Curiosity, reconciliation draw Western Pa. veterans to former battlefields
They were soldiers once, and young.
Carl King of Mt. Pleasant Borough was 18 when he joined the Army in 1943, during the height of World War II, and ended up following Patton across Europe.
Donald McIlrath of Penn Hills was 18 when he joined the Army in 1951 and left for Korea.
Bill Bigelow of Hempfield was 19 when he joined the Navy and shipped out for Vietnam in 1967.
Decades later, each man trekked back to the war zone where he served. Something persistent — in each case, slightly different — drew them halfway around the world to sites where they grew up in an instant, forever changed.
King, who returned to Germany last fall, and McIlrath, who flew into Seoul in 1998, said curiosity drew them back to the nations where they served as young men.
For Bigelow, the draw was different.
The towering Hempfield retiree with a shock of silver, close-cropped hair was 21 when he returned home, following two tours of duty as a gunner on boats that patrolled Vietnam's dangerous brown water rivers.
He had dodged bullets, manned a 40 mm gun, lost five close friends and seen things no teen should.
“The first day I started in training in Coronado, Calif., they told us, ‘If you live 10 days on the river, you're going to be lucky,'” he said. “I'm 6-(foot)-4. I'm a perfect target. They could have drawn a bull's-eye on my back, but I traveled on the Mekong all the way up to Cambodia.”
Back then, Bigelow wasn't high on the southeast Asian country.
“When I was 19, 20, I hated Vietnam,” he said, “the country, the people, the weather, kids, just everything.”
More than two decades later, a clown ministry his wife, Susan, developed drew Bigelow back.
At orphanages, she entertained children in her clown costume. Bigelow paraded about in a chicken costume, handing out candy.
The couple filled multiple passport books on more than a dozen trips to Southeast Asia between 1993 and 2004. Ultimately, they adopted a teenage girl from a Vietnamese orphanage.
Their daughter — SuzAnn Thuy, now 36, married and living in Texas — was a perfect foil to the Bigelows' three sons. Billy, 39; Bob, 38; and Corrie, 33, who all eventually traveled to Vietnam.
And each joined the military.
Bigelow said traveling to Vietnam, seeing his former enemies through new eyes, feeling his heart melt in orphanages, raising money for children in those facilities and bringing a daughter home was the beginning of a change.
The gospel instruction to “love your enemies” took on real meaning. Bigelow developed close friendships with former Vietcong officers.
His eyes teared up as he produced a photograph showing him towering over a former Vietcong general he is hugging.
“We're friends,” Bigelow said. “He was a vet. He fought the U.S., and I fought his countrymen. A lot of veterans hold that hatred. I couldn't do that anymore.”
Paulette Curtis, a Notre Dame professor who studies the anthropology of war, made multiple trips through Vietnam with veterans groups in the 1990s. For many, trips to now-peaceful battlefields are a way to revisit places in an historically informed way, she said.
“It is a way to re-engage with a part of their history,” Curtis said.
A South Korean welcome
Unlike Bigelow, McIlrath, 84, never came face to face with his former enemies when he and his wife, Romaine, traveled to South Korea in 1998 with a group of veterans.
North Korea is still a nation unto itself, isolated, at odds with the South and much of the rest of the world.
South Korea, on the other hand, buzzes with activity, competing on a world stage.
McIlrath wanted to see what had become of the countryside where he served in a four-man, heavy-tank unit during the winter of 1951-52, a time so bitter cold that the air broke the frame of his eyeglasses.
“When we were there, the whole country was more or less destroyed. Seoul was completely destroyed. Now Seoul has a better subway system than Pittsburgh,” McIlrath said, flipping through a photo album of the trip.
South Korea paid for a portion of the trip McIlrath made with a group that included his sister-in-law, who had lost a brother in the war. Tour organizers asked the vets to wear their caps and vests while on tour.
“Along the streets people would stop and thank you. They had two banquets for us — one with the president of South Korea and one with military leaders,” he said.
It was overwhelming for a veteran who had repeatedly heard Korea — a war that claimed 33,000 American lives, including 904 from Western Pennsylvania — referred to as a police action.
McIlrath served in Korea from September 1951 through August 1952 in the Army's 3rd Division, 15th Infantry heavy-tank company. He knew it was something far more.
King, now 92, said Berlin had been on his bucket list since 1945 — when his unit, the 9th Air Force, was halted at the Elbe River when Germany surrendered. They never reached Berlin.
He made arrangements online and traveled alone in October 2015.
King finally crossed the Elbe and toured Berlin, visiting the Brandenburg Gate and stopping by the site of Check Point Charlie. He capped off his trip with a return aboard the RMS Queen Mary 2 ocean liner — retracing his transatlantic homecoming in 1945, when he sailed into New York Harbor on his 21st birthday.
Like McIlrath and Bigelow, King has a cherished collection of memorabilia from his service.
A small room in his tidy Bridgeport home is awash in paintings, documents and models. His Eisenhower jacket is proudly displayed with the various ribbons from serving in the European Theater.
A photo album, full of black-and-white snapshots, displays images of some of the lifelong friends he made and still emails from time to time.
King first landed in Europe on July 1, 1944, about a month after the D-Day invasion, and spent much of the war in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
“When I left, I said I'd go back in 10 years. It took me a little longer,” he said, smiling.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.