As America commemorates the 67th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice, Seth Eisenberg spoke with four Korean War era Veterans who have overcome homelessness about their memories, advice to young people, and hopes for the country they love.
It was the last Sunday in June, 1950.
Eighteen-year-old Raymond Dyson had given up on a high school education and was “playing around” in Memphis, Tennessee.
Not far from Savannah, Georgia, Watson Plummer was six days shy of his 21st birthday.
Sixteen-year-old Pablo Ithier had already been performing with the Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra for more than a year.
John McGuire was 15, living in an Irish-Italian-Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. His parents had immigrated to New York from Scotland searching for the life of opportunity. His father rarely spoke of his service in the British Navy, McGuire said.
A world away from the lives they knew, North Korean soldiers, tanks, artillery, and aircraft flooded across the 38th parallel that had formally separated communist North Korea from capitalist South Korea since Soviet and American leaders divided the peninsula at the end of World War II.
June 25, 1950.
It’s unlikely young John, Pablo, Watson, or Raymond knew that events taking place thousands of miles from home would forever touch their lives and millions of other Americans.
Five days later, President Harry S. Truman ordered a naval blockade and authorized Army General Douglas A. MacArthur, popularly known as the ‘American Caesar,’ to send ground troops to Korea.
The fight for South Korea led America to call 5,720,000 of its citizens to the Armed Forces. Nearly two million were sent to Korea itself.
By the time the guns of war were silenced by signatures upon a fragile truce 37 months later, three million were dead. Thirty-three thousand six hundred eighty-six Americans returned in coffins. Half a million more were wounded.
More than 7,100 American soldiers were captured and held as prisoners of war.
Sixty-seven years later, thousands of America’s Soldiers, Sailors and Marines sent to Korea remain officially “unaccounted for”.
While those who served during the Korean War era represent some of America’s oldest living warriors, over the past decade, 31 of them were among thousands of South Florida veterans who the VA-funded Operation Sacred Trust Supportive Services for Veteran Families program helped overcome the imminent threat or tragedy of homelessness.
As we commemorate the 67th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice, I spoke with four of those warriors about their memories, military service, advice to young people, and hopes for the country they love.
John McGuire Enlisted at 17 with a Heart Full of Patriotism
Each of the three McGuire boys served in the U.S. Navy. Now 85 and the only survivor among his siblings, John McGuire has clear memories of that time in his life.
McGuire grew up in a neighborhood familiar with the cost of war.
During the years of World War II, he recalls how all the adults in the neighborhood would freeze when “an enlisted man passed.”
“You’d hear the screams and the next day you’d see a gold star in the window,” he said.
Neither those memories nor the headlines of bloody battles in Korea stopped McGuire from catching a bus to downtown New York on January 18, 1952 to enlist in the Navy.
He was 17.
“I was ready to the max,” he said. “When you’re young like that, there’s a patriotism and pride. You feel like steel.”
Before long, McGuire was looking at the USS Lake Champlain, an Essex-class aircraft carrier that had been modernized for the fight in Korea. From the moment the Champlain left Mayport, Florida on April 26, 1953 until it returned on December 4, 1953, it would be his home.
“My God!,” he remembers thinking, marveling at the size of the ship stretching nearly three football fields (888.5 feet), that could cruise at 33 knots, house a crew of nearly 3,500, and carry 80 – 100 planes.
“The whole thing was an adventure. I was really proud to be part of the U.S. Navy,” he said.
On his way to Korea, McGuire remembers navigating the Suez Canal where he saw Arabs and camels on both sides, five-cent bottles of wine in Portugal, passing through Hong Kong at a time “it looked like a horror movie,” reaching port in Japan, and then joining the battle off western Korea in mid June.
“Aboard a carrier, it can be dangerous,” McGuire said, recalling pained memories of Sailors who lost their lives because of a moment’s distraction.
Nearly 70 years later, the sounds and images of “boogies at 25,000 feet and then 18,000 feet” remain sharp and real, as is the sound of the whistle that meant it was go time.
McGuire can also still hear the words of Florida college kids who greeted the battle-weary, returning Sailors with vulgar names.
“They were so misinformed and we got hell,” he said.
“One of my buddies, he was crying when he was telling us what happened because it hurt so bad,” he recalled.
Raymond Dyson’s Brother was Already in Korea
Raymond Dyson’s brother James — two of 17 surviving siblings in the Dyson family of Warford Street in Shelby County, Tennessee — was already serving in Korea when he was inducted into the Army on January 17, 1952.
At 89, Dyson’s memory of that day, the months, and years that followed remains vivid.
After basic training, he boarded the USNS General E. T. Collins packed with 2,000 Soldiers for his voyage to Korea.
“We got out to the middle of the sea and found out a hurricane was coming,” he recalled as he described the 500-mile detour the bad weather required.
Dyson spent 13 months in Korea monitoring troop and train movements as part of the 95th Armored Field Artillery Battalion in advance of the 1st Marine Division.
“I liked the Army,” he said, “We got shelled a lot, but we survived.”
“Once a month we got a shower and new clothes,” he added.
“The mountains were frozen on both sides,” he remembered of Korea during the winter months, when temperatures would average lows of 14 degrees.
For his bravery, Dyson earned three Bronze Stars.
“I was there the day we ceased fire,” he said. “We were still being shelled, but by dummies with no warheads.”
One of his happiest memories, and also one of his saddest, was being promoted.
“I was promoted from Private to Corporal one day and the next day it was taken back because I’d gone to the clinic. All of those who got medical attention were denied promotions,” he recalled with the sting of an injustice that has survived the years. Losing the promotion, he said, meant losing greater responsibility, which he wanted, and more money that he needed.
