Why They Call it “The Forgotten War” – Make Peace or Die Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from Make Peace or Die, a Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares. In it, my father relates his memories of recovery from his wound in a Navy Hospital and talks about why we call Korea “The Forgotten War.”

BETHESDA

1951–1952

“When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
“Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
“When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

—“Sick Leave,” Siegfried Sassoon

People talk about the “Forgotten War” as if future generations of students and textbook authors didn’t do their job. But the fact is few at home were thinking about Korea even when we were in it. The year 1951 was a year of wonderful distraction in America: I Love Lucy premiered and The Catcher in the Rye was published. There was a new Chevy on the market. There was no home front. The Greatest Generation, who had put their lives and comfort on hold to fight the last war, were buying suburban homes with G.I. loans and starting families in the most comfortable era in American history. Unemployment was 3.3 percent. There was no antiwar movement like there would be in the next war. Then, as now, few Americans could find Korea on the map. Today, most Americans don’t know that there’s never been an official armistice and that the Korean War is technically still going on as of this writing.

The complacency and indifference at home became clear to me on one of my first trips out of the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I’d been given a pass to spend the night away. Mary and I stayed at the Tidewater Inn in beautiful Southern Virginia. In the bar at the Inn, some locals noticed my sling and cast and assumed I was the gentleman whose boating accident they’d read about in the local paper. I had to ask them to repeat the question. I suddenly didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t imagine pleasure boating mishaps any more than they could picture the circumstances of my wound. Before dinner, the house band played “Dixie” and everybody stood. I remained seated and breathed hard. Despite Mary holding my trembling right hand, I felt completely alone. I thought about Cowart and Ables, Rocky and Ivens, and longed to be with them, if not joining their ranks in death, at least back in the dirt cracking sick jokes and feeling like my work mattered. That feeling would return for a very long time. It’s only recently, looking back with the perspective that comes from a lifetime of dwelling on the personal cost of “the game,” as my slain Uncle Charlie called it, that I no longer wish to be back there with them but wish they could be here with me instead.

I was rated 40 percent disabled for my semi-useless arm according to a Veterans Administration chart that compensates one leg

at one rate, two legs at another, and another for loss of sight or for one or both of “the brains” or a “three-piece set.”

MASH field hospital korean war batalion aid station
Navy Doctors and Corpsmen perform emergency surgery on wounded Marines in a Battalion Aid Station field hospital during the Korean War (Photo/ Department of Defense.)

My therapy started when the seepage stopped. For a while, the closest thing I had to exercise was putting my arm in a warm whirlpool for hours. That wasn’t pleasant, but not totally unpleasant. Eventually, my prognosis turned around and there were no more jokes about waiting for the arm to fall off. The Navy doctors were able to fuse the two bones in my forearm, the radius and ulna, into a one-bone forearm, resulting in an arm that can no longer pronate (twist). Progress was slow. Finger exercises were frustrating. For a while, I was motivated by the relief of knowing I could keep the limb. The reconstruction left my arm much more fragile than if I had both bones. With each fracture came the dread that I may be starting from square one with therapy. The bullet damaged the ulnar nerve, leaving me with a permanent “funny bone” feeling and an arm that’s sensitive and somewhat painful when touched from the elbow down. Since then, I have worn my watch on my right wrist. Protecting the arm and holding it close and in front like it’s in a sling has twisted my spine slightly over time. So today I use a walking stick when I feel I’m listing too far over. The official report describes it like this:

“Malunion left forearm, incomplete paralysis of musculospiral nerve, limitation of flexion, limitation of extension hand, limited loss of pronation and supination.”

While I was still in the hospital, my father insisted that I get the opinion of a civilian specialist to see if there was anything more that could be done. The specialist told me it was a miracle the Navy docs had been able to save my arm. I was grateful for that, but what bothered me at the time was that I couldn’t hold Michael properly. On one of my early trips home, I was walking around our tiny apartment with him. I tripped trying to close a door with my foot. Rather than drop Michael, I fell on my arm. The docs set my broken arm, and the healing started over.

