Grandma Pat Letters: Wendell Larson (KIA), Korean War and Racism

Dear Kids,

I just love it when we go hiking.  Don’t you just love how this world is so beautiful! So many different colored birds, fish, animals and this time of year even trees.  I love looking at colors which is probably why I like artwork so much. Of course everyone knows that in addition to liking colors, I like horses.  I always enjoy checking out all of the horses on our drive to your house. Whether golden, brown, black, red, white, blotchy or spotted I have always thought horses were so very beautiful.

Do you know what else I liked about our visit? I enjoyed your mass caterpillar rescue.  You saved their lives even when they were pooping on you.  That would make you quite the hero in my book.

In the car when we were chatting, the subject came up about Great Grandpa Larson’s brother Wendell who was killed in battle during the Korean War and I promised you, I would tell you about him in this week’s letter.

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Wendell Larson

In all of these years, I have never heard anyone say anything unkind about this great-great uncle of yours.  I do not think this is because he died fighting for our country, but from what I have learned about him, he was a really nice guy. As your Great, Great, Great Aunt Ida once said, “Wendell, was the best.”

Wendell was born on December 2, 1927 and was killed in action in Korea on October 22, 1951.  He was 23 years old when he died.  Wendell grew up on the same farm as your great-grandpa and myself.  It is not the same farm as where grandpa lives now, but it is pretty close to there.

Wendell loved to farm, hunt and fish.  He was always full of good fun and was a great son, brother, cousin and nephew.  He once shot something like…10 ducks with one shell….your great-grandpa has a picture of it somewhere.  Ask him to show it you.

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First Lutheran Church where Great-Grandpa Larson, Wendell and I all attended. This picture was taken during the congregation’s 100th anniversary. 

Wendell was raised in a Christian home and went to the same church your great grandpa, and I went to for Sunday school and services.  I am sure that some of the first songs he learned were “Jesus, Loves Me” and “Jesus, Loves the Little Children, All of the Children of the World”  just like I did. Even as a young man, Wendell made no secret of the fact that he loved God and professed clearly that Jesus was his savior.  In fact, one of the last people he said good-bye to before leaving for war, was his pastor.  The pastor cried after their visit, because he had such a strong feeling he would never speak to Wendell again.

Wendell was drafted into the army that means the government told him, he had to go.  He did not volunteer like your Great Grandpa Larson did when he joined the navy.  Your great-great uncle was over six feet tall and as a large soldier he was chosen to carry a BAR gun into battle.

Soldiers with BAR during Korean War

A BAR M1918 was a gun that was designed by John Browning in 1917 for use in World War I. It was designed to be carried by an infantryman during an “assault.”  During World War I to fire a BAR the soldier would use a sling over his shoulder or would use his hip to stabilize this heavy weapon.  This is called, “walking fire”.   This method of use was for the trench warfare of WWI.

The Army changed BAR tactics for World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.  Since this weapon was a light machine gun, they used it as such.  No longer was the gun fired from a shoulder sling or the gunner’s hip, but from a bipod….although most soldiers did not use the bipod. Also, the BAR “man” was no longer alone, but he had a “squad” to help him.  An assistant gunner was always close by with additional ammunition, especially on patrols or when in battle.

“A typical BAR gunner of the Korean War carried the twelve-magazine belt and combat suspenders, with three or four extra magazines in pockets. Extra canteens, .45 pistol, grenades, and a flak vest added still more weight. As in World War II, many BAR gunners disposed of the heavy bipod and other accoutrements of the M1918A2, but unlike the prior conflict the flash hider was always retained because of its utility in night fighting.”

The average combat lifespan of a BAR gunner in a WWII battle was 30 minutes.  I don’t suppose that there would be any reason to think that a BAR man’s life during the Korean War would have been in any less danger.

