Long search: Army veterans find buddy injured during Korean War

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001

BISMARCK, N.D. -- For almost five years, three Korean War veterans searched for a fellow soldier who, despite a wound that left his scalp ripped open, dragged an injured comrade off a hillside under machine-gun fire.

Harold Smith, 67, often came up in conversation when the Army's 24th Infantry Division's 19th Infantry Regiment gathered for fall reunions. The soldiers wondered what had happened to the quiet private from Benson County who had received an undesirable discharge.

''We really liked this guy,'' said Joseph O'Connell, a veteran from the 24th Infantry. ''He was wounded pretty badly. All four of us were machine gunners in this unit and we were concerned, really, if he was OK after being released from the Army.''

Army records from the 1950s were destroyed in a 1973 warehouse fire, and the men did not know where to begin searching for someone with such a common last name. They even thought Smith might be dead.

But a letter to a state legislator in whose district Smith enlisted resulted in a newspaper story that was seen by Smith's sister. And now, nearly 50 years after a soldier's courageous actions in battle, his buddies were looking forward to a reunion last Saturday and hoping to correct what they see as a grave injustice.

It began in October 1951.

The 24th Infantry Division was coming under heavy fire from North Korean forces. A tank that had pulled alongside their bunker was a target for enemy artillery.

''All hell broke loose that day, quite frankly,'' said O'Connell, a retired banker in Warminster, Pa. ''We had quite a few casualties.''

A mortar shell landed between Smith and O.D. Shambley, injuring both and killing two others. Shambley's leg was pierced, leaving him unable to walk. Smith could barely see after shrapnel ripped through his helmet and tore back part of his scalp.

''That was a most horrible scene that I shall never forget,'' squad leader Billy McMullin, of Paducah, Ky., recalled in the letter. ''His scalp was peeled from the back of his head and hanging over his bloody face and chest.''

Still, Smith managed to help pull Shambley, of Mount Ida, Ark., back down the hill to safety.

''I wouldn't have made it by myself, without him,'' Shambley said. ''I owe him a lot.''

After his injury, Smith became a depressed man. At times, he would lock himself in his locker, then kick and holler until someone let him out, his buddies said.

The Army eventually gave him an undesirable discharge for unruly behavior. Shambley and McMullin said they plan to discuss how to appeal the discharge during the reunion in Rolla, Mo.

Martha Rudd, an Army spokes-person, said the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records conducts thorough investigations before changing military records.

Shambley said Smith deserves an honorable discharge and probably a medal.

''He gave it all for our country, and he gave it all for me,'' Shambley said, choking back tears. ''And I think he should have been treated better when he got out.''

O'Connell said Smith was a good soldier before he was hurt, ''and those wounds were probably the indirect cause of whatever happened.''

''The poor guy should have gotten treatment, instead of coming back to the unit for more fighting,'' O'Connell said. ''He was just never quite right after that. He just changed completely after he came back (from an Army hospital).

''December of 1952 was the last time anyone saw him, and that was in Japan,'' O'Connell said. ''What happened from that point on, we didn't know.''

About five years ago, McMullin, Shambley and O'Connell began searching in earnest for Smith. Regiment records showed Smith enlisted in Benson County, so McMullin sent the letter to Rep. Arlo Schmidt, who forwarded it to the weekly Benson County Farmers Press. Shambley and O'Connell also wrote letters to Schmidt.

Deanna Berg, who lives in Grand Forks, read the newspaper story in early August and called editor Richard Peterson with her brother's address and phone number in the western Montana town of Ronan.

McMullin, Smith's squad leader, made the call.

''I knew (McMullin) right away from his voice ...,'' said Smith, who was surprised to learn his buddies had worried about him all these years.

At first, Smith told them, he didn't realize anything was troubling him after the head injury.

''Looking back, I can see that there was a difference in the way I was acting,'' Smith said. ''Just getting my mind straightened out took a while, you know.''

As for his bravery that day on the hillside, Smith said anyone would have reacted like he did. He knew his injury was serious, he said, ''but, you know, I was going down the hill anyway.

''There was a lot of casualties, and the medics were too busy,'' he said. ''They couldn't find enough people. It just turned out that I was able to help.''

End advance for Thursday, Sept. 6, and thereafter

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