By Lynn R. Mitchell
Saturday’s Veterans Day parade in downtown Staunton, Va, saw many families lining the streets to wave American flags and cheer as floats passed by filled with local veterans. The community honored past and present military members including many who vividly remember the details of war.
One of those local veterans is a quiet, unassuming gentleman, slightly stooped with graying hair. Until last year, few people knew that he had suffered life-threatening injuries during the Korean War.
Now in his 70s, Tom LaBarge (pronounced La-BARGE) does not like to bring attention to himself. That was very evident as he reluctantly gave in to my persistent prodding to talk about his military service after a surprise presentation in 2009 of war-time medals that had been long overdue. Four of his seven grown children had flown from Minnesota to Virginia for the event, and I had been invited by his wife Millicent to join them.
The ceremony at the Staunton Army National Guard Armory honored the Korean War veteran with Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) on hand to make the presentation. The local television station and newspapers attended as well as soldiers from the Armory’s historic Stonewall Brigade.
A Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge had been received by Mr. LaBerge in the 1950s. The new medals included a U.S. National Defense Medal, U.S. Korean War Service Medal with battle-star attachment, UN Service Medal, and Republic of Korea War Service Medal. He also received a certificate of gratitude from the president of South Korea.
All those medals were impressive so I wanted to know the story behind them. We live in the same neighborhood so I walked around to his house where Tom and I sat down at the kitchen table overlooking the back yard and and woods of his Shenandoah Valley home. In the background, Mrs. LaBerge busied herself at the nearby counter preparing cookies and tea and occasionally helping to coach the story from Tom’s sometimes reluctant lips, giving me a knowing smile from behind his back.
To know Tom LaBerge is to know a man of quiet faith who is very humble. He is not used to being the center of attention nor does he seek it. But as we sat there, he began his story.
It was 1951 and America was at war helping South Korea protect itself from its aggressive communist neighbor, North Korea. Nineteen-year-old Tom LaBerge, whose National Guard unit in Grafton, North Dakota, had been activated, was about to find himself in the middle of war in a way he never imagined.
U.S. troops in conjunction with South Korean troops were holding the 38th parallel of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) where they had been at a stalemate with North Korea. As Mr. LaBerge recalled thoughts of that time, he noted that the Americans were unable to hold the line against a reinforced North Korean Army that had been joined by the Chinese in a turf tug-of-war. The enemy battled at night to gain possession of a hill, and then American forces would fight and a week or two later retake the same hill. It was a deadly and aggressive back-and-forth land grab. That was how the war had gone for two years before a young Tom LaBerge arrived in a land halfway around the world from home.
Sitting in his kitchen reliving memories from decades before, Tom softly chuckled and shook his head, and told me that the dangerous area between the front lines of each opposing army was known as “No Man’s Land.” He emphasized that it was an area where no soldier ever wanted to find himself, a Wild Wild West kind of barrier between warring armies. However, during the heat of battle all those years ago, that’s exactly what happened to LaBerge and a fellow soldier, two 19-year-olds who became separated from their Army unit and found themselves trapped — alone and isolated — behind enemy lines.
During a night-time battle as the war raged with gunfire all around, LaBerge took cover from enemy fire at the top of a hill along with his fellow soldier. As the battle raged around them, he was shot in one leg and hit by shrapnel that chewed up the other leg and tore into his back, leaving him bloodied and weak. The other soldier was also in bad shape with a broken arm and unable to walk because his leg was badly injured from shrapnel. Both were sprawled on the ground, wounded and in pain.
With darkness all around except flashes of never-ending machine gun fire and rockets in the distance, the two young men found themselves alone. Looking around and assessing their situation, they realized with alarm that they had become separated from their unit. Both were so badly injured that they couldn’t walk so they began to crawl and drag their battered bodies over sharp rocks and scrub brush, slowly and painstakingly working their way down the embattled hill as they searched for somewhere to take shelter. Finally, finding an abandoned bunker about halfway down, they tediously and painfully made their way inside where they hunkered down in the relative safety of the concrete fortification. There they sat, two young American soldiers, alone and injured and afraid, and that was where they stayed with no way to alert anyone of their location. They were stranded without food, water, or weapons.
During the course of the battle, American troops retreated from the area as enemy forces took over, and that was when LaBerge realized they were in the dreaded No Man’s Land. Fear seized both teenagers. There was no medical help, neither man could walk because of his injuries, and both were scared to death.
