1950s, culture, family, history

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.


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The Vietnam War superseded the Korean Conflict followed by Desert Storm and the Iraq War.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.

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.