Your uncle died during a military offensive called, “Operation Nomad-Polar.”  His platoon was pinned down by enemy machine gun fire.  Your uncle bravely tried to reach a better position to take out the enemy’s machine gun nest and was hit in the chest by machine gun bullets.  In the letter his mother received from a soldier that saw Wendell die, it was noted that he died instantly and probably never knew what hit him. For his act of bravery, he was recommended for the Silver Star medal, which is a high honor, but due to lost records his family never received it.

As flashy as medals are, nobody would ever give their life for one. Your uncle died so that other men in his platoon could live and they did.  Knowing what I know about Wendell and his deep faith in God, I have always figured Wendell felt somewhat along the same lines as the fellow in the Indian Jones movie who said, “My soul is prepared, how’s yours?” Only I picture that he would have thought, “my soul is prepared, I do not know about my guys’ souls and somebody has to do this or we are all goners.”  No matter what his last thoughts may have been, he acted in love to save his buddies.  His Bible would have taught him that there is no greater love than to give your life for a friend.

When I obtained Wendell’s military records it listed his fellow soldiers race.  Your uncle was fighting in a military unit that was mostly black soldiers or “negro” as it was listed on the records.

It was apparent in some of the last letters your uncle sent home, that he knew that he was not going to survive the war.  Oh, some might say he was just being negative, depressed or realistic, as I am sure he knew how risky it was to be a BAR man, but I think he knew how military units filled with black soldiers were often ordered into the thick of the battle before white soldiers.

That turned out to be true in this case.  At that time, in the 1950’s, many people, including military officers still did not like black people or soldiers.  His unit was one of those who sustained very high casualty rates.

Throughout our nation’s history, whether it was during the battle for Fort Wagner and the Fort Pillow Massacre during the Civil War or in the battle where your white uncle died….black soldiers have not been treated with the respect that their white counterparts received.  Many black soldiers were treated pretty much like those caterpillars treated you.  Even though you were willing to help save their lives, they looked down on you just the same.

Racism always reminds me of horses. I have often wondered why if God created horses, which are the same animal, in so many beautiful colors, why anyone would think he would not do the same with people. Did God intend that palomino horse would be of any less value than a brown or sorrel one?  Of course, not!  So why, would anyone think that God would create people of different worth and value because of color.

This reminds me of a couple of situations I found myself in when I was not much older than you. Several of the schools I attended were white minority schools.  That means there were many more students of color than white kids.   I will never forget being in the locker room in seventh grade when I heard one of my black friends shout, “Girl, you sure are white, you are white all over!”  It was then, that I noticed I was the only white person in that whole room.  I have never forgotten how it felt to be exposed before my peers as the “different” one.

While that incident was funny, this one was not.  One evening after a choir concert a group of black boys surrounded me and were threatening to hurt me badly.  Another black fellow, who was a friend of mine, shoved me into a building, locked me in, then took on the gang.

Now, should I have judged all of those black children by the actions of a bad few?  No, and I would have been the worse for it, for I would have missed out on all of the joy, fun and laughter shared with the rest of my non-white friends.

Anyone who judges by the group whether that group is black, white, male, female or anything else is just plain wrong.  Our country was founded on the principal that we are to be judged by our personal actions and character.   As horrible as your uncle’s young death was on that hill that day, those young men caught together in that fire fight were not black Americans, white Americans, gay Americans, rich Americans, poor Americans, Latino Americans or any other made up title that tries to separate… they were just Americans united together to save each other. That is what we must all be.

I don’t know the color of the skin of the men who carried your uncle’s body off that hill.  Oh, how I wish I knew their names!  For so many years Wendell’s mom, my grandmother, grieved to know that “her boy” had been taken care of, so that his body, “didn’t lay out for the animals to get at.”  Those “Americans”, who he died to save, were as tired, hurt and frightened as human beings can be, never-the-less they unselfishly took the time to carry your great-great uncle off that hill to an aid station within in hours of his death.  Respect given and received, and that is how it should be.

Always remember what the great Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King once said.  That a person should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Work hard in school and have a great week.

Love and hugs,

Grandma Pat


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