One brilliant thing military hospitals do is put every patient in contact and close quarters with fellow wounded, many of whom are maimed in ways that make you thankful for your own condition. As much as my hydrotherapy tickled, I could never compare my discomfort to the tortured grit of fellows with missing limbs trying to run, walk, or swim again. So what if I couldn’t hold Michael properly? Some other Marines couldn’t ever have kids. I saw one badly disfigured lieutenant hold a mirror to inspect the results of multiple plastic surgeries, the way you would in a barber’s chair. With despair in his voice, he pleaded with the doctors, “This is all you can do for me?”

John C. Fryer, whom I met in therapy, had lost a leg along with most of his hands to a Chinese grenade.

He had asked the man who found him, a Mexican American private, to leave him and save himself. The Latino kid pulled a crucifix out from around his neck. “I will never leave you,” he vowed.

Before the war, Fryer had been a fisherman in Alaska, ironically America’s most dangerous job. When he returned from a long trip, a buddy met him on the dock and said, “Hey, John, let’s go to war.”

“What war?” Fryer asked.

While we were in Bethesda, I asked Fryer what he would do if that buddy had asked him to go back to war, knowing exactly what would happen. Without hesitation, he said he would go.

The first time Fryer was up and walking on his prosthetic leg, Mary and I had him over for dinner. When Mary saw him off his crutches she exclaimed, “John, you’re so tall!”

He smiled and stood even taller.

Fryer had dreamed of being a forest ranger after the war. I’ve always hoped he made that happen with one leg.

***

The last thing I heard Bob Aylmer say, when Gunther Dohse and I rescued him from that rice paddy, was, “I’m okay.” Bob was okay in the end. We met again on the same medical transport flight back to DC. He was a mess, bandages everywhere, but alive. The night we landed, a young girl named Helen had called the Navy asking about Aylmer. She was his high school sweetheart, and they were engaged to be married. She was told she couldn’t see him that night but could visit the next day. She and her parents went to the hospital for a bedside reunion. Bob told her that his eye just needed resting and that he’d soon be patched up, good as new. Then he asked Helen for a moment alone with her parents. Aylmer leveled with them about his true condition. In despair over his prognosis, he said that Helen better move on and find somebody else to marry.

Helen soon got the truth from a local paper announcing Bob’s return after losing an eye in Korea. She was furious.

“You’re not marrying my parents,” she told him, “you’re marrying me. Anything you can say to them, you can say to me. I can handle it, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Bob didn’t have any family of his own besides a stepmother who came to the hospital once or twice and never returned, too upset by the sight of him. Helen, on the other hand, was back at his bedside the next day, and the day after that, and every day for many months until he was well enough to be discharged, half-blind and unable to walk without pain.

During my time with Bob at Bethesda, I watched men less wounded than him give up to lives of disability checks and self-pity. They didn’t have Helen, though. Thanks in no small part to her love, Bob always had enough encouragement to go around.

“Lieutenant Daly,”—for the rest of his days I would try to get him to drop that “Lieutenant” routine—“maybe you can’t move those fingers. So what? I saw you hold your baby, that’s pretty good. How about I lend you my glass eye so you can roll it around and exercise those fingers?”

His unending drive to rebuild his body shamed and inspired me never to moan about my arm.

A decade passed. In 1962, I was working in the White House when the guard at the Northwest Gate called my office and asked if I knew a man named Bob Aylmer. “He says you saved his life.”

“That’s not true. He saved his own, but send him in.”

We caught up. He was working full time in the State Department and walking the halls, as a messenger, in spite of his shattered knee.

“Lieutenant, I got married.” “That’s great, who’d you marry?”

“Who do you think I married?”

Besides being the center of Navy medicine, Bethesda was my hometown. At Sunday family dinners, it could feel like I had never left. But there were times when their worry and pity was all too transparent. A tough moment came when my dad visited the hospital. His own memories must have been welling up as he watched a nurse change the dressing on my arm. At my family’s home one afternoon, I was napping on the couch following a big lunch. Ann, the ever-doting, much-beloved sister, watched me sleep. She remembers feeling overjoyed her brother was home safe. She went to plant a kiss on my forehead, and the next thing she knew, my fist swung past her head. I was waking up in Korea.

On May 31, 1952, First Lieutenant Charles U. Daly was retired from the United States Marine Corps, as confirmed by these excerpts from the Marine Commandant’s letter:

Your disability is permanently related at 40 percent.

I regret that physical conditions necessitate your separation from the active list and wish you many years of happiness and prosperity.

It was time for me to try living a normal life.


Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196