My granddad, John Yates Jr., fought in the Korean War during September 1952 until the end of the war in July 1953. He was an enlisted soldier in the Army, assigned to the 7th Infantry Division. That’s about all I knew while growing up. He never talked to me about it but Grandmom told me a handful of times how brutal his experience was. Unfortunately, he died before I was old enough to ask him any questions.
A few weeks ago I found a stack of airmail letters wrapped in rubber bands stuffed inside an old green Nordstrom’s shopping bag amongst a bunch of dusty relics from my scattered past. Lo and behold they were all the letters my granddad wrote to his parents during his tour of duty.
I’ve only read a few so far, but I’m already blown away. In a matter of weeks, Granddad went from Camp Stoneman in San Francisco to catching a tan on the deck of a ship to even complaining about being bored when he first arrived in-country, to being thrust on the front lines of trench warfare with artillery blasting everywhere and extricating wounded and getting wounded himself. Things changed real quick.
I think these letters may be of historical significance and I want to share them. I’ve only read and transcribed the first ten – I’ll be sharing more letters as I go through the stack.
Granddad was an artist and the letters reflect that. His writing is descriptive and he’s a natural storyteller. He also included sketches with his letters. I’ll share a few scans of the sketches and letters and other artifacts.
After completing Basic Training and before shipping off to Korea, Granddad and Grandmom got married in San Francisco on August 14, 1952. His parents drove all the way out from Bellaire, Texas, to be there. Johnny was 22, Betty was 21. They’d been dating since high school. Here’s a picture from their wedding:
Granddad’s letters start a month later on September 12. I’ll let him tell the story from here.
SEPTEMBER 12, 1952
Sorry that you didn’t have a letter waiting for you [when] you got home. But I thought I would wait until I had some news.
I guess I will be leaving either the 16th, 18th or 20th. I will let you know as soon as I know.
I guess you had a pretty good time on the return trip. It sounds as if that Yosemite park was quite a place. I sure wish I could have seen it.
There hasn’t been much going on around here. I have been thru with my processing for some time and the only thing we do now is try to avoid details. I have one tonight starting from 6:30 PM to 4 AM tomorrow. I think it is called KP.
Nothing has happened about me being late as yet. I don’t believe anything will.
Well I had better say goodbye for now.
I love you both or should I say all three,
SEPTEMBER 18, 1952
And how’s everything this fine day? Doing fine I hope. I happen to be on KP at the present. It started at 3 AM and will finish at 6:30 PM. But they have about 50 fellows in here so there isn’t much one fellow can do. So every chance I get I jot down a few words – so don’t be surprised at the sound of this letter.
Well nothing has happened around here except for Joel’s and my excursion. I found out that California has 3 months deer season. That settles it, I am now going to live out here. I would be certain to get one out of three months.
I have [not] seen my name on any shipping lists yet but I plan to be seeing it very shortly.
Well, I had better get back to work. I’ll write some more when I get some more time.
Hi, well I haven’t got much time so I’ll just say that I love you and tell everyone hello for me. I’ll write when I have some news.
SEPTEMBER 18, 1952
I just received your letters and newspaper clippings. That flood must have really been something. It seems it could have come over a few months or so – so it would have been of some use. But I guess that’s the way things go.
Dad – your letter was real nice – of course – there is a better adjective to express it, but I understand the way you feel – cause I feel the same way. A person doesn’t realize how much he enjoys his home and everyone he loves until taken away. Then it’s like a ton of rocks hitting him.
And about church – well I don’t feel that you have let me down. Perhaps we weren’t regular goers but that doesn’t stop one from realizing that God is forever present. I hope that you realize how much I believe in God. I will let it go at that, but don’t feel that you let me down on that or any other account.
I am really glad that you feel the way you do about Betty. I wanted so much for you and Mother to love Betty. It means so much to me. As much as what you think of me.
Dad – about that convertible – well that can be much later to think about. And besides it will be a good while before Betty and I could afford it. It just happened to be in our pipe dreams. But I would like for you to pull a few strings when we are ready to buy a car. But like I say it will be quite a while yet.
I am now sitting out in a formation listening to a loudspeaker to see if my name is on a shipment list. Joel and Sell’s names are on the shipment for Friday, but I haven’t been on one as yet. I will phone as soon as I know.
This place is sure a dull one. We don’t do a thing except a bunch of details if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but everyone pulls KP because they just go down the barracks list. I had KP yesterday. So I guess I won’t catch it again until a couple of days. About the only thing I have been doing is reading, waiting in lines, and going to the USO shows.
