Alvin Irlbeck, 84, of Carroll joins 1,000 Korean War veterans from across Iowa in Des Moines this Saturday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, an event initiated by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Alvin Irlbeck, 84, of Carroll joins 1,000 Korean War veterans from across Iowa in Des Moines this Saturday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, an event initiated by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

DES MOINES — Wherever he goes, Alvin Irlbeck carries a memento from his years of service in the U.S. Army — the piece of an exploded grenade shell that lodged in his right shoulder about 60 years ago.

His memories of battling on the front lines are revived each time the 84-year-old Carroll man glances at the Purple Heart he earned for the injury in an ambush on Old Baldy, a treacherous mountain range in west-central Korea.

In the summer heat of 1952, Irlbeck trudged up those hills as part of a three-man regiment, hauling ammunition to fire at enemy forces.

“That Old Baldy, all hell broke loose, and they were waiting for us, evidently,” Irlbeck said. “I’m glad I got back alive, for one thing, and I think it makes you realize how good your country is. You’ll take your cap off when the flag goes by.”

On Saturday, Irlbeck remembered those days with 1,000 fellow Korean War veterans from across Iowa who flooded Drake University’s Knapp Center to commemorate the 60-year anniversary since the conflict began in June 1950.

The Des Moines gathering comes as just one in a series of events started by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2010 to honor the 6.8 million American men and women who served during the Korean War. Ceremonies have already been held in 20 states, Canada and South Korea.

When Irlbeck was drafted in November 1950, he was one of 802 men uprooted from their Carroll homes and sent overseas to fight in the Korean War. At least 14 of them did not make it home alive, according to the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs.

More than 85,000 Iowans defended South Korea after its Communist neighbor, North Korea, launched an aggressive attack across the 38th parallel — the latitudinal line that separates the two countries.

That invasion escalated into wholesale warfare that claimed the lives of more than 2 million soldiers and civilians and became the first global conflict to fire up the Cold War, although it would not be regarded as more than a “police action” until much later.

Irlbeck remembered those days with more than 3,000 other people who poured into the Drake University athletic arena Saturday morning. Members of the Iowa National Guard controlled traffic and directed Korean War veterans who arrived with scores of family and friends.

“This will be the largest event that the U.S. Department of Defense is having,” said Sherri Colbert, director of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum. “We are really trying to reach every Iowa Korean War veteran out there, and are even honoring those who were killed in action and those who have may have already passed away.”

Before an official awards ceremony commenced at 1 p.m. sharp, veterans received certificates and snapped photos with commanding officers

“Today, those who served in the ‘Forgotten War’ are remembered,” said Col. David J. Clark, executive director of the Korean War Commemoration Committee, in his remarks to the crowd. “I think that’s terribly important.”

Clark was part of a packed lineup of speakers, which included U.S. Reps. Tom Latham and Leonard Boswell; Sid Morris, president of the Korean War Association Tall Corn Chapter 99; and top ranking officials of the Iowa National Guard.

They addressed the sea of soldiers for about an hour until the ceremony concluded with a traditional musical performance by members of the Korean United Methodist Church who flew in from South Korea.

A spokeswoman from the group thanked the veterans for defending her country’s freedom.

Irlbeck watched from just feet away, where he parked the red motorized scooter he uses to navigate crowded venues like the one in Des Moines this weekend.

Irlbeck said he doesn’t make the trek out to Des Moines often but arranged for his granddaughter to drive him and his wife down early so they could secure prime seating.

“I didn’t realize there were this many veterans,” Irlbeck said after the event.

Irlbeck was one of the lucky ones. After the grenade penetrated his shoulder at Old Baldy, he spent about one month recuperating in a Japan hospital. He was later transferred back to Korea, where he drove jeeps and lugged water to the front lines, before completing his term fixing guns as a welder.

“I don’t think I would have probably enlisted, but it was a hell of an experience,” Irlbeck said, looking back on his service. “You really got to see stuff. You got to see Korea and Japan and the army bases.”

The smiling faces of Korean children enjoying the gum and candy he dispensed from the back of an Army truck remain etched in his memory, he said.

When Irlbeck finally returned to America by ship, he said the streets of Seattle, Wash., were closed and covered with confetti to celebrate the soldiers’ homecoming.

But after that moment, he encountered general unawareness about what had happened in Korea as he worked setting up convenience stores back in Carroll County.

And the reactions remained the same until recently.

Within the past decade, Irlbeck said, he’s seen a greater effort to recognize Korean War veterans. When he’s sporting his baseball cap that reads “Korean War Veteran” people often stop him on the street to say thank you.

Whether they are a personal choice or part of a federal program, these efforts reflect a growing awareness that, as the older heroes of World War II begin to die out, those who fought in “The Forgotten War” will become the last living generation to have served in a foreign conflict.

That appreciation was revitalized by the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today, said Louie Grote, a Carroll County Veterans service officer. It reminded the nation about the sacrifice of all soldiers — past and present.

“Knowing what the veterans of today are doing gives them an appreciation of what the veterans of the past have done,” he said. “It changed the mindset of Americans to appreciate that the soldiers were doing the jobs that they were ordered to do to help protect our nation.”

Last year, about 1,700 veterans registered in Carroll County received more than $3 million in direct aid from the state for services ranging from health care to state pensions, Grote said.

Grote’s office is a resource for Carroll-area veterans to receive all the benefits and services they earned with their service to the country. With Korean War veterans, Grote said, he has mostly seen hearing problems caused by loud gunshots on the front lines or frostbite suffered during the brutal winters.

Just three years ago, the state began allocating about $10,000 to individual counties for accredited offices like Grote’s to accommodate veterans.

Carroll has an active Legion too, with about 243 members registered at the Carroll Post 7 and a total of 1,214 members county-wide spread among the those in Coon Rapids, Breda, Carroll, Arcadia, Dedham, Glidden and Manning. Each year there is a Carroll Memorial Day parade where veterans march into center stage.

And then there are the more impromptu gatherings, like the early-morning meet-ups George Sorenson, 78, of Lake City attends each weekday. About 10 of his buddies from the Lake City Legion converse over coffee at Sweet Things Bakery in Lake City, sharing war stories and swapping playful jabs at each other.

In his 20-year military career, Sorenson saw Korea, Vietnam, Germany and a handful of other stateside destinations including Alaska. The Lake City native served two terms in Korea rebuilding roads that were flattened during the war. He enlisted in the Army when he turned 18 in 1953, just after the war’s end.

“Out where we were at I wouldn’t even raise chickens in the houses,” said Sorenson. “Their heat was always in floor, mud walls and a hay roof. Sometimes I’d like to go back over there to Korea to just to see how good they’ve built it up. They say that road that I worked on is a four-lane highway! When I was there, it wasn’t even two-lane.”

Back in Lake City, Sorenson took up several trades after his military service, working in feed mills and in the construction industry.

He caught wind of the Korean War Commemoration in Des Moines at the Lake City Legion, where he volunteers cleaning rifles.

Sorenson said the event was disorganized in the beginning, even a little “disappointing,” but that he’ll go next time if there’s one for Vietnam veterans.

“It was all good — I liked when the Korean girls sang and they played the drums,” he said. “Too many politicians for me, though.”

And so they sat, Sorenson and Irlbeck — among 1,000 other veterans — two men from the same western county in Iowa who served the Korean War in profoundly different ways. One, a draftee, carried ammunition to the front lines and the other, after enlisting, rebuilt the country in the wake of destruction.

Yet, for a Saturday afternoon, they both received just a little more acknowledgement than usual.