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War rages on in body and soul

Joseph Alaimo left Korea 51 years ago. But Korea has never left him. "It stays with you all the time," he says.

ROBERT KING
Published July 20, 2003

SPRING HILL - More than 50 years removed from Korea, the war that Joseph Alaimo fought as a young man during the bitterly cold winter of 1951-52 never seems too far away.

Yes, there are reminders hanging on the walls of his Spring Hill home - pictures of Alaimo with his war buddies, a display of the service medals he won that includes the Purple Heart and various trinkets of his devotion to the Marine Corps.

But more than that, the Korean War - which ended 50 years ago this month - seems to continue today in the various parts of Alaimo's almost 72-year-old body.

On the bottom of his feet: Sharp, needlelike sensations roust him painfully off the couch during moments of leisure - hurtful reminders of the frostbite he suffered during a winter when he would routinely peel the frozen first layer of skin off the soles of his feet.

In his back: There is the annoying discomfort that visits now and then to remind him of the bunker that collapsed on top of him during a mortar attack that nearly killed him. He would spend three weeks in the hospital.

In his ears: Echoes of the endless mortar attacks, not to mention artillery fire, still ring loudly in his ears - literally. In fact, Alaimo says the "terrible ringing" gets louder with each passing year.

In his nightmares: For half a century, Alaimo's sleep has been plagued by the rewound horrors he witnessed in Korea. He says it is part and parcel to the post-traumatic stress disorder that makes him jump at loud noises during the day. The government that sent him into war now provides him medication to calm him during the remembrance of it.

Alaimo left Korea 51 years ago. But Korea has never left him.

"It stays with you all the time," he said.

For obvious reasons, Alaimo doesn't enjoy talking about the war. He granted the Times an interview only at the urging of other local Korean veterans, who knew he had a story to tell.

Alaimo says it is important that people know what the war was really like. But after he spent more than an hour and a half relaying his story to a reporter recently, Alaimo was depressed the rest of the day, said his wife, Marianne.

"He has his good days and his bad days," said Mrs. Alaimo, who has been at her husband's side for 46 years. She understands what war does to people. As a little girl growing up in Germany, she saw World War II up close and firsthand.

"Bad things you never forget," she said.

Some of the good days that Joseph Alaimo looks forward to are the reunions he attends almost annually with members of his old unit: the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

His war buddies are spread around the country. He is lucky to see them once a year. But Alaimo still considers the guys he spent the winter with his best friends.

"When you develop a close relationship like that, you are almost brothers," he said.

It was in Korea that Alaimo picked up the nickname that he has carried with him ever since - "Chico." It was there that his buddies came to love his Italian mother, whose care packages of provolone and salami from Wisconsin were the delight of Charlie Company.

"I was well-liked over there," Alaimo said. "I guess it was my mother's packages."

To this day, Alaimo keeps several neatly organized photo albums that tell the story of the six long months he spent in Korea and the lifelong friends he made.

Black-and-white snapshots reveal thin Marines in thick winter parkas, shivering in front of snow-covered Korean mountains.

The color photos portray the men who came back during their golden years - white-haired old men with round paunches. Usually they are seated around a banquet table at one of the reunions.

Those are the happy aspects of his Korean experience.

But in the quiet of his home on Callaway Avenue, just off County Line Road, Alaimo mostly thinks of the war in terms of its darker aspects.

"I think of the ones who didn't come back," he said. "And that's what tears me up."

He spent that cold winter defending a position about 50 miles north of the 38th parallel, the boundary that still divides North and South Korea.

He remembers sharing bunkers with rats the size of alley cats. He remembers eating food from a can when the temperature was 30 below zero and there was no heat.

He remembers most of the men having worms and lice and suffering from dysentery, a disease characterized by bloody diarrhea. He remembers going out on night patrols and finding that the sweat on his feet would be frozen by morning.

"We tried to keep ourselves healthy, but the conditions wouldn't allow it," he said.

Because of the frostbite, some men would lose toes or portions of their feet. Alaimo kept his toes. But he has such poor circulation in his feet that they remain constantly cold and prone to sharp pains.

Because the Americans and other United Nations forces were fighting the communist North Koreans on their own turf, the North Koreans knew exactly where their adversaries would take cover. And they pounded those areas relentlessly with mortar fire, Alaimo said.

"That's where we sustained a lot of casualties," he said.

Among them was a guy Alaimo remembers only as a Texan named Guidry. During one of the many mortar attacks, everybody made it back to the bunker but Guidry. When the explosions ceased, Alaimo and the others emerged to find Guidry dead on the ground.

"He had a hole in the back of his head the size of a golf ball," Alaimo said.

Others were left behind, too.

"I stood up for this one Marine before we shipped over. I begged him not to get married. But he did," Alaimo said. "He was killed six weeks later."

Alaimo's own brush with death, again during a mortar attack, left him buried under a pile of bunker timbers and sandbags. He screamed and prayed.

"I just cried, "God, don't let me die."'

Alaimo's buddies dug him out and sent him to the battalion hospital. He could have lingered a week longer in recovery. Instead he asked to go back to his unit; his buddies were there. And he wanted to be with them.

Eventually, a platoon runner would approach Alaimo in his bunker and tell him his name had appeared on the list of soldiers due to be replaced and rotated back home. Alaimo didn't believe it at first. He ran to platoon headquarters and checked it himself.

Sure enough, he was going home.

Immediately, he went back to his bunker and prayed: He thanked God for his ticket out.

Alaimo recalls the emotional moment when, after 15 days aboard a transport ship, he and a boatload of other returning soldiers caught their first glimpse of the California coast.

"We saw the shore and cried," he said. "There were a lot of tears."

- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com

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