In His Own Words - From Korea’s Center Front

Korean War Memorial

This is a letter written by Rev. Verner Hansen, while he was serving as a chaplain in Korea during the Korean War. It was addressed to his friends, Rev. Axel and Fylla (Putte) Kildegaard, congratulating them on the birth of their son, Nis. The letter contains a graphic picture of the horrors and hardships of war.

Dear Old Folks at Home,

Actually, both Howie and Harry [Howie Christensen and Harry Andersen] are on my correspondence list ahead of you people, but I am sure they will understand the blessed event that gives you priority. I am beside myself with joy in your behalf –– and not a little envious of your X - chromosomes, Axel. As for the name, Nis Sejr, I think it was inspirational! I am sure the youngster is 10% imp and 90% genius, which sounds like a delectable combination to me. The announcement was nice, too—but if you think your cup runneth over now — wait till Nis starts eating in a highchair!

Thanks for your letter, Putte — and for your addition, too, Axel. Mail is the high spot of every day over here— Ronny, Willy, Howie, [Ronald Jespersen, Howard Christensen] and others have dropped me a line off and on, and I appreciate them all. Pass this letter around, will you please, since it may be some time before I settle down to another long letter. It is so damn cold at night, and candle- light so ineffective, that letter writing is a real effort. As a matter of fact, why not send this on to the other boys as my contribution as this round of the Robin — it looks like I missed out on it.

The temptation is great to tell you what is going on over here, and if I succumb to that urge, I hope you will neither accuse me of trying to be sensational or of feeling sorry for myself. I only write about things as they are, and it is not my fault if the facts evoke either sensationalism or sympathy.

Actually, Putte, I didn't last long in that nice soft job 100 miles behind the front line. Ten days, to be exact. For the past six weeks, I have been assigned to the 23rd regiment, as “regimental chaplain” — whatever that means. In reality, it means a supervisory post, with 3 other chaplains under me, normally held by a major, a rank for which I can't qualify for another two years. I would gladly have sacri?ced whatever prestige is involved here, in order to keep my job back in the rear echelon area. If there is anything I hoped to avoid, it is the opportunity to be a hero.

The ?ghting that has broken out this past week or ten days along the whole central front, has found our regiment in the unenviable spot of bearing the brunt of the attack. We are guarding the “Old Baldy” — ”T-Bone”, ”Whitehorse” area — which projects irritatingly deep into the area of the Communists. The 23 rd , part of the 2nd Division, (Second to None!) has a rather long record of military achievement in the Korean campaign, and the Chinese have sworn, by propaganda leaflets, to annihilate it in revenge. By more than twice as many, we have taken more casualties than any other regiment — Heartbreak Ridge and Old Baldy accounting for most of them. In the past 3 months alone, we have lost 600-700. So I was very reluctant, one might say, to get into this unit.

Tonight it is quiet on the central front for the ?rst time in many days, and it is a wondrous relief to get a little relaxation. The past week has been pure hell — horrifying, — fatiguing, — terrifying hell. Somehow, one always feels secretly that he will not actually get involved in any combat — that is what keeps a soldier going along, I believe. Once he gets there, his training and instincts take over. If these weeks are a foretaste of the whole winter, America had better be prepared for an all-out war, because we are going to need lots of help, very soon, because the piddling support given to this “police action” is an insult and a travesty on those poor guys who are huddled in the trenches along the front.

The worst ?ghting goes on at night, of course, and I spend my nights at the aid station, where the wounded are brought in and prepared for the hasty trip back to the forward hospital. You can't imagine and won't believe the sights we just see — the whole hideous effect is an experience that I will never get over. My ?rst day in action I was visiting a front bunker, and one of the men I had just talked to stepped out into the communication trench leading to the next position, when a shell came screaming right at us. It missed me, but it tore out the throat of my friend and I had to watch him die in a few terrible minutes. We carried him down to the litter jeep, but he was beyond help. That was my ?rst combat experience — my baptism of ?re — and I have been shelled over a dozen times since. I'm by nature a peaceful man, I think, but how can one control his hatred under circumstances like this? How can one turn the other cheek when it might get shot out? The other night a piece of shrapnel came tearing through my tent — big enough to split a man's head — right over my bed. Sensational‘? Yes, it is, — and you can stop reading if you don't care for it.

