson, rural Brainerd, reflects on his days of combat in “The Gauntlet” and “Massacre Valley” during the Korean War. (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Video
Don Pederson, rural Brainerd, reflects on his days of combat in “The Gauntlet” and “Massacre Valley” during the Korean War. (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Video

Don Pederson was only on the Korean War's front lines for about six months, but it's taken him 60 years to come to terms with what he saw and did there.

He killed men face-to-face, and narrowly escaped his own demise several times. He has confronted the trauma of those days head-on in his attempts to establish the truth of what happened in the chaos. He wrote down his experiences and gave his family copies. He's asked the government again and again to recognize him at the rank he was promoted to just before being wounded, only for his request to be denied. A search for a lost friend prompted him to compile a list of what happened to hundreds of the other men in his unit during the most deadly battles of the war, stitching together Army records with other data over decades.

Now, at age 88, the story of Pederson's own life is nearing its end.

From the farm to Korea

His life began in Wahpeton, N.D., in April of 1927. His family lived on a series of farms in northern Minnesota during the Great Depression. They had indoor plumbing for the first time when they moved to Brainerd in 1943, and owned their own farm for the first time when they bought a place near what is now Crow Wing State Park.

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In the late 1940s, Pederson struck out on his own, selling his Model A Ford for $225 and traveling to the West Coast to look for work. He got a job in a zinc refinery and later sawing logs before moving back to the Midwest to work the harvest in North Dakota. In 1948, the 21-year-old farm boy with an eighth grade education joined the Army - a job that would change his life.

After receiving training in Kansas, Pederson's first assignment was to serve in a unit that performed weapons demonstrations and rifle squad duty at funerals. He gained lethal skills with a range of weapons, including machine guns, mortars and the M1 Garand semiautomatic rifle.

He would create explosions with small amounts of TNT to simulate the fall of artillery shells.

In August of 1950, Pederson went on the line in the Korean War as part of the now-famous Pusan Perimeter, where allied forces were pushed by the North Korean invasion down to a small pocket of resistance in the southeastern corner of South Korea.

Much of Pederson's time in the early part of the war was spent in a foxhole, a man-sized hole dug vertically in the ground to give soldiers a crude form of shelter from enemy fire.

However, the soldiers quickly learned not to be picky about their living quarters. Pederson himself had a very dangerous lesson to that effect in September, just a week or two arriving in the combat zone.

Life - and death - on the line

He had just come off a long, rainy shift of guard duty. Soaking wet, he came back to his foxhole to find it, too, was full of water. Defeated, Pederson laid his still-dry sleeping bag on top of a level grave site nearby, took off his wet clothes, and went to sleep above the ground.

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He awoke to the sound of artillery - Pederson suspects it was friendly fire - coming down on his position. He crawled naked through the mud, trying to find better cover amid the salvo. One man was killed and four wounded less than 100 feet away from him.

From that day until the day he was wounded six months later, Pederson never went to sleep without his clothes and boots on. He rarely changed them or showered, even though his skin turned black and swollen.

Real artillery shells randomly ending the lives of his comrades was a far cry from the fireworks demonstrations he had put on in the States.

"For me, the most stressful part of combat was listening to an artillery round come in," he wrote. "By the time the round hit, my stomach muscles would be as tight as a fiddle string. I could never control that."

Mail service from home was sporadic. The Army didn't give Pederson materials to write with, so one of his first letters home from Korea was written on a scrap of paper he found, sealed as its own envelope using instant coffee rations. After that, his wife and mother made sure to enclose writing materials with the letters they sent.

Even though communication with his loved ones was spotty, loneliness wasn't Pederson's primary concern.

"The main thing was keeping warm and alive," he said.

Pederson's diet consisted of C Rations, packaged cold food the Army provided. Once, Pederson's company was brought hot food, which resulted in everyone getting dysentery.

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"You gotta get broke in," he said. "Living in Korea, your body has got to get accustomed to it."

As the summer months faded away, and Americans advanced into North Korea, the temperature plunged. Temperatures got down to 28 degrees below zero, but the Army took away sleeping bags from half of the men in the company. The rationale was, this meant they couldn't be taken by surprise and killed while resting in the bags, and the soldiers were given blankets instead.

The holes were 100 yards apart form each other in places, and the Americans feared the North Koreans would take advantage of the paper-thin defensive line to sneak between them under cover of darkness.

"You don't get out of your foxhole at night," Pederson said.

In his writing, Pederson recalled when a group of several hundred unidentified soldiers suddenly approached the line, prompting the GIs to consider opening fire.

"We couldn't tell who they were, but they looked ominous," he said.

