Korean War Veteran Living in Texas Recalls Combat Danger

Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Daniel Cretaro likes to manage his risk, which explains why he's still around and healthier than most people his age -- 89.

The San Antonio Express-News reports he courted danger enough in his youth.

A survivor of the first weeks of the Korean War and a harrowing escape after American forces were encircled, he long ago faced mortality. These days, a strong family history of heart trouble is stalking him the way North Korean soldiers did in the first days of combat.

Sixty-nine years ago, with the Korean peninsula partitioned after World War II into two regimes, the north launched a lightning invasion of the south that Cretaro and the 24th Infantry Division tried to slow down.

But stopping the Inmun Gun, as North Korea's army was called, was out of the question. Some 135,000 invading soldiers, backed by heavy tanks, moved south on June 25, 1950. The 24th Division would be decimated in a matter of weeks.

Cretaro was never the same, but the lesson stuck. Cretaro, who retired as a sergeant major after a 27-year Army career, is determined to keep his new enemy at bay and starts most days with an hourlong walk on a treadmill at the Jimmy Brought Fitness Center on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. The cardio workout is followed by routines that help build and maintain upper-body strength.

"The Army had a lot to do with it," he said, when asked what got him into exercising. "In the Army, for the most part, a lot of emphasis is placed on physical fitness. And so early on I learned that it was important to be physically fit in order do what you have to do when the time comes."

The war, a debacle for U.S.-led United Nations forces until a surprise amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September, became a bitter stalemate after China joined the fray. It lasted until an armistice in July 1953, its carnage reflected in the final casualty count, which for the Americans totaled 36,574 troops killed and 7,662 still unaccounted for. More than 2 million Koreans died on both sides, soldiers and civilians, and 600,000 Chinese.

In the war's earliest days, Cretaro, a 20-year-old private first class, would be among 200 GIs who made an improbable escape from an encircled South Korean city led by two young officers whose discipline held them together, once at the point of a gun.

"We were sent over to do a delaying action and we were pretty much sacrificed to accomplish that mission," Cretaro said. "There were a lot of guys killed, wounded, missing -- a lot missing. It was a tough, tough time. A lot of guys didn't make it. Our commanding general was captured. That gives you an idea of what was going on."

As the defeated Americans broke into small bands while looking for an escape from Taejon, Lt. Gen. William Frishe Dean Sr. decided there wasn't a division left to command. Determined to fight, he led a small unit with a bazooka and a Korean interpreter, killing enemy tanks until captured.

Dean was a prisoner for three years, Cretaro pointed out. The first three weeks in Korea were "hell on earth for the U.S. forces," he said.

After two North Korean armies pushed U.S. and South Korean soldiers back, breaking the American line on the Kum River on July 19, Cretaro and other soldiers from the 34th Infantry Regiment were fighting simply to survive, taking in stragglers along the way.

They ran into Capt. Sidney Marks and Lt. William B. Caldwell III, who later would lead the 5th U.S. Army in San Antonio, and headed west of smoldering Taejon.

"There was a large mountain, hill, whatever you want to call it, and we got up to the high ground and after we got up there we spread out and we were overlooking Taejon. We could see off in the distance, we could see the fires, the smoke and the firing going on," he said.

With the remnants of the 34th Regiment was Marguerite Higgins, a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, who later received the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting in Korea.

"When we reached the top of the hill and she saw what was going on in Taejon, she said, `Well, the story's down there,"' Cretaro recalled, laughing. "I thought it was odd that a female would get out of a deadly situation and think that she should go back into it."

Over the next four days, Cretaro's regiment began an 80-mile trek, so close to the enemy on occasion that the Americans heard their conversations, Cretaro said.

"It was a four-day trek, something I was told, it was something like 80 miles, and we foraged for food along the way. We were coming through some farms. I remember on the first day we found melons, I guess we'd call them melons -- they looked like melons and tasted like melons," Cretaro said.

"Some of the troops broke ranks and went dashing out to get them and Capt. Marks took his carbine and said, `The next son of a bitch that does that, I'm going to shoot them!"' he recalled, chuckling. They lived primitively, Cretaro said, always hungry, foraging for scraps of food and ripping pages out of books they found in homes for use as toilet paper.

"It's just back to the Stone Age."

At Pusan, where the amphibious landing two months later would turn the war briefly in the Americans' favor before China entered the conflict that winter, Cretaro and the other survivors were fed, clothed, reequipped and given a day off.

They then were sent back to the line for a melancholy reunion.

"It was the fear of not knowing. And when you get back to your unit and realize he's not here and he's not here, it's just difficult. I don't like talking about it right now."

After coming back to the United States, he fell ill with malaria during his honeymoon. Mary Ellen cared for him, not initially aware of why he was ill. In time, he was diagnosed and spent a month in an Army hospital, given a new job outside of the infantry and barred from deploying to malaria zones for 10 years.

There was more trouble and it went undiagnosed. He wonders how his wife put up with his anger for the first couple of years.

"They call it PTSD now. They have a name for it now," he said. "I don't know how I survived the first year. When I came home, I don't know why the Army didn't kick me out for the way I acted . It took awhile for me to get my head on straight."

Cretaro would spend one more year in a combat zone -- this one Vietnam, arriving in 1965. He doesn't know how he would have handled being sent back to Korea a year after he left and it disturbs him to see troops doing repeated duty tours.in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the fight never seems to end.

War is hell, he said.

"If you survive it the first time, you don't want to go back again, and try it again. But these multiple deployments, I think, could be the hardest thing going for active-duty personnel now. It's difficult."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us