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Korean vets regale MASH cast with stories from the 'forgotten' war

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Published:   |   Updated: September 19, 2013 at 03:45 PM

They are not the World War II veterans who were exalted upon returning home. Nor are they the Vietnam War veterans who were vilified before, during and after that unpopular war.

They are, they say, the soldiers and sailors from “the forgotten war,” commonly called the Korean conflict.

They killed and saw their comrades killed. They wounded the enemy and came back to the states wounded themselves. But when they returned home many of their family members and friends didn't acknowledge they had been to war, Korean War veterans told the cast of “M*A*S*H” at the James McCabe Theater in Valrico this week.

The veterans were honored, they said, by the invitation to speak with the cast about their wartime experiences.

“M*A*S*H” is scheduled to be performed at the theater in October.

Gail Pierce, producer of the show and vice president of the Valrico Players, said she was compelled to invite the veterans to the theater after meeting them at Veterans Park on U.S. 301 when a Korean War memorial was dedicated recently. Their stories were intriguing and entertaining, she said.

“We set the entire evening aside for them, to give the cast the opportunity to learn the serious side of the Korean War, the back story,” said Domin Pazo, an artistic director for the theater.

The veterans shared some amusing stories, like one Navy veteran Martin Sullivan told about the time his buddies bet him he couldn't sneak a case of booze onto their ship. He managed to get it aboard, covered with a few phonograph records he had bought on shore leave, telling military guards it was a record player.

Calvin Clifton, who served as an Army paratrooper in Korea, had a few humorous stories of his own, like the time he and a buddy had latrine-digging duty and his pal ignited a small piece of C4 plastic explosive to hurry along the job. “It took us two days to fill that hole back in,” he said, drawing laughter from the cast that will play doctors and nurses in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital on the Korean peninsula.

Clifton also had a serious story, one about the shrapnel that doctors removed from his leg and back after his unit was ambushed. It was his only visit to a MASH unit, he said. Because of the morphine used to deaden his pain, Clifton doesn't remember many details about that visit, but he does recall the professionalism.

And he remembers specific battles in which he and his comrades participated, though he largely has pushed them to the back of his mind to suppress nightmares, he said.

The cast thanked the veterans for their service, and peppered them with questions about how they spent their off time, what they ate, how they interacted with South Koreans.

Cribbage was popular back then, and softball and basketball were common pastimes at officers' clubs. Nightlife was pretty much non-existent. And the food, well, it often was less than desirable.

Much like in the movie version of "M*A*S*H," the doctors and nurses who manned the units, used for the first time during the Korean War, could be a zany bunch, Sullivan said: “There were some lunatics there. There were some whacky people.”

No one knew if they would show up for surgery in a lab coat or a bathrobe, he said. And nobody cared, as long as they got the job done. And the job they did was exceptional, Sullivan said, noting important surgical procedures were developed in those war-time hospital tents.

Before Korea, said Air Force veteran Ralph Hawkins, president of the local Korean War Veterans Association, there were only medics. And each soldier and sailor carried their own morphine, just in case.

“I was never a customer of MASH, but they were customers of ours,” Hawkins said, noting he worked with a combat cargo operation that often carried patients from small air strips near the MASH operations to hospitals in Japan.

Ed Epps, an Army veteran, worked with a chemical smoke generator in Korea, used to cover troop movement. “I like the idea of being able to give the (MASH) players an idea of what went on over there, so they can convey that to the audience,” he said.

Epps was at Inchon Harbor in South Korea for a prisoner exchange, when several of his buddies who had been taken captive were released and taken to a hospital ship.

“A lot of young folks don't know much about Korea,” said Navy veteran Bill Sarver. “It wasn't a long war, but it was a tough one.”

The soldiers and sailors were ill-prepared for the brutal weather they would encounter in Korea, he said. “I remember one guy that only had a summer uniform. He wore every piece of clothing he had to try to stay warm,” while he and Sarver and others worked with gun crews to shut down caves.

“Most of us forgot about our experiences in Korea because nobody was interested,” Hawkins told the MASH cast. “We were the in-between. We were totally ignored. It's nice to get some recognition.”

yhammett@tampatrib.com

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