During his four years in the U.S. Army, Larry Holmgren turned down an invitation to be a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and suffered hearing impairment on the firing range but was still sent into combat as an infantryman in the Korean War.
“I got on the rifle range and I never missed a bullseye,” he said, sitting at the dining room table in his Sky Valley home. “I knew weapons inside and out.”
Holmgren was just shy of his 18th birthday when he enlisted in August 1948. After basic training, he was assigned to Company G, 3rd Infantry Regiment in Washington, D.C., where he ultimately went through honor guard training and was recommended as a guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — a prestigious post.
“It was boring. You walk like a wooden soldier,” he said, explaining why he declined.
Turning down the post, he was transferred to Fort Meade, Maryland, where while on the firing range a cartridge in a 1903 Springfield rifle ruptured.
“I got the full force of the explosion through the gas port …,” Holmgren said. His company commander told him the hearing impairment would be noted on his records and “I’d never be around gunfire for the remainder of my enlistment.”
Holmgren was transferred to Aberdeen Proving Grounds where he served as a machine shop instructor and from there to the Far East as an ordnance machinist, he said.
“Despite the restriction, I arrived in Korea as a rifleman in March 1951 with Baker Company in the 25th Division, 27th Infantry Regimental Combat Team. By the first day on the line one of the guys in my squad screamed at me to get down because the enemy silhouetted on the far ridge were shooting at me.
“I hadn’t heard any more than a barely audible buzz. From that point on I learned to keep a low profile while on the line,” Holmgren wrote in a brief chronicle of his Army experiences. “By the end of my second day, I had seen two GI’s who had been burned with napalm by our own forces. Later on, I saw four freshly killed Chinese beneath a pine tree. …The smell and sights were unforgettable…”
When you can’t hear the enemy
His hearing issues plagued him throughout his tour.
“Once we were in a narrow canyon where several tanks with muzzle breaks were set up. I was right next to it when it fired and I couldn’t hear anyone well for over a week. It was excruciating to stand guard knowing I wouldn’t be able to hear the enemy sneaking up on me.
“One night, I almost killed a fellow soldier approaching us. I could see him silhouetted by the moonlight but couldn’t hear if he’d given the password or not. Fortunately, he heard my foxhole buddy snoring and turned around or I would’ve shot him.”
Another day, Holmgren recalled that his squad was attacking a ridge some 150 yards away when his M-1 rifle jammed.
“The enemy’s fire intensified as I paused to unjam it,” he said, and a bullet whizzed by and left a hole in the left arm of his field jacket, which he was wearing. “Five inches to the right and it would have gone right through my heart.”
He was uninjured, but soon realized he was alone after his squadron had left. “I was mad as hell that they had left me there. Later, I found out the platoon sergeant had called us back and I hadn’t heard him,” Holmgren said.
His platoon was constantly on the move, mostly by foot.
“We were moving night and day,” he said. “I never thought I could march that far and still stand.”
In June, they started a weeklong retreat to Seoul with thousands of Chinese right behind them, he said.
“It had taken us five weeks of fighting to reach the Wyoming Line, some 30 miles into enemy territory and we got no more than three to four hours of sleep a night. During the eight days it took us to retreat the same distance we marched constantly. It rained the whole week, thus preventing any air cover,” he said.
Just outside of Seoul they set a couple of houses on fire to try to warm up and dry off. “We were all exhausted, wet and hungry.”
They finally reached camp and hadn’t been there long when, “Suddenly we were told to leave the tents, shoulder our rifles, grenades and ammo, fill our canteens, formed up and started to double-time up to the line.”
It was about midnight and the company commander told Holmgren’s group they were to advance up a hill, north of Kumhwa. “We could not see our hand in front of our face, it was so dark.”
They went up the hill and the fighting had died down some. They were in a 150-foot by 250-foot area on top of the hill and as the sun came up they learned that 275 men had died in the battle — “theirs and ours,” Holmgren said. They prepared for the night’s counterattack.
“By nightfall, we had set grenade booby traps to our front awaiting the attack,” Holmgren said. “Tension was high. We could hear the Chinese shouting in front of us. Illumination rounds were going out about every half-hour. Red, yellow and green tracers lit up the night.”
Just before midnight, he recalled a sergeant in a foxhole no more than 12 feet away asking Holmgren if he saw anything between them.
“I said no. (Sgt.) Gaddis got out of his hole and came within three feet of my hole and began probing with his rifle. He asked three times, ‘You GI?’ and then fired twice. An arm flopped onto my arm at the edge of my hole. It was a (Chinese soldier). He had crawled up behind us trying to get back to his lines. I began shaking so bad I couldn’t fire my rifle if I had to.”
Holmgren was shaken by the fact he didn’t hear the enemy approach. “I realized I could have gotten myself and my buddies killed.”
A witness to heroism
On Sept. 12, 1951, he watched a buddy, Lt. Jerry Sudut lead his platoon up a ridge near Kumhwa into a bunker and trench complex. Sudut was shot in the abdomen, but kept going, charging the emplacement alone through hostile fire. He killed three and the rest fled. He refused medical evacuation and led his men in a renewed attack on the bunker, where the Chinese had returned through connecting trenches from other emplacements, according to Sudut’s Medal of Honor certificate.
Accompanied by an automatic-rifleman, Sudut charged into close-range fire. When his rifleman was wounded, Sudut grabbed his gun and continued on his own, killing three of the four remaining occupants in the bunker. He jumped into a hole and killed the remaining enemy soldier with his trench knife before dying from his own injury.
“I could see everything he was doing. I saw him get killed,” Holmgren said, tears welling in his eyes. The two had met in Korea when Sudut led Holmgren’s platoon before getting his commission. “Jerry was such a good guy.”
Several times, Holmgren was also offered a commission and promotion to company commander, but always declined. If he had accepted, he would have had to stay in the Army longer and ultimately would have been deployed to Vietnam, he said.
His hearing loss, guilt that he survived the war while so many he served with died, and visions of war have stayed with Holmgren.
“Men were killed and wounded around me and yet I escaped untouched,” Holmgren said.
It wasn’t until 1998 that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. He joined a group therapy session with other veterans with PTSD through the VA clinic in Palm Desert, he said, where he found comfort talking with others who had shared experiences.
He was honorably discharged from the Army in May 1952 and went on to work for Greif Bros. and then Honeywell Military Products Group before going into construction. He retired in 1998.
Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas reports on veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (760) 778-4694. Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherry