Salute to Korean War veteran Dennis Thorson
By Robert Galbreath, [email protected]
divisiveness that tore the country apart during the Vietnam War. This is tragic, because the nearly two million men and women who served on the Korean Peninsula from 1950 to 1953 showed the same courage, strength and determination exhibited by soldiers in other wars.
Dennis Thorson of Pinedale served as a truck driver in the 69th Truck Battalion in Korea in 1953. Thorson did not see combat and he does not think of his story as “heroic.” Yet Thorson’s contribution to the war effort, like the war he fought in, deserves not to be forgotten.
Thorson and his battalion played a crucial role in the war effort by delivering food and supplies to troops. Thorson’s battalion was also used to evacuate troops from the front lines and his truck was the first leg in a soldier’s safe journey home to his family.
Thorson was finishing up a semester in college in 1953 when he decided to enlist. He was sent to train at Fort Ord near Monterey, Calif. Thorson worked as a bus driver to pay his way through college and had obtained a CDL before he enlisted. Few recruits had this valuable piece of paper, so Thorson was immediately placed in the transportation corps. He spent eight weeks in basic training and another eight weeks in driving school before he was shipped off to Korea.
Thorson’s battalion was stationed near the community of Uijeongbu, about 35 miles north of Seoul. The 69th Battalion consisted of five companies of light trucks the soldiers called a “deuce and a half.” The trucks were sturdy, Thorson said, but not immune to breaking down.
When Thorson and his unit arrived in Korea, they were tasked with driving to railheads to pick up food supplies and deliver them to all of the companies in the battalion spread across 20 miles.
The supply railheads were cosmopolitan places. The U.S. armed forces fought alongside allies from 21 different countries. Thorson recalls driving in convoys with soldiers from the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey. His unit also ate at mess halls with people from different nationalities.
“The food at the British mess halls was terrible,” Thorson said. The Turks had “interesting” table manners, he added. They would all stand politely and wait until everyone else was seated before seating themselves.
Greek units had a violent game they liked to play during downtime, Thorson recalls. They gathered in a circle and one soldier would punch another. If the soldier receiving the blow fell out of the circle, he was out. If the soldier managed to hold his ground, he got to pick another soldier to punch.
“Thankfully, they never invited the Americans to play,” Thorson said.
Winters in Korea were harsh and long. “The cold was terrible,” Thorson said. He remembered getting an assignment to put up signs in the dead of winter. The men had to burn a bonfire for three days to thaw the ground out enough to dig holes for the posts. Trucks were left running all night so the unit did not have to worry whether they would start in the morning.
The troops in Korea were well supplied, Thorson said. They had gloves, scarves and fully insulated boots he called “Mickey Mouse boots.” But the biting cold still managed to find some exposed skin.
Today, South Korea is an ultra-modern, wealthy nation that exports cars, technology and pop stars. But when Thorson served, the Korean Peninsula was impoverished after years of Japanese occupation and war.
Thorson’s unit used 50-gallon tanks to store food waste. Every evening, groups of 50 to 60 Korean women materialized to fight over the scraps. One night, a woman found a whole steak. Another woman rushed over, raised her bucket and smashed it down on the first woman’s head, “splitting her head open,” Thorson recalls. The injured woman was left there, lying unconscious by the others.
The Korean War never officially ended, but on July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed between all the nations involved. Thorson and his unit were assigned to drive deep into enemy territory, above the 38th parallel, now known as the Demilitarized Zone, to evacuate the 1st Marines and 21st Infantry from the front lines. The operation was massive.
‘We were playing hopscotch with the companies – rotating them out of the frontlines,” Thorson said. “I can’t even tell you how many trucks were involved – too many to count. A lot of the companies we evacuated were way above the 38th parallel.”
A sense of danger still pervaded.
“We were in a convoy one day when a plane flew over,” Thorson said. “We leapt out of the truck and all of us hit the dirt.”
Partway into his tour, Thorson fractured his foot when a 50-gallon fuel tank rolled over it. He was sent to the field hospital to recuperate. He got bored lying around and started to wander around headquarters. During a conversation with an officer, Thorson let slip that he was a good typist. Since he couldn’t drive a truck due to his banged-up foot, the officer sent Thorson to typing school at a base in Japan.
Thorson was reassigned as a typist at the headquarters of the 60th Light Truck Battalion. He was able to type 90 words per minute and worked 12-hour shifts typing up marching orders for trucks in addition to preparing news briefs.
Many years later, Thorson was finally recognized for his service. A delegation from South Korea traveled to Wyoming in 2017 to present Thorson and other Korean veterans with an “Ambassador for Peace” medal. The South Koreans recognized Thorson for “preserving our freedom and democracy.” Thorson also received medals from Gov. Matt Mead and Sen. John Barrasso for his service.