Well Folks, I better close. It is beginning to get a little dark, and I am running out of paper and news. Tell everyone hello for me and tell Rusty and Pam I love them. Also tell my wife (doesn’t that sound strange) I love her too!
And to you two all my heart,
OCTOBER 3, 1952
Well, I’m almost there – Okinawa (that is). I guess we are around 1000 miles from there now.
I had a nice birthday yesterday while I was on KP. The thing that’s nice about that is I got to eat a lot.
It has been rather hot the last few days and the hole we sleep in has been pretty stuffy, so last night I spent my sleeping hours wrapped up in my overcoat on the deck. It was a cool and romantic night – with a big moon, the sound of waves slapping against the ship and the sky with just the right amount of clouds. Just everything right to dream about home.
Right now I’m sitting on the deck and getting a Pacific sun tan. Although I would have been very happy if I could have settled with a plain Galveston sunburn.
I am beginning to think that I could have made better time if they would have let me walk – this ship at times just seems to bop up an down like a cork and never moves.
For the last couple of days we have been watching flying fish in our spare time. They are queer little devils. They look exactly like those big grasshoppers you sometimes see in a cotton patch. But it is said that they really don’t fly – instead it is just a glide. Nevertheless they cover about 25-50 yards on every glide.
All total I have seen just two other ships out here. One of those was a carrier going to California. The other I haven’t any idea what it was because it was at night and we just could see the lights from it.
Nothing else has happened so I’ll start asking questions.
#1. How is everyone and what is happening at the home front?
Do you all get to see Betty very much and what does the apartment look like? Also, how did they get enough furnishings to fill in?
I sure am getting anxious to hear from you all. I am starving for some news. I guess you heard that I didn’t get to apply for an allotment while I was at Stoneman. That really made me mad. I hate to lose that much money. But I am happy because I believe we will do well in the savings department. That is if Betty can get by on what she makes. (Ha, it’s a good thing I married someone who could support me, ha.) But if all goes well we should be able to put the allotment check in the bank every month, which should be about $95 and I will get $50 plus overseas pay which should be around $30-40 – so all in all we should be able to save at least $140 and within 17 months we should have enough to buy that convertible. Of course I was figuring it would be between $1800 and $2000. Could I be close in that estimate, Dad? Just to be writing I’ll put in order the extras I would like to have so you can start from the bottom of the list and mark off the unnecessary ones in order to come to an agreeable figure.
So here goes.
By all means it must have a tan top (white) and all leather seats.
1. White sidewalls
5. Wheel rims
7. Direction lights
8. Backup lights
Now don’t think you would disappoint me if I couldn’t get all that. So like I said make it a comfortable price.
I cannot wait to get settled wherever it may be over here. But I want to start sending money home as quick as I can.
I sure wish I had kept my paints when I had them. I have really had plenty of time to do some portraits. I hope I can do somewhere I will be – just to make some mad money.
Oh ho, everyone just jumped up – there seems to be some land sighted. Yep – it looks like two islands but which two I have no idea. This is really something exciting – land at last. I know just how Columbus felt.
Well, dear people, I had better close for now – I love you two very much.
PS – The islands are part of Iwo Jima. Main island is 200 miles south.
PPS – Thanks very much for the wallet and the ten dollars – that came in handy. Thanks again.
OCTOBER 10, 1952
Well, I’m here at last. Camp Drake, that is. It is about 14 miles from Tokyo and 35 from Yokohama. We came into port about 3 PM Sunday at Yokohama port, a very large bay and harbor area. As we came in I saw about 200 Junks fishing I guess. They were anchored but still had their sails up. I couldn’t make much sense of that, but I’ve seen quite a lot that I couldn’t make sense of lately.
Dad, your letter was real interesting, I enjoyed it very much. I really want to thank you for writing so much, and yes I can read it. And Mom, I know you are thinking of me, so don’t feel bad telling me about the things you all are doing. I wish you would do more so you could tell me about it. The Houston party sounds as if it was a big time. I’m sure it was and I got a kick explaining it to the fellows and showing them the papers.
I didn’t get to do much fishing on the ship. I don’t believe the Navy believes in fishing – anyway they didn’t have any gear aboard.
When we got to Okinawa (the 5th) we were able to go on the beach for about 5 hours for a swim and some us picked up a few shells. I will send mine home as soon as I can. They are very unusual. Okinawa still has quite a bit of rusty equipment on the beaches and the pier was made partially of amphibious tanks sunk in the water. The water was very clear and with a great deal of salt in it, more so than the Gulf [of Mexico].
