Korean veterans are mostly in their 70s and 80s now and dying at a rate of 1000 soldiers per month. In most cases their stories have not been told, so the value of their knowledge could be lost.
So what have we learned? What experience and insights can Korean War veterans offer to succeeding generations? And what counsel can they provide to a new generation of veterans? Senator Jack Kibbie is not only President of the Iowa Senate, he's also a Korean War Veteran.
Yeager: And joining us tonight is Sergeant First Class Jack Kibbie. How does a farm boy end up from the farm fields of Emmetsburg to the fields of Korea?
Kibbie: Well, I was drafted along with a lot more of my friends and in October of 1951 I went to Fort Knox, Kentucky and from there went to Korea in June of '52 and was there until June of '53 and I did tank training at Fort Knox and ended up in the 180th tank company in Korea which was part of the 45th division which was the Oklahoma National Guard.
Yeager: So, a farm boy is in the Oklahoma National Guard, you didn't have any idea how any of that worked. When you went to basic did you know that you were going to be in a tank division or you were just training like anything else?
Kibbie: No, when we left there was no -- I never signed up for any tank division or tank training but there was a lot of the Midwesterners that were drafted at that time did armored training of some kind.
Yeager: And you got into a tank and we're now going to look at a couple of pictures here that we have, Senator. Tell me, this is you but tell me where this is at and what that is that you're standing on, it looks like a tank to me.
Kibbie: Yeah, it's a World War II version, we called them M8s. They were powered by V8 Ford gasoline engines, three-speed transmission, 76mm guns and a five-man crew.
Yeager: Okay, five were in there. Were there always five in there?
Kibbie: No, we were never fully staffed.
Yeager: Is that by design or just because there weren't enough people?
Kibbie: I think it was mostly there just wasn't enough people to go around. We were on the 38th parallel then.
Yeager: Is that where this picture was taken?
Kibbie: That was taken a couple miles south of the 38th parallel before we went on line and having an inspection of all equipment laid out as the military does.
Yeager: And this is you as well -- this also is, I think you said, on the 38th parallel.
Kibbie: This is on the 38th parallel, sandbag bunker. This was our residence for -- this was on what they call "Heartbreak Ridge" and I was there from about Thanksgiving of '52 until June of '53. We were on a hill there that was occupied only by a quad 50 which is a tracked vehicle and an outpost for the Air Force and our tank. And basically what we did -- every night at 5:00 we joined the infantry for a briefing and then we protected them at night when they went on patrol. We were less than a quarter of a mile from the enemy. We spotted targets for the aircraft carriers with white phosphorous shells and we did a lot of that in the daytime.
Yeager: Now, when you were in the tank, this is at night and this is before they had night vision, before that technology. So, what was that like to operate at night? Of course, you don't want to use headlights because you would light up to the enemy. How are you seeing? How are you getting by? And you said the white phosphorous?
Kibbie: We're doing most of this by radio with the infantry or wire telephone when they worked. And we would do some firing in the daytime at certain suspected targets and we would write down those numbers inside the tank and so then in the night we were out there and stone black and cold, generally. We would fire out at those targets at night and then the infantry out on patrol ahead of us would tell us whether we were off to the right or off to the left or how close we were and where they wanted the shells to be sent and that's what we did.
Yeager: It's my understanding, though, that you weren't off to the left or to the right very often, you were pretty much right on. There's a story about your eyesight and your vision. How would you describe you, yourself, inside that tank and why type of vision you had?
Kibbie: Well, yes, we were fortunate to have a very good tank gun and with the Air Force having an outpost right up there beside our tank. They had a periscope that was 20 power and the one in the tank was seven power. So, we used the Air Force periscope and we had a telephone to the tank and my gutter, Gerald Keller from Keosauqua, Iowa, that helped us to get in on targets very close. And so we were credited with having a lot of target hits, mainly, though, for protecting the infantry that were out there at night and that's very serious what they do.
Yeager: What was going through your mind on many of those nights? It sounds like it's typical but it's a war zone so it's not typical.
Kibbie: You don't sleep very well and shouldn't. We had mortars coming in about every night. So, in the daytime it was very dangerous for the infantry from snipers from the enemy. So, you do what you're told and hopefully all the people around you do what they're told and we were about 1400, 1500 feet above sea level. The 38th parallel, you know, it goes through Iowa here about Osceola area but there's mountains so it seems like the wars were fought in the mountains. There were some cold winters there and it was a different kind of war.
Yeager: Do you wish that you didn't serve? Or do you wish that you did serve and you are glad?
Kibbie: I don't regret it. Like most Americans you're drafted, you do what you're told. I wouldn't want to do it again. Military service is certainly a wonderful way for young people. I have a daughter now that is in the Air Force in Florida and making a career out of it. But at that time it was -- most of the people were drafted. It was a two-year commitment and even when we were discharged most of us had to do a certain amount of time in the inactive reserves.
