Bill Moeller commentary: Remembering the cold days in Korea


With an American soldier hightailing it across the border into North Korea, missile launches and the extreme warm weather we've had this year, my mind wandered into thinking about just the opposite — the abominably cold days and nights we suffered through during the first winter of the Korean War and the three columns I wrote it about it many years ago. 

I don't think it'll make us feel any cooler, but this experience was enough to remove me from "the front line." 

Veterans usually don’t talk about their battle experiences except with other veterans, but here goes, pretty close to what was first written many years ago: 

The winter weather was as much an enemy as were the North Koreans and, later, the Chinese. Americans had never fought in such brutally cold conditions before, even in Europe, and were unprepared for it. 

The late author, David Halberstam, wrote a history of the first year of the war, finishing it just before he died. He named it "The Coldest Winter," an apt title if I ever heard one, and I still have my copy of that statement. 

To begin, here's a comparison: the 38th Parallel divided North and South Korea and, after all that bloodshed, still does. If we follow that line of latitude to the east, we find that it's just about midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, California. 

It's hard to believe, looking at a world globe, that it could get so cold — 20 degrees below zero on many nights in January and February. 

Our equipment wasn't equal to the conditions. We were issued the standard "fatigues,” a World War II parka and gloves, while the Chinese and North Koreans wore specially padded and quilted clothing suitable to the climate. While our gloves were the standard five-fingered woolen type, they wore padded mittens with a slit that allowed the wearer to extend his trigger finger. 

The "enemy's gloves" did the job as I can attest after removing a pair off a Chinese officer's corpse. 

Our footwear wasn't up to the conditions, either. We had two choices: our beloved jump boots (which we purchased with our own money at a cost of about a month's pay per pair, as I remember) or standard issued shoe pacs, which were waterproofed with rubber and did not allow perspiration to escape. The jump boots were excellent for marching and walking but woefully lacking in protection from the cold. 

One day in February 1951, four of us were detailed to be part of a Jeep reconnaissance patrol to see if we could detect any enemy activity. And the only way we could detect such activity, of course, was if we were fired upon in an ambush. The patrol was scheduled to take most of a day, so I wore my pair of shoe pacs, since they were thicker than jump boots and I'd be essentially stationary in the Jeep. 

When we returned from the mission, we were surprised to find that all of the company's muffle bags — mine included — had been shipped off to "somewhere in the rear." And I was stuck with the wrong pair of shoes. I never saw the right ones again. All my possessions, except for what things I had in my backpack, were gone — my camera, letters from home, a label off a Korean whiskey bottle (which I was saving to show my dad when I returned home because the label claimed it was "Real Old, Very Fine, Smoked Turkey Whiskey") and everything else. To repeat, everything of mine was gone, including my jump boots. And I never saw any of it again. 

A few days later, we began marching north through a narrow valley. The "road" was not wide enough for vehicles, only native carts used it for tending to the rice paddies. My feet were perspiring as they had been since the patrol began and it was beginning to be slightly painful when walking as it turned into a cold — very cold — night. 

Next week: "The Chinese prepare to attack".


Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at