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updated: 11/10/2013 10:20 AM

Korean War vets sometimes feel like their service overlooked

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  • The 18 months he spent in Korea as a soldier fighting the enemy and the elements were grueling, but Virgil Banker says he remains grateful that he and his three brothers all made it home from the Korean War.

       The 18 months he spent in Korea as a soldier fighting the enemy and the elements were grueling, but Virgil Banker says he remains grateful that he and his three brothers all made it home from the Korean War.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • The daily gunfire, winter's cold and summer's stench don't haunt the memories of Korean War veteran Virgil Banker as much as the throngs of helpless refugees he saw devastated by the war.

       The daily gunfire, winter's cold and summer's stench don't haunt the memories of Korean War veteran Virgil Banker as much as the throngs of helpless refugees he saw devastated by the war.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Returning home from 18 months in Korea, Army Sgt. Virgil Banker receives The Commendation Ribbon With Pendant for meritorious service.

       Returning home from 18 months in Korea, Army Sgt. Virgil Banker receives The Commendation Ribbon With Pendant for meritorious service.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Realizing now how worried his poor mother must have been, Virgil Banker, lower right, says he and his three brothers all fought in the Korean War and returned home.

       Realizing now how worried his poor mother must have been, Virgil Banker, lower right, says he and his three brothers all fought in the Korean War and returned home.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Even though he was awarded The Commendation Ribbon With Pendant for meritorious service, Korean War veteran Virgil Banker jokes that "it costs me the same for a cup of coffee as it does you."

       Even though he was awarded The Commendation Ribbon With Pendant for meritorious service, Korean War veteran Virgil Banker jokes that "it costs me the same for a cup of coffee as it does you."
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Saying that Korean War veterans often get overlooked on Veterans Day, Virgil Banker tells war stories that could have come from World War II, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

       Saying that Korean War veterans often get overlooked on Veterans Day, Virgil Banker tells war stories that could have come from World War II, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.
    photos by Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Memories of a Korean War vet

 
 

Aging members of "The Greatest Generation," having stood up to evil while winning World War II, are in their final curtain call phase for this Veterans Day. The Vietnam veterans, overlooked for years because their war wasn't popular, now benefit from a belated but successful effort to recognize their sacrifices. Younger Americans, having grown up with news of battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, should recognize the efforts of our nation's fighting men and women involved in those wars. Are we forgetting anyone?

"Korea kind of slipped in between World War II and Vietnam," says Virgil Banker, an 84-year-old Korean War veteran who chuckles as he explains how he and his three late brothers who served with him in Korea grew used to being overlooked. "We didn't get any parades or anything like that. They talk about Korea by saying it's 'The Forgotten War.' Well, forget it."

But he's got memories, a few photographs, some paperwork and a couple of small boxes holding his medals.

"I've got two medals there," he says as he opens a box meant for one. "How about that?"

An Army sergeant with the 728th Military Police Battalion, Banker signed up for a three-year stint in 1948, shortly after he graduated from high school and the nation was at peace after World War II. His older brother, Chet, was a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and spent time as a prisoner of war.

"He figured it couldn't get much worse than that so he re-enlisted," Banker says. "We ended up in Korea."

The younger Banker served in Korea from Nov. 16 of 1950 until April 20 of 1952 because President Truman extended his service to meet the demands of the war.

"Coming from Wisconsin, we were used to cold winters," says Banker, who grew up in the town of Gotham, a farming community of 200 people about an hour west of Madison. "If we got too cold in Wisconsin, we'd go inside. But in Korea, you got cold, you couldn't go inside."

Most nights in Korea, Banker slept under the stars.

"If we were lucky, we had a tent, but most of the time, we were just on the ground," he says, explaining how he'd pick up rocks to make a smooth surface in the snow. "It was like Wisconsin. The temperature might drop to 10 degrees or zero or even 20-below. But it wasn't that cold because the sleeping bags were warm."

Having shared a bed with his three brothers at home, Banker shared his sleeping bag in Korea with his M1 rifle.

