A trip to remember: Korean veterans participate in Honor Flight
WORTHINGTON — Dayle von Holdt and Peter Gronewold were 21 years old when they each received draft papers from Uncle Sam, telling them to report for duty to aid in the war effort in Korea.
Von Holdt, a Round Lake native, was working for area farmers at the time, and Gronewold, of Worthington, was a painter. Both had dropped out of high school in the 10th grade.
Since they had gone to different schools and lived in different communities, they didn’t know each other until they reported for duty on the same day in 1952. They were also discharged on the same day — Memorial Day 1954. Today they reside in the same building at Worthington’s Okabena Towers.
Earlier this week, the veterans shared another experience — a trip to Washington, D.C., to view their Korean War Memorial through the nationwide Honor Flight program. The two had been accepted on a trip leaving from the St. Cloud Honor Flight hub after von Holdt’s son, Craig, encouraged them to apply. Craig, of Anchorage, Alaska, and his brother Rick, of Worthington, both applied and were selected as guardians to accompany the flight.
“I called the Regional Honor Flight Network and asked if any Minnesota hubs were taking Korean war vets,” said Craig von Holdt, who retired from the Air Force in 2006 after a 26-year career.
Both St. Cloud and Duluth were still offering Honor Flights free for veterans, and since St. Cloud was closer, the four sent their applications there. The Tuesday flight was the eighth trip from the St. Cloud hub.
A mandatory meeting for veterans and guardians was conducted in mid-March, and a banquet for all of the flight’s participants is planned May 20.
All together, 100 veterans and 62 guardians made the day-long trip, leaving from the St. Cloud airport just before 6 a.m. and returning shortly after 9 p.m. There were 45 World War II veterans and 55 Korean War veterans on the flight.
“We got a better welcome there (at the airport) than when we got home (from Korea),” said Gronewold with a smile. “I just couldn’t believe all of the people out there.”
Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., the group had a busy day, visiting the World War II, Korean, Vietnam, Marine Corps (Iwo Jima), Air Force and Navy memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, where they viewed the changing of the guard. They also traveled past the Lincoln and Washington memorials, the Pentagon and the rear of the White House.
“I didn’t get to shake hands with Obama,” Gronewold interjected.
While the Korean War veterans were impressed with the World War II Memorial and its pillars of states and water fountains, they were seemingly transported back in time when it came to viewing the memorial built in their honor.
The Korean Memorial, with its life-sized statues of soldiers representing different branches of the military, caused the men to pause.
“I had thought it would probably shake me up pretty bad, but it really didn’t,” Gronewold said. “I had a lot of thoughts.”
“It looked real natural,” added Dayle von Holdt.
Out of all the memorials, Rick von Holdt said the Korean Memorial was “something you could grasp” with life-sized soldiers and their different facial expressions.
“It’s 19 guys going up this hill and there are shadows of each of them in the water to equal 38 — all for the 38th parallel,” Gronewold explained. “They were walking in green stuff (grass). We hardly ever walked in green stuff — it was rocks.”
Gronewold served in the Army’s Third Division, 65th Regiment, a heavy mortar company. He said he had “hardly ever been out of Worthington” before he was drafted.
On his first day in the Army, Gronewold scrubbed garbage cans.
“I had a notion to go AWOL right there,” he shared.
Gronewold and von Holdt completed CBR (Chemical, Biological, Radiation) school together in Japan, and were separated after that. Gronewold was sent to Korea, and von Holdt had to complete a month of medics classes in Japan. He didn’t arrive in Korea until April 1, 1953 — nearly four months before the Armistice was signed marking the end to the war July 27.
While Gronewold was a “ground pounder” in the infantry, von Holdt spent his days handing out pills, working on the chow line on the weekends, lining urinals and toilets and putting out rat poison in the Army Artillery.
“I’d lay around the rest of the time,” von Holdt said. “Toward the end of the tour over there, then I got on the ambulance — then I really had it made.”
While von Holdt responded to some sick calls, there were only two “bad ones.” In one incident, a man had been run over by a truck. In the other case, a chimney fell on a man while he was polishing it.
“I never found out if either one made it,” von Holdt said. “That’s the only excitement I got. I was in two campaigns over there.”
Within six weeks of his service in-country, von Holdt was promoted to corporal by a doctor who “was real keen on promotions,” he said. After that, a new doctor came in and von Holdt was up for sergeant “seven or eight times.”
“He (the doctor) knew I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me either, so I never made it further,” he said. “That suited me just fine. I’d rather have something to do and put my time in.”
Neither Gronewold nor von Holdt knew where the other ended up once they landed in Korea.
Gronewold described his role in the war as “shooting those little bastards when they came out of the hole. When they came out of the hole, they came out like ants.”
Armed with a carbine and a .45, with mortars hauled via truck, Gronewold spent much of his time in the mountainous terrain.
“Every day was different,” he said of the war. “There were days where it was so quiet you couldn’t hear anything, and then all hell would break loose.”
Gronewold recalled one night when soldiers built up a bunker out of sandbags. He’d heard a scratching noise and figured it was a rat — they were as big as cats, he said — so he climbed out and shot the varmint.
“It cleared the bunker out,” he said with a laugh.
When the war ended, Gronewold walked away from nights spent in fox holes and makeshift bunkers for a roughly 10-month peacekeeping mission living inside tents with “decent” meals. Gone were the c-rations and “greasy beans and stuff.”
He ended his tour of duty with the Infantry Combat Badge — “That’s the one I’m most proud of” — and a couple of oak leaf clusters and a ribbon for completing two different campaigns.
“I should have had a Purple Heart, but I never got it,” he said, explaining that he suffered burns to his face after a piece of hot shell came into his bunker. “The medic wanted to take me to First Aid, but I didn’t want to go.”
Gronewold’s family has a lengthy history of service. His father was a World War I veteran, an older brother served in World War II and a younger brother served in Vietnam. His sister’s husband was killed in Leyte in World War II, and his wife’s brother was a Prisoner of War and survived the Bataan Death March.
When Gronewold and von Holdt returned from the war, there was no grand welcome home for them.
“Nobody even knew we was home, except our families,” he said.
They were overwhelmed to have so many people at the airports — both in St. Cloud and in Washington — when they participated in Tuesday’s Honor Flight. From the Patriot Guard to Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the general public, the veterans were cheered on, thanked for their service and received many hugs and kisses.
“It was an awful good trip,” summed up Gronewold.
“It was awesome,” added Craig von Holdt.
Gronewold and his wife, Rosie, raised six children, while von Holdt and his wife, Twyla, had five children.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.