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Forgotten veterans remember: Minnesotans called to Korean War together reunite to share stories

Clint Ihlang of New London returned from the Korean War and quickly discovered that his service was not going to win him any special appreciation. He bought a 1950 Ford and discovered one day later that he had been cheated on the transaction. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)1 / 2
Floyd Gieske, a Raymond native who made his career in the Twin Cities, holds photos from basic training at Fort Riley, Kan. Korean War veterans from Minnesota who were drafted and arrived together at Fort Riley for basic training on Nov. 24, 1950, joined this week for their second reunion to reminisce about the forgotten war they fought. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)2 / 2

WILLMAR -- The country may have been quick to forget the Korean War, but it was never that way for its veterans.

"It took us 20 years to forget about the war,'' said Floyd Gieske, a Raymond native now living in Minneapolis.

But 54 years after he received the draft notice that sent him to war, Gieske decided he was willing to revive the memories when a different sort of letter arrived in his mailbox.

It came from Hilary Dreier, of Fairfax in Renville County. It asked Gieske if he wanted to get together with other Minnesotans who had received the same notice from Uncle Sam in 1950.

On Nov. 24, 1950, Gieske, Dreier and dozens of the other Minnesotans had ended up together on their way to the same destination: Basic training at Fort Riley, Kan.

"They couldn't even wait for Thanksgiving,'' said Mel Grano, of Pequot Lakes, as he and 18 other Korean War veterans joined Tuesday at the Legion Club in Willmar. It marked the second reunion of the 10th Infantry Division Headquarters, First Battalion, 86th Infantry.

The company of draftees who had arrived at Fort Riley was comprised predominately of young men from Minnesota. Although they would serve in different units and roles in Korea, the bonds they formed during basic training were still strong enough to pull them together when Dreier sent out invitations to a reunion in New Ulm in 2004.

They gathered this week in Willmar for many of the same reasons they had met originally in New Ulm. Here was something they could not find at war's end: Other people who knew what they had gone through, and who they could talk to about it.

"My brother and sister didn't know what I went through,'' said Gerald Schwieger of Welcome about his return from Korea in 1952.

During basic training, his size 13 combat boots and large frame earned him the nickname ''Big Mo'' after the battleship Missouri. It was his duty in Korea to stand tall and drop the shells into the mortar. It's a task he often performed as enemy soldiers attacked.

"It was one hard time,'' said Schwieger. "You never forget.''

Yet somehow the country did. The veterans who gathered in Willmar said that theirs was indeed a forgotten war, and right from the start.

"It wasn't animosity,'' said Gieske. "It just seemed that nobody cared.''

Gieske said he was advised not to wear his uniform on his return home.

Being a veteran of the Korean War certainly won you no favors, according to Clint Ihlang, of New London. Shortly after returning home he paid cash for a 1950 Ford. A day later the engine started missing, and he and his brother discovered anti-freeze on the spark plugs.

The seller had to know he was selling him a damaged engine, said Ihlang. The seller refused to talk to him, and Ihlang replaced the engine at his own expense.

Korea was a "police action'' in the official parlance of government. Its veterans were not extended the help of the G.I. Bill that had been provided World War II veterans.

Yet Gieske said his service changed his life, and for the better. The war's veterans were all children of the Great Depression.

Gieske said he had been living in the basement of his sister's home and struggling to make a start in life when he was drafted. After the war, he was eligible for $110 a month as a veteran. It made it possible for him to go to a technical school and eventually begin a successful career with Unisys.

"It's a great experience you never want to go through,'' said Doug 'Red' Jensen of New Ulm, when speaking to the assembled group about how his service shaped his life.

Most came home from the war and picked up where they had left off, sometimes just a day or two after arriving home. Roger Berghuis, of Clara City, said he slipped back into his job in highway construction and finished a 51-year career with co-workers who hardly knew he had ever left.

Joe Freeze, of Willmar, came home to a job at the creamery in Sunburg and caught the eye of a co-worker in the butter cooler. He and Dorothy have been married for 55 years now.

The veterans acknowledged that they rarely, if ever, talked about their war experiences with others, including their spouses. Yet once together, the cork was off the bottle.

Purple Heart recipient Mel Granos, of Pequot Lakes, was surrounded by a table of heads nodding in understanding as he described the bullet that split his helmet.

Many others had near-miss stories of their own to share, plenty of recollections of the suffering and misery they witnessed and experienced in Korea, and lots to say about their own re-adjustment to civilian life. A Memorial Day cannon shot sent one veteran diving head first into a raspberry patch two years after his return home.

It wasn't until 50 years after their return home that the veterans received a medal from the Republic of Korea thanking them for their service.

And really, it wasn't until the last couple of years that the veterans said they have noticed a change in how the public treats them. Ihlang said that in the last year he has had complete strangers come up to him on two different occasions and thank him for being a veteran.

Quite a change, but he and the other veterans said one thing has not changed since the day they came home.

"We were lucky,'' said Ihlang. "We came back. There were 36,000 who didn't.''