He left active duty shortly after his return, although his reserve commitment lasted for another six years.
“I wanted to stay in, but got teased,” he explained about his decision to separate.
Despite his valor, sacrifices, and three Bronze Stars, Dyson said coming home had its own painful and dangerous challenges.
“I had to be careful,” he said about his 1953 homecoming to Memphis.
“There was no love between people,” he remembers. “I had to step off the sidewalk not to be too close to white ladies.”
Watson Plummer Wanted to See the World
At 91, Watson Plummer’s memories of his service in Korea haven’t faded.
“My parents didn’t want me to go,” Plummer recalls of his decision to enlist on November 14, 1950.
“I had other ideas, even though I didn’t show it,” he said. “I wanted to see the world.”
One particular day stands out.
Plummer was on patrol with the Company A 773 Tank Destroyer Battalion.
“I jumped off the tank into incoming fire” that he believed came from Bazookas, he recalled. His commander yelled, “Dodge!” Plummer squatted low to the ground and was saved.
“My life would have been cut short if I hadn’t,” he said.
That night, he said, he was again on tank patrol. His commander ordered him up top to navigate the Korean hills. “Watson, stand here,” are the words that still ring in his head decades later.
Navigating hills was something Plummer learned as a youngster growing up not far from Savannah, Georgia, where the marshland and hills could be fatal for anyone who got lost. It was a skill that may have helped save Plummer’s life and his fellow Soldiers in the fight for Korea.
“My daddy taught me to watch the hills so if you got lost, you could always find your way home,” Plummer said.
As he reached the top of the tank, suddenly he felt a blast. The left rear track went over a landmine.
“It blowed it completely out,” Plummer recalled, thankful once more that his life had been saved.
Plummer’s service and valor in the Korean theatre was recognized by the Army with the Korean Service Medal with three Bronze Stars.
Looking back, he’d encourage today’s young people to make the same decision.
“Serving teaches you how to be clean, dependable, and lots of new things you didn’t know, like working with others … there’s so much to learn,” he said. “It’s one of the most certified experiences you could ever have.”
Pablo Ithier was a Renowned Musician in Puerto Rico
Pablo Ithier, 86, remembers what it was like to serve during the Korean War from a different perspective.
“There were two ships in the harbor,” he recalled of the day in 1952 when he expected to sail from Puerto Rico to Korea.
“They put me on the ship to Panama,” he said.
“My father and family thought I was crazy,” Ithier remembers from August 4, 1952 when he enlisted in the Army.
At 18, Ithier had been helping support his family as a musician for three years already.
He began studying music at the age of ten and became “the youngest member of the symphony orchestra in Puerto Rico at the age of 15,” he remembers with pride.
The mechanically inclined soldier was sent to vehicle school. Before long, he was working in Panama as an Army interpreter in high level meetings with weapons and parts buyers from Spanish-speaking countries.
Ithier was grateful for the chance to earn money that he could send home to help his family in Puerto Rico.
Growing up, “we lived in a nice house made of wood,” he said. “With the money I sent, my father was able to build the house out of cinderblock.”
“It raised our level of class,” he recalled.
“I remember everything,” Ithier said of his 86 years.
“I go back to my life. I remember the good and the bad. I’ve got plenty of time to think of my past like it all happened yesterday,” he said.
Especially meaningful are his memories as a musician and as a father.
“I was not prepared to be a father,” he said. “I was a professional, but in one way and not in another,” Ithier confided. Nights that began with an evening performance regularly ended with him returning home the next afternoon, he remembered.
“I was young. I didn’t really care,” he recalled with regret about how he wished things could have been for a daughter he dearly loves.
Given the chance, there are things he’d do differently.
“If I could go back, I would never leave the Army,” he said. “I’d stay 40 or 50 years.”
After living nearly all his life in Puerto Rico, Ithier moved to Florida seven years ago.
“One day in Puerto Rico, I went for groceries and a 14 or 15-year-old punk said, ‘I’d like to see that old man jump when I shoot him.’ I called the lawyer to sell the house and I left,” he said.
Beginning anew in South Florida meant overcoming poverty and homelessness, eventually leading the former musical star to entertaining the elderly with his saxophone and clarinet by the pool near his home in Pembroke Pines.
Not everyone was happy.
A powerful municipal official, he said, “picked on me because of my playing for people by the pool.”
“What music does for people is amazing!” he shared with youthful excitement.
“When I played the standards of my time, you should see how they react,” he said. “People in wheelchairs with their minds gone, they responded!”
As his arthritis worsened, Ithier had to put down his beloved instruments for good. “I can’t even hold it,” he said.
Each of these four Veterans expressed concern for how things are going in the country they offered their lives to protect.
John McGuire was shocked by the video of George Floyd’s death. “It was a mean, mean, mean thing to do. It was bullshit,” he said.
But McGuire also believes the majority of police are good, and hopes more people will speak out in support of the courage and sacrifices of America’s law enforcement community.
He’s hopeful “a silent majority” will help America return to a time when “we took care of our families, neighborhoods, and country.”
Watson Plummer is praying for America.
“I was praying for the country this morning,” Plummer said. “Praying for peace, pleasantry, tranquility, and caring for one another.”
“And most of all,” he added after a thoughtful pause, “fellowship among people.”
Seth Eisenberg is President/CEO of Purpose Built Families Foundation, a nationally accredited nonprofit in Pembroke Pines, Florida, and co-founder of Operation Sacred Trust. You can reach Seth via LinkedIn.