“A man was carried into the battalion aid station, his face was all torn up and his body was covered with mud and blood, and the doc and I did our best to treat him but there was no treatment for him. The doc told me to just get him to the helicopter so we could get him to the hospital ship, because we couldn’t handle him,” 90-year-old Korean War veteran and Clayton resident Leonard Adreon said. “The next day as we were going over the list of names of people we treated I saw the name of my friend Darry. I told the doctor we didn’t treat him yesterday, but the doc said ‘Oh yes we did, you carried him to the copter yesterday.’ The ironic thing about it was that I didn’t recognize my best friend. He never made it to the hospital ship.”
This is the reality of war that Adreon wanted to depict through his newly released book, Hilltop Doc. After 60 years of silence about his service in Korea, Adreon finally decided to share his story.
“I wanted to write a book that tells realistically what the war was like. Not a Hollywood movie version, not a heroic version, but a realistic picture of what it was like to be there at the 38th parallel,” Adreon said.
Adreon was drafted toward the end of World War II at the age of 17. He did not see any action during this war and spent the end of the war training at a camp in Illinois. However, after the war, he signed up with the U.S. Naval Reserve after learning he could get $8 for attending a meeting.
“I grew up during the Depression era,” Adreon said. “I signed up because my dad’s words were rolling around in my head: ‘Never turn down an opportunity for a buck.’”
Adreon ended up serving in Korea from 1951-1952 as a third-class hospital corpsman, despite having no background in medical training. At first, Adreon embraced his call to service as an adventure into the unknown, like many young men did. However, his ideas soon changed.
“When I got there I was astounded to find out we weren’t there to win the war. We were there to take a hill and kill or maim as many Chinese soldiers as we could because the theory was in 1951 that we could force them because of the casualty rate to come to the bargaining table and make a deal to end the war,” Adreon said. “We didn’t take these hills to go north and take more territory. We took the hills to hold them. [The Chinese] did the same thing. I can’t tell you how many times we took the same hill.”
As a corpsman, Adreon’s job required him to treat wounded Americans on the battlefield. This would often require him to leave the relative safety of his foxhole and run across a field with mortar shells and bullets exploding around him to answer the call of a fallen marine.
However, corpsmen like Adreon often did not only aid Americans.
“When we found wounded Chinese, we treated them too. Our fellow marines never understood why we did that, but we did it, I mean a guy is lying there, bleeding, he’s going to die. He’s a human being, a kid, he reminds you of yourself,” Adreon said.
Before the war ended in 1953, over 36,000 American soldiers had lost their lives. Despite these casualties and the impact of the war on many Americans, the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War,” overshadowed by the preceding World War II and the following Vietnam War.
As Adreon was leaving Korea in 1952, he and other members of his platoon decided not to discuss Korea in the future.
“We agreed we’d put the war behind us. We felt it best to forget Korea, which also meant our friendship was over,” Adreon said.
For the next 60 years, Adreon remained unwilling to revisit his experience in Korea, even with his close family. However, in 2011 Adreon enrolled in a Washington University writing class in a program called Lifelong Learning. There, he was encouraged by students and facilitators encouraged him to write about his role in the war. After thinking it over, Adreon decided to write a short poem about one of his experiences.
“The class surprised me with their interest in what happened at the 38th Parallel,” Adreon said. “People at the university strongly encouraged me to write about the realities of combat. They thought too many young people were thinking of war in the heroic terms depicted in movies. To me, war is anything but heroic. It is brutal and ugly, full of blood, death and pain.”
Adreon began to write short vignettes about certain moments in the war. Then, after further persuasion, he started to compile these stories into the structure of a book.
“What was remarkable to me was that I had a memory of those years, my time in Korea, that was very vivid, very crisp, very clear. I remembered everything that happened. I remembered the faces of my friends,” he said.
In the end, Adreon hopes that, regardless of its financial success, his book will serve to change people’s perspective on war.
“The book isn’t going to make a dime. I lose money every time someone buys a copy,” Adreon said. “But that’s okay. I didn’t write the book to make a living. I wrote the book because I wanted to honor those who gave up everything in Korea.”