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‘Where the hell are the medics?’ Memories of a Korean War veteran

A 16-inche salvo from the USS Missouri at Chong Jin, Korea, in effort to cut Northern Korean communications. Chong Jin is only 39 miles from the border of China. October 21, 1950. (U.S. Navy/Released)

There was no Thanksgiving for Guy Copeman in 1951. The 22-year-old Midwesterner had been looking forward to his first decent meal in weeks. A serving of warm turkey would have been a welcome reprieve from the daily routine of powdered eggs, powdered milk, dry cereal and rice they served on board the troop ship taking him to his first assignment at Okinawa.

A private first class in the U.S. Air Force, Copeman had his fill of lousy meals over the past year. During basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, he masked the flavor of his food with ketchup or jelly to choke it down. On board the troop ship making its way across the Pacific Ocean, Copeman chewed with a mouth of missing teeth; a dentist at Lacklund had yanked many of them out.

Copeman eagerly waited for his turkey dinner, but a cook ladled him more rice. Amidst the uproar from the passengers, word came from the captain that during their passage they had crossed the International Date Line. Wednesday had become Friday, and there would be no Thanksgiving meal.

“Too bad mutiny wasn’t still legal,” wrote Copeman in his memoirs.

Raised in the area of Granger, Minnesota, farming country along the Iowa border, Copeman and four of his best friends received their draft notices in October 1950. Four months earlier, Cold War politics had erupted into war between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea. Not wanting to serve as foot soldiers, the five enlisted in the Air Force after receiving their draft notices.

After completing basic training, a sergeant at Shepherd Air Force Base gave a flight of new recruits that included Copeman a choice of either becoming medics or cooks. With only a minute to decide, Copeman joined the would-be medics.

An interest in the X-ray department on base instigated Copeman’s transfer to a 16-week school to become certified as an X-ray technician. Of the 49 airmen and soldiers who entered the school, he was one of 17 to graduate. Before shipping out of San Francisco to sail to Okinawa, Copeman took leave to see home in the autumn of 1951. For the second time, he would be missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with his family.

“I will never forget the day I had to leave home for this place of which I had never heard, into a war I knew very little about,” he wrote. That day, his older sister, Dorothy, along with his parents, traveled with him to Rochester, Minnesota, where he boarded an airplane for the first time.

“I hugged mother and Dorothy. Dad shook my hand. I saw a concerned look on his face which touched me as he never showed emotion of any kind.”

Okinawa Island, about 400 miles south from the Japanese mainland, was the site of some of the most horrific fighting in World War II. By the end of the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945, there were around 50,000 American casualties while more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers and Okinawan conscripts were killed. During the Korean War, Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base was home to the 19th and 307th Bomber Squadrons.

Throughout the conflict in Korea, four-engine B-29 Superfortesses took off from Kadena at sundown for 12-hour roundtrip bombing runs over North Korea. As they flew north, Copeman and others left on the ground counted them once, then counted again at their return the following morning “to see if, and how many, were shot down.”

“This was always sad because they left their barracks to go to work just like we did however they wouldn’t be going to breakfast with the rest of us that morning,” Copeman wrote.

Working out of a small room with an X-ray machine built for the battlefield, Copeman’s days were filled with screening locals for tuberculosis and curbing the island’s rat infestation by spraying them with liquid ether and knocking them dead. As a military medic, however, it was his top priority to see to the medical needs of airmen. That meant tending to the survivors of crashed and damaged B-29s.

When bombers’ engines failed after takeoff, they went down into hellish terrain a few miles off the runway known as the “boonies.” Nothing lived in the volcanic rock except for brush and vipers. When planes hit the boonies, the ordinance they carried exploded, turning them into infernos.

“It was such a crash that was my first experience,” Copeman wrote. “The fire lit up the area as we approached. Some of our medics were ahead of me when one or more bombs went off in the fire. A piece of flying shrapnel hit one of the medics in the head and tore through his helmet and his head, killing him. Another had his hand hit by more flying metal. We retreated as there was nothing we could do for those in the plane at this point.”

The medics at Kadena would also be on hand for any bombers struck by antiaircraft fire. Several made crash landings on their return. Copeman was lying in the barracks just after sunset when a bell rang out, the sound indicating that there was a crash on the runway. He and the rest of the medics followed a trail of black smoke.

“Where the hell are the medics?” Copeman heard someone call from inside the black smoke.

Inside the wreck, Copeman recalled in his memoirs, he also heard .50-caliber rounds exploding like popcorn kernels. He found a crew member and dragged him out of the smoke. The man was limp, and in the clear air, Copeman saw the man suffered a fatal head injury. Since the man’s family wouldn’t be there to hold him, Copeman wrote, he would do it for them.

“I remember just sitting there, holding this young man in my arms. Everyone else was busy, so I had a few minutes with him. I was thinking of sadness, someone’s brother and son was dead,” he wrote. “After a while someone came and took him away on a stretcher.”

Even with the crew pulled from the crash, Copeman’s job wasn’t done. At a wooden first aid station just off the runway, he patched the wound of a man with a hole in his chest and prepared him for transport to a hospital in Naha, the capital of Okinawa.

Copeman missed two Christmases before coming back to the U.S. as a staff sergeant assigned to what was then Great Falls Air Force Base. He completed his four-year enlistment in Great Falls, then got a job at Columbus Hospital as an instructor for their recently launched X-ray school. In Columbus, he met and later married Phyllis, a tissue technician. The two were married in December 1955 and moved to Billings a month later.

“Thus ended my military career,” Copeman wrote.

Guy Copeman’s memoirs came courtesy of his son, Charles “Chuck” Copeman, himself a retired sailor in the U.S. Navy. While Guy Copeman died in 2018 at the age of 89, he chronicled his life from the Midwest during the Great Depression to Okinawa to Billings.

Chuck Copeman spent just over two decades in the Navy as an aircraft electrician. Speaking on his own time in the service, Chuck said it was the look of the Navy’s uniforms that convinced him to become a sailor, and it was after falling in love with fixing planes that he decided to stay. He got the instant job satisfaction of troubleshooting problems with jets, then watching a pilot jump in the cockpit and go vertical.

During his 21 years in the Navy, Chuck Copeman had assignments in the waters off Europe, Africa and Asia. In an interview with the Gazette, Chuck Copeman said he could relate to his father’s time in Okinawa, especially in reading over how special a care package from home was. Guy Copeman received boxes of date-filled cookies from his mother. When his son was deployed for Operation Desert Storm, Guy Copeman shipped him venison jerky.

“I was on a ship for nine months,” Chuck Copeman said. “You need stuff from home.”


(c) 2023 the Billings Gazette

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