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Gunning for home

Amid ambushes, morphine and mortar shells, one young infantryman had to battle his way back to his family.

Published July 20, 2003

Everyone knew the hills along the narrow, rutted road to Chipyong-ni were full of Chinese soldiers. But Dick Barham held tight atop the tank, crouched low, rifle outstretched.

Barham, then 19, was shot almost immediately. He was lucky.

"Without a doubt," he said last week from his New Port Richey home, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

The fight intensified as Company L, part of the 5th Cavalry, pushed deeper in the late afternoon of Feb. 15, 1951.

Fewer than 30 of the 160 Americans made it to Chipyong-ni, where the pinned-down 23rd Regimental Combat Team and a French battalion awaited rescue.

Scores of infantrymen were killed, wounded or captured. Some who fell off the tanks simply could not catch up.

"We walked right into an ambush," Barham said.

Company commanders worried about a slaughter but were outranked by an ambitious colonel named Marcel Crombez, who viewed infantrymen as effective protection for the tank column.

Controversy over his decision to storm Chipyong-ni lingers a half-century later, even though the task force of 23 tanks eventually defeated the Chinese.

"It's one of the key battles of the war because of its importance of rescuing the troops and also getting the Chinese to retreat," said Martin Blumenson, a contributing editor to ARMY Magazine and a combat historian in Korea.

"But we could have lost a whole regiment up there," Blumenson added. "The guys on the tanks, they will never forgive Crombez."

At first, Barham thought the tank's engine had exploded. He spun around, dazed, and lost the grip of his rifle.

"I'm hit," he told another man on the tank. "Boogie," the man shot back. In other words, get off the tank.

The young soldier jumped to the half-frozen ground and took cover in a rice paddy. Adrenaline overpowered the pain inflicted by the bullet that tore through his rear end and spit out his leg.

Getting shot so early was fortunate because Barham was closer to friendly lines.

A medic came by and cut open Barham's pants (he wore three pairs and two layers of underwear to shield the cold). After stopping the bleeding and administering a shot of morphine, the medic scurried off to the next casualty.

Barham lay in the icy water. He removed the grenades taped to his suspenders, spread them out before him and ducked as bullets cascaded above and crashed in the water.

"You heard chheeewww and a splash. I hugged the ground and prayed for rescue," he said.

An hour later, he was greeted by a tank that took him back to a MASH unit.

Mortar shells shook the makeshift hospital and masked the smell of flesh and blood with gunpowder. Misery's voice, however, was unmistakable.

"They were calling for their mothers," Barham said of the wounded, breaking into tears as he sat at his dining room table. "Mom, mom, I need you."

He needed help himself, but the enemy fire, a violation of the Geneva Convention, made the MASH unit unsafe. Barham was hustled into an ambulance. The windows were blown out, and the cold Korean air swept around him.

"Every time a mortar shell landed close, it would rock the ambulance. The fear is unbelievable because there is nothing you can do," he said.

Etched on Barham's left forearm is a faded skull and crossbones. He got the tattoo when he was a 15-year-old growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, about the time he dropped out of high school. On his 17th birthday, he joined the Army.

"I just didn't have any direction," he said. "My dad said, "Get in the car, I'll drive you downtown.' Does that tell you anything?"

He enlisted for two years and ended up stationed at the now-defunct Fort Sheridan, 40 miles north of Chicago, where he could see his girlfriend-turned-wife, Arline.

But the war began in the second year, and President Truman extended his service another year. Soon Barham and 1,000 other soldiers were aboard a merchant ship headed for Japan.

"I prayed for death. It took us 16 days, and I think I spent all of them in bed," he said. "It was hot, and there were so many men, you could not get a shower and had to wait in line to go to the bathroom or to eat."

The ambulance carrying Barham sped off into the night. A second dose of morphine made him numb to the bumps in the road.

He arrived at a schoolhouse, but doctors said they could not help him there. He was loaded on a train to Pusan Harbor and taken aboard a Navy ship. He wound up in hospitals in Yokohama and Tokyo.

Each day, Barham wrote his wife a letter, often addressing her by her nickname, Stinky. He ended a Feb. 26, 1951, dispatch with a rhyme he learned from another soldier: I used to be a Democrat as happy as can be. Now I wish I were a dog and Truman was a tree.

The injuries were enough to lead any man to believe he was headed home. Barham longed for a warm bed and a hot meal with his wife and family. But to his dismay, he was ordered back to the front line. He returned on June 21, 1951.

"I knew no one when I got back. They either rotated out, were wounded or killed," he said.

Within a week, he found himself in another firefight, north of Seoul. As he ran from the assault, the scar tissue opened, and the bleeding began anew.

This time he was going home for sure.

Barham's father, a pressman for the Chicago Tribune, traveled to San Francisco to pick him up in a new car he bought for the occasion. The two took turns driving home, where they would surprise Barham's wife and 6-month-old baby.

The war had given Barham a new sense of responsibility. He finished high school, took adult education classes and went into the graphic arts business. He would become part owner of a lithographic platemaking company in Chicago, taking on work for Time and Playboy magazines, among others.

In 1990, Barham and his wife moved to New Port Richey. Both still work: He as a bank security guard, she as a child care provider.

At 71 years old, Barham jogs at least 3.5 miles per day, more on weekends. Trophies and plaques line the wall of a room off his kitchen, the most recent for his first place finish in a race on the Fourth of July in Dunedin (His time for the 3K was 15:07).

Another plaque features a number of a different sort: 22, the gallons of blood Barham has donated since he returned from the war.

"It's my way of paying back what was given to me," he said.

His own bloodshed did not go unnoticed. Above the trophies sits a wood box with a dark background. Inside hangs a Purple Heart.

- Alex Leary can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is

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