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Interview with James O. Stapleton [9/10/2003]

Sarah Bowen:

Today is September 10th, 2003. This is the beginning of an interview with James O. Stapleton. We are in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Mr. Stapleton was born on May 20th, 1929, making him 74 years old. My name is Sarah Bowen. I will conduct this interview today; and could you state for the recording, Mr. Stapleton, your name and its spelling.

James O. Stapleton:

James O. Stapleton, J-a-m-e-s, O, S-t-a-p-l-e-t-o-n.

Sarah Bowen:

Can you tell us what war and branches of service that you served in?

James O. Stapleton:

Korean War, the Army Medical Corps.

Sarah Bowen:

And what was your rank?

James O. Stapleton:

Corporal.

Sarah Bowen:

Corporal. Very good. Let's talk a little bit about getting into the service. Tell me about it. Where did you live; how did you get in the service?

James O. Stapleton:

I had -- I'd gone to high school in Ypsilanti, Michigan; and I had registered for the draft up there. And so my parents, after the Second World War, had moved to my father's mother brother's hometown of Ashland, Kentucky; and consequently I went there after high school and attended the first year of college, went back to Ypsilanti, and got a job. I was attending -- it's called Eastern Michigan University now -- in Ypsilanti and about mid-November I was laid off from my work and so January I enlisted in the Army of 1948 at Ann Arbor, Michigan -- or at Deerbrook, Michigan. So, from there I took my basic training and wound up in Osaka, Japan, the 25th Division, Medical Corps, and the end of the year there were 25,000 draftees and people like myself who had enlisted for two years or unless sooner relieved and President Truman said that he -- any of us who wanted to go home, could. Well, I was offered another stripe -- I was PFC then -- if I had stayed, but I wanted to come back and go back to college. So, I made that decision. In February of '50 I was released to inactive reserve and the fall of 1950 -- war had started July -- I was in college for six weeks and I received a telegram to report in ten days back to the military. So, I had to go to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for a refresher course; and after I finished that in November I got a ten-day leave, came home and married my wife, and shipped off to California. Well, I knew I was probably headed to Korea but for some reason -- and I still to this day don't know what happened -- but a young fellow and myself from -- I -- we were both 21 -- from Cincinnati, Ohio, we were both medics, they pulled us out and took us to the airport and put us on a civilian United Airlines four-motor plane, flew us to Hawaii where we had lunch, to Wake Island where we had breakfast, and to Hanedo Airport in Japan and they put us in Camp Drake and we -- told -- they told us we were the special activities group. Well, we thought, "Man, we've got it made. We're going to be taking care of the USO people or something like that." So, we wound up down in Sasebo, Japan. Next thing we know we were in Busan, Korea, and then they put us on the train and a little interesting thing I think about that was the train was shot full of holes. They had wood on the windows and there was bullet holes all over it and they'd only run it at night and we were going up to Taegu. So, when we wound up in Taegu, they were hunting for the raider company which was called Special Activities Group at that time. Now, this was in January of 1951 and it took them probably, oh, five or six days just to locate this group and I wound up in the mortar platoon as their medic. They had lost two medics, and so that's how we were replacements. And what we would do, we would go on patrol as you've been told in other interviews and I was the medic. And just a little sideline, I never knew where to wind up in that line when we were on patrol, whether it'd be safer to be up front, in the middle, or the back, so I'd try to alternate where I was and one of the things that kind of was -- I thought was rather unusual was the fact that there were so many different weapons. We had sub-machine guns. In fact, I had to carry an M1 until I was lucky enough to get a carbine, which was a lighter weight, because I had all the medical equipment with me. But I'll tell you one thing I did see on my first patrol. We were going along and here was a helmet and it had a red cross with a bullet hole right through that red cross. So, of course that was a no-no anymore. You didn't wear a red cross on your hat. So, that was just something -- I got an idea that this could be dangerous out here. But we did, we went on a lot of patrols and the -- we were so mobile that we would get information that there was some people over in the next mountain or some -- so far down the road and we would jump in our trucks and vehicles and head there just as fast as we could to intercept them. And there was occasions where we'd go over the mountains and get behind where some of them were supposed to be and that was what we did. And as you were told earlier that we were trying to get these guerrillas who had been trapped down south and what they would do is they would set up road blocks for the supply lines and just shoot up the things, you know, and disrupt the supplies heading north to the parallel. Well, the Chinese had been stopped at Wanju probably in either March -- sometime. That was as far south, I believe, as they got in our sector and just a few little things about being with the Raiders. We would come into a little village like and a lot of times there wouldn't be anybody around and so I'd usually stay with the sergeant. And I'd go into the one of the houses and something that really impressed me about over there was that their kitchens were at one end of the house and you would build your fire in that kitchen area and the smoke would all go under the floor and out a chimney on the other side. So, consequently your floors were nice and warm. So, I would usually try to get in there and build up a nice fire so it'd warm up the floor so we could sleep warm at night.

