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Not forgotten: After 50 years, Williams finally receives medals for actions during the Korean War

Edward Williams wears the Purple Heart medal he earned in the Korean War in 1953. Williams received nine other medals along with the Purple Heart a month ago, almost 50 years after serving his time in the war. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[07/09/01] Edward Porter Williams fought in what has been called “the forgotten war.”

For about 50 years, he says, he assumed the military awards he earned atop a barren mountain in Korea had been forgotten, too.

But on Friday, Williams sat in his wife’s family home on Baldwin Ferry Road with nine medals, regaling family and visitors with stories of how he earned all of them in a span of months in the closing stages of the Korean War in 1953.

“I never thought I’d get them,” said the 71-year-old Williams, a Vicksburg native now retired and living in Augusta, Ga. “It got to where I never even thought about it.”

Last year, Williams requested the medals from the Army’s records office in St. Louis. He received them last month. A number of factors, including bureaucratic backlogs and a fire that destroyed some records, have prevented many veterans from receiving honors they won on the battlefield, Williams said.

“They’re still working on medals for guys who fought in the First and Second World Wars,” he said. “They’re kinda backed up.”

The delay has caused some veterans to criticize the government, but Williams said he’s not upset. It’s enough, he said, to be safe and alive at home.

Still, he can’t forget how he won his highest honor, the Purple Heart. His body won’t let him.

“You can try to cover them up, but all the scars won’t go away,” Williams said, pointing to wounds he received from mortar fire and shrapnel on his head, arms and legs.

He got all the wounds on a spring day in 1953 when his unit had retreated to a mountain after being overrun by Chinese soldiers who were assisting the North Koreans in their fight against the United States, South Korea and the rest of a United Nations coalition.

Mortar fire knocked Williams out, and he awoke the next morning alone atop the peak.

“I thought I was dead or something, because I was the only one around for miles,” he said. “It was like a bad dream.”

Williams lived off the land for a week before being picked up by a Chinese patrol. They took him to a POW hospital near Panmumjon, a city on the present Korean border, where he said he received excellent care for his wounds.

“He was very lucky,” said Col. Robert Crear, a Vicksburg native and chief of staff of the U.S. Corps of Engineers who Friday pinned the Purple Heart to Williams’ shirt. “It was getting toward the end of the war, so the Chinese wanted to treat their prisoners well for propaganda purposes. They wanted the best terms possible.”

Williams’ wife, Ernestine, who married him months before he enlisted in the Army in 1951, said she never lost faith that her husband would return.

“He is a very strong-willed person,” she said. “If anyone was going to survive, I thought it would be him.”

Williams returned to America in September, where he and other POWs from Vicksburg were feted with a Washington Street parade. He recorded subsequent service in Germany and as an ordnance officer in Southeast Asia during the war there in the late 1960s. What he saw in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam and Thailand convinced him to get out of the Army.

“It left a bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “We had to get permission to do anything, to shoot at people who were shooting at us.”

He went home to Augusta, worked for 20 years as a school custodian and retired at the end of this academic year.

In September, he will be honored on POW Day at Fort Gordon in Georgia.

Before then, he plans to take his wife to California and Hawaii to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

“We’re going to have fun,” he said. “We deserve it.”