Story of the Month – July 2014

My Korean War HeroJohn Kirby

My grandfather, John L. Kirby, enlisted in the U.S. Army November 14th 1949. He had just turned 17 years old two weeks before. He was from a very small town named Ottumwa, Iowa. Among the things he left behind to enlist in the Army were his mother, father. His only sibling, Loretta Kerby, died in an accident two years before he left home. He left his classmates and friends at Ottumwa High School, with this he lost his small town innocence. He attended basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas. He was part of the 10th Mountain Division, I company, 85th Infantry Regiment. After basic training he was transported to Okinawa, Japan, on the troop transport ship called the General Walker. He was promised six weeks of intensive training for the infantry. They did not receive any additional training and was transported to Pusan, Korea 7/25/1950. He was with the 29th Infantry Regt, 3rd Battalion with 1800 men. He arrived in Korea on a Japanese ship called the Taga-sakamau.

My grandfather told me the story of how on 7/27/50 he entered into the pass toward Hadong and they were ambushed by the 6th division of North Korea Peoples Army and completely outmanned and outgunned. They fought hard for 4 1/2 hours and were forced to withdraw. A fellow soldier by the name of Mariano Sanchez was ahead of him fighting and was hit by gunfire. My grandfather carried the wounded man across the river to the medical team and saved his life (That man is still alive today). Within two days there were 125 U.S soldiers captured, and the majority of the soldiers were wiped out. Less than 200 troops made it through. The remaining soldiers joined up with the 24th infantry division, 19th Regiment and continued to fight.

My grandfather was in daily combat for 14 months straight. He earned three purple hearts, two oak leaf clusters, combat infantry badge, bronze star, and other medals. He left Korea at a mere 18 years of age as a Sergeant 1st class. He never spoke of the war the entire time my mother was growing up. He is 81 years old now and still has nightmares about being in Korea. In the 1990’s he began to speak about the Korean War and began seeking out survivors. He told me another story about how he posted an ad on the internet and a fellow soldier, Ed Thompson, saw it and reunited with him 50 years after they were in Korea together. Ed was his wire man in Korea. He ran wire for the SCR300 radios to work because they could not get reception on the hills in Korea.

My grandfather found another Korean Veteran that was with him named Neil Vance. He has told us the story about while in North Korea my grandfather was following a United States tank up a hill. The tank got stuck on a ridge and a Chinese General was about to ambush them and he threw a rice bag off of a hole he was hiding in. My grandfather saw him and was able to capture him before he could harm the U.S. troops. Then my grandfather went up near the ridge and realized that Neal Vance was following him. He was out in the open, my grandfather yelled at him to get out of that area because he would be spotted. Just seconds after he got him to move, two highly explosive shells blew up right where he had been standing.

My grandfather’s fight for South Korea’s independence has shaped my life by making me grateful for all of the freedoms that I have as a United States Citizen. His determination and bravery to save Mariano Sanchez taught me to never give up on my goals in life no matter how challenging they may be and to push through no matter what the circumstance. His loyalty to his fellow troops inspired me to look out for others well being and not only for my own. Its hard to believe over 128,000 American lives were lost. I am proud to say I was born on my grandfather’s birthday and I am 17 years old. I find it hard to imagine the terrible things these brave soldiers endured and how remarkable it is that any of them made it home.

My grandfather was one of the fortunate soldiers that survived. He completed his high school studies in the Army and returned home to collect his diploma from Ottumwa High School. He married Sally Clark, also of Ottumwa, Iowa in 1953. They are still married live in California near their four children, fourteen grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.


Written with love and admiration,

Kyrin E. Alexander


  Kyrin Alexander-Grandparents                       Recent Kyrin Alexander