For two days the battle continued to rage around them as they huddled in the bunker. In pain and alone, their open wounds became infected and both men developed raging fevers. They had no medicine or water to clean the injuries or quench their fever-induced thirst. That’s when they had a visitor, and it was not someone they wanted to see.
A Chinese military officer working with the North Koreans was on a reconnaissance mission of the area after it had been retaken by communist forces. Standing at the opening of the bunker, he peered inside the shadowy interior and spied the two young Americans. Thirst outweighed their fear, and in Chinese and through parched lips, they asked for water. He stared at them, his eyes taking in their horrendous blood-caked, dirt-covered infested injuries. He stood and stared at them for a long while. Then he turned and left, presumably expecting them to die with no way to find help and no means to communicate with their unit. It was a miracle he didn’t shoot them both — what possessed him to just walk away?
After the too-close brush with the enemy Chinese officer, LaBerge and his companion decided their location was no longer safe and that it was time to move on. Both men gathered their strength and began to make their way out of the bunker, slowly crawling toward the bottom. It was an excruciating journey as they made their way to a stream that they could see in the distance. They needed water, and their wounds were now infested with maggots. They were both racked with pain, hungry, thirsty, and their fevers had caused them to become delusional.
Near the stream they found a parachute. Crawling and dragging it into position, they tried to make an “SOS” in hope that any American pilots who may pass over the area would figure out what it was. Hungry and weak, they left the stream area and painfully clawed their way into a nearby field where they tried to eat raw dried soy beans that only got stuck in their long-dry throats.
It was October in Korea and the nights were cold but not unbearable for these North Dakota teens, with daytime temperatures in the 60s and overnight lows in the 40s. Even though their uniforms were torn and tattered, they were able to stay reasonably warm.
Without weapons, they were at the mercy of the enemy. Dazed and confused, their bodies becoming weaker day by day, time passed in a cloudy haze of long hours of trying to survive. Noises would carry from far off and echo across the valleys and hills in the middle of the night. At one time they could hear voices in the distance that they were able to identify as Greek troops who were stationed with the United Nations but they were too far away for the lost Americans to make contact. Meanwhile, so much time had passed since their disappearance that their unit feared they were dead although the official listing was “missing in action.” Throughout it all, the battles continued.
Finally, after two very long weeks, U.S. troops retook the area where LaBerge and his buddy had become lost, and the badly injured, missing soldiers were rescued. Amazingly, the tall, lanky LaBerge had lost 50 pounds during his ordeal. Both were carried on stretchers by fellow soldiers to the American-South Korean “safe” zone behind the front line where they were deposited at a real-life Swedish M*A*S*H unit that tended to their injuries, cleaning and dressing their wounds, and feeding the starved soldiers. Before putting a cast on LaBerge’s left leg, it was discovered a bullet had gone through his knee.
Two days later, the injured men were shipped to a hospital in Tokyo. After spending a week there, LaBerge was flown back to the States by way of Guam and Hawaii to San Francisco and then Ft. Carson where he spent three months in the hospital recuperating from his injuries. After rehabilitation, he went back on active duty.
LaBerge was honorably discharged from the Army in 1952 as a tech sergeant. He married Millicent, began his career, and together with his wife raised a family of seven children, eventually moving to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Many years after his service in Korea, Tom and I would sit in his kitchen as I took notes and he recounted the memories of that long-ago time when a 19-year-old went through battles, survived, and then returned to live his life, leaving behind the horrors of war.
In 2008, LaBerge’s son-in-law did some research and discovered LaBerge was due a number of medals for his service and sacrifice for his country which led to the ceremony at the Armory with Congressman Goodlatte. The medals are proudly displayed in the LaBerge home and are a reminder that there are truly heroes among us.
Update November 11, 2014: Memorial Day 2014 was spent attending a Veterans Appreciation dinner at the Cornerstone Church of Augusta in Fishersville with Tom LaBerge, my Air Force veteran husband, and another neighbor who was widowed this past summer when her Vietnam War U.S. Army tunnel rat husband died. Some major changes have occurred since this story was originally written in 2010. Tom’s wife, Millicent, passed away in 2012. If it wasn’t for her, the words would never have been written because she encouraged him to talk, and me to write, so the story would not be forgotten. We are thankful to the heroes who are all around us and grateful for their sacrifice and dedication to God and country.
[Originally posted 11-13-2010 … cross-posted at the Washington Examiner.]