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Vern Mitchell reflects on his Korean War service

For Vern Mitchell, joining the military was not a choice, for he was drafted for the Korean War in 1950. He was a 20-year-old small-town boy who had barely been outside of his hometown. Leaving his home was a big deal.

“I was a farm boy,” Vern said. “Not too many people joined the Army back then, or the Navy that I know of. One of the things that sticks out in my mind about basic training was one time I had to get up at 4:30 in the morning. Me and one other guy go to the mess hall, sit down on a chair with over 100-pound bag of potatoes and peel ‘em all.”

He found out later that he did not have to serve since he was the only boy in his family. This led to him getting off the front lines.

“When they found out I was the only boy in the family, they pulled me off the front line,” Vern said. “So they sent me to what they call a P and A platoon. Now that was to distribute ammunition and a minor work on a road.”

Vern stood out compared to the other soldiers when it came to keeping his truck clean. He had a secret. In order to keep his truck clean, he gave locals cigarettes and candy for a car wash.

He quickly became popular. Vern gave a local kid medicine and provided locals with blankets. One child liked him so much that he wanted to come home with him.

While in basic training, Vern met a very decorated sergeant

“We had a Spanish first sergeant,” Vern said. “He had every possible decoration you could get. He told us plain out, ‘Whatever you do, I don’t care what you do, but don’t embarrass the United States Army,’ and he meant it.”

Not everyone who was in basic training made it. Vern recalled a sad incident in which a man went AWOL.

“He was drafted, like the rest of us, only he was from Chicago,” Vern said. “His wife called him and said she was pregnant, and she was having trouble, and he wanted to go home. They wouldn’t let him. He begged and begged and begged to go home. He went AWOL. I don’t know what happened to him.”

While in basic training, soldiers were given small pox vaccinations, and some experienced side effects from the vaccinations. Vern was one of those people. His company commander thought that Vern and some of his fellow soldiers were faking their conditions.

“Here comes the company commander,” Vern said. “He thought we were spoofing him, you know, we didn’t wanna go, but he found out different. “

Vern remembers an order that he was given that stuck out in his mind. One time a solider told him that a certain solider was not who he claimed to be. Someone told him make sure he does not do anything. To this day, Vern does not know if he was joking or was serious.

Another event that Vern remembers was about a soldier who slept with a billfold in a odd way. Vern found out why he slept with one.

“He had pictures here and pictures here,” Vern said with a gesture. “He opened it up to two different girls every night, and he said, ‘No body better take that billfold off my eyes.’ Somebody overheard him. They tried it and got their arm broke.”

After basic training, Vern was sent home for a short while. He was supposed to be at a bus stop at a certain date but missed it because of a snowstorm. He bought a newspaper that day and put it in his bag. Little did he know that it would save him from a world of trouble.

“So I got out there,” Vern said. “I was out there a few days. Finally my name come up over the intercom. I knew what they wanted. So I went in the barracks, got the newspaper out of my duffel bag and folded it up and put into my pocket. When I talked to the company commander, he said, ‘I understand you went AWOL.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if you wanna call it AWOL or not,’ ‘cause you had to talk with respect now. I said I was late. He said, ‘Do you have a reason?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ I just reached in my pocket and pulled out these pictures of this snowstorm in this newspaper, and he said, ‘That’s all I wanted.’”

While he was traveling to Korea, the crew ate a lot of oranges.

“The only ones of the deck where these merchant marines and all they had, they had a movie room where we could see movies, but they give us oranges every day.” Vern said. “Every day we had oranges and, of course, no place to put ‘em — only throw them on the floor. You never seen as many orange peelings in your life.”

Vern was in the service for 21 months. He made it to the rank of corporal, but he did not find out until after he was discharged. When he came home he worked on farms and a few odd jobs. Overall, he was happy to be back and is proud to have served his country.

Matthew Shepard can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 425 or via email at

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