The Korean War is also called “The Forgotten War,” having been overshadowed in the media by World War II and Vietnam. As Congress never formally declared war, Korea was technically only a “conflict.” For John Henry Poyner Jr. of Berryville, it sure felt like war and is far from forgotten.
John was born in 1931, in Johnson County. He was 10 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. His family to move to Oakland, California, where his father worked building ships for the war effort. At the time Korea had been under brutal Japanese rule for 35 years. After World War II ended, the victors divided Korea at the 38th parallel, with North Korea being under the influence of the Soviet Union and South Korea the United States. The Soviet Union installed Kim Jong-il, the father of today’s Korean dictator, as Supreme Leader. All of this was of very little interest to John and most of the world.
After World War II, John’s family returned Arkansas where he went to school, worked, hunted and fished on the Buffalo River. In the summer of 1950, Kim Jong-il, with the approval of Stalin, invaded South Korea. President Truman, fearing the spread of communism, sent U.S. forces to protect the south. While all this was taking place, John was in Jasper getting a haircut. On the wall of the barber shop was a fancy poster encouraging young men to join the Army. Having an adventurous spirit and a sense of duty, John thought this might be a good deal, so a couple weeks later he found himself in basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas.
John went on to demolition school, then volunteered to go to Korea. In the spring of 1951, the troop ship John was aboard arrived in Pusan. They anchored next to a hospital ship in the harbor that seemed to have a constant stream of wounded being carried aboard. His unit was taken to a nearby railroad yard where many of the locomotives and cars had been blown up and laid in ruin. For John and his fellow soldiers of the 25th Infantry, things were beginning to become very real and a bit worrisome.
A couple months before John arrived in Korea, hundreds of thousands of Chinese fighters launched a surprise attack, shocking American forces and allowing the north to take control of most of the country. Under General MacArthur’s direction, an invasion at Inchon, behind enemy lines, allowed American forces to cut off enemy supplies and take back most of the south. The main battle was once again near the 38th parallel, exactly where John’s train was headed. John recalled the further they traveled north, the more devastation they saw and the more alarming it became. They could only travel so far by train, so they marched the rest of the way arriving on the front line a couple days later.
The war was at a stalemate with both sides dug in hard. Technically, there was a cease-fire in place, which the forces of North Korea completely ignored, creating a daily exchange of artillery, mortar and small arms fire. At first, John was a mortar handler whose job was to keep a good supply of ammunition on hand. He quickly advanced to assistant gunner, then gunner and within a few months, John was promoted to mortar section leader where he was responsible for directing fire for several mortar crews.
John recalls getting very little rest and being on alert 24 hours a day. Every so often the North Korean forces would launch an offensive and the allied lined would bend, causing John and his crews to scramble to new positions to drive the enemy back. The ground was so hard and rocky it was near impossible to dig foxholes, so they had to use sandbags for protection. Winter along the 38th parallel was brutal with little shelter to protect them from the sub-zero temperatures. John recalled several men getting frostbite and losing fingers and toes.
John considers himself lucky only getting hit with small pieces of shrapnel a couple of times, once through the ear. Even though he was entitled to a Purple Heart, John considered his wounds so minor, it would be a disrespectful to his fellow soldiers who were killed or badly wounded to accept the award. During the Korean “Conflict,” 36,914 American servicemen were killed and over 100,000 were wounded. More than 7,800 Americans who fought in Korea are still unaccounted for.
After his tour in Korea was up, John was stationed in Kentucky training new soldiers. When he was discharged, he returned to Arkansas and went to work on a road crew building Highway 7 near Jasper. He then went to school under the GI Bill to become a welder. John married Ruth Smith, also an Army veteran, whose story we shared in last week’s column. They both continued serving our nation as members of the Arkansas National Guard.
It was my honor and privilege to meet John and Ruth Poyner. Besides being veterans who proudly answered our country’s call, they’re both very humble and kind people. Although the Korean War may be known as the “The Forgotten War,” these two outstanding veterans are not forgotten, but honored. We thank them for their service and for being heroic examples to us all.
Matt Russell is a USMC Vietnam combat veteran and Commander of the Boone County DAV. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent the position of this newspaper, the Disabled American Veterans or any other organization.