Sarah Bowen:

___ was so cold?

James O. Stapleton:

And one night -- oh, it was very cold. In fact, when I went over I had a summer sleeping bag and I almost froze until I finally got to the point that I was sleeping in clothes and coats and everything else because those summer sleeping bags take it down to about 40 degrees. And we went at least a month before we ever got a chance to take any baths or showers or anything from when I first got there, but --

Sarah Bowen:

Now, how many folks were in this -- when you were -- so you hooked up with the Raiders. Was it just a platoon or was it -

James O. Stapleton:

Well, there was -- there was sometimes maybe as many as -- and we had Koreans. I have two pictures of me with some Korean people, G.I.s, you know, and we would practice our -- they would practice shooting off the mortars, you know, and got to play around with that a little bit on occasions and lining up, you know, and getting the right range and all this sort of thing. But anyway, what I was going to tell you, I got the fire going so hot one night, that it almost scorched our sleeping bags the floor was so hot.

Sarah Bowen:

______+

James O. Stapleton:

But -- yea, you could take some water and heat it up out there and -- boy, take -- strip to your waist and take -- try to take a bath and you'd just steam it'd be so cold. But anyway, it was great to be with these fellows.

Sarah Bowen:

As a medic, what -- what was -- what did you -- I mean, what was the worst that -- I mean, of course there was a war casualty, but it sounds like most of these guys made it back. So, were you just taking care of daily things like blisters --

James O. Stapleton:

Just -- yea.

Sarah Bowen:

-- and frostbite and --

James O. Stapleton:

Just stuff like that. Well, I even -- my ears were frostbitten it was so cold. I -- my -- still they bother me a little bit even today. My ears did get frostbitten. Luckily I didn't lose them. See, I wasn't up in North Korea with these fellows because I got in in January and this was all down south. The Chinese had pushed everybody down that far and they didn't know when they was going to get them to stop and there was about a hundred thousand of us who were called up. In fact, I have a cousin who was in the Second World War and he was still in the reserve and he and I both wound up in Korea. So, you know, they just pulled everybody in they could get to try to stop the Chinese from --

Sarah Bowen:

Did you know as a Raider that it was a special unit? Did you know?

James O. Stapleton:

Yes, I did after I got there; but not until I got with them. In fact, there was only two of us who were not volunteers for this.

Sarah Bowen:

So, you didn't have the special training.

James O. Stapleton:

No.

Sarah Bowen:

Did that ever make you feel that, you know, you couldn't -- I mean it sounds to me like these guys were there to protect each other and all, but did they take you under their wings?

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, sure, yea. I was a klutz. I used to -- going on -- when we'd go on patrol, I'd step in every creek. I couldn't hit those rocks and everything else. _____

Sarah Bowen:

They _______+ though.

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, sure.

Sarah Bowen:

They brought you home --

James O. Stapleton:

They did.

Sarah Bowen:

-- to your wife?

James O. Stapleton:

That's right. Well, now, I didn't leave when they did.

Sarah Bowen:

Oh, you stayed.

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, yes. I went to the Second Division and I was a medic with the Second Division and we were -- do you want to go on with maybe some more of the Raiders?

Sarah Bowen:

Well, yea, but they disbanded in April of that year?

James O. Stapleton:

Um-hum.

Sarah Bowen:

And you were with them from what? You said from January to April?

James O. Stapleton:

January to April.

Sarah Bowen:

Is there anything significant that you can remember? An incident or --

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, just little funny things really is all I remember. I -- like, for instance, we marched into a little village that had some other troops there and they had kind of a PX and they were selling beer and I don't care for beer. I never did like it but -- now, not that I wouldn't drink a little alcohol, but beer, I don't care much for that, and so I was -- I got into -- I moved into one of the little houses and set it up for me and the Sergeant and there was a hibachi there and I lit that thing to heat the room up. And I crawled into my sleeping bag when I thought the thing was off, pushed it up against the wall, went to sleep. Well, he'd been out drinking and he came in and unbeknown to me he hung his pants up on the wall and the leg of it got down in that hibachi. So, about 3:00 in the morning I started coughing and waking up and there was a fire going up the wall with his pants. And he was sound asleep and I had to jump up and take his pants outside and beat the fire out of them. But just little things like that happened.

