Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

October 20, 2013

Korean War vet reflects on long military career

PRINCETON — A freezing Korean winter, orphaned children, natural disasters, and meeting presidents are among the many memories a local veteran accumulated during more than 40 years of serving his country.

Robert Walker of Princeton, affectionately known to family and friends as Uncle Corky, is now 84 years old. Photographs collected and medals earned during his long career in the Army and the Army National Guard hang on his living room walls. Around his neck hung a medal few have received, the Order of Saint George. It shows he is a Distinguished Knight in the Order of St. George in honor of his service in armor and cavalry.

“I was 19 years old,” Walker recalled when asked about the start of his military career. “It was in 1949. I went to Fort Knox, Ky., to train, 16 months of basic training. It was World War II veterans that trained us.”

“I was assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., to the 82nd Airborne. When I got there, I was a mechanic. I worked on the 41 tank (Walker Bulldog). That’s all they had back then. Finally, at the last, I was working on the A1A2 tank (Abrams). It was turbo engine, one of the new ones.”

Walker worked on the tanks at the Brushfork Armory; when he retired from the Army, went to work for the National Guard. Before this period of his life, he was among the thousands of American soldiers sent to South Korea in 1950.

“I was over there before it started, I guess. We left Fort Bragg, N.C., and went over there, and it was July and our uniforms down there were summer uniforms,” he said.

The soldiers in their summer attire arrived in time for one of the coldest Korean winters in decades.

“When we hit Korea, it was 50 below zero. We were coming in off the ocean at 35 mph, and man, I was frozen. It was rough,” Walker said. “We were 17 days on the ocean going over there, but when we came back, it was 11 days.”

Walker also arrived in time for the invasion at Inchon. It was the last invasion commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded American forces in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Once the invasion force was in Korea, Walker was again working on type 41 tanks; again, the tank was the only one available. The Bulldog was not meant to battle larger tanks like the Russian models fielded by the North Koreans.

“No, but they did. During World War II, they gave them a hard row to hoe,” Walker said of the American tanks. “They were using them in Korea. They (North Koreans) had big tanks over there, bigger guns and everything else, by God. About whipped their butts.”

The soldiers came under fire, but they were able to reach out and help some Korean children in dire need. One day, the soldiers were approached by two boys. Walker estimated they were 6 and 7 years old.

“They said, ‘No mamasan, no papasan, no chop chop.’ No chow. I just took them in and started feeding them. We divided our C-rations and everything and gave them part of them,’” he recalled. “Finally, one old man had a place on top of a mountain, taking the kids who got left in the war and making them a home. My two boys stayed with me.”

Another soldier in Walker’s section took care of the boys after he was sent home. Later, Walker’s family sent clothes to the boys; they estimated the boys’ sizes by looking at pictures. The other soldier wrote Walker about the boys until he was sent back to the states, but lost touch with them later.

Walker and his fellow soldiers spent 11 months in South Korea before being transferred back to the United States. He became a SFC, sergeant first class, and joined the Army National Guard after leaving the regular Army. By the time he retired, he had served more than 40 years.

In many ways serving in the National Guard was no less challenging than serving in the regular Army. This proved true after the Buffalo Creek disaster on Feb. 26, 1972. A coal impoundment dam broke, sending water down on several coal communities and killing 125 people. Walker and his fellow soldiers were among the first people to arrive in the Logan County area after the disaster. He sought to find words to describe the tragedy and destruction he saw there.

“A mess,” he recalled. “It was bad. That’s about the only thing I can say. It was a mess.”

His niece, Mary Walker, remembered the story about how her uncle returned to Mercer County for supplies two weeks after the disaster.

“He sat on the couch and cried his eyes out from all of the destruction he saw there,” she said.

Walker and other soldiers had to free bodies from the wreckage left by the flood. The first journey to a local cemetery brought home the magnitude of the tragedy.

“Yes, children, people were dead,” he said. “We put them on the five-ton truck and took them above where the dam broke to a cemetery to bury them. There was nine in one family. My first trip up there, we hauled nine.”

Walker’s unit was later commended for their service at Buffalo Creek.

Now retired from the service, he recalls a career that includes shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan. To help recognize his years of service, Walker’s family plans to include his name at special walk of honor outside the Memorial Building in Princeton.

“It’s called the Always Free Veterans Walk of Honor,” said Dreama Denver of the Denver Foundation. “It’s going to be in front of the Memorial Building. We’re going to fill both sides of the walkway, and we have 3,000 bricks to sell. Basically, they’re $50 each, and they benefit the Always Free Honor Flight where we benefit veterans like Robert Walker with trips to Washington D.C.”

The Always Free Honor Flight takes veterans to the nation’s capitol so they can visit the World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial and Vietnam War Memorial.

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