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The lasting imprint of a forgotten war

For Joe Clark, stories of the Korean War include vicious fighting, brutal weather, seemingly insurmountable odds and awe-inspiring heroism.

JORGE SANCHEZ
Published July 20, 2003

INVERNESS - In a battle where bravery was as commonplace as bullets and ice, Joe Clark survived overwhelming odds to become one of the Korean War's "Chosin Few."

That's what survivors of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir call themselves.

In a heroic odyssey, Clark fought as attacks by the Chinese army nearly wiped out two platoons. Of the 55 men he commanded in his platoon, only two survived. A second unit he helped organize for a withdrawal from the fighting also was mauled.

By the start of the Korean War in 1950, Clark was no stranger to battle. He had served aboard a Navy destroyer and a destroyer escort during the Pacific campaign of World War II. He took part in the Battle of Okinawa.

"It was a major battle, but I had a very small part in it," Clark recalls. "I just remember one hell of a typhoon blowing up."

His tour of duty with the Navy ended in October 1948. He was 21 years old.

"The next day I joined the Army," Clark said. "I asked for an overseas assignment."

He was sent to Japan as part of a peacekeeping force for two years, until hostilities broke out after North Korea invaded the newly formed nation of South Korea in the summer of 1950.

As a sergeant, Clark was assigned to take part in the amphibious assault at Inchon Harbor in mid September of 1950. Clark's Army unit, the 32nd Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, went in after the initial wave of Marines. As a result, there was no opposition.

"Then they told us to climb aboard tanks and head north until we got shot at," said Clark, now 75. "So that's what we did."

Clark said the U.S. forces pretty much had their way with the North Korean Army for a few months.

"The landing at Inchon broke their back and their will to fight," he said.

But the tide of war was about to turn, and Clark was going to find himself in the thick of the worst fighting.

In late October 1950, Chinese forces launched their first offensive of the war. A month later, they were pummeling the U.S. forces and pushing them back.

Clark's ordeal took place from Nov. 27 to Dec. 9. The 1st Marine Division, with Clark's Army unit fighting alongside, was encircled and had to make a fighting retreat to the south.

"We were attacked by three Chinese armies," Clark said. "They beat the dickens out of us. Not that they were all that good as fighters, it was just that there were so darned many of them. They were like ants."

Clark was in command of a platoon of 35 American soldiers and 20 South Koreans.

"We lost them all, except for two," Clark said.

And the Chinese soldiers weren't the only foe. He and other Korean War veterans say the winter temperatures dropped well below zero on many occasions. During the battle, the men slept on their sleeping bags on the ground, as there were insufficient tents.

"It was so cold, and we were not equipped for it," Clark said. "We almost froze to death. I had frostbite."

As the battle raged, Clark and his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr., organized a second unit to carry several hundred wounded soldiers aboard four large trucks.

They were making their way south through roads and hills. Then the Chinese attacked again.

"We were coming around a hill, and there was a roadblock," Clark said. "They pinned us down."

The fighting was intense. Faith was hit several times. He led an attack on the enemy roadblock, firing his pistol and throwing grenades. When he had reached a position approximately 30 yards from the roadblock, he was wounded again by a grenade, but continued to direct the attack until the roadblock was overrun. Then he died.

For his actions, Lt. Col. Faith was awarded the Medal of Honor.

"He told the major who was carrying him, "Just put me down, because I'm dying,"' Clark recalls, tears welling into his eyes. "He was a great man, if anyone ever deserved the Medal of Honor, he did."

Clark's second unit suffered heavy losses, as the Chinese went after the wounded soldiers aboard the trucks.

"They killed them all and then poured gasoline over them," Clark said.

Clark waited until nightfall, and then helped lead a unit of about 50 survivors southward to safety. He saw the flashes of artillery and figured they were coming from American cannons, so they just marched toward the muzzle flashes.

He eventually came to a base and was ushered into a warming tent. There, he learned that he had helped lead the survivors through a division of about 15,000 Chinese soldiers and a minefield.

The next day, he was airlifted to Japan, where he was treated in a hospital for frostbite on his feet. After he recovered, Clark remained in Japan until 1961. He was transferred to the United States, and in 1967 he was placed on medical retirement.

The Chosin Reservoir battle was one of the fiercest battles in the Korean War. An encircled combat group of Marines and Army marched out of the frozen reservoir in a bloody retreat to the sea. They were under attack the whole way. It prompted a famous Marine cry of "Retreat, hell - we're attacking in a different direction."

According to Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950, a book by former Marine Martin Russ, the Chinese sent about 120,000 troops into the reservoir area against some 16,000 allied troops, including 12,000 Marines. The Americans suffered 9,675 battle casualties, according to retired Marine Maj. Patrick C. Roe, chairman of the Chosin Few Historical Committee.

But for Clark, there was still one more war left to fight.

In 1971, at the age of 45, he came out of medical retirement and returned to active duty in Vietnam. Why?

"I volunteered so that my son wouldn't have to go," Clark said.

There is an Army regulation that forbids a father and son from serving in the same combat zone.

Clark completed a one-year tour of duty, serving as a crew member aboard an Army fuel tanker ship.

"We carried jet fuel across the delta," he said. "It was pretty uneventful."

After leaving the service in the mid 1970s, Clark worked as a sheriff's deputy in North Carolina for 17 years. He and his wife, Edith, 71, moved to Citrus County in 1998. They live in a house overlooking a fairway at Inverness Golf and Country Club.

The Korean War has been called by some "the forgotten war."

It certainly hasn't been forgotten by the men who fought it, men like Joe Clark. He has a theory on that term.

"Well," he said, "somebody had to be there and fight it in order for everyone else to be able to forget about it."

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