Our trip from Yokohama docks to Camp was quite interesting. The railroad cars are about half the size of ours, and very rough, It took us 3 hours to cover the 35 miles. We had to stop often to let the regular runs go through. We did most of our processing last night and had a talk this morning on Korea. I just came from Personnel. I finally made out Betty’s allotment. And now I am waiting to draw a personal rifle and go sight it in. I will write later on. Kiss each other for me and then give Betty one cause I love all of you more than you know.
OCTOBER 12, 1952
Well, what’s been going on at home?
Things have been poppy around here. Yesterday 24 enlisted men, myself and 5 officers were lucky enough to be picked to take a tour of different rebuilding plants here in Japan. Yesterday (Friday) about 7:30 AM, we started out in a bus driven by a Jap. I believe they are the only ones who can get around easily in a car. People are running all over the place.
Our first stop was a tank rebuilding plant which is run by the Army but employ Japanese labor. It is on the order of Brown & Roots plant. All of the tanks come from the USA and Korea. After completed, they are sent back to Korea. After a tour through that plant, we went to a motor rebuilding plant also ran the same way. I might add that they are set up on assembly line bases. Which at the beginning was unknown to the Japanese. Then we went to a wheel vehicle rebuilding plant which use to be a Zero airfield. Here they completely tear down trucks and Jeeps – clean, fix and paint every inch of it and they run through the assembly line. An average of one vehicle every 13 minutes come off the line. Every bit of the process is very complete and efficient. A final rundown and track test are held by GIs. The cast of a motor after rebuilding is approximately 15-30 dollars and complete truck around 1000 down. So you see why they give the work to the Japanese.
The tour took us from north of Tokyo to South of Yokohama. We got to see quite a bit of the living of the people on our way from place to place. I just can’t explain it all in a letter, but believe me it is different and you can certainly realize that you are in a foreign country. Oh yes, Dad, the majority of the tanks are Fords. I happen to make it a point to notice. Also they had quite a few of motors from Continental.
Well, to get down to the good news. I got my orders this afternoon, and it seems that I am not an infantryman. I have been attached to the 7th Infantry Regiment. We are leaving for the ship tomorrow morning about 5:30 AM. We have turned in a lot of our clothes such as khakis and jackets and the other stuff we won’t use. And we were issued more useful items. I think I will look more like a tank than a man. But I’ve got this whole thing figured out. When I see them coming, I’ll just jump up and holler “King’s X” – that way they won’t bother me.
Well folks, I had better turn in and get some shut eye. So remember I love you very much.
PS – Tell everyone hello and kiss the brats and Betty for me. There will be a few days between this letter and the ones that follow. Another boat trip. I’m beginning to think I joined the Navy.
OCTOBER 18, 1952
Well, how’s every little thing?
I wrote Betty a letter and tried to explain about the time between letters. So you can get together with the letters and maybe you can get more out of them. About everything I told Betty was tech. So, I thought I would try to explain more about the situation. I’ve got a good idea so you don’t have to worry. I am in a mortar section, which puts me back a good ways.
This country might be compared with that of the hilly and mountainous country of Virginia. The hills are about 10 degrees in angle. There are a lot of pine trees and brush and quite a bit of colors in the leaves. I have heard a number of pheasants. Wish I had a shotgun, I could go hunting them.
There are a lot of small rivers around here also.
We aren’t doing anything now. Just eating, playing cards and cleaning up our gear. We didn’t get to see much of Korea because we did most of our traveling at night and the day that we did travel there wasn’t much to see. Just small villages with little farms growing rice. Kids would run up to the train for cigarettes for papa and candy and food for themselves.
They also try to sell apples and beer or whiskey but it isn’t wise to try any of the stuff.
Well folks, I’ll say bye-bye for now but I’ll write again tomorrow. Remember I love you and tell Betty I love her very much and you can giver her a bunch of kisses for me.
OCTOBER 21, 1952
Well, it’s raining cats and dogs out and we are running around with helmets trying to catch it as it comes through our bunker. I have a few pans outside catching water so we can bathe in.
Well, nothing has happened around here. We are just on guard at night. Night before last five of us were in a little bunker all night We had a good vie of everything but it was just a little too open for weather. We were glad to get back in our own bunker and go to bed.
