Steamboat veterans reflect back on Korean War
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — They may not be classified as the Greatest Generation, but their sacrifices were just as great. This Veterans Day, soldiers like Melvin Compestine, Buck Buckland, Jim Ficke and Pat McClelland will hold their heads a little higher and walk a little taller as the contributions they made are being honored 67 years after they served.
“Veterans Day reminds me of the time that I spent in the Army, and I’m proud of it,” Compestine said. “At that time, in the early ’50s and in the Korean situation. There was no question that when a man got called up that he was going. He went because he felt it was his duty to go.”
Compestine was drafted and remains proud of the time he spent in the Army.
“I wasn’t eager,” Compestine remembers. “I was married — my wife and I got married in 1950, so I was not happy about it. But at that time, it was your duty to go. There were no questions.”
Compestine completed basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and was expecting to be shipped off to Korea. But after basic, he was assigned to Germany, where he worked in the division headquarters as a supply clerk. He never served in Korea.
He said he was prepared to go fight the North Koreans and lived with the fear and anxiety that comes from knowing that he could have received those orders at any time. When Compestine was drafted his brother James, who lives in Craig now, was returning home after being wounded in Korea, so Compestine knew what was at stake.
The Korean War did not generate the front-page, celebratory headlines that followed World War II, or the controversial protests that swept across the country as young men fought and died in Vietnam.
The Korean War began in June 1950 when North invaded South and nearly overran the country before the United States and the United Nations joined the fight. The conflict lasted until July 1953, but even 67 years later, the tensions still remain high. The two sides stand at a stalemate, and North Korea’s recent advances in nuclear weaponry is once again making the headlines and creating new concerns.
But back in the 1950s, the news was often hidden on the back pages of newspaper and overshadowed in a country that was still rebounding for the last World War.
“It was kind of a different feel,” Buckland, an Air Force veteran, said. “It fit right in after the end of World War II, and I think people were kind of fed up with war, at least in my opinion.”
Buckland served in the Philippines from 1953 to 1954. He remained in the service through 1957 before taking a position with the U.S. Defense Department.
“I was in the Korean War, but I was assigned to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines,” Buckland said. “When I was deployed, I went from San Fransisco to Yokohama, and from Yokohoma, everyone was of the idea that we were just waiting for dispersement to Korea.”
Buckland and Compestine are among a handful of men who served during the period of the Korean War and either lived in Steamboat or have since moved to town.
In the summer of 1953, Jim Ficke found himself stationed with an infantry unit just south of the 38th parallel defending the line that divided the Korean peninsula into two nations with very different ideological beliefs.
Ficke volunteered to be there but admits he wasn’t there to fight for beliefs. Today, more than 60 years after the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, Ficke’s politics have very little to do with why he went to Korea.
“I have mixed emotions. Do I wish Truman had not called MacArthur back? Maybe we would have gone right up to the Chinese border. But what would have been the consequences of that?” Ficke said. “There is a good chance we might have been in a war with China, who knows? I don’t have many opinions on that kind of stuff, and I’m not trying to be political. I just don’t think about it very much.”
Ficke said his road to Korea began in the early 1950s. He knew he was going to be drafted and decided he would volunteer and get some money for college through the GI Bill.
“I didn’t have an academic deferral or anything. My grades were not that good, and I was kind of just rocking along in college,” Ficke said. “So I volunteered for the draft and went in with a bunch of my buddies. We all volunteered at the same time.”
Ficke went to basic training, and soon learned that he was headed to the Korean Peninsula.
“I cold see north Korea from where we were stationed,” Ficke recalls. “We were on the line, and we stayed on the line mostly living in bunkers or in tents that were behind the bunker. It didn’t take long before it got pretty mundane.”
The conflict in Korea had slowed to a standstill by the time Ficke arrived, and the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed while Ficke was there.
He arrived in Korea as part of an infantry unit but eventually transferred and became part of the military police. The experience gave Finke a chance to meet many South Koreans and stirred his desire to return to the peninsula someday.
“I would like to go back there. What you see about it these days is so different from it was back then, and I’m amazed by how modernized things are now,” he said. “The people who lived there, which I got to see a lot of when I was an MP, lived a pretty poor existence. But now, who knows?”
The fighting was officially over when longtime Steamboat Springs resident Pat McClelland arrived at an outpost 50-kilometers south of the DMZ. At the time, McClelland was a platoon lieutenant. He was part of a group of 60 men — 30 Army and 30 Air Force — that provided air defense.
“We didn’t have any serious tension until the week before I left,” McClelland said. “We had a bunch of infiltrators — North Koreans — come down and try to hit us one night. But we repelled them.”
McClelland received the Army Commendation Medal for his efforts in the firefight and was able to return home to his wife and young son a few weeks later. Today, he still sees North Korea as a threat to freedom and America’s way of life.
“I really don’t trust the North Koreans, and I never have,” McClelland said. “With their leadership now, my fear is that it might be a bomb waiting to go off.”
McClelland comes from a military family. His dad and his son are also veterans.
“Veterans Day is probably the biggest day of the year for me,” McClelland said. “It gives me a lot of pride.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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The Oak Creek Library, which has been somewhat hidden inside the Oak Creek Community Center for 35 years, will be moving to a more prominent location on Main Street in the fall.