Legionnaire of the Month
Our next featured Post 23 Member also happens to be someone who served in the “Forgotten War”. Frank Koens story begins on Dec. 21, 1931 in Luverne MN. Frank grew up on a farm near Beaver Creek and at the age of 5 his family moved to a farm near Sherman. He attended White Willow grade school and graduated from Garretson HS in 1951. After HS he farmed until Uncle Sam said “WE WANT YOU”. So in Feb. 1952 Frank was drafted and went to Camp Chaffee AR. After Basic he continued his AIT as a Fire Director in Field Artillery. Frank said “after graduation I boarded a troop ship in San Francisco and ended up in at a large Naval Base in Yokohama, Japan. We stayed in a huge barracks and each day I went to a bulletin board to see if my orders were posted. You didn’t know what you were doing or where you were going until it was posted. Our assignments were not always the same as our MOS and a lot of guys were assigned to infantry. On my 3rd day I found my name posted as a “radio operator”. So I boarded a ship from Japan to Korea. In Korea I took a train and eventually took a “duce and half” to a place called Smoke Valley. Here we got out and reported to a bunker where I was to replace someone who had accrued the required 36 points to get out.
Our bunker was about 12x20 and held 8 men. It was made of logs and dirt about 4 ft thick and had one small door and window. We were located about ½ mile from the 38th Parallel and could see the North Korean border. My job was basic communications and each bunker had a phone. When lines got knocked out we had to string and replace new lines to maintain communications. The only shower was at headquarters, so we didn’t have all the creature comforts of home. We did have a Korean houseboy, Popason, who did our laundry. We all liked Popason; he was about 40, spoke good English and had a family. We each paid him $3 a month and he served several bunkers so he was making very good wages.”
When I asked Frank about the hazards of combat or fears they had he said, “We didn’t talk about it, we were young and felt invincible. If we were ‘shelled’ more than 10 hours a month we received an extra $45 Combat Pay. I don’t ever recall a month that we didn’t earn that extra $45. But one incident made me realize we were ‘invincible’. My bunk was across from the one small window, shelling was coming in closer and closer to a deep ravine behind us. I said to myself--I better move and get away from my bunk and this window. Popason was next to me and did not move away. Not more than 10 seconds later a round exploded. I can still see Popason standing in front of me before he was hit and killed instantly. The explosion was deafening and shrapnel hit others in the bunker. My legs went numb. They took us down and patched everyone up. They never found anything wrong with me and said it was probably the loud concussion that caused my legs to go numb.
Frank was in that bunker for a year. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. “When we went anywhere, we used the ‘buddy system’—we never went out alone. If we drove anywhere for supplies we always had someone ‘ride shotgun’. We all got along really well and became good friend and someone we would trust our life with. Once in a while someone new would come in and couldn’t handle the shelling. They never lasted and were shipped out. One time I recalled seeing a new houseboy coming around. I never trusted him--he just looked too sharp and always inquisitive. We reported that up the chain of command and evidently after some investigation they determined he was a North Korean infiltrator. I never saw him again and always wondered what happened to him.
By Sept. of 53 Frank had advanced to Sgt. and accumulated over 36 points. I also spent some time assigned to what they called the “punch bowel area in Korea”. “I was sent back to Seattle on a troop carrier and was very surprised to see the ‘welcoming home crowd’ that had gathered to meet us. That was a good sight and one we appreciated. After 30 day leave back home I was sent to Ft. Lewis and in Nov was discharged on an ‘early out’. I still had to serve 6 or 8 years in the inactive reserves. One day I received an activation alert notice and went back for a physical. I passed the physical but never was called back to active duty. They must have had enough radio operators.”
After returning home Frank and Sharon Merkley were married on July 30, 1955 and raised 4 children. He farmed until the fall of 55. Then he worked for Don Vandersnick until the fall of 57. “After that I bought my own feed grinder and did that until 1964 when I had a heart attack. I couldn’t do that anymore so went to school for Appliance and Refrigeration. I worked for what is now Muhlanders. I worked there for 38 years and missed only two weeks work when I hurt my back.” After retiring in 2004 Frank has remained active in the Garretson Community. He has held about every job there is at Post 23 including Commander. Most recently he has been the squad leader for our Color Guard.
Frank concluded our interview by stating “I made a lot of good friends over there and I’ll never regret for one minute that I served. I was lucky but would not want to do it over again. Many were not as lucky as we lost over 32,000. The war or conflict was never won but finally ended with a cease fire.” (The Official Pentagon Report states there were total deaths of 54,260—which would include Popason and other casualties).
Frank, on behalf of the Garretson Community, we thank you for your service to our country and community. On behalf of Post 23 thanks for your 61 years of dedicated continuous membership and service to our Post.