MARYSVILLE, Calif. — Ray Paustian didn't think he'd ever make it back to the states.
"When we got off the aircraft in Korea and I looked around, my first thought was, it was so devastating," he said. "I thought, I am never going home. I had just turned 18."
The 78-year-old Marysville resident served as a medic with the U.S. Air Force at the tail end of the Korean War. He left in September 1953; the Korean War armistice was signed that July. He was overseas for a little over a year, assigned to an ambulance.
At the time he visited a military recruiter, Paustian was 17, living on his family's farm in Bloomfield, Neb., and taking care of the property while his parents were on vacation. There was an opening for a departure date, and Paustian knew his parents would be home by then. Because of his age, an attorney signed off on the papers for him to join the military.
He came from basic training to then-Camp Beale in Yuba County, then left on the USS Gen. Edwin D. Patrick from San Francisco, en route to Japan.
"I sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge," he said. "It was over 20 days ... it was a long trip. In Japan they issued us our combat gear, then we flew to Korea on a C-47." Conflicts in Korea
The threat of coming under fire arrived quickly, on the very first night, while stationed at a small site north of Taegu, South Korea. Fortunately, Paustian and his roommates in the barracks weren't hurt. As the opposition took off in a plane, they left their mark on a nearby mountainside.
"They dropped napalm on the top of that mountain, burned it off," he said.
Young men pushed to the edge under the stress of war was a common scene.
"One day, we got a call, a guy down in one the barracks ... holding some guys in a corner with a rifle," he said.
The responding doctor noticed that the GI's magazine was in backward and was able to talk him down and remove the rifle from his hands.
"That guy's eyes were glassed over; he'd lost it," Paustian said. "It happened to several guys. The stress, sometimes, they'd get a Dear John letter and just go wild."
Paustian said what he experienced was nothing like what the troops before him saw. Still, the horrors of war preyed on Paustian and kept him awake at night.
"The last couple months, I had very deep feelings that my time was coming," he said. "But it didn't."
It was a stark difference from farm life in Nebraska, though a wartime coincidence brought his hometown back into focus. It was discovered that Paustian drove the ambulance carrying the body of Lt. Donald Case, another Bloomfield, Neb., resident, who died when his plane crashed into a mountain, also killing the South Koreans who were there.
"I went to high school with his younger brother," Paustian said.
Inside his Korean War scrapbook is a historic photo gem — a large black-and-white photo of actress Marilyn Monroe smiling as she walks through a crowd — a picture he shot himself.
"It's one-of-a-kind," he said of the Monroe shot, noting that Bob Hope and Terry Moore also came to visit during USO tours. "I enjoy taking pictures, I always have," Paustian said.
He shot the photo in early 1954, while Monroe was visiting for a USO show. Anytime a celebrity visited, Paustian said, the ambulance had to be up front in case of emergencies. Being the ambulance driver, Paustian said, he was close and "lucked out" getting the shot.
The medic captured everyday images of Korea like the buildings, farmers and children, along with wartime pictures of GIs in white T-shirts hanging out in the barracks, a bomber plane called the Sweet Sue, and his ambulance.
"I know I forged a lot of small rivers," he said with a laugh, looking at a picture of it going through water.
Arriving in the fall of 1954 to Seattle for a welcome home celebration "felt so good" Paustian said, as greeters embraced the returning troops.
Paustian continued his military service, serving at George Air Force Base near Victorville, Sandia Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., and Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. He retired in 1995 after working for 20 years for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and was also part of the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
He was married to wife Nancy Stephen, originally from Arboga, for 37 years before she passed away. They had six children, 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Paustian's name is engraved on a brick at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Carson City, Nev.