NASELLE — “The bullets were whizzing by me from all over the place. I had to run about 20 feet through knee-deep mud in the open to get the guy. He had been shot and the Chinese would have killed him for sure. I didn’t even think. PFC Courtney Stanley and I drug him back to our bunker,” William “Bill” Wuorinen said after he saved Lt. Col. Harvey A Clarke, Jr. that frigid March 17, 1953, in “no man’s land” during the Korean War.
It was 5 a.m. and their unit had been under heavy fire for about three hours already at the Battle of Little Gibraltar to protect Hill 355. Wuorinen and his Army squad of 150 men had gone up at 2 a.m. to reinforce the log bunkers they had dug against the Chinese. Expecting just mild resistance, instead over 1,000 Chinese soldiers had taken over the upper bunkers and Wuorinen and his troops had to scramble to the lower bunkers when the firing began.
“We had slim pickings to defend ourselves and we had to run along the trenches looking for ammo. We burned everything expecting to be either killed or captured,” Wuorinen explains nearly 60 years later at the home his parents Victor and Laura built in 1938 out of wood from Knappton Mill.
Wuorinen’s squadron suffered 134 casualties with only 16 men surviving uninjured. “Often the Chinese soldiers were as close as from me to the other end of my kitchen table. You could see their eyes. Their plan was to break through our lines near Un-dong,” Wuorinen says.
“After we pulled the injured colonel into the bunker I cut the leg off his pants and applied a tourniquet like we had been trained to do. My buddy Courtney was shooting his BAR (Browning automatic rifle) to give us cover. When that jammed I tossed him my M-1 rifle. I took care of the colonel’s wounds and cleaned the BAR so it started firing again. First light was about 7 a.m. and we kept shooting until about 8:30 a.m. when Love Company came to reinforce us. The corpsmen were then able to take the wounded man down the hill,” Wuorinen relates matter-of-factly.
“Of course the next morning we re-organized and went right back up that hill March 18. It was hard, but just what we did,” Wuorinen says of his 11 months of combat duty in Korea.
“We would prowl around after dark on patrols. We were tired, but after a while you didn’t need sleep. We were like cats. We would get by on C-rations. I actually got to like powdered milk,” Wuorinen laughs. “We finally had a nice mess hall built, but before we could use it the Chinese sent in about 350 mortar rounds and blew it up. So much for hot meals,” Wuorinen laments.
“I would trade my cigarettes to a buddy for his jelly because I never smoked.” Wuorinen was with two soldiers and as they took a smoke break he took a short walk. “A couple of minutes later I heard a mortar whistle in and then the explosion. When I ran back my buddies were gone. Oh, I am not ashamed to tell you I prayed and I prayed hard. It seemed like someone upstairs was always looking out for me. I was chased, shot at, and they tried to blow me up many times, but I never got a scratch the whole time over there,” he says.
No bath day
Once Wuorinen was on his way to getting a bath the troops enjoyed once a month. He was riding in a 2.5-ton truck. A mortar struck behind the truck and then another struck in front. “Let’s get the heck outta here,” Wuorinen shouted and the 20 men jumped into a roadside ditch. Just then a mortar hit the truck. “The Chinese had zeroed in on us and the truck was blown into a million pieces. Needless to say we didn’t get our bath that day,” Wuorinen says.
“The Chinese were crazy the way they would fight. The first wave would come in blowing bugles and we would cut them down. The next group would get tangled in the barbed wire we would have strung and they would be shot. Then the rest would use their dead bodies as a bridge and charge us with automatic weapons, mortars, burp guns like the gangsters used to have, you name it,” Wuorinen recalls.
“I was on the snotty end of a flame thrower and I could hear the enemy holler and scream as I let loose. It bothers me to think of those poor guys. They were just like me, but if we hadn’t have killed them, they would have done it to us. Sometimes the bodies were piled as high as the ceiling because the ground was frozen so hard and they were still smoldering. The smell was the worst ever. We were trained so that it was like an everyday job, but it still bothers me some,” Wuorinen remembers.
“I don’t know how the Chinese made it because it got to be 45 degrees below zero. We had five gunny sacks around our boots and wore heavy parkas. Later we had insulated boots we called ‘Mickey Mouse boots.’ All they had were tennis shoes, brown wool jackets and those wool caps with the red star on them,” Wuorinen explains.
Christmas of 1952 Wuorinen remembers the Chinese broadcasting on loudspeakers. “We were close enough to hear them tell us our families were all safe and home by the fire. They tried to break our spirit and sometimes some of our men did crack and we’d have to talk with them.”
During Wuorinen’s 22 months in Korea he did enjoy a week of R&R (rest and relaxation) in Japan. “We went to the Rocker Four Club almost every night. I met Bob Kwak and Leonard Arnett and became friends with them, but I never saw them again,” Wuorinen relates.
