The price of freedom
By Joanie Morris
For the Salisbury Post
Mt. ULLA — In 1950, hunkered down in the Chosin Reservoir of Korea, Ret. U.S. Army Col. John Gray had no idea that the events there would someday lead him to Northern Ireland.
In June, 61 years later, Gray traveled with his wife Sue to Belfast to speak at the Royal British Legion Convention about his time in Korea — one of three wars that he fought in for the United States. Gray served in five campaigns of World War II, one tour in Korea and two tours in Vietnam.
Gray is director emeritus and past president of the Korean War Chosin Few veterans organization and was invited to the convention along with six other highly decorated British officers to address the 90th anniversary of the “Big Poppy Party,” named for Flanders Fields, where poppies grew over servicemen’s graves and later became a symbol of remembrance.
Gray was asked to speak at the behest of Dr. Eddie Rae, from Killyleagh, Northern Ireland, sister-city to Cleveland, where Gray grew up. Last year, when a group from Killyleagh, including Rae, came to Cleveland, Rae asked Gray for his war stories. In return, he got a more than 400 page memoir Gray has written (“Called to Honor: Memoirs of a Three-War Veteran”) and an invitation for unlimited war stories.
This spring, Gray got his invitation to Killyleagh in return. Gray was the only American invited as a guest speaker to the event.
“One of the reasons I went was because of that town relationship,” said Gray, talking about the Killyleagh-Cleveland partnership. The Grays were in Northern Ireland and England from June 7-15.
“Dr. Eddie Rae felt I had as many decorations as they did and it was a good match,” said Gray, adding that it wasn’t a contest to see who had the most decorations, though Gray’s are many. Including the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Cross, Gray has been awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart with three oak leaf clusters.
In 1998, he was decorated by the Republic of South Korea with the Chungmu Military Service Medal with Gold Star — an award he was honored with but never received after fighting in Korea.
He didn’t go to Killyleagh to talk about his honors and awards though. Gray spoke about what is known as the coldest campaign to ever be undertaken by the U.S. military. With temperatures reaching more than 35 degrees below 0 and wind chills of minus 85-90 degrees below, none of the troops who fought in the Chosin Reservoir Campaign escaped without frostbite or cold injury, said Gray.
Gray was a first lieutenant at Chosin, serving in the M Company of the 31st Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army.
In addition to the U.S. servicemen who fought the campaign, the 41st Independent Commando of the Royal Marines was also attached to their unit. Gray said during his 45 minute speech, he talked about what they did in Korea as well.
“They (the British who attended the party) hadn’t heard all about the Chosin Reservoir Campaign,” said Gray. With only 15,000 men to the Chinese’s 120,000, it might have seemed like a loss before it began.
“They called on us to surrender,” said Gray. “Well, we didn’t.”
The servicemen destroyed over seven Chinese units in November and December of that year, “divisions that weren’t available for later Chinese offenses in the following Spring,” Gray said. He told the British in attendance about the 41st Independent Commando of Royal Marines, commanded by Lt. Col. Sir Douglas Drysdale, and the commando’s uncommon valor during the Hell Fire Valley breakthrough attack at Chosin.
While in Northern Ireland, the Grays also met with Jim Shannon, a member of the British Parliament House of Commons as well as an official visit with the Northern Ireland Parliament. They were also introduced to the Queen’s representative to Northern Ireland, Lord Lieutenant of Down David Lindsay; visited the military installation of the British 2nd Battalion, Roy Rifles Regiment; and on an inspection tour of the battalion preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.
Gray draws on his experience in Korea, World War II and Vietnam when talking about the importance of freedom today and the relationship between fighting wars halfway across the world and freedom in America.
“Our motto as Korean War Veterans is ‘Freedom is not free,’ ” said Gray.
“When I was over there in the first year of the Korean War, it was like a 17th century city,” said Gray. Muddy streets were littered with trash and human waste. Homes were patched together, with thatched walls and no indoor plumbing.
“To remember how crude it was then,” said Gray. “It smelled.”
When he went back in 1998, nearly 50 years after the campaign, the difference was astounding.
Looking out over Seoul from the demilitarized zone, contemporary buildings reached into the sky, and the city looked more like Chicago or Houston than a 17th century slum.
But what struck him most was the churches. Seoul is home to one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the world now, thanks to the Korean War.
Seeing the church spires and crosses reaching into the sky “was so therapeutic for me,” said Gray.
In the spring of 1951, Gray was a machine gun platoon leader in Korea.
“I felt guilty, like it was mass murder,” said Gray. “It was only when I saw all those churches in Seoul, Korea, I realized God must have had a reason. How could it have ever been done without that military shield?”
Just like in Korea then, and World War II and Vietnam, the United States was charged with nation-building and protecting the freedoms of oppressed people.
“America has really done its part to protect the freedom of the world,” added Gray. “A secure and stable world is a world that doesn’t threaten us and our way of life. …
“People that are irrational — such as certain elements of the jihad movement — they are dedicated to destroying us,” he said. “Freedom is priceless. It all boils back to is it worth it in terms of our national security. Whatever it takes to guarantee freedom.”
Joanie Morris is a freelance writer for the Salisbury Post. She can be reached at 704-797-4248 or email@example.com.