The nights in the aid station are a long agony— for 3 nights I neither changed clothes nor got to bed. Five minute naps on the floor between ambulance loads. One moment I will be holding a plasma bottle while the doctor amputates an arm held on by only a few muscles. Another moment I will be holding the hand of a frightened painracked boy while the doctor stitched together the rip in his eyeball. Or I might be fumbling for words to say to a desperate soldier with a whole section of his torso missing. He looks at his wound and knows he is going to die. — What can I say to him? Soon the doctor stops administering blood and oxygen — the man still lives, but we need the supply for others that have some small hope of saving. Our boots splash through blood on the floor. The Catholic priest goes about administering last rites almost at random— no time to check the dog tags to see what the man's faith may be. These are not scenes from a dreadful nightmare — each of these descriptions are taken from life and all within the last week.

No, Putte, the political events at home do not seem unimportant to us here. The scene at home, whatever it may be, is what we live for. I was never more interested in a presidential race — and I'm con?dent that Eisenhower can't win. My big regret is that Stevenson is on the Democratic ticket, because I feel it is de?nitely more than a euphemism that we need a change. However, I see not much hope for betterment should Eisenhower win. I think something of a solution could be reached if Stevenson should appoint Eisenhower to his cabinet — perhaps in a Defense or War post. That would give meaning to our somewhat vaunted bi-partisan foreign policy. I think it would impress the Russians. And it might take some publicity away from the Taft-McCarthy etc. extremists. My opinion on Stevenson will surprise Howie — when I saw him last February, I think I pulled for Kefauver as the only hope of stopping Eisenhower. But now I don't think the Democrats can be stopped — they have some formidable strongholds when you begin counting electoral votes. I have not been too interested in other affairs, however. The new synod name? I personally think it is still more confusing to strangers than the old one. At least, you could explain “Danish” to newcomers. But I shudder to give a once-over-quickly explanation of A.E.L.C. as differentiated from all other Lutheran synods. We certainly, in one quick swoop, gave up all distinctiveness with that name. Well, I began this letter in a jovial mood and now ?nd I have worked myself into a most disagreeable state. Can't think of anything whimsical with which to rescue the situation, either.

It is a fact, however, that the noted G.I. sense of humor has meant the salvation of many an unbearable situation. G.I. Joe meets me with a gag — and the more dispirited the circumstances, the more pointed his wit. Each soldier is a Bill Mauldin at heart, and his ability to laugh at himself and his misery gives him survival power. Our conveniences are few— what I wouldn't give to walk into a nice, clean bathroom again. Instead, I must now blunder my way through a black-out area to an ice-coated latrine, and there, hope for a few minutes of peace. But probably the Chinese will choose that moment to start bombarding the camp –– a revolting development which does not promote good feelings between us. But what a marvelous cathartic it is!

Love to all, Vern

P.S. I have purposely shielded from Ing [Vern's wife, Ingeborg Mikkelsen] the truth that our regiment has been committed; she thinks we are still in “reserve” and I would appreciate your not disillusioning her. No need.

Note: Verner Hansen was born September 2, 1919 in Maine, and was active as a pastor in the AELC from 1943-1960. Vern was a very accomplished violinist. He served as interim pastor in Ringsted, Iowa, and was editor of Lutheran Tidings from 1953- to 1960, when he resigned as pastor of Emanuel congregation, Los Angeles, CA to become editor of audio-visual aids in Philadelphia. He worked for the LCA and was Editor of the Resource Magazine. He died in 1981 and is survived by two daughters, Brook and Tara who live in California.