"You slept with your rifle so it wouldn't freeze up," he says. Even then he remembers one frigid day when his battalion shot the guns into the ground of a frozen rice paddy "to make sure the guns would fire," Banker says. "The ice was so thick the bullets would ricochet."

An angry British captain walked across the rice paddy and explained that his men would return fire if the Americans didn't stop sending bullets their way, Banker says.

The United Nations commanded troops from 16 nations during the war between North and South Korea, but U.S. military dominated the battlefield. About 5.7 million U.S. soldiers served during the Korean War, a million more than served during World War I. The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., notes that 54,260 American military personnel lost their lives during the war. While that is true, the Department of Defense later clarified those numbers, which were compiled worldwide, to show that 33,739 were killed in battle in Korea, another 2,835 died from other causes in Korea and 103,284 were wounded.

The Vietnam War resulted in more than 47,000 battlefield deaths, but that war lasted nine years.

"The daily slaughter in Korea was a lot higher than in Vietnam," says Banker, who says he saw death and heard gunshots almost every day. "It would let up, but you were never without constant fears of something going to happen with you."

Working as a mechanic under the command of his older brother, Chet, Banker remembers when a sniper gunned down a friend standing next to him.

"I ain't proud of this, but my first thought was, 'Better you than me,'" he says, adding that he was worried every day about his three brothers (Chet, Earl and Keith) and him dying in Korea. "It didn't occur to me what we were doing to my poor mother -- four of us at one time. I guess it made my mother feel better to know we were all together."

Just as World War II veterans can tell you that TV's "Hogan's Heroes" didn't tell the real story of their war experience, Banker says the only thing he recognized from the TV show "M*A*S*H" "was the word Korea." The blood, guts and violence of war often comes across in the movies, "but you cannot put the smell on the screen," Banker says. "In the winter, it was the weather. In the summer, it was the stench -- gun powder, dry rot, mold, human excrement, dead bodies. Of course, you did get used to that. What were you going to do?"

For Banker, the overwhelming memory involves the refugees from the villages and cities leveled by the war. They clogged the dirt roads, making travel slow.

"I'm not talking about two or three hundred or two or three thousand or tens of thousands. I'm talking about hundreds of thousands," Banker says. "All ages, all conditions. Little kids and the elderly were the toughest. There were just so many of them, through no fault of their own."

Their homes were reduced to rubble. Their caretakers might be dead. They didn't have water to clean their wounds.

"The biggest problem was getting food for them," Banker says. "We'd warm rations on the manifold of our truck. We'd share some C-rations with a 4-year-old kid, but that isn't what he wanted."

When he came home from the war, Banker married Jessie, who was a teenager in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, baby-sitting his older brother's son when Banker went to war.

"He was the best letter writer of the brothers," says Jessie Banker, who married Virgil Banker on March 13, 1954. When they had their first baby, Kathy, he was stationed in Austria and didn't get to see her until she was 2 months old. They had a son, Dale, and another daughter, Judy. Both daughters now live with them in Bolingbrook and help care for the aging couple, who have six granddaughters, five great-granddaughters and five great-grandsons.

After he left the Army, Banker worked as a truck driver and started Banker Cartage, hauling barrels for a chemical plant in Carol Stream. Jessie Banker worked in the office for machinery supply companies in Elk Grove Village and Schaumburg.

"Since I got out of the Army, I've had a pretty good life," Virgil Banker says.

Daughters Kathy and Judy say they want people to remember the sacrifices made by Korean War veterans.

"They came back and they were forgotten. Every conflict in any place we've been is as important as any war," says John Davin, 63, a state senior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. A supervisor for the United States Postal Service in Lisle, Davin enlisted in the Army in 1967 and served in a support group in Thailand during the Vietnam War and did two later tours in Korea during his 23-year career.

"What the Korean War veterans did is the same as what people went through in World War II, Vietnam or even Bosnia," Davin says.

Banker, whose family plans to sign him up for an Honor Flight trip to see the Korean War Monument in Washington, D.C., says he's just looking for a little appreciation for the people who served alongside him.

"I want a Korean War vet to be recognized for what he did," Banker says, "but that's all."

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