“I never even heard of Korea before the war. I was very lucky to get out of there alive.”
Seventy years ago, the world – and former long-time Oregon resident Fred Sage – heard plenty as the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when some 75,000 North Korean soldiers invaded south of the 38th parallel, into South Korea. After three years of fighting, both sides agreed to a cease fire, which remains in effect today, with thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
All these years later, Sage is still trying to make sure people remember a war that has largely been forgotten, and its service members who continue to defend America’s interests there.
Sage’s military story starts in 1952, when he was drafted and sent to basic training. Told he could attend draftsman school in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, just two days before he was set to leave, his superior told him he was going to electrician school instead.
“Well, what happens if I don’t take electrician school?” Sage asked. “Well, then we ship you over to Korea.’ So I took electrician school.
“And then I went to Korea.”
There, he was assigned to the combat engineers of the Army’s 25th Division, with a mission to teach about jungle biological and radiological wareware. Officers there quickly informed him of a very different situation on the ground.
“They said, ‘put your notes away, we haven’t got time for that,’” he said.
Sited atop a steep, seven-mile-long ridgeline, the 25th had replaced the 2nd Division, which took heavy casualties winning that strategic high ground during what would be known as the “Battle of Heartbreak Ridge,”
“We worked on the ridge every day, building roads and bunkers clearing minefields,” Sage said. “We had foxholes dug in next to our tents to dive into. Occasionally we’d get some artillery fire that would keep us awake, but never any close combat.”
In the dead of winter, troops had to wear heavy “Mickey Mouse” boots (named because the enlarged boots looked like the cartoon) and change socks daily to avoid frostbite. For the engineers, who did most of their work at night to escape detection, it was even colder.
“To be able to start up our trucks, we had to start them every hour to warm them up,” he said.
Sage was eventually promoted to Sergeant First Class and squad leader, eventually spending 14 months in Korea before leaving in April 1953, just three months before the ceasefire. While the front lines didn’t change much during the end of the war, Sage said, that didn’t mean the engineers were out of danger.
That was made clear one day when they were tasked to advance to the front to rebuild a washed-out bridge. But they were not alone.
“At the head of the valley were the hills occupied by the North Koreans and Chinese, and they weren’t dumb,” Sage said. “They could look through their binoculars and see that bridge getting longer.”
One night as the group worked, they started to receive heavy artillery fire, and their leader, a young lieutenant “who hadn’t started shaving yet” panicked before a platoon leader who was a World War II veteran stepped in and evacuated the men just in time.
“I went back the next day where I had been hunkered down, and there was a hole big enough to park a jeep in,” he said.
The living conditions didn’t make the ordeal any easier. Working on a road, Sage’s squad came across some cold water coming out of a bank and started filling their canteens – before he decided to check upstream and saw two dead Chinese soldiers lying in the water.
“I said, throw that out,” he said.
But he survived the cold and the horrors of war in Korea to return home – and to a much different welcome that some might expect.
Back home with a new mission
“You hear about guys who have been in combat, like Vietnam, and they come back not to a good welcome?” he said. “Well, we landed in Seattle and the fire boats were out there spraying water, and then they put us on buses and drove us down Main Street with confetti and people just screaming and cheering us. It was such a royal welcome.”
After he got out of the Army, Sage used the federal GI bill to attend the University of Michigan, where he earned a degree in civil engineering, He married his wife, Gladys, months before graduating, and was soon offered a job in California designing bridges.
He and Gladys lived in Oregon for around 50 years before moving to Stoughton several years ago to reside at Skaalen Heights.
And while the start of the war is now a half-century past, for Sage, the battle yet to be fought is to keep the memories of that war, and those who have since served to defend South Korea. He does that through the Southcentral Wisconsin Chapter of the National Korean War Veterans Association, which includes Dane, Columbia, Rock and Sauk counties, though it’s a battle against time.
The numbers continue to dwindle for the veterans, all now in their late 80s or early 90s, with membership dropping from around 50 members when the chapter formed in 2001 to fewer than 20. To help that, the organization is now accepting members who have served in Korea since the ceasefire, and has changed its name from Korean War Veterans to Korean War Veterans and defenders.
“We’re slowly dying off, and it’s hard to get new younger members,” Sage said. “Some 39,000 Americans died over there in that conflict and even now, they are patrolling the DMZ, where there are still some| casualties.
“Our motto is freedom is not free.”