Scars healed, memories fresh

Tim Alexander

For Peorian Eugene Bowker Jr., the memories of the Korean War are as fresh as the scars still visible on his arm and other parts of his body caused by an exploding artillery shell.

Bowker sustained his injuries as a Second Lt. with the 44th Infantry Division of the Illinois National Guard, while on patrol in the volatile Punch Bowl region of Korea in early 1953.

Other members of the 44th, such as retired Peoria Journal Star sports editor Dan Shea, never saw action in Korea.

Shea, instead, was called on to remain at Camp Cooke in California to train other soldiers for overseas deployment.

In all, some 300 members of the 44th stationed at Camp Cooke or deployed to Korea hailed from Central Illinois towns such as Peoria, Delavan, Chillicothe, Metamora and many others.

Many of the 44th’s alumni will gather at the Holiday Inn City Centre in Downtown Peoria Oct. 9-11 for what has become an annual reunion, where they will catch up with old friends, swap war recollections and try to keep the memory of one of America’s “forgotten” wars from fading away.

“We’re all getting older, finally,” conceded Bowker, 79, who worked as a postal carrier for 40 years in Peoria after recovering from his war wounds, which included severe trauma to his arms, legs, lower body and intestines.

“We just get together so we can see some of the guys we haven’t seen for a while.”

The ‘Punch Bowl’

Bowker, Shea and most of the 44th went through basic training in weapons and leadership at Fort Benning, Ga. before being shipped to Camp Cooke. From there, those sent overseas were literally hand-picked for deployment, with the rest staying behind to train some 15,000 troops by April 1953.

“I joined the outfit in 1952,” recalled Bowker, “and after Fort Benning, they sent me to Camp Cooke on a Monday. By Friday, I had my orders to report to Far East Command. I said ‘Man, they sure followed me in a hurry.’ I was surprised.” 

Bowker was sent for more training at a base near Tokyo before being reassigned to the U.S.’ 5th Regimental Combat Unit in Korea. There he was reunited with some of his acquaintances from Fort Benning and Camp Cooke. Bowker would later learn that one of the soldiers he befriended went missing in action, while another was “cut in half” by enemy machine-gun fire.

Though Bowker saw some duty in the famed Heartbreak Ridge area of Korea, he engaged the enemy from October 1952 until his injury at the Punch Bowl Jan. 8, 1953, when, at about 2:45 a.m, an artillery shell came crashing into Bowker’s patrol. 

“We received some artillery shelling while we were in an open area — not a good area to be — and one shell came in and hit some of us,” Bowker said, recalling the attack as freely as if it were yesterday.

“I got hit up through the buttocks and the right arm. The shell punctured my intestines, and they removed about 3 feet of it at a MASH. They told me in the MASH that if I hadn’t been wearing my vest, it would have cut me in half. I was very fortunate the good Lord was with me.”

Bowker said that one soldier — whom he recalled only as Harrison — perished in the assault. In addition, the soldier sent to replace Bowker was killed on patrol just 10 days later.

Clinging to life, Bowker remained in the tented M.A.S.H. hospital for 10 days before he was well enough to be moved. From there, he was flown from Korea to a military hospital, where he spent six months recovering. Finally, Bowker was reassigned to limited duty at Camp Atterberry in Columbus, Ind. with the 31st Infantry, where he served out the remainder of his enlistment.

Bowker’s injuries, however, would continue to plague him long after a cease-fire agreement was signed July 27, 1953, putting an end to the Korean War. In November 1966, Bowker suffered complications from his injuries that required surgeons to remove an additional 33 inches of intestines from his body. Bowker was given a 50-50 chance of survival.

“But I made it,” he said. “I guess I was a tough old bird.” 

‘The kids need to know’ 

One of the topics of discussion during reunions held by the 44th is how to take steps to ensure the Korean War is not forgotten in school textbooks and, most importantly, by the governments of the U.S., North Korea and South Korea.

“The Korean War is kind of a forgotten war to a lot of people,” Bowker said. “But right now, we still have over 7,700 missing from the Korean War, which are many more than from the Vietnam War.”

The lessons learned from the Korean War were quickly forgotten, or not learned at all, by the U.S. government and military, according to Bowker. A major issue was a lack of adequate military strength to fight the war, he said. 

“We didn’t learn our lesson in Korea because we pulled off the same thing in Vietnam, and later in Desert Storm. You’ve got to go in to win, or don’t go in at all,” said Bowker. “Too many politicians get in to it once you get started.”

Bowker sees parallels from those conflicts to today’s U.S.-led actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, though the battlefields are nothing alike.

“This situation, they are fighting a guerrilla war over there, which is tough. They’re not in trenches; you almost have to go in and clean the whole area out,” he said. “In Afghanistan, they know those mountains — you can’t just go in with a handful of men.”

Increases in troop numbers in Afghanistan “would be encouraging to me if I were over there,” Bowker stated. 

In the past, Bowker has spoken to schoolchildren and representatives on the Korean War along with other U.S. armed conflicts.

“The kids need to know their freedom is not free. Somebody paid for it,” he said. 

Though Bowker speaks with a twinge of regret when discussing his experiences in the war, like many old soldiers, the war has become an inseparable part of his being.

“Some of them were not pleasurable experiences, but we survived them,” he said with a shrug and a smile.

“It’s unfortunate people can’t live in peace,” Bowker said, shaking his head. “I just don’t understand it.”