A love for his country and admiration for his brother prompted 16-year-old Jim Holman to alter his birth certificate and join the Marine Corps two days before the start of the Korean War.
Holman, the current president of All Veterans Association of Tulsa, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1950 on June 23, two days before war started. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri
“My brother was in the Marine Corps and he had been through World War II and he was my idol,” Holman said. “I always wanted to be like my brother.”
In a three-year war in Korea, 54,000 American soldiers were killed.
Holman was sent to boot camp in San Diego. He had advanced combat training at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California, where he became an infantryman and a rifleman. Later, he volunteered to be a “cook’s striker” – part of a team that gets up at 4 a.m. and pumps up all the field kitchens.
“That was not good duty,” he said with a smile.
After training, his adventure began.
“Then I was immediately put on a troop ship and sent to Korea by way of Japan,” Holman said. “We stopped in Japan and got rid of all of our gear except combat gear. Then we went to Pusan, Korea.”
Holman made friends with other Marines whose names began with the letter H because they were always together.
This was his first time on a ship and his first trip out of the country.
“The ship was crowded,” Holman said. “There were five, six or seven bunks to the ceiling with probably 18 inches of space in between.”
It was supposed to be a 10-day trip but bad weather turned it into a 12-day voyage.
“Everyone on board was sick except me,” he said.
Every aspect of this experience was new to him.
“I had never heard of Korea,” Holman said. “In my studies, Korea was never brought up.
“You learned real quick in the Marine Corps. I was blessed because some of the guys in the Reserves were activated – some of them didn’t even have training. I had excellent training in boot camp.
“I think I was as well prepared for what I got into as anyone.”
In Japan on April 3, he boarded a ship to Korea where trucks took the Marines to an airport where they were put on transport planes and flown north (beyond the 38th Parallel). Then came another four-hour truck ride to the front lines and their assigned companies.
There was some sporadic shooting for a few weeks before China and North Korea launched a major spring offensive.
“On April 22, there was the largest attack of the Korean War,” Holman said. “They called it the Chinese Spring Offensive. The lowest number they ever said was 250,000 and the highest was 700,000 (enemy soldiers).
“The North Koreans and Chinese attacked.”
Holman had eight buddies who he had been with the whole time. Two were severely wounded and one was killed.
The Americans were tied in with the South Korean soldiers and they couldn’t hold their positions.
“When they gave way, we had to withdraw because there were holes in the line,” Holman said. “We withdrew about 30 miles before the line was plugged.”
The fighting then grew less intense but continued until May, when they launched the second spring offensive. It was not as big and lasted until May 31.
“On May 31, we took the offense and pushed back,” Holman said.
They slept in foxholes, bunkers and trenches unless they were in reserve and then they slept in tents.
“One of the guys there that we called ‘the old man’ – he was 23,” Holman said. “Eighty or 90 percent of the guys I knew in Korea, these were 18- or 19-year-old young men.
“In Korea, all I saw was Hell.
“There weren’t any towns. They had all been blasted. Every now and then you would see civilians trying to work rice paddies. It was another world.
“There had been so much shelling, it was just Hell.”
Among the South Koreans, the adults were very quiet, Holman said. There were lots of children.
“You wondered how the children survived,” Holman said. “The little boys would hang around because we would give them our chocolate bars and things like that we got in rations. They might take our dungarees down to the river and wash them out for us.”
One little 8-year-old boy named Peck was always hanging around. After a bombing, he was nowhere to be found and the soldiers became concerned. It turns out he had hidden in an oven.
The South Koreans were poor and didn’t have much food, Holman said. They would eat dried squid in a circle around a campfire.
“Dried, burned squid is probably the worst odor of anything I’ve ever smelled,” he said.
Since he wasn’t wounded, Holman never visited a MASH unit, the object of a movie and TV show about the Korean War.
“I know some doctors here in Tulsa now who were in MASH units,” Holman said. “Dr. Jerry Gustafason, he was in a MASH unit and we’ve discussed it.”
In 2013, 63 years after he left the war, Holman returned to South Korea at the invitation of the Korean government. During his nine-day stay, he visited battlegrounds and went to the Demilitarized Zone – the line between South Korea and communist North Korea. He went to the Freedom Bridge, the site of prisoner exchange.
“They treated me like a king,” Holman said of the South Koreans. “The older people would bow down to you. In one place, there were at least 500 children – all wanting to hand you little cards that said thank you.”
He stayed five days in Seoul.
“I haven’t seen a city in the United States to compete with Seoul,” he said. “When I was there, it was nothing but ashes. Now there are tunnels with expressways, monorails. You will not see a piece of trash anywhere in the city. It’s a fantastic place.”
The All Veterans Association (formerly World War II Vets of Tulsa) meets every Thursday at 9:30 a.m. at Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church, 4100 E. 41st Street. Veterans of all wars are welcome.
Holman said there are very few World War II veterans left and that’s true of the Korean veterans, too. The association is chronicling the stories of its members and they have efforts to try to reach out to local schools to give them a sense of the history before more veterans pass.