That horrific March 17, 1953 was like many other days during the Korean War. There were over 400 Chinese killed in that battle. “I guess you could say we done good that day, but what gets me is that war is still going on. There never was an armistice. I often ask myself, ‘Why?’ and I don’t have an answer,” says Wuorinen, who is now 82 years old.
William was born in Toonerville at a logging camp near Naselle on Sept. 11, 1930. “I went to high school for two weeks until deer and elk season and then I went off to hunt. I was a gardener for Brix Logging and Wirkkala-Johnson Logging companies and made $9 a day. Other than during the war I worked in the logging game for 45 years like my dad. I came out of that with a few broken legs and such, but it was a good life,” Wuorinen explains.
Wuorinen was drafted into the Army in 1951 and served eight weeks of basic training at Camp Roberts in Northern California. “We ran for four weeks for basic training and then we ran harder for four more weeks and they called that advanced basic training. I hated the drill sergeant, but later I got to know him in Korea and we got to be friends,” Wuorinen laughs.
“When I left in 1951 we were logging the land where the grade school and gym are located. When I got back in 1953 I saw the first basketball game ever played in the Naselle gym,” Wuorinen says. Wuorinen was an only son so he was stationed in Alaska, which was still a territory. “I got tired of going out with a rifle with no bullets and there were grizzly bears around. When I saw a sign that said you could sign up for Korea if you had more than 13 months left, I ate breakfast and signed in. A week later I was on the Liberty ship heading to west. We had to land using LST’s (landing ship, tank) and the ramp opened and I was in Korea,” Wuorninen states.
He married his wife Margie (Midge) in 1957 and they have a son William, Jr., who is a television director in Spokane and a daughter Linda (Goguen), who works in the records department at Ocean Beach Hospital. After Wuorinen retired in 1990 the couple traveled and enjoyed their favorite pastime of digging razor clams. “My daughter is still mad at me for the time we went clam digging at midnight on New Year’s Eve,” Wuorinen laughs.
In 2007 Midge passed away after a bout with cancer. “That was a tough one. We were just planning our 50th wedding anniversary.” Wuorinen fills his time now with making unique wood working projects such as bowls and tables. He does his own yard work and loves to fish for salmon, hunt and of course dig clams.
“Bill is the perfect neighbor. He is always helpful and will do anything for you. He is friendly and he gets out and visits others. We look over at night to make sure his light is on and he has made it home from wherever he has driven that day,” long-time neighbors Dean and Junea Brannon say.
“Bill was very deserving of the Silver Star. It was a pleasure for our American Legion Post 0111 in Deep River to help him get the recognition he deserves,” Nick Nikkila, post commander, states. Nikkila took Wuorinen to Portland to buy dress pants and a sports jacket for the upcoming ceremony where he will get the Silver Star.
“I didn’t get a tie, though,” Wuorinen jokes. Rob Dalton and his junior class at Naselle High School in 2011 also were instrumental in drawing the Pentagon’s attention to Wuorinen’s heroic exploits.
Silver Star at last
After a battle of paperwork Wuorinen will finally — after 60 years — be awarded the Silver Star Jan. 30 in a ceremony at Naselle High School. “I think maybe they are blowing this award out of proportion, but I’ve got to admit I was pretty bitter all these years when the colonel and Courtney Stanley got the award and I didn’t. I’m honored to receive the Silver Star finally. I sure wouldn’t be able to wait another 60 years,” the 82-year-old Wuorinen says with his ever-present smile.
It seems Wuorinen had been incorrectly identified as a medical corpsman and was therefore not eligible for the Silver Star. Years later when Wuorinen asked Lt. Col. Clarke, who he had saved, to help with the medal, Mr. Clarke said he was retired and didn’t want anything to do with the military.
“What I went through I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But if I had to do it all over again, I would,” Wuorinen, war hero and all-around good guy humbly says. His plans for the day include a visit to Appelo’s Archive Center in Naselle and later lunch at Geno’s Restaurant in Astoria.
“Now I try to help others and be happy. I’ve got friends there,” he says. Truth be known, Bill Wuorinen has friends everywhere.
The Silver Star medal will be presented by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and many other dignitaries at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at Naselle High School and everyone is welcome to attend.
Note: The Silver Star is the third highest military decoration for valor that can be awarded to any person serving in any capacity with the United States Armed Forces. The medal is awarded for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States. The Silver Star is actually a gold five-pointed star, 1.5 inches in diameter with a laurel wreath encircling rays from the center and a 3/16 inch diameter silver star superimposed in the center.
William Wuorinen was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, two ribbons for serving in Korea summer and winter, and the Good Conduct medal upon his discharge. He will also receive two other medals Jan. 30 for his service.