Red Lodge Vet Recalls Korean War

Part 2

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero

Wes Imlay recalls the chilly reception American

soldiers received upon their return from fighting

a war that nobody knew about in Korea.

Wes Imlay continued his story about being at the scene at the base of Heart Break Hill. There was an order for trucks to go where logs were being cut down, pick them up and take them up a roughly cut, narrow and very steep slope to where American soldiers were quickly building protective bunkers. The fight was on and enemy fire was heavy.

Imlay said, “This old Colonel said, ‘I want every truck to make this trip. There is no faking it.’” They kept driving until headquarters advised the colonel it was too dangerous. Eventually, “he had to call back the order,” said Imlay.

The soldiers were stuck at Hill 1062, in the tallest mountains in Korea, at a place he called “Papasin,” the northern most point of the triangle. “I guess every war has a Heart Break Hill,” he noted. “Vietnam, World War II...”

However, before the Colonel called back the trucks due to the assignment being too hazardous, Imlay, along with one other country boy, continuously drove the trail in their trucks and made it up the hill. Others did not; some fell off right off the narrow ledge to their deaths or damaged their vehicles. All the while this was going on, they had to brave gunfire.

The route could only be run at night due to the danger. They were accompanied by a soldier hanging from the truck and returning fire. That was the only way the drivers had a chance.

“Only me and a North Carolina guy got to the top,” he said proudly.

“He was used to driving trucks same as I was in Montana. We had to have blackout lights. A lot of trucks went off the ridge.”

The assignment also required Imlay to be escorted by a soldier walking with a flashlight hanging on to the fender of the truck. Imlay could only drive as fast as the soldier could walk. There was no other way to see the road. “He’d motion me to turn. We’d get a load off and come back down. Four to five times a day. Four days with enough logs to build bunkers.”

While driving, he was at con- stant risk from more than the ter- rain. “Snipers were out at night. Well, they tried! A lot of our infantrymen would go out and fight and cover. Infantry was guiding, looking, defending.”

Korean Veterans magazine (Vol 2, No. 6) recalls Korea in spring, 1952: “The 40th Inf. Divi- sion was sent to Heartbreak Ridge to relieve the 25th Inf. Div. which had taken heavy losses from North Korean attacks. North Korean fire of 76 mm artillery and 122 mm mortar was steady and deadly on Heart Break Ridge resulting in frequent personnel wounds and a shortage of key non-coms.”

“After the last trip with logs up the mountain, I got orders to get ready for rotation, so I was soon on my way home. That was a great day.”

Imlay reflected, “We were getting rotated back to the states! A year or so later, the 25th division... so much fighting. We were getting relieved by another outfit.”

According to History.com, “As far as American officials were concerned, it was a war against the forces of international communism itself. After some early back- and-forth across the 38th parallel, the fighting stalled and casualties mounted with nothing to show for them. Meanwhile, American offi- cials worked anxiously to fashion some sort of armistice with the North Koreans. The alternative, they feared, would be a wider war with Russia and China–or even, as some warned, World War III.”

In July 1953, the Korean War came to an end. The Korean penin- sula is still divided today.”

In July 1951, President Harry Truman started peace talks while fighting continued along the 38th parallel. Imlay has no patience for Truman, saying simply that no one wanted to admit it was a war. Negotiations went on for two years with an armistice signed on July 27, 1953. A new boundary was cre- ated near the 38th parallel. South Korea gained 1,500 square miles of territory and the current 2-mile- wide “demilitarized zone” or “DMZ” was created.

Imlay suffered a chilly homecoming due to local ignorance of the war. “I told them we lost 55,000 soldiers in Korea in three years!” but he repeatedly heard from people he used to know in Reed Point, “It wasn’t a real war.” He blamed Truman and McArthur for not pub- licizing the war. “Even my parents didn’t know unless I wrote them.”

“Nobody had any respect for me. I clammed up,” he said. He bore the nasty comments, struggling in silence until some World War II veterans took him under their wing. “I was very low. They redirected me.” He joined the local VFW and later the American Legion. “My dad was one of the first American Legionnaires in Stillwater County,” he recalled proudly.

“I never did go back.” Even his intended had no sympathy. “She couldn’t understand why I didn’t send her gifts like the other fellows from abroad.” That marriage didn’t last.

He left Reed Point, the area his father had homesteaded since 1912. He worked on various ranches.

His second marriage was much happier, “I got me a wonderful woman,” he said wistfully. “A red headed Norwegian!” Loreen “Lolly” understood him. They were married and moved to Rapelje in 1970, then Bridger, in 2001. They were together for 48 years.

Wes and Lolly had four children, three boys and a girl: son Theron (and wife Mandy) of Tularosa, N.M., son Russell (and wife Debbie) of Bridger, daughter Denise (and husband Ron Reno) of Billings and son Jeff (and wife Dawn) of Portland, Ore. They have 14 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren.

Only Theron continued in the military, retiring as a Staff Sgt. in Air Force Intelligence.

Imlay finds he is happier now at The Willows in Red Lodge, than any place since his wife’s passing in 2002. He still rode his beloved horses up until five years ago.

Although the Korean War was relatively short it was a brutal action by any standard. The federal records state almost 5 million people died with over half of the number civilians, a civilian death figure higher than in World War II and Vietnam. Almost 40,000 Americans died in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded.

As for his time in Korea Imlay said, “I feel much better about it now. Some folks I know now say to me, ‘By Golly, you were in a real war!’” The others, he said, well, he’s outlived them.

“I’m not sorry we fought because we made South Korea free today. It wasn’t wasted. I’ve met quite a few Korean people who come to the States and find out I’m a war vet. They shake my hand and they thank me for my service. That makes me feel good.”