Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Wheaton, IL) Paul D. Gauer gets a little choked up and begins to cry. He says he is the luckiest guy in the world and that somebody is watching out for him, and it seems to be true. Growing up on the north side of Chicago, Paul had some very lucky breaks. Around age seven, he fell out of the family car, suffered a skull fracture, and spent 6 months in the hospital, but he was fine. Not long after that, he fell through a stairwell while playing in a house under construction. Luckily, he walked away without a scratch, thanks to his leather jacket. His good luck continued throughout the Korean War.
When Paul’s buddies were drafted in late 1950 and he wasn’t, he called the draft board and asked, “When is Harry [Truman] gonna call me up?” They must have pulled his records immediately because about a week later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and ordered to report to basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. It was January 1951. Throughout basic training, Paul was always selected as the helper or the good example, perhaps because at age 21, he was older than most recruits. But at the end of sixteen weeks of basic, when most soldiers were immediately sent to Korea, Paul was recommended for non-commissioned officer training. He stayed on at Ft. Leonard Wood for another year, to receive specialized training and achieve the rank of sergeant.
During NCO training, there were parades every Saturday on the drill field. One fateful Saturday Paul was asked to take over a company of recruits during drills. This is when Paul says he “made a mistake.” A colonel had made a wrong call during the drill, and Paul corrected the officer’s call. Even though Paul was right, the call had been wrong, it was a mistake to point that out to a superior officer. It wasn’t long after this “mistake” that Sergeant Paul Gauer received orders to join the Far East Command in Korea. He sailed from Seattle to Japan, and finally, Korea in early 1952.
The journey across the Pacific was no luxury affair. Paul and his fellow troops were housed in the bottom of the ship and slept in hammocks. The “swingers” as they were known, were only allowed on decks twice a day. One day during the voyage, Paul saw a notice on a bulletin board seeking NCO volunteers with a rank of sergeant or higher for special duty in Korea. Paul immediately signed up. He had no idea what he was signing up for, but he “never was one thinking about getting into battle and shooting people,” so he decided to try his luck and volunteered.
When the ship arrived in Sasebo, Japan, Paul still had no information about this special assignment. What he didn’t know was that he was being sent to the Geoje Island POW camp where over 170,000 North Korean soldiers and refugees were being held. The overcrowded camp had been dealing with frequent bouts of violence and disorder since June 1951. Because camp guards were insufficiently trained to control such large numbers and the camp was poorly organized, it set the stage for fights between Communist and anti-Communist prisoners, as well as guards and prisoners.
Problems at the camp came to a head during the Geoje Uprising on May 7, 1952 when camp commander Brigadier-General Francis Dodd entered Compound 76 to listen to prisoner grievances. As he entered the gate, he was abducted and then held hostage for 78 hours. Many of the POW’s demands were accepted to save Dodd’s life. Following the uprising, a new camp commander was brought in to restore order. Refugees were moved to another location. Hard-core Communists were sent to other small, tightly controlled camps on Geoje Island. Finally, commissioned officers were replaced by non-commissioned officers, and this swap was the volunteer duty Paul had signed up for. He was now a Specialty Compound Sergeant at the Geoje camp.
Despite recent problems at Geoje, Paul was not particularly worried about his new assignment, knowing he would not have to carry a weapon or shoot anyone. Armed security for the prisoner enclosures was the responsibility of front line combat soldiers on R&R. They patrolled the perimeter of each enclosure, which contained 3 compounds with 500 prisoners in each compound. Weapons were only used when necessary. Everything else related to the operation of the POW compound was under Paul’s authority. Mastering the multiple duties of this assignment required a lot of on-the-job learning. It was his responsibility to maintain order in the camp and plan for the needs of his military personnel as well as the 500 POWs housed in his compound. For Paul, this was the perfect job. He did not want to have to kill people. “I would have done it, but I was against it.” He’s sure that his impulsive decision to sign up to volunteer was the guy upstairs watching out for him.
Paul has mostly good memories of his time at Geoje. He says there were lots of North Korean prisoners who were good, friendly people, and he got along well with them. They knew Paul liked pineapple, so there was a shelf in the prisoner kitchen labeled “Sergeant’s Pineapple.” On May Day, 1952, the prisoners put on an elaborate show with costumes and acrobatics, and Paul was their special guest. But Paul surprised the prisoners by joining in and showing off some of his acrobatic moves from childhood. The prisoners roared their approval! The brass jokingly warned him about getting too friendly with the prisoners. Though there was an occasion when things went horribly wrong. One day when Paul entered the compound, he was attacked and beaten by three prisoners--he has no idea why. His front teeth were broken off with a tent stake before the guards came to his rescue, but he doesn’t hold a grudge. He feels certain that the prisoners’ commanding officer reprimanded them.
As for vivid memories, Paul has very few. He can’t remember his own living quarters or what he did during his time off or even if he took time off. He only remembers the numerous compounds and sometimes at night looking up into the hills and seeing signal lights flashing messages from the Communists to the POWs--and Paul would have information before the brass came around to tell him the news. “It was good duty.” So why get choked up and teary eyed? It happens whenever Paul thinks of all the guys who weren’t as lucky as he was. “So many of my buddies didn’t come back, and if they did, they were messed up.”
When he stepped off the ship in Seattle on Christmas Eve, 1952, Paul threw his camera into a trash barrel at the end of the plank. With that action, he says he was rid of the war, and a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He was only looking forward--to marriage, kids, career, and a good life. But he still chokes up when he thinks of the guys who weren’t as lucky as him.
Like that thankful Korean woman who “hugged the hell” out of you, Paul, we thank you for your service during the Korean War. Enjoy your much deserved Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.