Jade Ring Winner 2017 Nonfiction

Small Decision, Big Consequence

Greg Peck

 

“I never should have lived this long.”

Harsh as it seems to say, Dad is right, and for more reasons than one.

He sits under a blanket in his recliner in my parents’ Minocqua home. A stocking cap rests on his head, despite the warmth inside. Nearby, his oxygen tank emits its perpetual hum. Even standing up pains this former hard-working, blue-collar laborer. He stands hunched and often winces from his back throbbing, not only from work-related injuries but from compression fractures in two vertebrae.

At age 86, Dad has given up on life. He goes to bed after supper, even though he naps often. He doesn’t eat or drink as much as doctors recommend and ignores exercises a physical therapist recommends.

Dad won’t consider in-home nursing care or a move to assisted living or a nursing home.

“We can’t afford it,” he says bluntly.

“Why must he hang onto every dollar like dinosaur bones?” my youngest brother asks in frustration. 

Dad doesn’t want to leave Mom or us empty-handed, despite our pleas to think first of his own care. My three siblings and I know: He’s waiting to die.

By rights, this old man should have died a young man.

“Tell me again your story of Korea,” I ask, sitting down at the nearby kitchen table and pulling out my laptop.

“Why?”

Because your memory is fickle, I want to tell him, and I hope to verify the facts.

Instead, “I just want to hear the details again.”

Between stops for horrid-sounding efforts to clear his throat, this former longtime smoker starts in.

“I enlisted in July 1951 because I knew it was only a matter of time before my draft number came up,” he says.

Dad tells about undergoing six weeks of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood near Waynesville, Missouri. He later transferred to Camp Pendleton, California. Before shipping out to Korea, he gave his bride-to-be a ring. He thinks back to those days overseas.

“Korea was beautiful in summertime but colder than hell in wintertime,” Dad says. He explains how each tent, made of wax-coated canvas, housed eight men. A barrel on its side with a stove inside heated each tent. A copper line ran to a 50-gallon barrel of fuel oil outside.

“The oil went drip, drip, drip on the stove to warm the tent. They had lots of problems with tents catching on fire. There were guys who died in fires.”

As he’d told me once before, Dad says he shared his tent with Cpl. Frank Gfroerer.

Rather than the infantry, Dad, Frank and their comrades were in the 1092nd Army Corps of Engineers. In 1952, they were ordered to build a main road, including a bridge over a creek, about five miles south of the fighting.

“I wasn’t helping with the roadwork, though,” Dad says. “I got lucky. The unit’s mail carrier was heading home the day my group arrived, and the officers pointed at me and said, ‘You’re the new mail carrier.’”

Dad retrieved, sorted and delivered mail for a company of four platoons of 20 men each. He drove a flatbed Army truck, making the hour-long one-way trek on a gravel road 20 miles south of their station in Uijeongbu each day.

“The closest I got to the front lines came when I drove up one day to observe while hiding behind an embankment,” Dad says.

By November 1952, it was Dad’s turn for a one-week leave. He was supposed to hop aboard a plane leaving for Japan. But he turned it down, passing the privilege on to the next guy.

Despite the fact I’ve heard his story before, this time, I think to ask, “Why on Earth would you decline your turn?”

“Well, I didn’t have any extra money,” he replies between coughs. “I was sending home what I could so Mom could put it in a savings account.”

That sounds like Dad, who was born in 1931, early in the Great Depression. Throughout his childhood, he has explained, his parents were on the verge of losing their stony, 40-acre farm three miles west of Marshall. He often told how his parents didn’t have a nickel to their name when they took their five kids into the village on Saturday nights. Considering that background, it’s understandable why he sent money home and passed up a chance to spend some of his Army earnings in one of the countries we fought during World War II.

“Another thing is that when they dropped you off in Japan, you were on your own,” he explains. “You didn’t know where you were going. You just had to be back at the airport in a couple of days. Besides, I didn’t know the language—so I figured some other guy could go, instead.”

That guy was Frank Gfroerer.

Years ago, after first hearing Dad explain what happened next, my journalist’s curiosity kicked in. I’d tried to confirm the story and even enlisted the help of an expert in Korean War history. We came up empty. It didn’t help that we weren’t sure how Frank’s last name was spelled, or even his home state.

Now, as Dad speaks, I search the Internet in vain. I try various spellings of Gfroerer.

“There was another guy in our unit on that plane,” Dad blurts out, a surprising point he never mentioned before. “Erling P. Miller.”

“Spelled like Miller beer?” I ask.

“Yes.”

Quiet moments pass as I type that name into my Internet searches. I practically fall out of my chair when I find what I’ve been looking for—a list that includes not just Pfc. Miller but Cpl. Frank Gfroerer.

“Dad, you’re not going to believe this,” I say, near tears. “I found it.”

The date was Nov. 14, 1952. Cpl. Frank Gfroerer of Watsonville, California, and Erling Peter Miller of Hampton, Iowa, were among 44 servicemen aboard a Fairchild C-119C from the 63rd Troop Carrier Squadron, 403rd Carrier Group, en route from Ashiya Air Base, Japan, to Seoul, Korea. That “Flying Boxcar” crashed into Hill 683 near Cho-ok and about 15 miles east of Airfield K-19.

Another website pegged the crash time as 14:45, military hours. A summary said the plane had seven crew members and struck a mountain at an elevation of 2,000 feet as it prepared to land. “The mountains were obscured by low clouds.”

All aboard died.

That crash haunted Dad the next July as he neared his discharge and flew from Chicago to Fort Lewis, Washington, aboard a similar plane. Dad’s flight hit turbulence, unnerving him, but unlike Frank’s plane, Dad’s landed safely.

I grieve for Frank’s relatives, their family tree suddenly pruned, while Dad’s decision not to take leave helped sprout new branches on our family tree. Mom wed Dad that Aug. 1. By the fall of 1954, they were living on the farm with Dad’s parents when my sister, Karen, was born. Dad bought that farm, but when I came along in 1957, my parents were renting a lower flat in the village. Mom and Dad built a home before my brothers, Tom and Ed, were born. Together, we’ve given our parents four grandchildren. In the late 1990s, Mom and Dad sold the farm where he was raised, as well as the home where my siblings and I grew up. My parents bought a retirement home in Minocqua, an island tourist town in northern Wisconsin.

None of this would have happened had it not been for that seemingly harmless decision in Korea. No, Frank Gfroerer didn’t jump on a grenade or step in front of a sniper’s bullet to save Dad’s life, like so many sad but heroic wartime deeds. But only because they swapped places on that plane, Dad lived and Frank died.

 

greg_newGreg Peck retired in 2016 as The Janesville Gazette’s opinion page editor. He won numerous Wisconsin Newspaper Association awards and previously worked at newspapers in Oconomowoc and Wisconsin Rapids. Peck is author of Death Beyond the Willows, the true story of a 1927 wedding day tragedy that involved a couple married in his hometown of Marshall. He joined the WWA in 2006 and served as a board member.