KANDIYOHI — When Jerald Tagtow opened the small drugstore box sitting on the kitchen table and pulled out black and white photographs, official military papers and a letter written to his wife as he was waiting to be shipped off to Korea in June of 1952, he opened a floodgate of memories that brought tears to the eyes of this 90-year-old veteran.
He didn’t remember the last time he had opened the box. But the names of his military buddies and the names of mountains on the front line where he was involved in fights and police patrols flowed as if they had just happened.
“Oof,” said Tagtow, fighting back tears. “That’s why I don’t open this box too often.”
His wife, Jody, gasped several times as she listened to her husband in the kitchen of their Kandiyohi townhome.
“I haven’t even heard all these stories,” said Jody, as she watched her husband carefully put the photos and mementos back into the box at the end of an interview with the West Central Tribune. “He didn’t want to tell me so I learned about some of them today too,” she said.
The box of photos brought back some tough memories, but he said taking a look back helps him realize there’s much to be thankful for.
Thanksgiving in Korea 1952
Among the stories of Tagtow’s time as a staff sergeant with Charlie Company, 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, was Thanksgiving Day on a frigid mountaintop 67 years ago.
His division had spent 30 days doing live ammo training to take back Hill 854, which had been lost in battle the year before.
“And so we were up on that hill during Thanksgiving,” said Tagtow.
“It was 27 below zero that day,” he said. “So everything in our mess kit was frozen by the time we got to the bunker.”
The stretch of bitter cold weather lasted three to four weeks, he said. “You’re up in the mountains, you’re 854 meters high, so it doesn’t warm up too quick on a mountain top.”
Troops lived in a series of long trenches in the ground that Tagtow said served as the main line of resistance. “We had our trenches as far as you could see,” he said.
“We had sandbag bunkers, so we just lived in the ground like rats,” said Tagtow. “We had a makeshift fireplace under the ground in a bunker."
They stuck an old ammo canister into the side of the trench to serve as a chimney for the fireplace that helped keep the troops warm. “Whatever we could find to burn in it we did,” he said.
On that Thanksgiving Day, the fire was also used to reheat their frozen turkey dinner.
Food was prepared away from the trenches and then carried up the hill in A-frame packs on the backs of the Korean Service Corps, said Tagtow.
Their food was then dished up into their stainless steel mess kits, and “by the time we got through the line, it was frozen. So we had to take it back into the bunker to warm it up and eat it,” he said.
Not only was the turkey frozen, but so were the mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing. “I don’t think we got pumpkin pie," he said.
“Oh, it was good,” he said. "You could eat anything. After eating C-rations all the time, turkey tasted pretty good.”
Life in the trenches
When Tagtow started reminiscing about his stint in Korea, he shared matter-of-fact stories about day-to-day living, like how soldiers wore one pair of wool socks and kept the spare pair inside their shirts to try to get them dry.
“Needless to say we didn’t smell very good,” he said.
But as more photos came out of the box, so did more stories of his nearly 10 months on the front line that began when he landed in Korea on July 4, 1952, on Heartbreak Ridge just a mile away from “Old Baldy,” a hotspot in the Korean conflict.
There was the officer who had a pocketful of dynamite and was walking into a field to blow up a bunker when he stepped on a buried landmine and “he just disappeared. Just vaporized,” said Tagtow.
There were many nights when the enemy troops broadcast dire warnings over a loudspeaker that they were coming to kill the U.S. troops and then broadcast the song “There’s No Tomorrow.”
During one of those nights, Tagtow said he was listening from his machine gun bunker, and he counted 13 mortar rounds leave the tube before the first one hit the ground.
“And they were coming after us,” he said.
During the confusion of the nighttime enemy attack, troops from a different platoon shot and killed three American soldiers.
“That’s just some of the stuff that happens,” said Tagtow. “Those are things you don’t like to remember.”
Medals and pumpkin pie
Tagtow received the United Nations Service Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
“I’m not a hero. I’m just one of the millions that did it,” he said. “We all put up with the same kind of stuff.”
Tagtow repeated a frequent saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
He said he told God that if he left Korea alive, “I’d serve him the rest of my life. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
But perhaps the toughest memory was saying goodbye to his new bride and their 3-month-old baby boy, Mickey.
On the back of a black-and-white photo of the USNS General John Pope, Tagtow wrote his farewell letter to Jody.
He was on that ship, sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I wish we were headed home instead of the other way,” he wrote. “Honey, I miss you so awful much. Take real good care of yourself and kiss Mickey for me.”
The letter ends with the words, “Bye for now, Darling. All my love and kisses always.”
This Thanksgiving, Tagtow will be eating a hot turkey dinner with the love of his life close by. And yes, said Jody, there will be pumpkin pie.