Veterans Day: Williams man recalls Korean War

With escalating tension between a now nuclear North Korea and the United States, the often forgotten conflict between the two countries in the 1950s has resurfaced in the minds of many Americans.

Bob Alvernaz, 87, of Williams, however, never forgot the Korean War.

Alvernaz was among 5.7 million American troops sent between 1950 and 1953 to aid the southern Republic of Korea, after the army of the Soviet-backed People’s Republic of Korea from the north poured across the 38th parallel, following a series of skirmishes along the border between the two nations.

Unlike at the onset of World War II, where men enlisted in droves, the U.S. government immediately began to call up young men to counter the attack and protect the people of South Korea.

“Everything was done by draft in those days,” Alvernaz said.

The division between North and South Korea, which exists to present day, was the result of the Allied victory in World War II in 1945, which ended the Empire of Japan’s 35-year rule over the continent.

When negotiations between the Soviet Union, which occupied the north, and the United States, which occupied the south, failed to agree on the terms of Korean independence, two new ideologically opposite countries were established in 1948.

Just two years later, the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, when pro-communist North Korea sent 90,000 soldiers into pro-Western South Korea in a surprise attack, in an attempt to take the territory.

“The Chinese were also involved with the North Koreans,” said Alvernaz, referring to the People’s Volunteer Army of China, which was deployed to fight for the North.

Alvernaz, like most young men during times of conflict, served in the U.S. military with honor and pride, but that didn’t mean he wanted to join the Army. He had graduated from Los Gatos High School four years earlier and was busy at work in his family’s dairy business.

He was also engaged to be married, and had planned to start a family.

Although serving in the military is no easy task for any soldier, Alvernaz said he was fortunate not to have been sent into combat.

“I was lucky,” he said. “I was very lucky.”

When he was drafted in 1952, problems with his feet kept him out of the infantry, so he was sent to school to become a cook.

“When you go in, the Army knows everything about you,” Alvernaz said. “They even knew I played in the band in high school, even though I hadn’t blown a horn in months. I must have been pretty bad because they sent me to cook school. I guess if they know you’re a farmer, they think that must mean you can cook.”

As it turned out, Alvernaz made a fine cook, finishing at the top of his class, which allowed him to remain at Fort Ord for some of his service, and his choice of duty.

Eventually, he was deployed overseas as temporary duty to Korea, cooking on board a naval ship bound for Korea with some 5,500 men.

“It took us 14 days to get across,” Alvernaz said. “It was so hot down in the kitchens, even at 5 AM in the morning. The second you walked in you would start to sweat, and when you finished you would still be sweating the rest of the day and all of the night.”

Korea was far different, with temperatures sometimes reaching 34 degrees below zero.

When he arrived at the North Korean village of Panmunjom, the historic peace talks were already underway between the United Nations and the North Koreans in an attempt to end the fighting.

There he cooked for the soldiers, serving mostly turkey, which they raised and butchered in the camp, and liver, which he once served for seven straight days.

He recalled the day when an engineering regiment rolled into the village to build another bridge near where the historic exchange of POWs would take place, but the food truck for them had not arrived ahead of time.

Alvernaz said the Major came in and asked if he could feed another 70 more men. Alvernaz agreed, but knew they wouldn’t get a lot of food.

“We were down to just three turkeys,” he said.

Yet, he remembers the hungry men making no complaints for the meager meal, except for one lieutenant, who demanded a larger portion of turkey and refused to budge in line until he got it.

Alvernaz told him no, and holding his ground did not sit well with the officer.

“I probably should have been court-martialed, because we argued back and forth for quite a bit,” Alvernaz said. “He kept telling me ‘I want some more turkey,’ so finally, I said, ‘Why don’t you just step back and let me feed your men.’”

He also recalled taking coffee into the meeting between the communits and United Nation officials, led by Admiral John C. Daniel, the U.N.’s top peace negotiator.

“The admiral looked up at me with a big grin and said, ‘I don’t drink coffee,’” Alvernaz said.

Daniel is credited with putting together the armistice agreement that, with its signing in 1953, ended the war and resulted in the exchange of North Korean prisoners for Americans, British, and 15 other nationalities that had been held prisoner in the north.

Alvernaz was released from military service in 1954, and on the ship home, he did not have to cook.

“The corporals and the sergeants did all the cooking,” he said. “I was a Private First Class. I had just one stripe, and I was happy to give that stripe back when the war was over.”

In 2015, 62 years after the war’s end, Alvernaz received the Ambassador for Peace Medal from the Republic of Korea, the official name for South Korea, as an expression of appreciation from the Korean government for his service in the Korea War.

Alvernaz, who moved to Williams in 1960, is a member of the Maxwell American Legion Post 218.

More than 33,000 American soldiers died in battle during the Korean War.

As of June, more than 7,500 service members who were deployed to Korea still remain unaccounted for. Of the 781 remains recovered from North Korea between 1982 and 2016, only 410 have been identified through DNA.

On Oct. 30, 2017, the casket carrying the recently identified remains of Pfc. Walter Hackenberg returned home to Pennsylvania.

Hackenberg was declared dead in 1951 at the age of 22 while he was a prisoner of war in the Korean Peninsula, according to the Associated Press.

His burial, 66 years after his death, was held Thursday.