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Korean War veteran shares his experiences in “hell” with self-published memoir

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James P. Taylor faced hell every time he sat down and recalled his experiences in the Korean War.

His self-appointed task, begun more than 20 years ago, was to write about his times on the front lines in that war, which he had tried so hard to forget.

“It was like returning back to hell again,” he said. “But the reason for writing it was sheer desperation, or the need for income. I was broke.”

Mr. Taylor, 83, the former president of Watertown’s Taylor Bros. Painting and Sandblasting Co., now operated by his son, Scott, as Taylor Bros. General Contracting, was in dire financial straits.

He left the Army in 1951 and for years, the Army could not confirm his claim that he actually served in combat. He received no veterans disability benefits, despite being awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest award given for combat valor, and other medals. His records were lost in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis,. The fire destroyed about 17 million military personnel files, according to the National Archives at St. Louis.

After a determined effort, Mr. Taylor finally received those benefits — the result of a 57-year struggle with the Veterans Administration. He’s not broke anymore and doesn’t expect to get rich from his book, which he recently self-published as an e-book.

But he does hope to educate.

“It’s all in here, the crying, the cursing, the cowardice, the bloodshed, the stench of death and the valor of the poor son-of-a-bitch called the foot soldier,” said Mr. Taylor, who now lives in Florida.

His book, “Return From Gehenna” documents his 14 months on the front lines when the Korean War started. Gehenna, a Latin word, signifies a place or state of torment or suffering. He served on a communications crew with the 52nd Field Artillery, part of the 8th Army, and his main task was the risky job of laying communication wire.

Mr. Taylor was living a carefree life in 1948, when he was 18. His days were spent working at St. Regis Paper Mill in Deferiet, making 70 cents an hour. On his Saturdays off, he’d go to Gonsieski’s pool hall on Public Square, Watertown. One night out with his buddies, they talked about joining the service. Mr. Taylor had four brothers who served in World War II. His father, Ambrose, served in the cavalry in World War I.

A few days later, Mr. Taylor told his mother he was enlisting. “I had to sow my oats,” Mr. Taylor writes in his book.

In 1950, he and his unit, based at Fort Ord, Calif., were on maneuvers in the Mojave Desert when it was ordered to South Korea.

“I said, ‘Where the hell is Korea?’” Mr. Taylor recalled last month in a telephone interview from his Palm Harbor, Fla., home. He was about to find out.

a ‘police action’

The Korean War began as a United Nations “police action,” pitting U.S. forces and allies against communist North Koreans, backed by China and the Soviet Union. The Korean conflict did not become the Korean War until a Congressional designation in 1998. The 37-month war began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The U.S. sprang to the defense of the south. The Department of Defense reports that 54,246 American servicemen and women lost their lives during the war.

Before being shipped to South Korea, Mr. Taylor had a furlough in Watertown. When he mentioned to friends where he was going, there was a muted reaction.

“There was practically no reply about Korea,” he said. “It had just started. Most people didn’t really want to see it because we just got through the Second World War.”

Mr. Taylor’s unit landed at the port in Pusan, where the South Korean army was surrounded by enemy forces. Mr. Taylor recalled that an American general welcomed the new U.S. troops with a dreadful warning.

“He said there would be no more withdrawing or repositioning of troops,” Mr. Taylor said. “We’d stand and fight to the death. We had never been in combat before. That went over like a lead balloon.”

But his unit went on the offensive, eventually driving the enemy back to the Manchurian border, where Chinese forces had a base.

Mr. Taylor’s unit was attacked every day, he said.

“It was constant,” he said. “We got attacked every morning between 3 and 3:45. The Chinese army would come up the hills screaming, blowing bugles and with mortar fire. I got blown off a hill in the middle of the night by a mortar barrage. It screwed up my legs, especially my left one.”

Mr. Taylor said American soldiers were thrown into battle situations to plug gaps in lines with nothing but rifles and bazookas to defend themselves with against hordes of North Korean and Chinese soldiers armed with Russian T-34 tanks and heavy artillery.

The suffering was compounded in winter and not only because of the absence of cold-weather clothing. Rifles and automatic weapons wouldn’t fire because the lubrication became so cold it would form a gel, Mr. Taylor said.

