As 1953 came to a close, Newton resident Dwight Huggins looked to cap off a banner year: he’d recently graduated from college with a double-major in History and Physical Education and married the love of his life and high school sweetheart, Jacquie. Nothing could prepare him, though, for the adventure he would soon face across the Pacific Ocean after enlisting in the U.S. Army during the Korean war.
“I knew that I didn’t have a lot of time before I got drafted, and no one would give you a job because they knew you were going to get drafted soon,” Huggins said of the period following his graduation. “So I volunteered my name for the top of the list so I didn’t sit around for two or three months.”
Instead, Huggins enlisted in the 7th Infantry Division and headed to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. for basic training where he experienced the regimented discipline the armed forces are so renowned for.
“They rash you for a lot of reasons, and I knew it was going to happen, but I wasn’t prepared for the way some things went,” he said. “We got into Fort Leonard Wood and it was dark and the first thing they did was march you over and shave your head — mine never did grow out,” he added with a laugh.
“They get you your clothes and that’s when they start calling names to make sure they have everyone,” Huggins said. “They get to the H’s and they called Higgins and Hughes and I’m just standing there waiting for them to call my name. My name is Earl Dwight Huggins but I’ve never in my life gone by Earl, I’ve always gone by Dwight. Now, they call you by your first name so they called Earl Huggins, and they called it several times, and it dawned on me finally that that was me.”
“This guy comes back and gets in my face and literally called me every name in the book,” he laughs. “He said, ‘If you don’t know your own name, you’re going to have problems!’ but they’re supposed to do that.”
The second-eldest of 10 brothers, six of whom went on to join the service, Huggins had the advantage of his older brother Smoke serving in Korea before him, affording him some useful advice.
“My older brother who went to Korea first gave me all these tips about what to do, and one of them was to get a top bunk when you’re on the trip ship,” he explained. “I did and I soon found out why, because, boy, lots of guys got seasick real bad and they don’t get up, they just lean over and vomit and if you’re on the bottom bunk it’s bad.”
Arriving in Korea brought little relief, however, as conditions off the ship for Huggins and his division were equally nauseating.
“Everything was bombed out, so when the ship docked, what used to be the city is right there,” he explained. “There’s a lot of rice paddies in Korea, so the papa-sans (Korean elder) would go around to all the American companies with little two-wheel wagons and horses and empty the latrines and use it on their rice paddies ... the smell was overwhelming and terrible.”
Shortly after docking in Pusan on the southern tip of Korea, Huggins began work with a transportation unit in charge of organizing the army’s record books, a job he described as “a pretty good deal.”
“We were in a transportation company and, at that time, there was nothing on company books and eventually you have to put all those things on books,” he said. “We went from Pusan to Seoul on the only train in Korea and went to every company to start the process of getting everything back on the books.”
Once the process was complete, Huggins and company headed to the lines where they stayed for the next 11 months, braving cold, heat and tropical monsoons. Through all this, though, was the simple comfort in knowing that mail from home was on its way.
“Normally you’d know the time of day it was and there was a certain place you’d go and they’d have mail and they’d just call your name,” Huggins explained. “There were actually service guys who never got a letter the entire time they were there. It was nice to get a letter from home from anybody, no matter who it was.”
For Huggins, the “worst part of it all” was being apart from his bride so soon after being married.
“Korea was one of the places you couldn’t bring your wife,” he said. “If I had been stationed in Japan I could bring her over there, but not in Korea.”
Instead, they couple wrote letters back and forth to one another over the course of Huggins’ two years of active duty.
“You might not get it real soon, sometimes a letter could be two or three weeks old, but I eventually got all the letters,” he added. “Jacquie is probably the only one I corresponded with. “I spent this morning looking through a scrapbook she put together, and she has a photo of all the letters I wrote her and there are just stacks and stacks.”
It wouldn’t be until the 2011 Jasper County Freedom Flight, however, that Huggins would receive one final letter from Jacquie to complete his collection.
“We finished up everything on the plane coming home, and all the sudden we had mail call,” he said. “Doug (Bishop) did it just like they did in the service and none of us knew what he was doing for a bit until we realized he was passing out letters. There wasn’t anybody that didn’t get one.”
Of the letters that Huggins received, two were from his children, one from his wife and one each from a student at Berg Elementary and an older Newton resident.
“They were just nice letters basically thanking you for serving,” Huggins said, adding that the trip to D.C. comprised “two of the best days of (his) life.”
“Walking around all the memorials, we had Freedom Flight shirts on, and people by the hundreds came up to congratulate us,” he said. “It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”
Huggins took photos with both the Korean and Vietnam War memorials to pay tribute to his five brothers: Smoke, who served in Korea; Bill, who served in Germany; Tom, a “gung-ho Marine from the start” who died shortly after returning from Vietnam, and Max and Gary, both of whom also served during Vietnam.
“I’ve got my hand on the Korean wall for Smoke and I, and my hand on the Vietnam wall for my other three brothers,” he said. “When I was chosen for the Freedom Flight, I dedicated everything to my brothers.”
While experiencing the memorials in Washington D.C was a memorable and moving experience for Huggins, there’s one more trip he’d like to take, given the opportunity.
“I’ve always wanted to go back to Korea to see it now, because I read stories that Seoul is a big modern city just like the U.S.,” he said. “When we were there it was all bombed out, so I’d love to arrange a trip to go to Korea to see what it looks like.”
Nicole Wiegand can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.