William "Bill" Bernhardt is a native of Laurel. He grew up on a farm with three brothers. He was drafted into the Army, even though he was married. He served in Korea in a combat zone. This is a lightly edited portion of his interview. For the complete video interview, please go to billingsgazette.com
Bernhardt: My father had three boys, one was a year-and-a-half older than me, and one was a year-and-a-half younger than me. I was right in the middle. We were all 1A and the draft was going on then.
Gazette: What year was that?
Bernhardt: That was 1950. We were just sitting there with farm deferments. I was farming. Two of us, my older brother and I had been to Butte and we were all 1A, physically fit. This went on for two or three years. We got married on Aug. 4. You had to go down to the draft board and let them know about the change in marital status. So, we went Aug. 4, we went a couple of days and honeymooned through the park. On Aug. 6, I went down to the draft board. I was still 1A, and my brothers, too. They were both still single. I reported I got married, and I got a notice to leave the 6th of September, one month later.
Gazette: You were farming and married and they still took you?
Bernhardt: There was a reason for that. Well, they picked me out of there because I got married. If your wife was pregnant, you were excused and deferred. That wasn't the case, so they took me. I think they had maybe had plans of getting one of the other in the future if they messed up.
Gazette: You thought because you were married and farming that you would not be drafted?
Bernhardt: That didn't enter my mind at all. I had no idea that they'd pick me out of the middle.
Gazette: Do you remember getting that notice?
Bernhardt: It was a shock. Absolutely. I had just got married and had a new wife.
Gazette: How old were you at the time?
Bernhardt: I was 21.
Gazette: So you were thinking, "I am 21, just married and I am going to farm for the rest of my life?"
Bernhardt: My dad, we had farm deferments. He got it deferred for three months. I was hoping that maybe (Korea) would be over by then. But, we got through the harvest season. After I had left, 6th of December for the Army. It was a short time that I was in Korea. I did basic training down in Camp Roberts, California. (My wife) came down there to visit me around Christmas and I came home for a 10-day leave. We came home together. Then I left and I was on my way to Korea right away.
Gazette: Were you aware that Korea was going on?
Bernhardt: Oh yeah. This was the second winter of the Korean War. That was the really devastating one where they just beat the heck out of mostly the Marines. I got over there in short order. They even flew us over.
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Gazette: They got over there quickly, but most of the troops got over there by ship. They must have needed replacements?
Bernhardt: That was my first airplane ride. It was a 36-hour flight. Three 12-hour hops. The first 12 hours was to Hawaii, the second 12 hours was to Wake Island, and during World War II there was a lot of fighting on Wake Island and there were a lot of old rusted out gun embankments across that island. When you come in for landing, you see that island from one end to the other. There was just a landing strip and a plane refueling place. The third 12 hours was Tokyo.
Gazette: What did you think of your first airplane ride?
Bernhardt: I was scared stiff. They were not jets, there were four-engine prop planes. They were big commercial airline planes. There was only about a half dozen soldiers on them.
Gazette: What was your training to do in the Army?
Bernhardt: I was fortunate enough to get in the heavy weapons company, which was one step up from a foot soldier. We had vehicles and machine guns, mortars. Anyway, that's the reason I can't hear today. We didn't have any ear protection. We had these big 80-mm mortars that set on a platform and sat like a stovepipe. You'd put a shell in them like a bowling pin, a big shell, you stand right beside that thing and boom and away it would go.
Gazette: So it was loud.
Bernhardt: We didn't have ear protection.
Gazette: Were you worried about going over to Korea?
Bernhardt: Absolutely, I had a new wife at home.
Gazette: Did you have any idea how long you'd be over there?
Bernhardt: The whole peninsula of Korea was divided into zones for rotating home. There was one point per month, two point, three point and four points. The quickest you could get out of there was nine months or 36 points. You needed 36 points to rotate. And you also had to have a replacement before you go home.
Gazette: So you not only needed points, you also needed a guy coming in for you.
Bernhardt: My outfit was the 45th Infantry Division which was the Oklahoma National Guard. The National Guard got whipped in the first winter, 1950. And I was over there in the second winter which wasn't quite as bad. The (demilitarization) region was more defined at that time. It was just back and forth. The Chinese were in there. All these stories, if you read up on that, there was the "Punchbowl." I saw that. I wasn't involved in that. It was just a big 160-acre field, with ridges all around it. There were mountains. I was on the eastern edge and side of it. These are real mountains. The mountain peaks were so close together that they would have you on the front line for a month or so and then pull you back, and I went back to the division for a little recuperation and reorganizing. Then you maybe go back in a little bit different area. There was always just patrols going out. The Chinese were there. One time, I was back in the heavy weapons company. We had a motor pool with heavy trucks. I was designated to take a 2.5-ton truck up the mountain and get some guys to come down for showers because they were living in a hole in the ground. They were living like rats, with the rats. I was up there to get guys and I am running down this trench, and I started shooting at him, and he crawls the rest of the way. That trench was down the front of the hill. It was so close to the enemies that we had chicken wire over the trench to stop their hand grenades. They could throw hand grenades back and forth. They would roll down the hill and they would explode down the hill. It was unbelievable. You could throw hand grenades back and forth, that's how close the peaks were.
Here come a guy and he was filthy. He was big time filthy. He was a kid from Laurel that I knew who he was in school, but he was living behind me. He came out of there, and he was mentally about half shot then. He came and hugged me and he recognized me. That was pretty traumatic.
Gazette: Were you shocked — shocked by the condition and shocked to see someone from home?
Bernhardt: I was, too, but as not as much as him. He was a kid that was raised down on the east end of Laurel in what they called "Railroad Town." He was an orphan kid. He never had good clothes. A poor kid. And here he came and hugged me. I understood he came home after that and he committed suicide.