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Of faith and fatality

Tens of thousands of Korean War veterans live in the Tampa Bay area. A few agreed to share their recollections with the Times.

Published July 25, 2003

The young man stood on Hill 704, in the freezing nowhere of Korea, knowing his life would change with the squeeze of his finger.

He had never fired a rifle in combat.

Now he was staring at several Chinese soldiers, peering out of foxholes across the battlefield.

"I was looking right into their faces when I pulled the trigger," said Don Ploof, now 75. "I couldn't believe I was killing them. I stood over their bodies (later) and apologized."

Only months earlier, Ploof had read the New Testament for the first time and soon found himself praying five hours a day: 54 prayers and a rosary in the morning, same routine at night.

He was on the brink of enrolling in a Roman Catholic seminary in Rome, N.Y. He wanted to become a monk.

Then came the call to Korea.

Then came rifle practice, which he aced.

Then came the time to kill.

He had liked the Chinese, thought of them as kind and placid, and couldn't believe he had gunned them down so easily.

"I couldn't get over it," he said. "I made up my mind I would never kill another Chinese soldier. I was going to let them kill me."

But he didn't.

Other battles came, and Ploof killed again and again. He estimates he killed as many as 88 enemy soldiers during his tour of duty.

By the time he came back home, the faith that had been so strong was shattered.

"Now I was a murderer. Now I was a killer," said Ploof, who now lives in St. Petersburg.

He had taken three Catholic books to war. He buried them in a rice paddy before he left.

"I didn't want anything to do with God," he said. "I was angry that God would allow war to be possible. I became very much an atheist."

Don Ploof never made it as a monk.

He became a barber instead.

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