WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — A Falun veteran remembers arriving in Korea and asking the supply guy about the storms he was seeing and hearing.
“He said, ‘Hey soldier, that’s front lines up there,’ and they were shooting, and I could even hear it, like thunder once in a while,” Korean War Veteran Don Pihl said.
Pihl said getting to Korea was a 13-day journey. They spent many days bonding on a ship before they got on a train.
He said while there, they celebrated Thanksgiving. They enjoyed a holiday meal from a dining car, and that meal was the best he had the entire time he was in Korea.
Pihl remembers at one point, about 40 children approached the train, and they didn’t have anything. He said all the soldiers got an orange, so the children were all trying to get the oranges. Pihl knew he didn’t need it, so he tossed his to the children.
“It got to my heart, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
Pihl’s mother and wife wrote him every day, so once he arrived at the base camp, he had a lot of mail to catch up on.
“I think I had 28 letters to read. It had been two weeks since I had gotten the last mail,” Pihl said.
His coat fits a little tighter than it did, when he wore it nearly seventy years ago.
“I was the best looking one out there,” Pihl said.
He joked about his basic training photo, and said he remembers it well.
“I guess I wanted to show somebody that I had a hold of a rifle at one time,” Pihl said.
He could sure handle one well.
“Yea, I got a pretty good record,” Pihl said.
He was also good at practicing patience, especially when it came to waiting for meals, at the mess hall.
Pihl got a good laugh from allowing his buddy to cut his hair just before he collected his $30 in monthly pay from the commander. He went before the commander with a mohawk.
“‘Looks like the barber got a hold of your buck,’ he said.”
He also brought holiday cheer by decorating a Christmas tree with whatever he could find.
“I think I was the only one in Korea who had a Christmas tree,” Pihl said.
He held on to quite a few things from his service.
“You just gotta get a hold of that, and throw it over your shoulder,” Pihl said, showing a large military bag.
Pihl said throwing heavy hay bales on the farm in Falun helped prepare him for military life.
He said they never got bombed, but they did dive deep into their trenches about once a week.
“An anti-aircraft gunman, about 50 feet from us, started shooting, and you could see all those tracer bullets,” Pihl said.
His talents had him spending a lot of time in the carpenter shop, but they did more than woodwork. They constructed a hangar, then started patching potholes on the runway.
“They’d get those potholes in, and we’d have to go out there and fill them,” Pihl said.
They had to be on the lookout for aircraft. Sometimes six planes would take off in a row.
“One guy would have to stand guard, to see if a plane would get on the strip, then we’d have to get off to the side,” Pihl said.
He said it was all about timing, which wasn’t always the best.
“About the time we got ready to put the asphalt in, here’d come a plane, and we would have to get off,” Pihl said.
He said when those planes buzzed by they had no ear protection.
“I always say I got two purple hearts, one for each ear,” Pihl said as he pointed to his hearing aids.
The carpenters also built outhouses and a platform for the mill. Most of what they made, they did so using only a hand saw.
He said they used old wooden bomb boxes and crates on most of their creations. He said they used just about anything they could find.
Pihl said he had to go hunting for a large piece of lumber when the company commander wanted a desk. He ended up finding a piece of plywood to work with.
“I made it so it had big drawers on both sides, and a big drawer in the middle, and he was the king of the camp, I guess, because no one had a desk like it,” Pihl said.
He said young children often hung around the camp, and the soldiers would make places in their tents for the boys to sleep. He said the children really didn’t have any other place to go. He and the other soldiers also got food for the kids.
“We always saw to it that we got something to bring back from the mess hall, so they’d have it to eat,” Pihl said.
Pihl said it was sure tough leaving the children behind in Korea.
Fifty years after the war, Pihl got a letter and medal from Korea thanking him for his time in service.
“21 months, five days, an hour and thirty minutes,” Pihl said of his time there.
He climbed to the rank of corporal, but if he had stayed in service two more weeks, he would have become a sergeant.
“I wasn’t going to sacrifice another two weeks,” Pihl said.
He said he was so ready to be home, back in Kansas.
He does remember many good times with his comrades, like water fights and popping popcorn his wife would send him. He did so on top of a potbelly stove.
“I had to make the screen popcorn maker over there,” Pihl said.
No surprise there from this carpenter, who was rarely caught sleeping on the job because he was always working to make others laugh.
On a Kansas Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., Pihl picked up a Korean War commemorative coin. The carpenter then built a case to display it.
“I got that postcard, you see, so I kind of put it all together, so I made a little trophy out of it,” he said.
He’s very proud of what he created and the fact he still has a coin given to him by one of his comrades. He still talks to the friend, from time to time.
Pihl said he has no plans to slow down anytime soon.
He still puts in many hours in his sons’ shop each week and continues to help out on the farm.
Pihl said he’s been driving a tractor since he was just 8 years old. He’s a third-generation farmer.