Wartime Korea: 'The coldest place I've been in my life'

American soldiers rest on a hillside during a cold winter somewhere in Korea late 1950-early 1951. The soldiers had little in the way of cold weather equipment for fighting in temperatures that often fell below freezing.


By CHARLES WARNER | The Union Daily Times, S.C. | Published: August 16, 2013

UNION, S.C. — One of the things Bobby Burkhalter Sr. remembers most about his service during the Korean War was the brutally cold weather and how it might have helped hasten the end of the fighting.

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

North Korea was supported by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics whose leader, Josef Stalin, had given North Korean leader Kim Il-sung permission to invade South Korea and the People’s Republic of China (Red China) whose leader, Mao Zedong, agreed to support the invasion.

The Soviet Union provided North Korea with material support throughout the war while Red China intervened militarily, sending in the People’s Volunteer Army to North Korea in October of 1950.

South Korea was supported by the United Nations under whose authorization more than 20 member nations, including the United States, sent in troops and/or provided material and other support. Nearly 90 percent of the 341,000 soldiers that fought in the war under United Nations authorization were from the United States.

Among the American soldiers deployed to Korea was Staff Sgt. Bobby Burkhalter Sr. of the 24th Infantry Division 19th Regiment of the U.S. Army. Burkhlater, a Whitmire native who now lives in Union, said that while he never actually saw combat against either the North Koreans or the Chinese, he was nevertheless injured by the brutal cold that affected troops on both sides of the war.

“After they signed the armistice I was ready to come home, I came back to the states in ‘54,” Burkhalter said. “I was so glad to leave that place. It was so cold. It’s a different kind of cold. If it got that cold over here we couldn’t stand it. Still my feet froze and I had to go to the infirmary for awhile.”

Even after he returned home, Burkhalter said he was still dealing the effects of the cold.

“When I came home, I couldn’t get out of bed,” Burkhalter said. “My wife would have to set my feet out of the bed. I couldn’t walk. People don’t believe it is that cold over there, but it is. That’s why they call it the ‘frozen Chosin.’ That’s the coldest place I’ve been in my life. It was a living hell.”

Just prior to the Chinese intervention, it appeared the war was all but over as United Nations forces had not only driven the North Koreans out of South Korea, but had driven into the north, occupying much of the country including its capital, Pyongyang.

The Chinese intervention drove United Nations forces back into the south, prolonging the war which degenerated into a stalemate that would last until 1953 and the signing of the armistice.

While the Chinese intervention prolonged the war, Burkhalter believes the fighting would have gone on even longer than it did had it not been for the cold weather and the unpreparedness of the PVA for that weather.

“I talked to the GIs who did most of the fighting and they told me there was a thousand Chinese for every one American by the end of the war,” Burkhalter said. “It wouldn’t have been over as soon as it was if it wasn’t for the cold. The Chinese didn’t have the clothing to keep warm and a lot of them froze to death.”

Burkhalter was deployed to Korea in 1952 and he said his unit’s first stop on their way there was in Japan where they made sure their weapons were in working order. The next stop was Inchon, where U.S. forces had successfully landed in 1950 and began pushing North Korean forces out of South Korea.

“We landed on Inchon beach,” Burkhalter said. “From there the other troops had pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. We picked up where the rest of the soldiers left off. They’d done most of the fighting. We did a lot of patrolling to make sure everything was right.”

Even though he didn’t see combat, Burkhalter got to see the enemy up close as his unit was soon deployed to guarding North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war.

“Then we were sent to Pusan,” Burkhalter said. “We had to start guarding prisoners of war. We did that until they signed the armistice.”

Burkhalter said the signing of the armistice changed the way he and his fellow soldiers had to guard the prisoners.

“We were not allowed to fire our weapons, not even one time, after that,” Burkhalter said. “When they tried to escape we could only use tear gas.”

The prisoners, however, were not as restrained in their behavior as their captors, especially when it came to any South Koreans they found among them.

Burkhalter said the North Koreans killed and mutilated the South Koreans they found in their midst and so effectively disposed of their remains that it was sometime before he and his fellows soldiers discovered what they were doing.

Burkhalter said the hatred of the North Koreans was returned by the South Koreans. He said he experienced this after the end of the fighting when he and his fellow soldiers were repatriating the prisoners to the north.

“When the armistice was signed we had to transport the North Korean and Chinese prisoners by train to the Manchurian border,” Burkhalter said. “The South Koreans were throwing rocks, bottles, anything they could find at the train. We were still not allowed to fire our weapons.”

Even though they were in close proximity to the prisoners, Burkhalter said the orders against live ammunition were still in effect.

“We could not carry loaded weapons on the train, we could only put our bayonets on our weapons and stand at the doorway,” Burkhalter said. “There was no lights in the train and we had to go through dark tunnels to get there.”

Burkhalter added that the trip brought him the unpleasant revelation that the only place colder than South Korea was North Korea.

After his experiences in Korea, Burkhalter said he literally kissed the ground when he got back to America.

Burkhalter remained in the Army until 1957, planning on making it a career, but said he decided to leave because his brothers were in the military and there was no one at home to take care of their parents. He went to work in the textile industry and remained there for the rest of his working life, retiring from the JP Stevens plant in Whitmire.

Now 81, Burkhalter has lived in Union for the past two years. He and his wife, Ellen, have seven children: Theresa, Bobby Jr., William, Patsy, Terry, Steven, and Sherry. They also have 18 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Looking back on his service in the Korean War, Burkhalter recalled a sign he saw on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco as he and his fellow soldiers were returning home. He said the message on the sign summed up the experience of him and his fellow soldiers perfectly: “Welcome home, you’ve spent your time in hell.”


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