NOT FORGOTTENKorean Vets gather to honor fallen

Published 11:45 am Friday, June 22, 2012

Their numbers are dwindling, but the camaraderie that binds the members of the U.S. Army’s 179th Heavy Tank Company is as strong now as it was when they rode into battle more than six decades ago.

Thursday, 11 surviving members of 179th Thunderbirds wrapped up their annual reunion by honoring 104 deceased comrades with whom they fought side-by-side during the Korean War, said Johnie Baker of Port Gibson who hosted the event in Vicksburg.

“They call it The Forgotten War, but really we lost 34,000 troops,” Baker said of the conflict that lasted from June 1950 to July 1953.

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The reunited members of the 179th lit and extinguished a candle for each of their 104 friends, including two who died since the last reunion, Baker said.

“Really the highlight of this is remembering the people who have passed away,” said James Castaneda, who traveled from Wisconsin with his wife and daughter to be at the reunion.

Many of the veterans brought their families and the total of 54 included several widows who traveled from across the country.

“There aren’t too many tankers left, but the group is pretty big,” Castaneda said.

In 1950, most Americans were enjoying the economic boom that accompanied the end of World War II by purchasing houses and automobiles. Baker decided to join the war effort and fight the spread of communism creeping from China into Southeast Asia.

Rather than a wheel of a 1950 Chevrolet, Baker wound up behind the controls of a Sherman tank as a member of the 179th Thunderbirds.

“We trained at Fort Polk before we shipped off to Japan and then Korea,” Baker said.

The trip from New Orleans to Korea took about a month, Baker said.

When the tank company arrived on Korean soil, it was Christmas 1950, said William L. Massey, who was drafted from McComb.

“It started snowing,” Massey said.

The 179th mobilized in 1950 as a company of soldiers from around Ardmore, Okla., said Mike Beall, an Oklahoma native who now lives in Texas. When the Oklahoma soldiers, including a large group of Native Americans, mustered, the company was only at half strength, Beall said, so men from a number of other states were added to bolster the ranks.

“We had 150 men, and 27 of them were from Mississippi,” Beall said. “Mississippi provided a huge number of people.”

The 179th has no modern equivalent because military tactics have changed greatly in the past 60 years, Beall said.

“It was kind of an assault weapon,” Beall said of the company’s involvement in the war. “We would attack with tanks and the infantry would follow.”

The 179th engaged in nearly every major battle along the 38th parallel between late 1951 and summer 1953. In all, the Thunderbirds saw a grueling 513 days of front-line combat, said Jim Amerson, a former tank commander from Oklahoma.

The company was outfitted with tanks built in the latter stages of World War II. The design was perfect for scaling the mountainous terrain of what is know as the Demilitarized Zone of the Korean Peninsula, Massey said.

“It had shocks on the side of it like a Cadillac,” Massey said. “But it sure didn’t ride like a Cadillac.”

The remaining members of the Thunderbirds who are able to travel will hold their next reunion in June 2013 in St. Francisville, La., Baker said.

He hopes for a good crowd then, but can’t be certain because of the advanced ages of the group’s members.

“I might not even be able to go next year,” Baker said. “You never know.”