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‘Together to the very end’ — signatures on a banknote, and memories of fellow soldiers

A Korean 1,000 won note that I have carried in my wallet for 70 years brings to vivid life the memories of the men I fought alongside.

The autographed 1,000 won banknote that the author has kept in his wallet since 1951.Tom Sheehan

For these past 70 years, since 1951 in Korea, I have carried in my wallet a 1,000 won Korean banknote with the signatures of my squad members on its face — our unit being Headquarters Section, First Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division. The banknote was given to me by Lee Bong Ha, a Korean worker assigned to our unit. He was a figure of admiration for having fashioned a replacement for a comrade’s broken watch crystal out of a plastic spoon. Military newspapers at the time carried the item under the title “Time to Spoon.” Lee had been paid off from his government contract with a basketful of the banknotes and passed them out like the near-useless paper they were.

The day we were deployed on the far side of a lake in Hwacheon, all but one of us signed the banknote. Chuck Rumfola had been on an unofficial assignment, stripping a military truck’s two rear rims of their tires, sending one rim to the top of the mountain and connecting it with a cable to the other rim on the truck. Chuck had figured out that by jacking up the truck’s rear end and running the engine, we could use the spinning back wheels to send arms and supplies up the mountainside, accomplishing in minutes what would have taken Korean laborers days up and down the steep slope. It was nothing more than the thinking of a handy man facing a hard day’s work and embodying the spontaneity of war.

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Seated left to right: Tom Sheehan, Frank Butcher, Tom Durocko, and Chuck Rumfola, in Korea, 1951.Courtesy of the author

A few years ago, Chuck and his daughter Carol and son-in-law Peter Konstraba came to visit me here in Saugus, and Chuck added his signature, which is now in the darkest ink, at last in place along with all of our comrades’, together to the very end.

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After his visit with me, Chuck Rumfola went back home to Avon, N.Y., and died two days later.

Now, to a man, they are all gone. I list the others from memory, as acute as my memory can get when I think of them either individually or as a squad, which is every day in this life since the war.

Frank Butcher, of Elston, Iowa, and Tom Durocko, of Springfield, Ill., thought they were not doing enough fixing radios as their prime assignments in a war where friends and comrades were dying around us, so the pair volunteered to transfer to an infantry company. They were killed in action a few days later.

Bob Breda, left, and Earl Peterson, two Chicago boys at their radio truck, Kumbanchero, in Korea, 1951.Courtesy of the author

Bob Breda, of Chicago’s North Side, was the latest one to go. I saw his obituary in a Chicago newspaper just last year. Bob was the smallest of the squad members.

The same day that Chuck was rigging the truck to do the work of a legion of men, our battalion commander, Major Young Oak Kim was asked by a Marine radioman on the hilltop with us if we could use a load of unspent ammunition being carried by a squadron of jets coming back from a visit north. Major Kim — a hero of two wars who would ascend to the rank of colonel and have a school in California named for him — instructed the Marine radioman to request that the pilots use the excess ammo to strafe the other side of the hill we had climbed. The pilots did so with apparent ease, passing down over us so closely on their way I swore I could feel the heat of the four jets’ exhaust. After the planes had completed that run, the marine radioman said, “You know who that was? That was pilot Ted Williams and his gang!”

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Two years later, sitting in Fenway Park’s right field in 1953 — that Korean banknote in my wallet then as now — with my longtime best pal and former Saugus football teammate Ernie Anganis beside me, I caught a Ted Williams home run ball. Four sons have since “borrowed” that ball to play catch in the backyard. It ended up at the mercy of their bats — a baseball lasting only so long in play, gone with the ages, but that banknote remaining in place for these 70 years.

Tom Sheehan is in his 94th year and is the author of 52 or 53 books. He lives in Saugus.