More from MPR
Duluth, Minn. — Jim Morrissey still calls himself a jarhead, and he still wears a Marine Corps haircut. He's 73, and his back has bent a little over the years. But he's wearing brand new tennis shoes, and it's easy to picture him teaching gym or maybe science to a classroom of elementary kids. In fact, that is exactly what he did until he retired. He still works as a substitute teacher.
But now he's in the basement of his house in Duluth. His best pal Jerry Couture is with him, and they are looking at a dozen framed photographs hanging on the wall.
"These were taken in Korea," Morrissey says, pointing at pictures of groups of men in uniform.
"This is kind of a history of Jerry and I, here," he says, pointing at a row of three black and white photos. "This was at (Camp) Pendleton just before we shipped over. This was in Korea. We'd just come off a hill. And then this was after the war, up at my brother's cabin."
That photo shows two young men with their shirts off. They're each holding a beer, and their arms are draped around each others' shoulders. They are handsome, and well-built, and smiling.
Jim Morrissey and Jerry Couture grew up together in Duluth, and they've been buddies all these years.
"Since we were about 8 years old," Morrissey says. "We used to play cowboys and Indians together."
"We had a lot of fun," Jerry Couture says. "Skiing, and playing hockey -- shinny hockey in the street -- and stuff like that, like all kids do."
In August 1950, they were together in B Company. Jerry Couture was 19 and Jim Morrissey was 20. The Korean War was still new, and only their families knew they'd been called up.
B Company created a bit of a stir marching through downtown Duluth.
"We had to dodge around all these cars," Couture says with a chuckle. "And people were amazed to see all these Marines marching down the street. Three platoons. We headed east down Superior Street, down to the depot."
"In the middle of the day when nobody expected it," Morrissey says.
There was no band. Just a sergeant calling out cadence.
"We did pretty good," Jerry Couture says.
"Yeah we did," says Jim Morrissey, with a smile and a shake of his head.
"We were all just young kids, all charged up, and we didn't know what was coming next," Morrissey says. "I think the bulk of us were between 17 and 20. It was just basically a bunch of guys -- high school kids, and dads. You know, just ordinary guys."
Some of the men in B Company were older. They had served in World War II and been wounded.
"Some were in the Navy, and some were in the Marines," Jerry Couture says. "They joined the reserve just to make some extra money. They didn't think they'd end up in war again. And a lot of them had to go to war twice."
A "Police Action" in Korea
When World War II was drawing to an end, the Cold War was beginning. Korea was part of a territorial chess game between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers decided to split Korea.
In the north, the Soviets set up a communist dictatorship. In the south, the United States organized a government. For several years, the two Koreas made threats against each other. Then, in the summer of 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea.
North Korean troops swept over the entire peninsula in a matter of weeks. The United States -- and the United Nations -- came in on the side of South Korea.
When the men of B Company got to Korea, the tide was turning. U.S. troops pushed the North Koreans back past the "38th Parallel" - the line that separates the North and the South. And then the U.S. troops kept going. They pushed the North Koreans closer and closer to the border with China.
The Chinese warned the U.S. not to move into North Korea, but Gen. Douglas MacArthur decided to take all of Korea before the Chinese could join the war. MacArthur didn't know it, or he chose to ignore it, but Chinese troops had already quietly crossed into North Korea -- perhaps hundreds of thousands of them. The Chinese army set a giant trap for the American troops.
Jerry Couture and Jim Morrissey marched into the trap.
Surrounded at Chosin
It was November 1950. About 15,000 Marines were moving north toward the Chinese border. They were stretched out over 50 miles of road.
"There's only one road going north," Jerry Couture says.
"The road wasn't as wide as this living room," Jim Morrissey says. "And you had a straight cliff going this way, and a straight drop-off going that way."
The Chinese troops were in the hills above the road. They descended on the Americans near the Chosin Reservoir. Historians debate how many Chinese soldiers there were, but this much is sure -- the Americans were hugely outnumbered.
Some researchers estimate the number of Chinese soldiers in the hills at 60,000. Others say the Chinese force was more than 100,000 strong.
"They had us encircled," Jim Morrissey says.
The Chinese often attacked at night to avoid taking fire from American airplanes.
"All these signal horns and bugles blowing and screaming and hollering and whistles," Morrissey says. "It was just like an anthill exploding. I mean, you could shoot blindfolded."