He said that after fighting all the way to the Manchurian border, the American Army was met by a half million Chinese soldiers. The Americans were forced to turn back and withdraw 110 miles while constantly being cut off without food or medical supplies.

It was also cold.

“The only warmth we felt was when we burned villages behind us,” Mr. Taylor wrote in his book.

He explained that a “scorched earth” policy was adopted.

“We were ordered to leave nothing behind for the Chinese Army,” he wrote.

witness to atrocities

Mr. Taylor said the enemy was ruthless in its treatment of civilians. He recalled coming across rows of trenches “the size of a football field.”

“Lying between the trenches were bodies,” he said. “They were political prisoners — just civilians. While taking over the city, the enemy put three machine gunners on a wall, made the people face the wall and blew them all away.”

“I could hear some moans,” Mr. Taylor said. “It must have happened about an hour or less before I got there. I walked around the perimeter and the bodies were riddled with machine gun bullets. I didn’t see anybody moving.”

Another time, Mr. Taylor came across a small church where he found 48 civilians, women and children, dead. “They were kneeling down and praying and (the enemy) came in with burp guns and they mowed them all down.”

As the Americans withdrew, hordes of civilians would join up with them for protection.

“They wanted no part of the Chinese army,” Mr. Taylor said. “The women would be raped and the men would be slaves.”

During one period in the withdrawl, as his unit was on the move for up to 22 hours a day, Mr. Taylor slept only twice in 11 days, for a total of seven hours.

“I told the doctors this at the VA and they didn’t believe me” he said.

no welcome home

In October of 1951, Mr. Taylor finally received orders for a 30-day furlough after 14 months of constant fighting, including five major battles.

In his book, he recalls soldiers spotting the Golden Gate Bridge as their ship arrived in the U.S.

“By this time, we were all hyped up and fully expected to see thousands of people waving and cheering us, while a brass band played in the background,” Mr. Taylor writes in his book’s final chapter. “Man, were we in for a letdown.”

There wasn’t even a banner saying “Congratulations on a job well done,” he wrote.

For the next few months, Mr. Taylor would serve at Fort Meade, Md., as a weapons instructor before leaving the Army.

Asked if he had any regrets in serving in the Army, he said, “Even with all the pain I’ve gone through all my life, I’ve never begrudged it.”

He recalled atrocities performed by the enemy on civilians.

“They were vicious, rotten,” Mr. Taylor said. “They would run over civilians in the street with tanks. There was so much carnage. It was worth it because we tried to save all these millions of people who were going through the same thing. If the United States didn’t intervene when we did, South Korea would be North Korea today.”

Mr. Taylor said he raised his two sons, Ryan and Scott, from infants and began his book after putting them to bed at night. He moved to Florida in 2000. Ryan also lives in Florida.

He re-wrote his book three times while in Florida and unsuccessfully marketed it to publishers before a friend suggested he self-publish it. The book is in need of a copy editor, but it’s an action-packed tale, with details from the front lines to very rare but pleasurable breaks in areas away from the fighting.

In addition to the Silver Star, Mr. Taylor received the Korean Defense Service Medal with five battle stars, a Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Service Medal and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.

Mr. Taylor, who suffers from arthritis in 80 percent of his body, said his struggles with receiving veterans benefits finally found success when a new hire at the regional VA office in St. Petersburg, Fla., took up his case. She contacted Mr. Taylor’s American Legion representative.

“She said, ‘This is disgusting,’” Mr. Taylor said. “She gave me total disability for the last 10 years. That was four years ago.”

He added, “I was living in an old shack of a mobile home in a trailer park. When I got the money, $260,000, I bought this house down here and bought myself a car.”

His ranch home has a flagpole out front, and he proudly flies the American flag. Mr. Taylor now gets monthly veterans benefits. In his leisure time, he golfs.

“I live a decent life now,” he said.



The details
WHAT: “Return From Gehenna: A Story of Combat in Hell,” by James P. Taylor
The e-book for Kindle is available for download through amazon.com. The direct link: http://wdt.me/yo2KS6
COST: The e-book sells for $5.99
OF NOTE: The book has mature subject matter.
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