Yesterday we didn’t do anything but sleep and in the afternoon we worked over the steps that come up the hill. Today we slept late and we just finished dinner. I had lima beans and ham. I can think of a lot of other things I like better, especially when it is out of a can. But all in all this isn’t bad at all. In fact, a lot times you would call it fun. We do get a lot of laffs. At ourselves, that is. One of the fellows said, the other day, “He shot a rat that was in his bunker and the damn thing ran over to a pan of water, washed his head off and ran away. But no kidding – they do have rats around here that grow to be a pretty good size. Take the one I threw a rock at last night, all he did was turn around give me a dirty look and threw it back at me. I just hope they don’t find out that we have hand grenades.
Well, now – how about you telling me what happened at home. Do you get to see Betty very often? I wish I could! And how are the brats? Tell Rusty hello and give Pam a kiss for me. You can also give Betty one too. Just kiss everyone for me, that would be better.
Well, Mamasan and Papasan, I will say bye-bye for the time being.
OCTOBER 26, 1952
Well, how’s you all this fine Sunday?
Yesterday I finally received some mail from home. The first since I first landed in Japan. Dad, those magazines are real interesting. We don’t get much reading material around here. Maybe I could get someone to take my picture reading the McMillan’s magazine. He would probably get a big kick if he knew it was being enjoyed on the other side of the world in Korea.
That Coronado Spare Tire accessory looks sharp. It’s about time they came out with something like that. And this one is the best design that has come out (how much?).
The day before yesterday we moved from our hill to a bivouac area about 3 miles back. Then yesterday we went up to another hill and dug some implacements and came back for chow, but before we could eat we had to move up to another place and wait. But by the time I was asleep in the sack we moved back to the bivouac area.
Oh yes, night before last we (Libby, Bill and I) found us a good hole and made our bed (leaves and pine needles and sleeping bag). The night was beautiful, a million stars out and not a cloud in the sky.
But you can guess what happened. Yep, about 2 the next morning down comes the rain. So we pulled in our heads like a bunch of turtles and said, “Let it rain,” and zipped up our bags. No tent or anything and we didn’t get a drop on us. Those sleeping bags are worth their weight in gold. As warm as an electric blanket and as waterproof as a duck’s feathers. Of course we had to pour about an inch of water out of our boots, but if you build a fire in them they soon dry out. Some fun, huh?
It really is, but as far as I’m concerned the Chinese can have Korea, all I want is to be home. The hills are too steep here.
Well, my sweet parents, I had better get ready for chow Tell everyone hello and remember I love you.
PS – Those pictures are great (colored).
OCTOBER 31, 1952
I’m sending this letter to you so you could hear it first. I want you to read it and if you think anyone else should read it then you can give it to them, but if you think it will make Mother worry any don’t let her read it.
I got your large envelope with the Ford Times (Nov.) and other articles in it. You can send them anyway that is convenient to you.
Pop, you don’t know how nice it is to be alive (thank God) after those 15 hours up there on that no good outpost. But I’m glad I was there to see it. It is something I don’t want to forget.
Say, that spare tire accessory is really nice. You said that you had that car figured up, but you didn’t tell me the figure. I really enjoy your long letters – keep them coming. Oh yes, you have the invitation to kiss Betty for me again, but you keep it on the up & up huh? Ha.
Well, bye for now and don’t work too hard and tell all of your gang hello for me. You can tell Bass & Crosby to get a few extra ducks and drink a few extra beers for me.
PS – Don’t forget the picture of the new Fords!
OCTOBER 30, 1952
Dear Folks, Betty, Mom & Dad Mom2 & Dad2 and Everyone else,
Today I’m the most thankful guy in the world. The reason why I am telling you this is because it is all over and I’m back behind the lines and going into Division reserve (7th Division – not 7th Regiment).
I’ll start at the beginning, which was Oct. 27. That time we were back a few miles from the front line camped by an Artillery outfit. That day we went up on the line near a general’s bunker and dug positions for our someone’s Company. The main line was a good ways in front of us. We got a few rounds of Red artillery all day but nothing serious. We were joking about them then.
That evening we went back to our camp area for chow and sack time.
About 10 PM the guard woke us up and told us to hit a hole. Well, low and behold, Red artillery was flying over that hill like a swarm of bumble bees. But still nothing bad.