The weather was as brutal as the fighting. It snowed, the wind blew, and the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero. But the Marines had no choice. They had to fight their way 70 miles back to the coast. For food, they chiseled away at frozen baked beans with their bayonets. For water, they ate snow. American airplanes flew in from the coast and dropped them ammunition.
It took the Marines two weeks to battle their way out of the mountains.
At one point, somebody had to rescue the 200 men in Fox Company. The men of Fox Company had held a hill against thousands of Chinese soldiers. By holding onto the hill, Fox Company prevented the Chinese from taking the road and cutting off the escape route for thousands of Marines. But Fox Company ended up surrounded. After five days of fighting, only about half of the 200 men in Fox Company could still walk.
So Jerry Couture and Jim Morrissey went behind Chinese lines to bring Fox Company out. There were 500 Marines on the rescue team. They tromped through knee deep snow in single file as quietly as they could. They marched right through the Chinese lines into enemy territory in the dark.
The weather got worse as they marched.
"Forty below. Wind howling," Jim Morrissey says. "At times you couldn't see the guy in front of you."
"We had quite a few wounded," Jerry Couture says. "If we had a wounded guy, it would take four guys to carry him in that snow. And we took our dead with us."
Some of the Marines died the first night out. Morrissey says they were resting on a snowy ridge, and the Chinese attacked.
"The next morning we got on top of this one knoll, and there the gooks were down below us," Morrissey says, referring to the enemy the way many U.S. soldiers did at the time.
"Everybody was so doggone mad from the night before," Morrissey says, "we saw all these gooks out in the open wandering around down there, and we just had a turkey shoot. We just sat down in the snow. Man, we laid them out."
You'd say, 'We're going to beat them so our kids don't have to go through the same thing.' That's the basic reason we were over there.
The Chinese counterattacked, and the Marines fought a running battle for two days, but they got to Fox Company.
Jerry Couture says they were shocked by what they found. The men of Fox Company were dug in on top of a hill.
"They had bunkers made out of bodies -- Chinese bodies," Couture says. "They piled them up like cord wood and that was their bunkers."
"There wasn't a tree on that hill that wasn't half sawed apart with bullets," Jim Morrissey says.
The remaining men of Fox Company and their rescuers gathered up dozens of dead and wounded Marines and slogged their way back toward the road. Chinese troops followed close behind.
A true buddy
Jim Morrissey says Jerry Couture saved his life on that march. Morrissey's feet got so frostbitten that he couldn't walk.
"So I told the guys, 'I've had it. I'm just going to stay here and take as many as I can with me.'"
Morrissey says he sat down in the snow.
"There was a moon that night, and I could see the ridge," he remembers. "I figured as soon as they start coming over the ridge, I can pick them off until I'm out of ammo."
Morrissey pauses and smiles at his friend.
"Pretty soon I hear his voice," he says, pointing at Couture. "'Where's that so-and-so Morrissey?'"
On that frigid hillside, Jim Morrissey told Jerry Couture his plan. Morrissey would sit in the snow and wait for the Chinese. Morrissey says Couture cursed and him and said, "No you're not. You're coming out."
"So he picks me up," Morrissey says, "and he was my crutch getting back down to the road."
They made it to the road, and then they hiked to the Marine camp.
"When they pulled my boots off all my toes were black," Morrissey says. "Part of my heels were gone. They flew me over to Japan, and I was there for a couple, three weeks. They were going to send me home, and I says, 'I don't want to go home. All my buddies are over there.'"
They sent him back to Korea as soon as his feet healed.
While Jim Morrissey was recovering in Japan, Jerry Couture and thousands of other Marines fought their way out of the Korean mountains, back to the coast.
Within a few weeks, the two friends from Duluth met up again on the battlefield. They fought together for another three months. Then a round from a machine gun tore off part of Jim Morrissey's left hand, and he was sent back to the States.
Jerry Couture finished his one-year tour of duty in Korea, and then he came home, too.
Back to Minnesota
That was more than 50 years ago. These days, Jim Morrissey and Jerry Couture cross-country ski together. They have the same photographs of B Company hanging on their walls, and sometimes they share souvenirs from the war.
"I got something for you, Jerry," Morrissey says as he fishes out a cardboard box the size of cell phone and hands it to Couture.
"This is 53 years in the doing," Morrissey says. "It's time for him to have it."
