Frank O’Brien: Nine months of service

U.S. Army   Korean War   Lemont, IL   Flight date: 06/07/17

By Nancy Angel, Honor Flight Chicago Veteran Interview Volunteer

When Frank O’Brien was a young man, World War II had ended recently and jobs were plentiful in post-war Chicago. It was easy to get work and he worked a variety of short-term jobs. He remembers that in one year he had 11 different jobs. So, he wasn’t committed to a long-term job when, at 23 years old, he received the letter drafting him into the United States Army. One of his buddies in the neighborhood was drafted at the same time, so they went together to the draft hall downtown and joined the Army in November of 1951.

He was sent to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky for Basic Training, which consisted of 16 weeks of primarily physical fitness and combat training. There was also training in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, during which they learned the seriousness and importance of discipline, following orders and appropriate conduct for members of the military. During the last two weeks, the training was more intense, including using live ammo. One of the exercises involved getting into a barrel which was buried underground and having tanks drive over you.

After Basic Training, Frank had a 15-day furlough in Chicago, then headed to Fort Lewis in Washington where he shipped out to Yokohama, Japan. It was a long, slow 14-day trip. The weather was very warm and it was hot and uncomfortable down below, so sometimes he made himself a bed on the coiled ropes and slept on the deck. Their route took them past the Aleutian Islands, where they were treated to the sight of a large group of whales swimming and playing in the water. Because this wasn’t a common sight, the ship’s captain was very excited and encouraged all the men to come up on deck to see the whales. He recalls that when they pulled into Yokohama Harbor, the song “Harbor Lights” was being played over the loudspeakers.

From there they went to Camp Drake outside Tokyo where they received their assignments. Frank was sent to a trade school in Etajima, Japan. He was at the trade school for about 6 weeks, learning about how to maintain tanks and adjust their tracks. His MOS was tank mechanic. He remembers that while he was at the trade school, there was a sunken ship off the coast of the island. There were cranes disassembling the ship and the metal was being salvaged and brought into shore. It was rumored that it was the Japanese ship that American hero Colin Kelly had damaged in World War II before his plane blew up. The trade school was not far from Hiroshima. One day, there was a tour offered to go see the aftermath of the atomic bombing. Frank was ill that day, so he missed the tour. Now that he knows more about radioactivity, he’s not sorry he was under the weather that day.

Following the trade school to prepare him for being a tank mechanic, he took a ferry boat to Pusan, Korea and then a train up north where he received his assignment to the 2nd Division, 72nd tank battalion, Indian Head. He was taken by truck to their camp at a remote location north of the 38th parallel off the east coast. It was in an area thought to be a possible route for a future offensive by the Chinese. His unit oversaw maintaining a large motor pool in support of the South Korean army division 8ROK (Republic of Korea). The motor pool included at least 15 tanks, along with many jeeps and other vehicles. They experienced an extremely cold winter while there, during which they ran out of anti-freeze for the vehicles. To keep the tanks and other vehicles operational in the absence of anti-freeze, they had to run the motors every four hours. Each vehicle was assigned to a specific person who was responsible for ensuring that it was started and kept running on schedule. Between keeping the motors running and taking shifts at guard duty, the men didn’t get much sleep.

In addition to guarding the perimeter of their own camp, they were sometimes assigned to help guard 8ROK’s prisoners of war. When on guard duty, the shifts were 2 hours on and 4 hours off. Frank remembers that there were large gasoline drums in the camp. The drums would absorb heat during the day and, as they cooled down at night, there would be popping sounds. The popping made it sound like there was someone moving among the drums, which was unnerving on those first guard shifts until he became familiar with this sound and realized what it was.

The sleeping accommodations in the camp were tents with cots. Their sleeping bags did a pretty good job of keeping them warm at night, but they also made stoves out of the tanks from old non-operational jeeps to keep their tents warm. Frank recalls that, even though it was cold, they were usually so tired that they had no trouble falling asleep when they got the chance to lie down. Of course, the men were not the only ones trying to escape the cold; often field mice would come into their tents and even into their sleeping bags. Periodically, a portable shower unit with hot showers was brought into the camp and everyone had a chance to take a hot shower. There was very little in the way of entertainment or diversion. The location was remote and not near any towns or villages. Frank found reading to be one of the only things to do during down time. One time a movie and a projector were brought in and they saw “The Secret of Convict Lake” with Glenn Ford.

Although they were not in combat, they were not far from the combat zone and it was a stressful environment. They could hear mortar fire regularly. One night, Frank recalls, mortar shells came very close to the camp. At other times, small planes with the mufflers removed (to make the engine noise was very loud) would fly low over the camp in the middle of the night, just to create a disturbance. During Frank’s time there, the camp had to change locations. It took them a day and a half to move their caravan of 60 vehicles to the new location where they had to set up the camp again. Along the way, some vehicles broke down and needed to be repaired. Everyone was nervous traveling out in the open.

In the middle of his 9-month assignment, Frank was granted 5 days R and R, and took the Saturday flight to Tokyo to enjoy his time. As his plane was coming in to land in Tokyo, they could see a large charred area on the runway. They learned upon landing that the Friday transport, just the day before, had crashed, killing 129 men.

After 9 months at the camp in Korea, Frank had earned enough points to be discharged. So, he took the train and the ferry back to Japan, then sailed on the USS Patrick from Japan back to San Francisco. There he was offered incentives such as an increase in pay and an increase in rank to re-enlist, but he declined and went on to Fort Sheridan in Illinois. There he separated from the Army and took the train home to Chicago.

During the first couple of years out of the Army, he worked a variety of jobs, including a summer as a deck hand on the Great Lakes. He also played competitive softball in the neighborhoods of Chicago. Eventually he began working for Commonwealth Edison where he remained for 39 years. He has been married to his wife Pat for 55 years, and they have three children and four grandchildren.

Thank you, Frank, for your service and sacrifice during the Korean War. Enjoy your well-deserved day of honor in Washington, D.C.