About 12 o’clock we moved out with just our bed rolls and weapons. At our rendezvous we were given hand grenades and ammo. 360 rounds I had (a lot of weight) also a bullet proof vest and about 4 or 5 hand grenades. When we were ready we started our walk toward an outpost which had been overrun by Reds. I don’t know what newspaper name it has tell you the truth I don’t care. About 2:30 we were at the main line and the outpost is about a 1/8 to 1/4 mile out front. It is on a hill (of course this place is nothing but hills and mountains) or mountain, we would call it back home, overlooking a valley. We moved out and stopped in a small ravine and waited about 30 minutes for further information. The hill at this time was occupied by A Company, without their equipment or anything. You could see fear all over their faces, quite a few wounded, about half to be exact, then we moved out and up the hill carrying our mortar and all the ammo for it we could hold. On the way up we passed more wounded being carried down (lucky it was dark – 3:00 AM – Oct. 28). There was one shallow trench, the only path and protection. Red artillery had the whole hill zeroed perfect And rounds kept us down in the trench most of the time on the way up. When we got up on top there was still bodies and wounded ours had left. One boy was laying face down in the trench asking us to be careful of his legs. They were both blown out of place. Another body was on the top of the trench beside him. We finally got a stretcher up and got the wounded ones down. All this time we were leaping in the trench praying our hearts out. It’s one thing to fight something, but it’s another when you can’t fight back – just pray. We didn’t have any trouble from Reds coming up – lucky they hadn’t come up while the hill wasn’t occupied. All the rest of the night artillery hit us and it seemed every time about two rounds hit another stretcher would have to go down the hill.
Finally dawn came and the hill was covered in fog about 6 bodies and no telling how many wounded went by that night. I was so thankful that I was able to see daylight. We couldn’t fight back, the only thing we could do was stay there and take it. All that day (28th) they hit us with artillery and mortars. I wished many a time I could melt into the ground. You can’t imagine what a feeling it is to think or know that the next minute you would be blown to bits. I wished at times I would just get wounded so I could go down.
We got one mortar set up in a hole but couldn’t fire it because our squad leader had the sights and he carried a wounded down the early part of the morning (4:00 AM) and never came back up, so we sat (Libby, Bill and I) in our hole filled with mortar shells and prayed to God that round wouldn’t come in. If it had I would have been home in no time. Every now and then the Captain would have us count off. First there was 100 men up there, now it was about 50. At different times the Artillery would get so bad that we would have to move back from the crest of the hill a ways. But then we would move up again to keep watch. The next count came to 38. Everyone was waiting for the Captain to tell us to pull out, but he had to wait for orders from Regiment. Finally about 6 PM (28th) he gave the order to start passing down equipment. We started passing rifles, (not ours – A Company) machine guns, flame throwers and grenades like mad, then three shells hit the trench and someone told us to pull out. But then someone else told us that there were some wounded who had to be carried down so we turned around and went back. Our two sergeants came down all shot up. One got hit twice in the rear end and legs and all up his arm and head, but he was still walking. We got the two stretcher cases off and then started passing equipment down again. One boy was above me throwing rifles & etc. down and I was passing them on. Then I turned once to pass a rifle and a blast came from behind me and came around me and I went flying down the trench on my face; my butt felt as if a ton of bricks and a million pieces of tiny splinters hit me. I knew it must have hit right on the boy behind me. I didn’t look back. I just got up and said I was hit and I started down the hill telling them to get the guy behind me. I could hear him screaming. After I got down a ways I realized I wasn’t hit as bad as I thought, so I picked up as much equipment as I could and went down. When that blast came there was only 27 men on the hill.
After I got down, my rear end was sore only in one small place so I waited for the others who were coming down at last. And right here is where I want to thank God for so much. And thank all of you for praying for me. I saw the boy that was hit by the blast. Well, I can’t explain what he looked like, but I wasn’t more than 5 feet from him. His left leg was completely blown off past his knee. The blast came from a bag of hand grenades he was passing to me, but it so happened that it was not past the turn in the trench where I was – I lacked a few inches of being in line (direct line) of the blast.
Some of the fellows said they weren’t going to write home and tell what happened to them. Well, I wish I could tell everyone in the whole country what some of these glory happy Colonels, who sit back behind the lines, will do for another medal or something that they were miles from. Also what American boys go through while the government can’t make up its mind over this Korean police action. And believe me, the fellows are thinking about just that when in a tight spot like we were.
Please don’t think I feel sorry for myself or want pity, like I said.
Thank you all for praying!
I love you all,
PS – Don’t let this worry you because I’m away from all of it now. And my rear turned out to have one little stitch on it. I was only hit by the blast. Nothing more.