Korean vet, Marshall resident remembers service
Nov. 11, 2017 at 4 a.m.
While sitting comfortably in her armchair at Oakwood House Assisted Living in Marshall, retired E6 Staff Sgt. Gladys O'Neill, proudly states she always had a love for the service, but it was the love for her brother that spurred her to sign up for the Women's Army Corps in 1942.
"My brother had been overseas in World War II. He was a paratrooper. He had been shot down twice. I thought he hung the moon while he was up there," the 95-year-old Baton Rouge native said. "When my he got back from his service in the army during WWII, I decided I wanted to serve (too)."
O'Neill's own service took her far from the high-flying heroics of her brother, planting her a stones throw away from the bloody but oft-forgotten conflicts of the Korean War.
Training and assignment
O'Neill's road to that war started with 12 weeks of basic in Virginia, before she received additional training in North and South Carolina. O'Neill eventually went to the Army medical school in Ft. Sam Houston, taking courses in nursing to become a nurse's assistant.
Serving about 30 years in the Army, O'Neill's first time stationed overseas was in Heidelberg, Germany, arriving on Christmas Day.
"On Christmas morning, the captain came in and served us breakfast. That was a nice splurge," O'Neill said. "After that good breakfast, we were taken to the quarters where we were going to be living. We were just as lost as we could be. We didn't know what we were in for because Germany is so different from America."
O'Neill's duty in Germany was guarding the mail. Because there was often a great deal of money being sent back and forth through the post, O'Neill said she was required to pass marksmanship training, qualifying with two different weapons.
"It was easy," O'Neill said, smiling. "I was a little hunter at home."
Nursing the wounded
When the Korean War started, O'Neill said she was one of the first shipped out, and originally set to be stationed in Okinawa, Japan. But with a hurricane decimating the base, O'Neill was sent to a hospital in southern Japan, where she and her fellow nurses, were inundated with wounded, brought over the Sea of Japan from fighting in Korea.
"Those boys were sure glad to get back into a warm bed," O'Neill said, adding coming to the hospital reinstilled a sense of normalcy for the soldiers.
Of course, O'Neill said, there were also those who would take advantage of the opportunity.
"Some of the soldiers would take a gun and blow off their toe, just to get to come back behind the lines," O'Neill said, adding it didn't take long for those in command to get wise to the situation. "After about the third toe we had to take care of, it ceased. They weren't letting them come back after they shot their toe off. They said, 'you did it, you have to stay with it.'"
The letter from home
O'Neill said one of the most trying aspects of her military career was witnessing the varied struggles of the troops.
"Before the enemy would leave camp, they would infest their camps with these ticks or little varmints that would suck blood," O'Neill said, adding soldiers would either succumb to their wounds or to diseases carried by the bugs. "Our men would move into these areas, pick up the bugs and they would bleed them to death."
One such case, O'Neill said will always stay with her.
"One day I had this good-looking first lieutenant; he had hemorrhagic fever," O'Neill said. "A call came stating there was a message for him downstairs; his wife had sent him a letter from Pittsburg. He asked me if I'd go get it and I said, 'sure.' So I went down to the desk, I got the message and brought it back."
But the lieutenant wouldn't take the letter; he said, "Sarge, I can't read it. Can you read it to me?"
Sixty years later, O'Neill still recalls the letter's contents.
"It said what a wife would say: 'I love you, hurry home' and all the things a man would want to hear," O'Neill said. "I read it to him, folded it and handed it to him. The sad part is after about an hour and a half he was dead. He had bled to death.
"I cried just like everybody else did. To see one of our boys go in that condition really tore me up," she said. "And it still does when I'm talking about it because he had a wife and three children. … I don't even remember what his name was. I never had anything else upset me as much as that one did."
O'Neill said she was relieved when she finally was on orders to go home, even fondly recalling the luxury of being able to order a glass of milk once she made it to an Air Force base in the Philippines with access to cows.
O'Neill said it was a different kind of service that talked her out of reenlisting, as she stayed home to take care of her sick mother.
Today, in her room at Oakwood House Assisted Living, surrounded by the her collection of caps from the different branches of the service, O'Neill said she fondly and proudly remembers her time in the service.