North Korea’s recent saber rattling has caused Harold Starr no end of distress, bringing into sharp focus his recollections of horrifying times when he stood at Outpost Harry with American troops, firing his machine gun at hordes of an advancing enemy bent on taking Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
This was the Korean War, dubbed a police action by many, considering the lukewarm attitude of the American public toward that conflict coming between World War II and Vietnam. Even though it was a contest of ideologies — democracy versus communism — nevertheless it was war at its most savage.
Starr was slightly beyond his teen-age years and fresh from his job in a Little Rock salvage yard and a California army drill field, when he found himself in the midst of the fighting, sometimes hand-to-hand combat, thinking little beyond orders to hold his position at all costs.
Now as Memorial Day approaches, and the nation pauses on May 27 to pay homage to the memory of the dead servicemen and women of all wars, Starr’s memory floats between the present and the days of war, when the killing was dreadful — so intense, he recalls, that it was difficult to walk across a battlefield or in trenches without stepping on the dead bodies or on the dying and wounded lying among body parts. "Blood flowed through the trenches like it was raining," he said.
The other day Starr sat drinking coffee at Ed’s Bakery, a Conway place that pays homage to veterans reliving the horror of the war. Only recently has this large, genial, soft-spoken man, disposed to wearing overalls, been able to discuss the war with any sense of coherency. For more than 50 years he was unable to articulate the events of warfare. And many a night in his sleep he flayed his arms wildly about, striking anybody nearby, even his wife.
Starr remembers vividly the attempt by the Chinese to take the strategic Outpost Harry. The fighting dissolved into hand-to-hand warfare during a period of constant, murderous fighting for two days. When it was over, more than 1,000 enemy soldiers were killed and their bodies strewn everywhere in and outside the trenches of the outpost.
It wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t chivalrous. It was war in its most barbaric form.
For years Starr endured horrible dreams, images that he could not explain or describe. Being in a place of unspeakable terror and destruction would take its toll on even the hardy. Many survivors never overcame the mental and physical damage they suffered during the nightmare.
Today, thanks to counseling with Veterans Administration specialists, Starr is able to talk about the conflict and it comes alive at his telling. He remembers vividly that it was June 10, 1953 when the hordes of Chinese and North Koreans began a strong offensive to take Seoul. Three outposts named Tom, Dick and Harry, held by American and United Nations troops, were in defensive positions charged with holding their positions at all costs and stopping the foe.
"If the North Koreans and Chinese could overrun us, they would be on their way to Seoul only 40 miles away," he said, "and they would control that whole area. And so we had to stop them. I was in Outpost Harry which was actually inside North Korea, with orders to stop the enemy."
"The next morning, after a nightlong battle, we could count only 12 Americans alive out of a complement of 180. And some of them died from their wounds. I got hit in the knee and my shoulder and of course, by lots of shrapnel; otherwise I was OK. I was alive," he said. "We were up there in a hilltop bunker, four days before we got hit. We had orders to hold our ground at all costs. And we were told not to retreat. You fought until you died."
He believed he would not survive the battle once it began. Headquarters also surmised that they would not come back, he said.
Starr was a PFC in K Co. 5th Regiment, Third Division, during the fighting which epitomized the valor and dedication of the American soldier. When Starr and his mates trudged up the hill to Outpost Harry, they knew they were facing almost certain death, wounding or capture. But they did what they were trained to do. They went up with little trepidation and fought the enemy to a standstill. At the end, Outpost Harry remained in American hands while all others had succumbed to the Chinese and North Koreans.
The carnage of war was incredible, he said. On the nights of June 10 and 11, nearly more than 1,000 Chinese soldiers died while trying to take Outpost Harry.
In the book "A Morning in June," author James W. Evans writes graphically that after the savage attack on Outpost Harry, some of the bodies were still in parts of their uniforms. Some bodies had been blown out of their uniforms. Body parts covered everything. Bits of human flesh were hanging on barbed wire, lumped on top of bunkers and scattered all over the ground. The putrid smell of death was everywhere. Some of the bodies were turning black. Outpost Harry was like a human slaughterhouse in the open."
Starr says these vivid pictures are accurate. He remembers little else except firing his machine gun at the enemy hordes. These are a few of the images that have haunted Starr over the years. He revealed some of his recollections for books and DVDs during visits in California during recent years at the behest of writers and producers. He took part in several interviews while there.
For the 81-year-old Starr, the happiest day dawned on July 27, 1953 when a ceasefire agreement was announced. He is convinced that the struggles in the mountaintop fighting were essential to the end of the conflict.
The Korean conflict may be called the "forgotten war" by some, but not for those like Starr who were on the front lines. One soldier called it almost "prehistoric" in its savagery.
Another said Outpost Harry is a story of a forgotten soldier in a forgotten battle in a forgotten war.
Yet, It was in the trenches of battle, often in hand-to-hand fighting, that Starr found himself during five days of crucial conflict as hordes of Chinese tried to dislodge the Americans.
After the carnage, Starr was taken off the battlefield and flown to Japan to recuperate and take part in rehabilitation.
Among his battlefield medals, he covets the Congressional Medal of Honor bestowed on him by an army colonel who said: "Everyone who served in Outpost Harry deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor."
With the cessation of hostilities on July 27, 1953, Starr was on his way home.