Jerry Couture laughs and gives the box a gentle shake.
"Can I guess?" Couture asks. "The pipe?"
I'd never want to go through it again, but I wouldn't trade a million dollars for what I went through.
Couture opens the box and takes out a battered pipe. It's held together with filthy medical tape.
"Oh for God's sake," Couture says with a hoot.
"We shared it," Morrissey says. He's laughing, too. "Back and forth. That pipe went all through Korea with us."
"I think I got it off a dead Marine," Couture says.
"We had to tape it together," Morrissey says.
They don't smoke it any more.
"No! You wouldn't dare," Morrissey says with another laugh. "But it tasted like heaven then, didn't it?"
"I'm going to put that in Marine Corps Headquarters," Jerry Couture says as he puts the pipe back in its box.
"Marine Corps Headquarters" is next door to Jerry Couture's house. His neighbor's house burned down a few years ago, and Couture bought what was left. He cleaned it up, painted it, and put up some paneling.
"I started putting all our Marine stuff in there - Marine flags, and stuff guys send me," Couture says. "So a bunch of Marines come over and they call it Marine Corps Headquarters. We meet over there once in a while and have coffee and BS."
These guys have a lot of stories from Korea. They've told a few of them to their wives. But there's a lot they don't talk about. Jim Morrissey has five kids, and he hasn't told them any war stories.
"I just let them lead their lives and I lead mine, and I don't think they have to know," Morrissey says. "They know a few of the things. They've read some stories that have been out in the paper, and things like that. But basically, the rough stuff, I've never shared with them. It's best forgotten. There's things that you'll never forget, but what good does it do to bring it back up again?"
Morrissey says he was fighting in Korea for his kids -- years before they were born.
"We're going to beat them so our kids don't have to go through the same thing," Morrissey remembers thinking at the time.
When he looks back, he's sure it was the right thing to do.
"No question," he says. "Absolutely. I'd do it again. So would Jerry."
Jerry Couture nods in agreement.
"I'd never want to go through it again," Couture says, "but I wouldn't trade a million dollars for what I went through. It was a heck of an experience for a 19-year-old."
Couture says sometimes the experience haunts him. He still thinks about a guy from Duluth he really liked. They were in the mountains in Korea, and they were freezing. They got their hands on a parachute, so they cut it up to make scarves.
Couture made a white scarf. His friend made a red one.
"We were like 40 feet apart, and it was snowing like hell," Couture says, his voice dropping low. "I could see him shooting the machine gun. I could see his scarf, and told him to take it off. He didn't do it. So we were attacking a bunker, and he got hit pretty bad by a Thompson submachine gun. I went over to him, and he was dead."
Couture's unit got orders to attack the bunker and take prisoners.
"Well, the first guy that came out had a Thompson submachine gun," Couture says. "I went kind of nuts. He had a big smile on his face, and I smashed him in the face with my M1 (rifle). Next one come out, and he had a big smile. I found out later that when they smile like that, they're scared to death. So I grabbed him and I threw him down and took a clip of M1 and jammed it in his mouth until they finally pulled me off of him. I just kind of lost it there for a minute, because of my buddy."
Jerry Couture still visits his buddy's grave in Duluth.
"He's buried up here at Calvary," Couture says. "Every Memorial Day I go up there and make sure he's got a flag, and clean it up."
Remembering the Forgotten War
It's a hot, sunny afternoon and Jerry Couture and Jim Morrissey sit at a folding table in the parking lot outside a grocery store in Duluth. They're wearing wrap-around sunglasses and Marine Corps ballcaps. They're selling raffle tickets to raise money for B Company - their Marine reserve unit that went to Korea.
A brand new Hyundai is parked next to them. That's the grand prize.
The veterans of B Company are building a memorial on the Lakewalk in Duluth. Jerry Couture says the centerpiece of the memorial will be a list of the 10 men from B Company who died in Korea.
"They were 18 or 19 when they were killed," he says. "We're in our 70s. We had a nice family, a good life, and they had nothing. They gave their life for our country. So we can never forget them. That's why we want to build this memorial so people can read their name, where they're from, and what they did."
The men of B Company will dedicate their memorial at the end of August.
They'll hold a reunion in Duluth that weekend. They've been getting together every five years, but some of them are getting too old to travel.
They say this will be the last reunion for B Company from Duluth.