Sarah Bowen:

Now, as a Raider, these guys -- obviously, you were talking about the weapons they carried. They have all these different weapons, you know. I mean, had you been weapon trained?

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, sure.

Sarah Bowen:

I mean in -- when you first --

James O. Stapleton:

Yeah. See, I -- there was a refresher course that we had at Fort Campbell. We had to do everything from the different antitank guns all the way up to machine guns and hand grenades and they put us through all this.

Sarah Bowen:

Did you see one-on-one combat?

James O. Stapleton:

Did --

Sarah Bowen:

Was there one-on-one?

James O. Stapleton:

No. I never did, and that's another thing. We're talking ?about God?. You see, if I had stayed in Japan, the 25th and 24th Division, we weren't trained to be fighters; and that was proven. The 24th Division even lost -- their general was even captured and there was an account in one of the histories that I was -- I received where, like, 400 men were found, as they said, their hands behind them. They were just shot out in the field. That's from the 24th Division and I'm -- and I've heard a little bit when I was in Korea -- went up in the Second Division -- I heard that the 25th had lost several numbers. So, that could have been me, but it -- well, it wasn't so maybe that was a good thing that I got over there with the Raiders and helped them out, to get out. But I -- after I left the Raiders I went to the Second Division Clearing Company, and I was in maybe the -- I don't remember, Second Platoon, I think it was -- and the Clearing Company in the Medical Corps in the Army, we were about three to four miles behind the line. Ambulances bring people to us. Now, they, wounded, once would be on the helicopter would go to a MASH unit, maybe ten miles back or further -- and that was a very funny series, the MASH series on TV; but I bet you that there was never a MASH unit that was ever attacked by anybody because they were too far behind the lines -- but this Clearing Company, though, that I was in, we did a lot of work for people. And the thing that bothered me more than anything when I was over there was children stepping on land mines, having to work on them. You know, if you got a GI, that's -- that's what's going to happen most likely. If you're going to get wounded, you're going to get shot; but for a child, just not knowing and -- those darn French, they would put out land mines and they might clear a path through them but they never knew where the rest of them were and they would just leave them. And so, these civilians would get out there and they were just kids and some of the grown-ups, too, would lose their limbs.

Sarah Bowen:

Now, where did you get your medical training? In the Army?

James O. Stapleton:

Yes, in Osaka.

Sarah Bowen:

What did you study in college?

James O. Stapleton:

Well, I was planning on becoming a dentist; but by being married and having a child pretty quick, I figured I'd better get a job. And Ashton Oil was very lenient and very generous to me and let me go to Marshall University, which was close to where I lived, and I got my degree from there while I was working.

Sarah Bowen:

As far as your experience with the Raiders, I mean, you just said, you know, maybe it was your good -- fortunate, too, you got hooked up with; did you feel like you were part of a heroic unit? I mean --

James O. Stapleton:

No.

Sarah Bowen:

___ know what these guys have done or --

James O. Stapleton:

Not really, I didn't, other than the fact that I knew that they had made that landing and I was always -- I always thought that they just went there and made a lot of noise and shot up to draw the troops to them until just recently and I found out that there was people there waiting on them to try to shoot them. So, that was all I ever knew about the unit other than they're a special group and they came from GHQ in Tokyo and the volunteers.

Sarah Bowen:

When -- when these guys -- what I'm hearing today is that they were very -- they were, like, the elite. I mean, they were physically fit, mentally alert, bright, sharp folks and, I mean, having been in the service before, I mean, here you are -- did you feel like you were part of an elite unit?

James O. Stapleton:

Well, I think you do in any kind of a unit. You feel like -- you know, you -- especially if everybody is doing their job, but I'm sure a group like that. You see, I didn't go through their training or anything and I can't say how it feel. I'm sure if I had I'd have felt like we were the best guys and we could whip through anybody in the world but I didn't go through that group and that training so I can't say. But I did enjoy being with these fellows and I really -- I mean, I thought they were great. Just one little sideline, going on a -- we were on a mission, we were hunting -- going over a mountain and man, I was hiking up that mountain, I didn't think I was going to make it. Of course, I carry a lot of morphine syrettes in case someone is wounded. I thought, well if I just get one of those out and shoot one of those in me I bet I could fly up this hill but -- but I didn't. I was kind of afraid to even though no one would have known that I'd even have used it. Well, I guess I was afraid that if I used one I might think two or three is a lot better. So, I did kind of hold off on that. But I can also remember on payday --

Sarah Bowen:

What was payday? How did they pay you?

