Boomers, talk to your parents if you still have them around

We received a treasure trove of photographs the other day from Mike Plews who lives in the scenic Loess Hills of Western Iowa. He doesn’t know what each picture is about but collectively, Mike says, they show us a world of the past but, if today’s turbulence worsens, they might also show us a world of the future. They are from his late father, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald R. Plews. Mike only wishes he had talked more with his father about them.

My father was a soldier. He served in the U.S. Army from 1923 through 1955. He saw combat in both World War Two and Korea.

He was a complex man.

Mike’s father, Ronald R. Plews, during the Korean War.

He could write beautiful letters. This is not surprising because from 1927 through 1929, he was out of the army and worked as a sports reporter in Detroit.

He deeply admired General George Patton. He served as one of his senior Non Commissioned Officers on Hawaii and later, as a Warrant officer serving with the 4th Armored Division in Europe, my father earned three Bronze Stars and a Combat Infantryman’s badge.

He was one of the troops who made the breakthrough into Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

His unit liberated two death camps, and after the war he refused to set foot in a church. Never said why.

He was a New Deal Democrat and had no tolerance for prejudice in any form.

His favorite whisky was Old Forester.

He had no use at all for Richard Nixon.

He loved the Dodgers.

 
My father never told me any of this himself because he had a heart attack and died in 1962. I was only 12.

All of the above I learned secondhand.

I inherited his footlocker and in it I found a tin box with about 300 Kodachrome slides that he had taken while serving on a fire base during the Korean War.
If properly stored, Kodachrome doesn’t fade. These pictures look like they were taken yesterday.

We think of the Korean War in terms of black and white, so these images can be a little unsettling. Wars are not fought by people in distant monochrome memories. That comes later.

I can’t tell you the specifics of these photos he preserved. All I know is, they were taken during the war. I never had the chance to have a conversation with my father about them. Your guess is as good as mine.

If your own parents are still living, have a conversation with them about the seminal events in their lives. I promise that if you put it off you will regret it.

I sent this to BoomerCafé because we are in danger of another war in Korea. If it comes, such a war will be in color, 24 hours a day, from Day One.

Pax

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8 Comments

  1. Hi Mike – Your father sounds like a wonderful man (except for being a Dodger fan-haha). I am sorry he died when you were so young.

    Peace to you,
    Robin

  2. What a find! I recently interviewed my father about his early life and recorded it on my smartphone–it was very easy. I used Storycorps as a guide to questions–they have them on their website. I didn’t even get as far as I thought I would in the time I had allotted, so now I need to do Part II. Will we ever listen to it after he is no longer here? I don’t know, but I feel better knowing I will have his voice–and I am even learning a few things I didn’t know.

  3. Thank you, Mike. I couldn’t agree more. My father was in the Army for two years when I was very young. We were stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, not far from the Mexican border. That was 1961-62. He didn’t talk about it very often, and when he did it wasn’t about the OD Army so much as the camaraderie he had with his buddies in his unit. All I knew about his “official” Army identification was that he was “a Spec. 4 in a Signal Corps.” When I asked him what a Spec. 4 was he said, “A corporal without command authority.” I later found out it stands for specialist and has the same rank as a corporal (E-4), but specialists aren’t Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) as corporals are. He never served in combat, but mentioned the building of the Berlin Wall as the only “hot spot” during that time. Mostly, he talked about going down to Mexico to get tequila when they were on leave, running over tanantulas that were lying on the asphalt at night (to absorb the heat being released) when they were doing patrols or whatever (I guess the tanantulas went “pop”); and he always mentioned meeting Ann-Margret at a USO function in Phoenix or on base, I can’t recall now. I just remember it always made my mom shake her head a little bit.
    He had a medal (badge?) that I believe said “Rifle” and was for qualifying as a marksman with an M-1 Carbine. He bought a Marlin .30-30 deer rifle when he got out of the service, because it was the closest thing to the M-1 Carbine, and fired the same cartridge. He only deer hunted because his dad and all the other men in our small town did; and he said that it was “fun to go to Deer Camp.” He stopped going hunting because, “I never wanted to kill the thing.” He spoke in simple terms, with complex meanings.
    He passed away in 2010 and my mother passed away in 2015. I recently travelled back to Wisconsin (where my folks were from – a long way from Arizona) and retrieved the last of their effects. I found a large, weathered manilla envelope and a folder marked “ORDERS, SEPARATION PAPERS, ETC.” that had his induction paperwork, pay stubs, various orders (all hand-typed, of course), discharge orders and many other documents. I now know that he was in the 404th Signal Company, 84th Infantry Division (special designation “The Railsplitters”) with the Fifth Army (Army North). I also found out that he served in the Army Reserve for a year upon his return to Wisconsin. He had enlisted, as had nearly every other eligible man in the small town of 250, when President Kennedy issued a special call-up to be prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union (the ol’ USSR) because Stalin had said that he would “bury us” in a UN speech. I’m not sure if that was when Stalin removed his shoe and pounded it on the podium for effect. Crazy Joe.
    I want to write my dad’s story in the military, from what I remember and what I can glean from all the paperwork in the folder. I don’t know any of his army buddies or how to get a hold of them, and I live in Colorado so I can’t talk to any of his old friends back in Wisconsin very easily. I would like to have the piece finished and submitted for publication before next Memorial Day, if possible. If any readers have any info or suggestions on publications it would be greatly appreciated. I’m not looking for money (although, as a freelance writer that would always be helpful). I really feel a compelling need to write his humble chapter, as someone who served his country when his country called. Part of the larger mosaic of all Veterans who’ve served in our country’s military. Also, if I have misspoken in terms of military linguistics I would appreciate clarification. I know that accuracy matters when describing the many levels of military-speak, which can be a foreign language to us civilians. Thank you for your article, Mike. And thanks in advance to anyone who can provide some assistance with helping me tell my father’s story. I really wish I would have sat down with a tape (voice) recorder before he passed. I had planned on doing so, but he passed too early. Much too early.

