Korean War veteran Joe Aldeen is shown with his trainer plane. Photo contributed by Joe Aldeen.
KINGSPORT — Some historians have called it "The Forgotten War." But 86-year-old veteran Joe Aldeen never forgot what he went through in Korea.
"I had several buddies get captured or killed. I saw them get captured, and I saw them get killed," said Aldeen.
The shadow of recollected loss flickered over his cheerful demeanor like a cloud passing across the sun.
"It was pretty rough," he said.
Within seconds, he smiled broadly again. The Korean War receded into the decades behind him. His impending heart surgery was set for Wednesday, two days ahead.
Monday was a good day to simply be here now.
"What I loved most was flying in formation in a fighter plane and peeling off and going down and shooting. That was absolutely beautiful," said Aldeen, whose military service began in 1948 during the U.S. postwar occupation of Japan and spilled over into the United Nations "police action" that had all the bloody trappings of a conventional war.
Few average Americans understood the Korean War in the 1950s. An iconic 1970s television show ostensibly set on the Korean peninsula during that war was really a commentary on Vietnam. Thanks to the History Channel, some contemporary citizens can finally wrap their minds around the violence of this Cold War proxy conflict.
In 1948, when he participated in patrols out of Northern Japan as a radio operator with the 339th Fighter Squadron, the superpower friction behind the brewing conflagration was self-evident to Aldeen.
"The Russians shot at us. And we shot at them. They didn't try to shoot us in the cockpit, so much. But they'd try to shoot the tail off," said Aldeen, who flew in an F-82 Twin Mustang — the last piston-engine fighter ordered into production by the U.S. Air Force. "We could aim our radar at them and time them taking off at their base in Russia. We could do all kinds of things. We were as mean as they were," he said.
Those dangerous games played against Soviet Yak-9 pilots were good, clean fun compared with what was to follow.
Aldeen spent the bulk of the unpleasantness in Korea as a member of the 934th Signal Battalion, which relayed intelligence from forward observers on the ground to the Air Force fighter and bomber squadrons conducting air strikes on communist forces.
Having been transferred to a mobile radio shack on wheels, the former Dobyns-Bennett student stayed on the move during the dramatic advances — and frantic retreats — that characterized the Korean War before it settled into a still-unresolved stalemate at the 38th parallel.
Focused on his duties, Aldeen rarely noticed his surroundings. Sometimes there was shooting and shelling in his vicinity. Other times, not. Much of his time was spent "out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere" busily relaying coded communications.
Even after all those years, moments of particular clarity stand out from the fog of war.
One startling moment he recalls was in Pyongyang — which U.N. troops, including Aldeen and 21 Signal Corps comrades — briefly occupied before overwhelming numbers of Red Chinese troops showed up.
Aldeen's unit set up a communications post in the capital, nervously awaiting orders. He worried that they had somehow been misplaced during the advance. It was cold, very late November or early December. It was dark. Aldeen hunkered in a foxhole with a buddy near their radio equipment. He heard singing.
"They were singing Christmas carols. Christian carols. It was this little building. I think it was a church. I think they were worshipping," said Aldeen, who emerged from his cover and crept forward to investigate.
"I was about to put my hand on the door when I got scared. So I backed off and listened to them. Somebody shot at me and I jumped back in my hole. I shot back once and thought 'God no, I don't want to kill nobody,'" he said.
When the Red Chinese started rolling into Pyongyang, Aldeen finally received orders to destroy transmitters, receivers and teletypes as well as surplus rations and supplies before evacuating. A pair of infantrymen Aldeen knew showed up and urged the Signal Corps men to hit the road and bragged that they'd properly finish the demolitions work.
As the two airmen drove off, they looked back to see the infantrymen atop a tall heap of rations. They had been surrounded by heavily armed Chinese troops. Hopelessly outgunned — and with a cyanide capsule tucked in his pocket in the event he were captured — Aldeen grimly drove away.
The airmen fell into the retreating convoy, which was continually peppered with enemy fire. The cloth roof of the truck reduced to tatters, Aldeen and his buddy wrapped themselves in canvas tent halves to stave off hypothermia.
At one point in the convoy, a communist saboteur disguised as an American M.P. directed Aldeen to turn right. The Tennessean chanced to notice the upended rear of a damaged Signal Corps vehicle, one of three that had been so led into an ambush. Aldeen swerved to run over the impostor, who fled into a nearby ditch, drawing fire from the vehicle behind the two shivering men.
The anxiety-provoking encounter was incentive for the airmen to endure bitter cold, hunger and sleep deprivation while they kept moving. They finally arrived in Seoul, exhausted and nearly frozen — but alive.
"They had to feed us warm soup and water to even get our mouths open. We couldn't even talk. They had to carry us out of the truck, we were so cold," Aldeen said.
Several days later, he was amazed to encounter the two gallant infantrymen who had shooed their high-value hides out of Pyongyang. Against all odds, they had not only escaped their Chinese captors, they'd gotten to Seoul ahead of him.
"The secret was that the Chinese didn't get any rations. They had to live off the land and 90 percent of them were starving to death," Aldeen said.
"Those two guys started pulling the rations out of the pile and showing them how to open them and how to eat it. Pretty soon the Chinese started getting rations out for themselves and passing them around.
"While the Chinese soldiers were sitting around eating, our boys got into their jeep, set the radios on fire and drove off."