St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Images of orphans haunt veteran

A former Navy Seabee had many experiences during the Korean War, but none left an impression like its most vulnerable victims.

Published July 27, 2003

SPRING HILL - For Richard Mellinger, the most vivid memories of the Korean War are not of fierce firefights or smoking battlegrounds.

They are the haunting images of lost, abandoned and orphaned children.

"There were big families, and they couldn't take care of the kids. A lot of times you would see 20 or 30 abandoned children, all looking for something to eat and crying," Mellinger said. "That was really hard to imagine. Some kids, they were losing their entire families."

Mellinger was a steelworker with a Navy construction battalion, the Seabees. He built airfields, repaired bridges and set up MASH units. Occasionally, his unit would encounter snipers or face artillery shelling as they did their work.

But he escaped unharmed. The same could not be said for the endless stream of refugees he saw during his 11 months in Korea.

The refugees were fleeing the northern part of the country and the invading communists.

"The people lost everything. The roads were clogged with people with nowhere to go. They were scared, bewildered - especially the children, the wounded," Mellinger said. "War is a horrible thing."

Mellinger and his fellow Seabees tried to give the children food. So did the Red Cross and nuns who were serving in the area. The Seabees even built orphanages.

Yet, even as they tried to help the Koreans, Mellinger and the Seabees always had to be wary of those they befriended. There was always the chance that North Korean soldiers could be hiding among the friendly natives.

Mellinger, who lives in Spring Hill, is proud of America's role in stopping the advance of communism in Korea.

"I think our effort was the beginning of the Cold War," he said. "No telling what would have happened if we had let the North take the South."

But even 50 years later, Mellinger's most striking memory of Korea is of the lost children.

"I never want to see another war," said Mellinger, now 70. "There's got to be a better way."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.