WEVER — Like many war veterans, Jim Richart witnessed unspeakable horrors during his service in the Korean War.
He came back from that war with two Purple Hearts and a handful of combat medals, but his wounds were only physical. He was able to compartmentalize the awful things he saw, and has never been affected by post traumatic stress disorder. He rarely even thinks of the war unless someone asks him about it.
But there's one image he can't get away from. Two dead soldiers, little more than kids, laying dead in their foxhole with bullet holes in their head. Richart spent that night in a foxhole five yards behind them, and was certain he would have heard one of them cry out if attacked by the enemy. The odds of them both being shot at the same time was incredibly low.
Their deaths will forever remain a mystery.
"To his day, I cannot understand it at all," Richart said. "Everything was calm that night. I hollered down there, and they didn't give me answer. I jumped out of my foxhole and went down to look. Andy got shot right between the eyes. Bud was hit in the side of the head."
Richart was a hardened Marine by then, and kept an eye out for the fresh faced Army kids. He was a fireteam leader, and had three of those so called "kids" in his battalion. Two of them died in that foxhole.
The other — a greenhorn by the name of Kenny Brock from Indianapolis — died a few feet away from him. The American war effort was suffering from a serious manpower shortage, and the Army was sending over anyone who could fit in a uniform.
"The kid shouldn't have even been over there," Richart said.
Kenny was helping move supplies when he took a fatal bullet to the head.
"All of a sudden, it just sounded like someone dropped a watermelon or a pumpkin. Just plop," Richart said. "Kenny got hit in the back of his head, and I ran up there to get him. His was face was just all... He was a real nice kid. He was a reserve. He had never been through boot camp. He had never been through the infantry training or anything like that. It's just one of those things where we were short handed."
Though Richart had never been under fire before stepping onto Korean soil, he did receive infantry training from the Marine Corps. Serving in the military was never Richart's end goal, but he took to his soldierly role naturally. A Vinton native who has lived in Wever for the past few decades, Richart always dreamed of joining the Iowa State Patrol. Unfortunately, he spent most of his high school years "screwing around," as he put it, and that was reflected in his poor grades.
Richart thought he could undo that harm by joining the Marines, believing it would eventually lead to law enforcement. He finished high school, and was named honor man of his platoon during basic training. The designation is only awarded to the best recruit, and Richart values that title above all the combat medals that came later.
"There are 70 or 75 in your platoon, and it (honor man) goes by your grades and physical stuff. A lot more of it is the grades," he said.
The Korean War hadn't started by then, but it would soon. During a 10-day leave after basic training, Richart found out he was going to be working on radios for the Marines, even though he really wanted to work on tanks. But then the war started, and everything changed. Most of the soldiers who went to Korea with Richart had been assigned to Guam for a year, and were enjoying well deserved leaves that were suddenly cancelled.
They had combat experience. Richart did not.
"Hell, I didn't even know where Korea was," he said with a grin.
Richart experienced a special kind of hell over there, but doesn't portray it that way when telling his story. His tone stays even and matter-of-fact, betraying a glimpse of the young solider who stayed cool under fire. He recounts the time he and his men were surrounded by hordes of Chinese troops not with emotion, but with statistics. They were outnumbered 15 to 1.
"They (Chinese troops) were using frozen dead bodies as shields," he said.
His pregnant wife Marge (who died in May of this year) was waiting for him back in the states, never imagining the impossible odds he faced.
"We didn't think we were going to make it out of there," he said.
Richart has to be asked about his Purple Hearts before discussing them, and dismisses his first injury as a mere flesh wound. He took a bullet to the thigh, and stayed in a makeshift hospital for 10 days before walking out to rejoin his men. Richart didn't ask for permission. The scene was so chaotic, no one noticed him leaving.
The second injury was a concussion, likely caused by a grenade. Richart didn't catch any shrapnel, and doesn't remember much about it. He mostly remembers riding in a plane, then waking up in a Japanese hospital. After roughly six months of fighting and a couple of months of medical care, he was finally sent home.
"Thank God for that," he said.
It was Richart's feet that felt the most relief. Temperatures ranged from 25 to 40 degrees below zero in North Korea, and many soldiers lost their toes to frostbite.
"It's kind of hard to believe, because the 38th parallel runs right through Iowa," Richart said
Frigid weather accounted for 16 percent of Army non-battle injuries in the Korean War, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Battlefield conditions prohibited many service members from obtaining medical treatment for their cold weather injuries.
Richart didn't get any treatment either. He was medically tagged for frozen feet, but there wasn't much anyone could do about it in a war zone. Richart is 86-years-old now, and his right foot causes him great pain when he walks. His toenails on that foot are so thick that they have to be cut at the VA hospital. He wears socks in bed so his nails won't slice the sheets.
"It feels like the padding behind my toes is three or more times thicker," he said.
Still, Richart considers himself lucky. He didn't lose any toes, and finally landed his dream job with the Iowa State Patrol. He finished up his military service as a drill instructor, and was a drill instructor for the state patrol for 13 years. He also worked at various insurance companies before retiring, enjoying 67 years of marriage with his wife Marge as they raised a family of three girls and one boy.
His son was Mike (Alan Michael Richart) was six months old the first time Richart met him. As usual, his response was analytical rather than emotional. But certainly not lacking in warmth.
"I was proud of him. He was a nice young kid," Richart said.