As it turned out, Pederson had just encountered members of the famed Turkish Brigade, friendly soldiers from Turkey fighting for the United Nations. Pederson remembers being impressed, since as the Turks got closer he could see they were marching at a trot wearing below-the-knee trench coats that flapped in the breeze and packing what looked to be more than 100 pounds of gear per each man.

The Turkish Brigade was decimated during a rearguard action near Kunu-ri in November, desperately trying to buy time for American soldiers who were retreating. China had just entered the war on the side of North Korea, and their overwhelming numbers had thrown back the American forces.

The battle of Kunu-ri also chewed up Pederson's own unit, the 38th Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division. Just like the Turks, they were assigned to screen the retreat of their fellow GIs. The battle that cost 1,653 Americans their lives almost cost Pederson his, and he remembers the night he fought in it as the worst he experienced during the war.

"On that night, I learned it would be easier to die than live with the feeling you were responsible for the death of others," he wrote.

Silent hell on a frozen hill

Pederson served as a runner, meaning he carried important messages by hand when radio communications weren't feasible. During one night at Kunu-ri Pass, an entire platoon of soldiers lost contact with the rest of the company. Not knowing the location of the missing platoon, Pederson's commander assigned him to take one other man and try to find them, somewhere on a ridge above the main group.

Pederson and the other man made it about a quarter mile up the the hill before they got so close to Chinese soldiers that they could hear them talking. It was night, but the moonlight reflected off newly fallen snow so a person could be seen up to 100 yards away.

"I turned and motioned to the soldier to get down, but it was too late," he said.

The other man had already run away, leaving Pederson alone on the hill with a Chinese squad - he counted 11 of them - close at hand.

The only cover on the hill was small pine trees, none of them more than 2 feet tall. Pederson picked one of them to hide behind, and hoped the Chinese didn't spot him.

Most of the Chinese soldiers were silent, but the seventh man in line didn't stop talking. It was him that Pederson aimed at first, in the event he was seen.

"I couldn't see the sights of my rifle, but I could see the end of the barrel. I (aimed) the end of the barrel at his feet," he said.

In the end, the Chinese squad moved away from Pederson, and he didn't have to shoot the seventh man. Even though his American comrade abandoned him on the hill, Pederson thinks if the GI had stayed, the Chinese would have seen them.

"We would probably have been in a fight we would not have won," he wrote.

Pederson continued up the hill in search of the missing platoon. He heard someone else approaching him in the dark but this time it turned out to be another American soldier, dragging a friend down the hill who had been hit. The man knew where the lost platoon was, and said they had too many casualties to rejoin the main group that night. Pederson helped him drag his dead friend down the hill, without making contact with the missing platoon as he was ordered.

His failure to carry out his orders overwhelmed him when he returned to his unit.

"When I got back down the road and got back to Company B, I leaned up against a truck," he wrote. "I think I was crying. I felt I had to go back up that hill but couldn't."

It was then, Pederson said, that he lost his fear of death: dying would have been easier than bearing the thought of the entire platoon being completely overrun because of him.

"They could have easily got wiped out that night," he said.

The surrounded platoon came down the hill the next day, and he found out they had fired at anything that moved during the night, meaning he likely would have been shot had he tried to approach them.

Going through the gauntlet

After Pederson's close call on the hill, the 38th went through "The Gauntlet", a fighting retreat where the beleaguered soldiers had to contend with Chinese firing on them from all around.

"That was wicked," he said. "As tired as you were, you were still fighting. It was a 24-hour-a-day battle up there."

With artillery falling down on the retreating soldiers, they were desperate to keep the road open even as vehicles would get hit by enemy fire and block the way. Pederson remembers bulldozers shoving the wreckages of vehicles over the side of a cliff, sometimes with the bodies of American soldiers still inside.

"Anytime something got hit, they would shove it off the road," he said.

He also remembers F-51 fighter planes dropping napalm on the wrecked trucks, in order to destroy the sensitive documents they contained. The fighting was that desperate, he said.

"Just fighting, trying to stay alive, trying to kill as many as you can," he remembered.

Pederson would go on to take part in another desperate retreat, this time at a place called "Massacre Valley." It was here where he came closest to the enemy, in an encounter where he was certain he was going to die.

Look for the second and third parts of Don Pederson's story in Monday's and Tuesday's Dispatch.

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Remembering the forgotten war - Part II - Massacre Valley:
http://www.brainerddispatch.com/news/3766533-remembering-forgotten-war-p...

Remembering the forgotten war - Part III:
http://www.brainerddispatch.com/news/3766970-remembering-forgotten-war-p...

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ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .

Don Pederson, rural Brainerd, talks about his days of combat in “The Gauntlet” and “Massacre Valley” during the Korean War. (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Video
Don Pederson, rural Brainerd, talks about his days of combat in “The Gauntlet” and “Massacre Valley” during the Korean War. (Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls) Video

Related Topics: VETERANSBRAINERD
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