Ned Barnett

When the Korean War came home

June 1, 2013 

On Memorial Day most years, we publish an editorial honoring the Americans who died in our nation’s wars. This year our editorial included a list of those wars but left off the Korean War. We forgot The Forgotten War.

Our readers didn’t. Several of them left phone messages noting that we had omitted a war that lasted three years and claimed the lives of more than 35,000 Americans and left more than 100,000 Americans wounded.

One of those who called was Bill Rand, 83. Rand, a Raleigh native, was drafted into the Army during the Korean War in 1952 three days after he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He had trained in ROTC in prep school and went through basic training after being drafted, but he was spared being sent to that bloody, wet and often freezing land across the Pacific Ocean.

Rand didn’t go to war, but it came to him. With his bachelor’s degree and knowledge of statistics, he was assigned to serve in the Medical Service Corps at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His job was to do statistical research on the categories of patients coming in, military and nonmilitary. But that’s not what his two years there were about and that’s not what he remembers of what has come to be called “The Forgotten War.”

Rand, a trim, white-haired widower who lives in Raleigh’s North Hills area, said many of the wounded soldiers who were brought into Walter Reed were missing limbs. Some had been blinded. Some were suffering from psychological injuries. He remembers the stricken wives rushing to greet their maimed husbands. The children crying for their fathers. The despair of men who had lost limbs or suffered paralysis from North Korea’s land mines and booby traps. The wounded came by the thousands. Many died.

Amid the gloom, there were surprises. Rand would talk with the wounded soldiers at movies or meals or during a hallway encounter.

“It was amazing,” he recalled, his voice still carrying a trace of wonder as he sat in the sunlight by his condo pool more than a half-century later, “the number that wanted to go back.”

And it was amazing, too, he says, how determined so many were to go forward.

“Kids who couldn’t lift their head you would see gradually progress to where they could raise up in bed and then, if they had legs, swing them over the bed, be fitted for artificial limbs and learn how to use them, work on parallel bars, moving a half an inch at a time with their feet,” he said.

Rand recalled soldiers and their families celebrating the signs of recovery, such as a soldier regaining enough movement and control of his arm to bring a spoon to his mouth or stand up for the first time on artificial limbs.

“You should have seen the look of triumph when they did that,” he said. “You couldn’t stay down. You rejoiced with them.”

Rand remembers, too, the nurses, doctors and physical therapists as unsung heroes in their efforts to bring the wounded back.

“They took kids who had two or three limbs missing and taught them how to drive again, for crying out loud, everything but how to ride a bicycle,” he said. “They showed them that a life could still be achieved that was positive and fulfilling.”

Rand’s father fought in the so-called Good War, World War II. He was a Raleigh doctor who signed up to serve after Pearl Harbor. He survived, and helped others survive, the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Rand saw how veterans of that war were revered and those of Korea overlooked. There were even pickets in Washington opposed to the Korean War.

“(Americans) were not as supportive as they were of World War II. There were a lot more negatives,” Rand says. “It came so close after World War II. It was perceived as not being our fight. Why was it up to us to go half a world away?”

Rand, who could have been sent to Korea at any time, is grateful he wasn’t, but he always felt a bit guilty about not going. He had two close friends who went and came home whole, but changed. “They both bore the scars. I don’t think anybody went through that hellhole without some marks,” he said.

On this Memorial Day, Rand spoke up for the veterans of his war, the Korean War. They held off North Korea and later battled to rebuild their broken lives. It was long ago, and many have forgotten or never learned about the conflict that stalled and froze at the 38th parallel.

But Bill Rand remembers a war that didn’t stop there. He saw it stagger home in the soldiers with missing limbs, wounded minds and broken hearts. And he saw the wounded glow with triumph as they advanced in their struggles to recover. Forgotten war or not, no one should forget the price they paid and how bravely into life so many soldiered on.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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