Yeager: Did you have to do that in 1953 when you came back?
Kibbie: Yes, but never was called up to do anything extra.
Yeager: What was it like when you came back at that time? Did the world change in Jack Kibbie's eyes?
Kibbie: Oh, in two years time, of course, there's some changes but not a lot.
Yeager: How do you view your service -- we talk about Vietnam vets were not greeted so warmly when they came home. Did you feel that your return home was greeted warmly?
Kibbie: Yes, I think so but I come back to the farm and sure, I was well received back and my family and neighbors and it certainly is great to do that service for your country. But there are certainly a lot of young people as in Korea there was over, what did we lose, around 8000 people -- about 3500 I think lost and we still have several thousand that are not accounted for.
Yeager: And still serving over there now today.
Kibbie: We have about 37,000 troops in Korea yet. South Korea today is so much different. I haven't been back but I had a chance to go back but I didn't. It's as modern as any city in the United States. It is comparable to Taiwan when it comes to the economic conditions there. And North Korea is still way behind the curve and still very dangerous.
Yeager: And still in the news. Now, before I move onto today, you've got a pin on your lapel there. What is that pin?
Kibbie: A bronze star. It was awarded to me and a gentleman by the name of Gerald Keller that I mentioned, the gunner in my tank for protecting the infantry the way we did and was considered service beyond the call of duty. And so that was -- I'm pleased with that.
Yeager: And should be honored. Do you feel -- just a couple of minutes ago we had a conversation with Kay Henderson and we talked about this year's legislative session. You're President of the Iowa Senate now. How has your Korean War experience shaped the Senator that you are and the policy that you try to bring to veteran issues when you're in the Senate?
Kibbie: Well, I've been active in veteran's organizations since I got out of the military. And, of course, they've had legislative recommendations. In the last two years we've had special veteran's committees and so that gives a chance for that agenda to get up front. And, of course, the older veterans like myself, the soldier's home in Marshalltown is going to be completely redone. That's partly state and federal obligation. The Veteran's Cemetery, as was mentioned, the County Veteran's Offices. We also approved this year two special pull tabs by the lottery that that funding will go into a trust fund for the interest to be used for services for veterans and their families. And then we'll get a lot of things for the current veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Yeager: And there's more coming back every time. What is the most important need that they have now coming back? Is it education? Is it housing?
Kibbie: Well, health care is a big one and the federal government has not stepped up to the plate there, in my opinion. Jobs, housing, health care, a whole litany of things that we helped them, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and our National Guard have done a tremendous job. All National Guards, I know more about Iowa's, but we're stressed to the limit with equipment and we've probably had as many people serve in Iraq and Afghanistan percentage wise to our population as any state in the nation.
Yeager: So, you've got to do something in Iowa about that?
Kibbie: We have to do something.
Yeager: It sounds like the feds haven't done what you need to do.
Kibbie: The feds have got to step up to the plate.
Yeager: And if they don't how does Iowa do it?
Kibbie: Well, we'll do what we have to do in Iowa. We're going to take care of our veterans and our future veterans. But this is, to me, this is the first war we've had where we're fighting a war strictly with civilian, basically civilians that are National Guards and it's going to be stressful. So, in my mind, the federal government needs to step up to the plate more and take care of these veterans.
Yeager: We've got just a couple of minutes left. I know we've got a lot of things I still want to get to. How do you even out -- when you talk veterans you mentioned a couple of different wars. Is it important to forget the name of the war that they were in and just call all veterans who have served veterans and treat them the same?
Kibbie: We've been trying the last couple of years to pass a bill to change the definition of a veteran and change it so that anybody with an honorable discharge that served in the military is going to be considered a veteran in this state and be able to take advantage of any of the veteran's benefits. Now, that has a cost to it and the basic cost is generally with veterans’ tax exemption on their homes.
So, we estimated that this year if we'd have put all veterans, changed the definition to all veterans that we would have increased the number of veterans by about 6000. But many veterans are passing on, the older ones so I don't think it would have been as expensive as it was estimated. But you never pass these bills very quickly and so I look for the next two years for us to pass a similar bill to that and get rid of all the dates in the code where people, you're either eligible one month and you're not eligible the next month.
Yeager: You're going to cut the paperwork from fifteen down to about two. In your final 30 seconds do you have any final thoughts about what Memorial Day means to Jack Kibbie?
Kibbie: Well, Memorial Day, all Iowans need to get out and participate on Memorial Day functions and thank the veterans and their families who have made this country what it is.
Yeager: Very good. Jack Kibbie, Sergeant First Class Jack Kibbie, thank you for joining us, President of the Iowa Senate as well.