James O. Stapleton:

Well, for some -- some way or another they were getting the money in to us, and they also had a fifth of whiskey for everybody from GHQ headquarters in Tokyo and -- and there would be one great big party -- or, not party but a big game of chance, cards.

Sarah Bowen:

Did they give you cash? I mean they had to give you -- I mean what was --

James O. Stapleton:

Well, script is what it was, ?script?. And of course now I was married, and I just got $10 a month. So, that's all I got.

Sarah Bowen:

______+ home?

James O. Stapleton:

Well, the rest of it did and anyway I didn't participate in any of that but at the end of the day, that night, the next morning someone would go to a place where they could mail money home, it seems like it. One big winner. It was a good outfit. We had this one sergeant -- I understand he's dead now and I won't even mention his name -- but he was quite an alcoholic. And you heard one of the men mention a drink that's called yakju and he had a five-gallon water can that he kept in front of the Jeep and he had it full of yakju and it took the lining, paint lining, clear off of that can but he didn't care. He'd just skim that off and drink it anyway. Hell, I couldn't go for it.

Sarah Bowen:

One of the gentlemen talked about -- they didn't -- they thought that the military should have been done a debrief on the intensity of what the -- they asked this unit to do. Did you feel that was necessary? I mean you said you didn't see hand-to-hand combat, but still --

James O. Stapleton:

No, I didn't and I -- like I say, it just worked out perfect. The reason I was sent there was because the medics had been shot in a fire fight. I was a replacement, and thank God I wasn't even -- no one shot at me. In fact, several times I carried a shotgun to see if I could see any birds but I believe they'd all been killed or eaten. I never even got a shot -- to fire any on patrols.

Sarah Bowen:

Have you been back to Korea?

James O. Stapleton:

No, I have no -- I don't care to.

Sarah Bowen:

Have you been to Washington to see the monument?

James O. Stapleton:

No. We went to Washington several years ago -- oh, my, it must have been ten, 15 years ago maybe -- and we were at the Smithsonian and I put my money in the meter. When I came back out, my car was gone and they had changed a law and the sign was clear on the other end of the corner that said after 3:00 o'clock there was no parking. And it cost me $50 to get my car out, and I've never been back. Heck with those people.

Sarah Bowen:

As far as leaving a legacy, the Korean War, do you feel like -- I mean, should America have been there?

James O. Stapleton:

Well, yes, I think so. Yes. Going on about that, in that vein, I -- I was too young for the Second World War, thank God I missed it, and when I got -- when I was in the service and had to go, I felt, well, it's my turn. Oh, another little funny thing happened. You remember in MASH, old Klinger? Well I was serving in the Second Division. It was probably July and I got a notice from Ann Arbor, Michigan, that I was going to be drafted. So, I went to the Captain and I said, "Captain, you've got to send me back to Ann Arbor; I'm going to be drafted. They told me I had to be." He said, "Give me that." So, I didn't get to go home.

Sarah Bowen:

That must have been hard when your wife was -- you had gotten married and gone over there. How did you communicate? Were there letters?

James O. Stapleton:

Letters. Yeah, it was a --

Sarah Bowen:

How often would you get a letter?

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, quite often. Yea, letters came real well.

Sarah Bowen:

They found where the unit was? I mean somebody -- somebody --

James O. Stapleton:

Well, now in the Raiders, not too often there. It was times that I didn't get letters and she didn't get anything from me when I was in the Raiders. But see, that was April and -- when I got up in the Second Division that was more regulated. It was all in the Tenth Corps. It was all in the Tenth Corps. Now, in the -- in the Second Division when I was in the Clearing Company with the Second Division that summer, that was ten Chinese divisions came through us and we had to really head over the mountain to get away, even with our medics. In fact, the tanks were ahead of us and those Chinese were coming down the hill trying to tear the -- just swarms of them trying to tear the hatches off of those tanks to get on but we lost two regiments out of three and about a week later we were -- of course, we'd pushed them back. That was the -- that was a frustrating part of that war. It was like playing a 50 -- it was like playing football and you as the home team couldn't go over the 50-yard line, the 38th parallel. No matter what they did to you, you had to just stop right there and that was -- that was the most frustrating part of being in the dadgum war to me and to most GIs.

Sarah Bowen:

Have you talked with other GIs about that?

