Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day stories: Stewart Sizemore and the Korean War

This Memorial Day, I'm taking a break from writing about my own family's history to tell the story of one incredible veteran I had the good fortune to interview in 2006 when I worked for a local Walworth County newspaper. Stew Sizemore has one of the most incredible life stories I've ever heard. His stories from the Korean War awakened in me a fascination with that war and its sad mismanagement that is still very strong in me today. Stew is also one of the kindest and warmest people I have met. Below is the story I wrote about him in 2006, when he was included in a Wisconsin Public Television documentary about the Korean War.

Lake Geneva veteran Stewart Sizemore poses with the medals he received as a result of his service in the US Army during the Korean War.

Lake Geneva veteran featured in Korean War documentary

Orig. published 11/03/06 in The Beacon (Walworth County)

“It was the bloodiest battle I ever saw,” remembers Lake Geneva resident Stewart Sizemore of the Battle of Taejon, fought in July 1950. It was one of the first major battles of the Korean War and Sizemore, a 17-year-old infantryman, was there.

More than 56 years later, the memories haunt him. “When we went out to Korea, we had 138 men in our company. I wandered around behind enemy lines for five days after Taejon … dodging North Korean patrols. I had a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) with one round left in it. When I came out in an apple orchard five days later, we had 12 men left in the company.”

The Korean War, long known as “The Forgotten War” for its relative lack of exposure with the American public, produced thousands of similarly horrific stories. Many of these stories have never been told. As the veterans of the Korean War age, these “forgotten” stories are being lost forever.

Wisconsin Public Television, in association with the Wisconsin Historical Society, recently undertook a project to document the stories of Wisconsin residents in the Korean War. They have produced a two-part documentary entitled Wisconsin Korean War Stories.

Sizemore was one of 52 veterans interviewed for the program.

Producer Mik Derks (Wisconsin World War II Stories) amassed a wide range of interviews for the documentary, selecting veterans from different branches of the service and all areas of the state. Due to the nature of the Korean War, most of the interviews that made the final cut of the documentary were told by soldiers who fought in the ground war. “Most of (the Korean War) was the ground war,” said Derks, “so we focused on the Marines and the Army who were right there slugging it out.”

The project began three years ago after the success of the Wisconsin World War II Stories series. Derks felt it was vital to collect the stories of Korean War veterans. “They really do feel forgotten,” he said. “People just didn’t pay much attention to (the war) and the longer it went on, the less they seemed to care about it.”

Sizemore agreed to be interviewed by Derks because of that feeling of invisibility. “I got so sick of watching the news and they would mention WWII and they would mention Vietnam, they mention Afghanistan, but they don’t mention the Korean War.”

Sizemore’s story is an amazing tale of survival. Born in rural Appalachian West Virginia, his mother gave birth to three sets of twins during the Great Depression. Unable to feed them, she sent them to live in an orphanage. When Sizemore was 5 years old, he and his siblings were adopted out as farm labor to a rural farm. “It was basically slave labor,” Sizemore said. “We got one pair of shoes a year, and we walked seven miles to school and seven miles back again every day.”

To escape a life of back-breaking labor, Sizemore ran away as a teenager and adopted a hobo life, riding the rails and living in hobo jungles around the country. When he was 16, he and a friend were hopping a freight train in southern Illinois on a rainy night. Sizemore caught the train, but his friend slipped and fell, and was pummeled under the wheels of the train. “They carried him out of there in a bushel basket,” he said. “And I decided right then I was joining the service.”

When the Korean war broke out on June 25, 1950, Sizemore was stationed in Japan. His unit shipped out to Korea on the Fourth of July, arriving on a fishing boat. They had no heavy artillery. Their supplies were inadequate. Many of the men in Sizemore’s unit were 16- and17-year-olds who had never seen battle. Their unit saw 55 consecutive days of action before getting a one-day break.

“You fight all day, and you walk all night. You have nothing to eat. You’re eating whatever you can find, whatever you can swipe out of the fields. You are just totally, totally worn out. And every day, you’re losing people.”

Sizemore himself was injured on the Yalu River when China entered the war on the side of the North Koreans in November of 1950. The Chinese mounted a surprise attack with an army of more than a quarter of a million men, many of whom had trained in the People’s Liberation Army in the 1930s and 1940s.

“I got smashed in the face and all my teeth knocked out with Chinese rifle butts. They blew me out of a machine gun embankment and just left me for dead. Had it not been so cold, I wouldn’t be here. It was 20 below zero. It kept me from bleeding to death.”

Sizemore showed me this photograph of American troops in Korea to illustrate the extreme climate they were fighting in.

From there, Sizemore spent three weeks in a M.A.S.H. unit. “As soon as they got the swelling down to where I could open my eyes, they sent me back out on the line. My face was a mess. I didn’t have any teeth. I weighed 98 pounds and had dysentery and malaria. But at that period in time, they would not take you off the line as long as you were physically able to fire a weapon, that’s how bad they needed bodies.”

American forces suffered heavy casualties throughout the first 12 months of fighting. By November of 1950, the South Korean territory was reduced to a small patch of land in the far southeast portion of the country only 140 miles wide, known as the Pusan Perimeter. American forces fought hard to maintain this tiny stronghold before the entrance of the Marines turned the tables on the fighting.

Sizemore fought along the Naktong Bulge in the Pusan Perimeter and up to the 38th Parallel before rotating out of Korea in Aug. 1951. He spent three months recovering from malaria in the United States before enlisting with the Marines and returning to Korea for a second tour of duty. This time, his experience was very different. The U.S. Forces were on the defensive and camped out in bunkers, the front shifting only a few miles a day. “It wasn’t easier, but it was different,” he said. “You never get used to it. War is hell, any way you look at it.”

Korea’s status as the “Forgotten War” extends to the high price paid in casualties over the three-year conflict. “A lot of people don’t realize how many men we lost over there,” said Sizemore. Some estimates indicate that the American Armed Forces lost around 54,000 men between July 1950 and July 1953, when a cease-fire was declared. (By comparison, the Vietnam War claimed around 58,000 lives in a16-year period.)

Also forgotten was the lack of resolution surrounding the end of the Korean War. No peace treaty was ever signed. The two countries remain technically at war to this day, a fact that is difficult to ignore in light of recent headlines emphasizing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Though Derks had no way of knowing at the time, the documentary he set out to record three years ago suddenly has poignant relevance to the headlines of the day. “It’s suddenly very topical,” he said, “which I hope makes people want to watch it, because people know very little about this war.”

Sizemore warns that any future conflict with North Korea may be even more difficult for American Forces than it was in 1950. “North Korea’s equipment is very good… their training is outstanding. If we ever have to go in there again, we’re going to be in trouble.”

“I’m not for war, I don’t glory war, because I’ve seen too much of it," he says.  "But I think this needs to be told, because I think there are so many people in this country who don’t realize the price that’s been paid.”


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