A vet’s experience in our ‘Forgotten War’

Bill Arkell served as a Navy Corpsman in the Korean War from 1952-1953.

Pendleton native Bill Arkell said he figured the difference between him being alive or dead in the Korean War came down to five seconds.

Arkell, now 82, served as a Navy Corpsman in the Korean War from 1952-53 in Able Company, 1st Tank Battalion under the command of the 1st Marine Division. His job was to bandage wounded Marines, shoot them full of morphine and try to them out of there. So he routinely rode inside tanks.

“We were out practically every day in a firing mission,” Arkell said.

Tanks operated in three groups, Arkell explained, with the forward group on the line fighting, forward reserves ready to replace the line and reserves in the hole, perhaps under repair or getting supplies.

Arkell recalled one of his most vivid memories of his time in country. He was in a tank heading to the line. The crew chatted for a moment with another coming back, and Arkell said those Marines reported the valley ahead was hot with enemies.

Seeing out of the tanks was difficult, Arkell said, so crews kept hatches “unbuttoned.” As they creeped closer, Arkell said, one man asked Arkell, “Doc, should we button ’er up?”

Arkell said he poked his head out of the hatch, grabbed it and pulled. Just as the hatch closed, the first round hit.

“I came within five seconds of being safe or getting my head blown right off my shoulders,” Arkell said.

Enemy fire erupted from both sides of the valley, the tank in the middle.

“We had so many rounds coming in we couldn’t see what was going on,” Arkell said.

Maybe 40 rounds struck the tank directly, he said, and each time one hit, the inside of the metal monster rang like it was hit with a sledge hammer.

The longer they stayed, Arkell said, the more the men inside had the same thought: What if the enemy fires something bigger?

“The tension — you could feel it inside the tank,” Arkell recalled. “We finally backed off the position.”

The tank crew headed to safety as fast as the machine could roll, Arkell said, and the commanding officer raced down in a jeep to to meet them. He reported that from his vantage point, there was so much enemy fire and dust, he could not see the tank once it was in the valley.

“I thought you guys were goners,” he told Arkell and the tank crew.

In the U.S., the Korean War has been called “The Forgotten War,” coming after World War II and before Vietnam. Arkell said he felt that. When he returned from war, he said, no one gave recognition of any sort, either good or ill.

Still, Arkell said he wouldn't trade his experiences for a million dollars. Nor, he said, would he take that money to do them again.

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