Vets remember a brother

Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2002

Most of the six men who laid a wreath at the Archie Van Winkle memorial near the south end of South Franklin Street on Thursday didn't know him, but he's their brother.

Van Winkle, of Juneau, was one of more than 2,000 U.N. forces who fought at the battle of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.

Van Winkle was a Marine who earned the congressional Medal of Honor for valor at the Battle of Chosin. He received it in 1952 for leading his men as a staff sergeant into hand-to-hand combat at Chosin.

Some of the men who laid the wreath may not have known him, but they know what he went through.

The battle at Chosin Reservoir lasted in real time only two weeks. But to the men who saw their brothers break and pieces of their childhood scatter in drops on the blood-stained wasteland somewhere between Hell and home, it never ended.

"We were just kids," said Daniel Gogerty, who was 16 when he fought with Van Winkle at Chosin. "While my friends at home were worried about prom, I just worried if I'd live to see the next day."

The veterans are members of the international group "Men of Chosin," composed of the remaining survivors of the battle, which took place along a 70-mile dirt road from Su-dong, North Korea, to the Changjin Reservoir and lasted from Nov. 27 to Dec. 7, 1950.

Out of the 2,500 U.N. forces that started on the road, only 1,050 made it to the end.

Sub-zero temperatures, reaching at times to 50 below zero, andsneak attacks by the enemy created conditions that made Chosin one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. military history, historians have said.

"Cold, cold, cold," said Stanley Galewick, a Marine who fought at Chosin. "It was the damnedest thing. ... It was just godawful cold. Your weapons froze up, you had to keep the trucks running or they'd freeze up. It was so miserable.

"You'd have to sleep in a hole and you had a sleeping bag but you couldn't really get into it but up to (thigh level). You wouldn't dare go to sleep for fear you'd freeze. I never once took my boots off I was so damned afraid."

He said he remembered helping a Korean prisoner take his shoes off and seeing the man's toes come with them.

"There were men who would sweat because either you get excited or you just do and their sweat would freeze," Galewick said. "They would freeze in their own sweat and quit moving and they would die. They would just freeze to death."

Galewick said even the canned food rations froze, leaving very little to sustain them through the long days in battle.

"We lived on Tootsie Rolls," he said. "They were the only things that, even if they were frozen, we could kind of put them between our teeth. You'd get to chewing on them and they'd kind of soften up and that at least kept us going for a while."

But it was in an area that came to be known as "Hell Fire Valley," near the Chosin Plateau in North Korea, that Bob Holtzer remembers. He said 900 troops set out along the main supply route, attempting to reach the reservoir plateau. If they reached the end they could be warm again, he said, and maybe even be safe.

"There were 900 of us, and 15,000 of them (Chinese) lining either side of the road playing baseball with hand grenades," Holtzer said. "By the time we got to the end, there were only 300 of us left."

Two of these grenades found their mark with Holtzer.

"It felt like my flesh was being pulled from my skull and like someone was jamming gun powder in my throat," he said. "I knew I was in a lot of trouble."

The first grenade hit him on the left side of his body and blinded him.

"I felt for my rifle, but it was nothing but splinters, I could feel it," he said. "I started to panic I knew I had to scoot out of the ditch I was in."

As he did, a second grenade hit his leg and shoulder.

"I played dead," he said. "I wasn't about to let out a whimper. I felt the metal burning into my flesh. I felt like a little kid, I thought, 'No fair. You can't kill me again. I'm already dead.' "

That night one of his foxhole buddies saw Holtzer shaking, knew he was still alive, that there was still a chance, and dragged him across the firing lines to the endless rows of dead and wounded lying in frozen blood-ponds in the snow.

"God, get me out of here," Holtzer said he thought as he lay among the bodies. "I've often quoted that war has a stench that sticks to you. You can smell it. You can taste it and you can't wash it off. ... When you see one of your own die and you realize you could die too and that you're not invincible, it wakes you up."

Holtzer was treated eventually for his wounds. He lost an eye, but because of the cold, his blood froze, saving his limbs damaged by the grenades.

Those boys came out of the battle as men who went on to have lives and families, attempting to put the horrors of war behind them. It wasn't until they started seeing each other at reunions through the Men of Chosin that many of them spoke of what they had seen, Galewick said.

"We were kids," Holtzer said. "But at the same time we were marines sent to do a job, even if that meant dying, we were going to do it.

"We are brothers. Most of us didn't know it at the time, but there's a phrase that we say and it really sums up why we have this bond, 'Those who were there will never forget, while those who weren't, can never know.' "

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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