James O. Stapleton:

Well, yes. A lot of, for instance, people I've worked with over the years were in the -- in the Korean War, my age group, and that was the most frustrating part of it. They wouldn't let us win it and -- so, I was going to tell you though, this one fellow came in had been -- he had -- he had been wounded in the leg and he had hidden in a hay mound so the Chinese wouldn't capture him. And so when we took that land back, he came out and they rushed him into our -- into our aid station and I took the patch off his leg and man those maggots were just eating on it -- but now wait, that saved his leg. It was clean as could be. If he hadn't had that he'd have had gangrene and he'd have died. So, that really saved his leg. I was able to fix him up and I've have several experiences. There was a lady who -- well, let's call her a woman. She was a North Korean and she was either trying to escape or they were trying to infiltrate her through the mine field and she had stepped on a mine and she was blown all to pieces. We tried to save her life, but we weren't successful in that. You know, I've had other medical experiences with --

Sarah Bowen:

So, you saw death firsthand?

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, sure. In fact, I helped perform an autopsy where a GI had shot a South Korean; and I don't know whether he was just doing it for -- out of the heck of it or what. But they wanted the bullet and we had to go through -- we took two Jeeps and put the -- and we put the stretcher on the hoods of the Jeep. The doctor and I did the autopsy and it went through his chest but it hit his spine and it wound up down here in his leg. And we had to trace that and get it out. So, yea, I've had a little experience.

Sarah Bowen:

You should be proud of your service to the country. I mean --

James O. Stapleton:

Well, I mean, I'm no hero; but I'm proud that I was able to serve. In fact, one of the -- one of the fellows that I worked with that was a Vietnam veteran, he came back and he was saying the government owed him this and the government owed him that. Well, I don't believe in that kind of stuff. I feel like if you're an American, it's your duty to serve and if you get wounded, sure, but if you're all right, what the heck? They paid you while you were there and that's it.

Sarah Bowen:

If you were to leave a legacy for your grandchildren -- you told me you have four beautiful grandsons -- and you wanted them to remember something important that came out of war, what would it be?

James O. Stapleton:

Well, I believe that our country has to be strong and has to be to a point where if someone attacks us or if someone aggravates us too much we've got to come to our defense and let them know, because I believe in strength, we'll keep us free and I don't believe in all these things like -- well, as this gentleman said before, giving somebody a pencil and a paper because you can put a whole table full of people in here and who all is going to agree on what? Look at the UN. Now, that's a good example.

Sarah Bowen:

As far as war experience, I know you're proud that you served, you've probably -- your contemporaries -- many of your contemporaries served, whether they went overseas or not. Do you feel like what you did, your piece of the -- your little piece made a difference in our democracy here today? I mean, do you feel like I'm part of -- I'm part of why we have freedom today? If you hadn't been in Korea, if we hadn't gone to Korea, would we -- would that world be different, I guess is what I'm asking. This is personal. This is personal.

James O. Stapleton:

Well, I think if the United States hadn't gone to Korea, it would have been different. I really do. And I think we needed to be there and, you know, when I was in Japan they pulled a lot of men out of Korea. Like, several of them came into our 25th Division and I got to be good friends with them; and as far as American soldiers in Korea, there was very, very few when this war -- that war started. So, we had really not given up but just figured that maybe the South Koreans could take it on themselves. But since that time, you know, we've -- if you watch History Channel, all the Russians were flying the migs and nobody knew it -- supposedly knew it -- and they were doing all of that and they were supplying the North Koreans with weapons and different things. So --

Sarah Bowen:

How many miles do you think you walked in Korea?

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, shoot, I have no idea.

Sarah Bowen:

I had a gentleman who brought his boot in when he walked across Italy during World War II and his wife had bronzed it and it was totally just -- I mean, I can't imagine before the boot was bronzed but there was no tread left on it. It sounds to me like you did a lot of -- it was very physical.

James O. Stapleton:

Well, the only thing that I had to show for that is that the hair on my ankles from those old combat boots has disappeared. It won't grow.

Sarah Bowen:

And I bet you you got rid of those old combat boots.

James O. Stapleton:

You better believe it. In fact, just a little sidebar on that, do you remember -- what, seven or eight, ten years ago, that the young ladies were wearing something that looked like combat boots?

Sarah Bowen:

Um-hum.

James O. Stapleton:

And I used to tell my wife, I can't understand how anybody would want to wear those things.

Sarah Bowen:

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about about your experience?

James O. Stapleton:

Oh, I don't think so.

Sarah Bowen:

I think that it's very -- it's great that you shared your story with us today and we appreciate it very much.

James O. Stapleton:

Well, thank you.

 
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