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Korean War vet: ‘I’d go back and do it again’

Frank Figgins holds some of the medals he received while serving in the Army during the Korean War. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

Sometimes it’s not easy to imagine someone who is 83 years old as a young man.

Frank Figgins, who now lives a quiet life with his wife Betty in Laneview, is a Korean War veteran.

His weathered face and hands tell only part of his story. Sixty-three years ago, Figgins was working in a Norfolk shipyard when the call to duty came in 1948. The Army assigned the 19-year-old to the “C” Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Division.

He served in the occupation of Japan and was among the first waves to land at Inchon when Chinese troops crossed into North Korea.

Time has dimmed the details of that winter of 1950-51, but he remembers being among the 30,000 United Nations troops that were surrounded by twice as many Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. It took UN forces 17 days to break out in December, 1950.

He remembers running across the frozen Chosin Reservoir with 22 of his men in an attempt to link up with Marines on the other side. He thought he would be killed by the Chinese who were shooting at him, until an airplane strafed the enemy. “I learned a whole lot,” said Figgins, who has a sense of humor. “I learned if you want to live you had to move.”

Temperatures of 20 degrees below zero froze Figgins’ hands and feet at Chosin Reservoir. Later, a bullet wounded his right leg. In June 1951, flying shrapnel hit him in both legs and his back, and a shell fragment wounded his buttock.

But, all the scars were not visible.

Nightmares of the horror he experienced in Korea would awaken Figgins for more than 55 years. His wife would calm him by saying, “You’re safe. You’re home. You’re not over there.”

“People don’t realize how long it can stay in your mind,” said Figgins.

With the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, those dreams stopped only a few years ago for Figgins. 

“We lost a lot of young boys,” said Figgins. “I saw a lot of bad stuff that I didn’t want to see. But, I had to get on with the job. When you’re in combat you’ve got to do what you have to do and don’t mess around.”

There were battles when he didn’t know which way to turn. “That’s something you don’t forget, but I’d go back and do it agan,” he said.

Figgins recalled how he and a South Korean soldier took shelter one night in a foxhole. In the morning they realized it was a booby trap that somehow they had gotten into without tripping the trigger. Then they had to figure how to get out, very carefully.

“I lucked out, I got shot and hit a couple times, but they didn’t go deep,” said Figgins. “I was lucky. Somebody was watching out for me.”

Betty, his wife of 23 years, is one of those who is grateful he made it home. “I’m so thankful to have him. He’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.

Figgins was decorated with several medals including the Purple Heart for being wounded in battle. Other medals include the Army of Occupation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the United Nations Service Medal.

The medals are kept in a plain display tucked away in a drawer. Perhaps they are a reminder of something Figgins would like to forget.

But, those medals also are reminders that freedom isn’t free. And America will forever owe a debt to the men and women who sacrificed, fought and died far from home keeping Americans free.

Take time this Friday, November 11, Veterans Day, to thank and remember those to whom we owe our freedom.

posted 11.09.2011

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