    1. There is a Railsplitters web site you may want to check out. If you Facebook there is also a page dedicated to this units veterans and their families. Join the group and who knows what may pop up for you.
      I had pretty good luck with the 4th Armored Division web site. It led me to one of my fathers friends from World War II and he sent me a couple of nice pictures from their days in California waiting to deploy to Europe.
      Your post was also interesting to me on another level. I was in the Army from 67 to 71 and was a specialist 5 in the Army Security Agency. The Specialist rank replaced what were called technical sergeants during World War II. At one time the Army had specialists ranging from E4 through E8 but there were there were very few above E5. In the Agency most of the E6 and above specialists were linguists with a lot of time in service. The army now only has specialists in the E4 grade and they are simply called specialists. Above E4 and they get “hard stripes” and most of the jobs formally done by E7 and above Specialists are now performed by Warrant Officers.
      Good luck telling your dads story. Your family will appreciate it.

  4. Mike, thank you for posting this article about your father. Our parents generation needs to be recognized and the memories preserved. One tip, go to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/vets/, get the donation forms and submit some of those original photos and your narration.

    My mother worked with the Defense Department. Her job was to send telegrams to the families who has lost a loved one. She said often she would cry. My father served in WWII as a mechanic on a PT Boat. He never told us anything about his service. Like you, I found a cache of letters, photographs, paperwork and memorabilia after my father died. I read the letters from various girlfriends he had received while in the Navy. The letters capture the times and hint at some interesting subjects. My father was stationed near Samar in the Philippines. I knew nothing about Samar, so I did some research. My father served during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest U.S. naval battle in history.

  5. Thanks for the info, Mike. And, thanks again for your story. The photgraphs are amazing, especially for being that old. At first I wondered why the picture of the artillery piece (a howitzer?) was out of focus while the others were so clear. It quickly occured to me that it was because the ground was most likely shaking, especially after seeing the shells in the foreground. Your father was a very fine man, I’m sure. I have tremendous respect for all veterans. The story of the Korean War needs to be told to a greater audience. From what I have heard from veterans and read here and there, the fighting was absolutely brutal, as was the winter weather.
    I wonder how many people my age and younger realize that in our support of South Korea we were not only fighting a very capable adversary in North Korea, but also the Soviet Union (perhaps by what could be described as proxy) and also the Chinese (when 200,000 troops from the People’s Volunteer Army stormed into North Korea following MacArthur’s crossing the 38th parallel). I remember being taught in high school about D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, as well as Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, and the other battles of the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation in World War II, but I don’t recall mention of the Battle of Inchon or the Chosin Reservoir. Perhaps it’s because there were many fine movies made about World War II (“The Longest Day” stands out with me), but not so with the Korean War. I googled Korean War movies and, aside from “The Manchurian Candidate” and “M*A*S*H”, I didn’t recognize many titles. That’s a shame.
    I would be curious if you have a book recommendation regarding the Korean War, or a favorite movie. I need to educate myself on this important part of world hisory, as we all do. As the saying goes, those who don’t learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them. I hope that won’t be the case with the Korean peninsula. I lived through the Cold War and really thought the threat of nuclear war was behind us. I guess I was wrong.
    Finally, I would like to thank you for your military service during those turbulent times. I hope veterans never get tired of hearing thank you from those who didn’t serve. I mean it sincerely.

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