The Korean War ended 60 years ago, but Johnstown resident Harris Stearns vividly remembers it today.
Stearns, a tank gunner in Korea, says he saw fellow soldiers killed in action. He also survived injury, capture and interrogation.
He doesn’t talk about the details of his experiences when he served in Korea for 11 months, but he said he believes the poor condition of tanks and other equipment made the GIs’ mission difficult there.
“The equipment was completely shot,” said Stearns, now 83. “It was worn out from World War II and had been sitting in storage, but they expected us to fight a war with it and we did.”
He said the rifles would jam and the tanks he operated would break down or overheat.
“You couldn’t even communicate from one tank to the next, and the fan belts would stretch out so they would overheat, and we ended up losing every one of them,” Stearns said.
Stearns and several other local residents who served in the armed forces during the Korean War offered their reflections on the war recently. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, which was fought from 1950 to 1953.
The Korean War was fought between forces of the United Nations and South Korea against communist North Korea and China. The war left Korea divided between North and South Korea, with the demilitarized zone splitting the two.
Washington referred to the war as a “police action” or a “conflict,” despite the fact the war took about 36,574 American lives, wounded another 103,284 and left 2,830 missing in action.
A cease-fire took effect June 27, 1953, but no peace treaty ever has been signed.
Fred DeMagistris, 81, was stationed at Okinawa Island in Japan during the Korean War.
The Gloversville resident says the little things that reminded him of home helped him get through the struggles of war.
“I was just ready to get out of there. I didn’t like being away from home,” DeMagistris recalled. “It was hot, buggy and we lived in tents on a nightly basis, so I was ready to get back home as soon as I could. I’m glad I don’t have to do it again.”
He enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 17 and went on to become an airman first class, specializing in communications while stationed on the island.
DeMagistris said care packages from loved ones and a little stray dog he found near the base gave him comfort.
The dog, which he and his fellow troops called “Twerpo,” was a companion in the tent when they weren’t in the field, although technically, pets weren’t permitted to be on the base.
He couldn’t recall the type of dog, but he said it was a small lap dog that was petite enough to keep under his bed at night.
“He was a little twerp of a dog, which is how we came to decide his name,” DeMagistris said. “He was a good dog, though. I kept him under my bed. We would just throw him little scraps to keep him quiet because dogs weren’t supposed to be on base, but he never made any noise to get us in trouble or anything.”
He said the companionship of a dog gave him and his mates the comfort and affection of home in the midst of war.
DeMagistris also recalled the care packages from home.
“They were a big deal,” DeMagistris said. “I really enjoyed the junk food, but anything I got from home boosted my morale.”
DeMagistris said the war sometimes is overlooked.
“We were still in a war culture when it happened, but it was just so far away and a smaller country, so it didn’t have the same pull as Europe or the world wars,” DeMagistris said.
‘Someone trying to kill you every night’
Stearns, a retired Johnstown firefighter and decorated Korean War veteran, has published two books based, in part, on his service. The most recent book is titled “Memories from the Forgotten War.” It expands on narrative from his first book, “A Tale from the Forgotten War,” which he published in 1993.
Stearns grew up on a farm in Rockwood. He entered the Army in 1948 and served for six years. He then spent three years with the National Guard based in Gloversville. Later, Stearns went on to serve in the Johnstown Fire Department, retiring in 1986 as an assistant chief. He later worked for a security company.
Stearns, who received numerous decorations for his service, said he believes he is one of only two men from his unit still living.
Stearns remembers the difficulties of the war.
“It was bad because you had someone trying to kill you every night,” Stearns said. “It was a lot of night fighting and it was hard to see who was shooting and where it was coming from.
“It wasn’t a very popular war, and after World War II, there wasn’t enough you could do for these people that served, but when we came home, you wouldn’t even know a war was going on,” Stearns recalled about coming back to the states after the war. “There wasn’t as much patriotism about it, which was really different from the other wars. I’d like to forget it all myself, so it never bothered me.”
James Stewart, 90, of Johns-
town served in both World War II and the Korean War as a captain in the Air Force. He was assigned to the rescue service to help others in the military.
“We would go get someone that was shot down or stranded,” Stewart recalled of his duties.
After World War II, he was stationed in Japan, but later was recalled to Korea once the conflict started there.
“It was a good time serving in both; we did a lot,” Stewart said about his time served.
Stewart wasn’t alone in feeling some of the conflicts such as Korea and others over recent history will never end.
“I believe if we are attacked, then we should defend ourselves,” Stearns said. “Why should we keep going around fighting these battles for other people or problems of other countries? Our military should be used for this country, not for the problems of other people.”
Warren Larter, 85, is a Korean War veteran and served as a typist in the Army for two years during the conflict.
The Johnstown resident said he felt lucky to be a typist rather than on the front lines like other veterans, but he still felt bad for the Korean people.
Larter’s wife, Carol, said she and her husband returned to Korea in 1978, and even then, the people were grateful, but still feared they would be invaded by the north again at any moment.
“I don’t think that is ever going to end,” Stewart said about the conflict in Korea.
Several of the veterans said they believe the United States became involved with Korea because of world politics rather than any immediate threat to our country which greatly differed from the world wars.
They said the South Korean people were very grateful and appreciative of the troops being there to help them.
Several of the veterans interviewed received a medal from the South Korean government given to them in appreciation for their service during the Korean War period.
Locally, there is a Korean War Veterans Memorial near the Montgomery County Office Building where a stone monument was erected on that site in 1989. It contains a plaque listing the names of local men who lost their lives in the Korean War.