Joe Owen- Korean War

Monday, November 12, 2007
Joe Owen

Joe Owen loves to tell stories about the past, so it was truly a joy to talk to him. The only problem: he doesn't like to tell stories about valor, but mostly stories about how he went AWOL to get a look at Tokyo, or how he told his colonel what to do with his promotion.

One thing all his good and bad stories have in common: they all have a ring of truth to them, such as the way he went 32 days with the same seven layers of clothes on in January without a bath because it was so cold. Owens narrates, "An officer came by and asked me to shave. I said, 'Sir, if you'll bring me some hot water, I'll do it.' I never saw him again."

Joe Owen was a private, though the BAR or Browning automatic rifle he carried for two years should have called for a corporal's rating. It was a big gun, and you can still see the damage to the muscles in his left arm he got from hauling it around, plus he lost a lot of the hearing in his left ear. Owens says he learned to squeeze off one shot at a time on that gun that would fire 20 rounds at once. That was so the enemy wouldn't look for the big gun. When asked if he was a good shot, he wouldn't admit to it, just said he learned to hunt shooting squirrels as a boy.

One of the worst scares he ever had came when he was going to the outposts. "A Chinese jumped up out of the gully. He was hidden under a parachute, I think," says Owens. "He jumped up with a burp gun in my face. I liked to faint. I threw my hand up and told the other guys [behind me] 'Don't go no further.' I thought he was going to kill me. I spoke Korean and English. He only spoke Chinese. We motioned to each other. Turned out he wanted to surrender. I put my weapon down and mimicked him putting his down. Every time he would put it down, I would come back toward [my gun] and he would pick it up again. Must have taken 20 or 30 minutes. I was afraid someone behind me would shoot at him and he would kill me. I finally carried him back without a gun."

Later Owen was wounded by shrapnel that hit him in the leg. He says the leg was swollen black & blue from infection, but penicillin saved it. We won't go into the story about how he got in trouble from sneaking out at night while he was in the hospital, or how he drank from a stream and then realized there was a dead soldier upstream. It's also better not to detail how some of the new guys in his unit insisted on picking up brightly colored packages they found in the snow at Christmas, even though Joe warned them they had to be booby trapped, and how some of those guys didn't make it home. Joe comments, "You can't tell an American much."

What you do need to know is the one story of valor that was pried out of him. It's what he did to get the Bronze Star for heroism in ground combat. After training at Fort Jackson, Joe was in a line with some guys with funny accents and announced, "I think I'm in line with a bunch of dang Yankees." It turned out that they were actually Cajuns from Louisiana, and the guy next to him in line was Alfred Jurado. Though it sounds like something from a Tom Hanks movie, Joe and Alfred became great friends and took care of each other through the fighting in Korea. On May 12, 1952, Owen's unit was pinned down on the side of a hill, taking heavy artillery fire. His friend Alfred was uphill from him on a rocky ridge. Suddenly, he realized that Alfred had been hit by a mortar. Without really thinking, he ran through mortar fire to get to him, up to the rock he was on. Alfred was mad and wanting to get the guys that fired at him. Joe tells the story, "I said, 'No, Alfred, no. You're hit.' I cut his trouser leg open and there was a big hole with clear fluid running. I carried him all the way back [down the hill to the aid station] with mortar shells hitting all around. When I got underground my legs were all, you know [indicates wobbly legs with his hands]. Then I realized what I had done."

After Joe Owen got back in 1953, a Colonel drove up to the Gulf station in Cornersville where he worked and presented him with the bronze star. "I was washing the back of a hearse. He gave it to me with the guys there as witnesses."

The only thing that made Joe Owen mad when he got back was when people referred to the Korean War as a police action. "Police action! We lost 50,000 troops in Korea," he says and adds, "I took too many chances."