By Paul Wood
MONTICELLO — Sam McPheeters dropped out of high school his senior year, drove a Harley to Denver with a buddy, got a job and then decided to enlist.
It was a critical time. The Korean War was in its early stages, and McPheeters would nearly get killed not long before he shipped home.
The Marine sergeant, now 84, grew up in Monticello and Decatur, and by the way, he did get his high school degree while in the Marines, where he served for three years.
It helped him toward a long career as a supervisor at the University of Illinois.
In 1951, he was assigned mess duty (food service) until he was transferred to security in Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. In August, he went to Camp Pendleton for training for Korea, where the winters could freeze men to the icy ground.
He boarded the USS Henrico in October, headed from San Diego to Korea via Kobe, Japan, where he bought silk garments for his future wife, which he still has though she has passed on.
By Nov. 6, his unit was at Socho-Ko-Ri, North Korea, a mountainous spot a few miles behind enemy lines, he recalls.
“We walked ashore,” he says. “Then they put us on trucks. I was assigned to man 105- and 155-millimeter howitzers.”
After a cold winter in a tent with a pot-belly stove — so cold the fuel would not flow — he was asleep when a bullet went through the canvas and into his wrist in March 1952.
McPheeters was patched up and returned to duty. Since no one could tell whether the bullet was North Korean or friendly fire, he did not receive a Purple Heart.
Soon after, he was assigned to yet a new skill as an electrician and moved to Seoul, the capitol of South Korea.
But McPheeters was moved to the line again a few months later, serving as a machine gunner — .30-caliber light machine guns — in the 7th Marines.
His most memorable event: a tank moved into his bunker to fire at the enemy on the other side of the hill.
“I became the (shell) loader for the next two or three hours,” he says, when the loader passed out.
In November 1952, McPheeters was assigned to his most dangerous duty: to control a mountain nicknamed the Hook.
U.N. forces, including British and battered Marines, fought the North Koreans and their Chinese allies. There would be more than a year of fighting there.
The day before he was to leave, McPheeters nearly was killed by shrapnel. A flak jacket saved him, he says.
Once back in the United States, McPheeters hitchhiked home from California. He and wife Mary Lou had four children.
He didn’t return to Korea for decades, but it was a much happier trip.
In 2013, the Revisit Korea Program gave him as thank-you tour of the modernized nation, and “I didn’t have to spend a dime there. They took care of everything,” including gifts and souvenirs.
“It was very different from the first time I was there, when women carried packs on their heads. Their subways and hotels were completely up to date,” he says.
But there were still feelings of tension on the demilitarized zone between the two Korean nations, he says.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.