Don and The Korean War

Korean War
Korean War 1950-1953

Donald E. Cork joined the US NAVY in 1950 three weeks after his high school graduation to get out of his cramped home and to see the world. After boot camp at Great Lakes, Chicago, he was sent to Bayonne, New Jersey for Storekeeper school and then assigned to the USS Columbus.

USS COLUMBUS-CA74

The Korean War was in progress, and there was a need for volunteers to learn survival skills and become a UDT for Top Secret missions. The Underwater Demolition Team was a predecessor for the Navy Seals. At nineteen, Don was that stereotypical Irishman with black hair and giant blue eyes, full of laughter and thirsty for a beer. He said, “Why not?” and was reassigned to a Georgia base, where he waded with the swamp alligators and learned how to stay alive with a knife and a nonchalant attitude. After six weeks, he rejoined the USS Columbus in the Yellow Sea. The missions involved a submarine dropping him a mile away from shore above the 38th parallel. He relinquished his dog tags, and teams of three swam to shore. At the Yalu River, they hid on hilltops and radioed the ship of approaching Chinese troops. They had three days to return to the exact spot in the water, or the submarine would leave them behind. The survival rate was 10 percent. Don survived eight missions until he became ill with tuberculosis and was honorably discharged. He laid in a stateside hospital for fourteen months. Fed up with living in a hospital bed, he walked out and returned to Illinois where he spent the rest of his working days as a postal worker. He married my mother in 1979 when I was a junior in high school. Their marriage was happy and lasted 37 years.

These facts are true about Don, but it shows little about what kind of man Don was. He wasn’t one to talk about the war unless someone asked him about it. He would laugh and tell about what mischief he had gotten himself into (He was demoted for insulting a superior officer more than once.) with his buddies and team members.

Don, second from left
Don, second from left

The Vietnam War superseded the Korean Conflict followed by Desert Storm and the Iraq War. While these events happened, Don managed the postal store books, planted his garden, and reinvented spaces in the house for Mom. He hunted wild mushrooms and asparagus, and taught his grandchildren how to fish.

20160407_163059
Don and Mom at their wedding, 1979

While the wars were fought, children and grandchildren grew up, grew away, and got old themselves.  For a man who never asked for attention, the spotlight of his recent death had multi-generations talking about “Grandpa”. Upon hearing of Grandpa’s mission impossibles, my thirty year old son’s mouth dropped in amazement.

He asked me, “How come I never knew about this?”

“You didn’t ask.”

Don died a few weeks ago in his home after a hard year struggling to breathe. When I think about him, I have wondered how he would like to be remembered. It was not the Top Secret clearance or the Cold War shenanigans that made him proud. In their corner of the neighborhood, it was his life with Mom, where the gardens grew and the birds found refuge where he was the hero.

“You didn’t ask, son. But I should have told you.”

 

Anything you ever would want to know about the Korean War can be found at http://www.koreanwar.org.

 

41 thoughts on “Don and The Korean War

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  1. My condolences to you and your family Cindy. I feel very privileged that you have shared this with us and you have written beautifully about the man. From storekeeper to underwater demolitions says something about how fearless he was but the true measure of a man is his family and you have captured his real legacy. There are many sentences here that are just perfect. Thank you Cindy.

  2. A touching tribute to your step-dad, Cindy. It would seem the the bravest are also the most unassuming, and less boastful. He was loved and admired by a family that miss him, and will continue his memory. That is the best thing that any of us could wish for from a life.
    I found this clip about the UDT. You might well have seen it.

    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. I’m sorry your loss and that of the world’s. Men like Don are a breed among themselves. Sounding a lot like my father, you were lucky to have known and loved him. Thank you for sharing this story with us.
    [would you care to have Don’s name in the Farewell Salutes?]

    1. We could use a few more like them. thanks, Kim. The good news is we celebrated his life, the Irish way, and our multi-generations had a wonderful time getting to know one another. I hadn’t seen some relatives in a decade.

  4. That was riveting! Don was a survivor and somehow managed to come out of the military with a positive mind frame and able to handle the terrible scenes he must have seen. My Uncle was not so lucky, we could never pry out of him what experiences he had in New Guinea during WWII but it must have been terrible because he had to drown it out with alcohol for the rest of his life after discharge. The world is littered with wrecks of humanity like my uncle after their war experiences and governments do not do enough to show their appreciation for what they did to protect our freedoms.

    1. Ian, you have said a lot and to those who have suffered PTSD, my heart goes out to them. I think one reason Don survived relatively mentally healthy was because he had a pretty crappy childhood. He pretty much fought his way to the top of the heap and raised himself. By the time he enlisted, he was already hard and had cultivated a devil-may-care attitude. I know he was affected by his experiences, but that generation was not one to talk about it or analyze themselves. His garden was his therapy and he had a good woman by his side who loved him. Quite the tonic!

  5. When I see the massive accolades showered upon some ‘celebrities’ – while the many truly worthy of such – like Don – who really did something – but pass in anonymity – it really gets to me.

    Such is this world.

    I have Faith that there IS a reward however.

  6. My condolences for your loss, Cindy. What a wonderful tribute to your father here, sounds like he led a very brave and intriguing life. I didn’t hear many war stories from my family but my late grandma did have an interesting story during the 3.5 year of Japanese occupation of Indonesia back in the early 40s that she saved one wounded Japanese soldier. So many unsung heroes during the war, such as your dad here.

      1. I wish I had written it down Cindy. I think she said she saw the Japanese soldier being wounded badly and he was technically the enemy. She certainly had some interesting stories about the Dutch too, but not really relating to war, but it was during the time they occupied Indonesia.

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