‘Bad stuff just kind of melts away’ for vet

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

It’s been 64 years, but U.S. Army veteran John Habig still remembers looking out the train window on his way to the base in South Korea and watching the sign marking the 38th parallel pass by.

Habig

The parallel was — and still is — the rough border between North and South Korea. As a U.S. soldier, Habig deployed on an 18-month tour in South Korea in 1955. For him, passing the 38th parallel was disconcerting.

“When I saw that sign, I thought, ‘Well, wait a minute. That’s not supposed to be,’” Habig recalled.

At 21 years old, Habig found himself stationed with an artillery unit in the demilitarized zone that ran along the 38th parallel in a camp near the village of Uijeongbu, the setting for the hit TV show “MASH.”

Habig, 85, grew up in Jasper and was born just a few blocks from his current office, which is on the second floor of Springs Valley Bank & Trust on Main Street where he is vice chairman. He made his career, however, at Kimball International — which his father, Arnold, founded as the Jasper Corporation in 1950 — and retired in 1999.

When he was drafted in the later half of 1954, he was in college at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

“The draft got a lot of us,” Habig said.

Habig attended two basic trainings — one for the Army and one for basic artillery training — and married his wife, the late Carma (Wilson) Habig in December 1954 between the two trainings. He shipped out in early 1955 and was among the minority of his peers to be sent to the Far East. Most, he said, were sent to Germany. Then, he was part of an even smaller minority to be sent to Korea. Most of the men sent to the Far East, he said, went to Japan.

By the time Habig arrived in Korea, the Korean War had been over for about a year and a half, but skirmishes still popped up now and then. Habig himself never saw combat, but his unit frequently ran training missions in the demilitarized zone, shooting howitzer guns at old army vehicles. An 8-inch gun can launch a 200-pound shell up to 15 miles, Habig said, and the shells can either explode in the air to rain shrapnel down on enemies in foxholes or penetrate the ground for enemies that dug in deeply.

“If we were here and had it aimed, we could wipe Dale out,” Habig said.

Living conditions in Korea were meager, Habig said. All the buildings were Quonset huts, and his base had no running water or electricity, save for a few hours each night when generators would run.

Baths were basically nonexistent.

If you felt the need to wash, Habig said, you removed the liner from your metal helmet, filled it with water and heated it over the stove. Then, you used it like a wash basin.

“Kind of crude,” Habig said. “But you make do.”

As a Jeep driver, Habig could get a little better bath. When the Jeep needed to be cleaned, he said, he just drove the Jeep into the river, taking himself with it.

Food rations were sparse, as well. Since his camp was at the end of the supply lines, they often got whatever was left over. Sometimes, that wasn’t much.

“You’d have cereal, but you didn’t have any milk,” Habig said. “You used coffee and some sugar, if you had it.”

The living quarters, he said, taught him to appreciate the quality of life available in the U.S.

In Korea, he saw hospitals and buildings that were just barely inhabitable after the war, large families crammed into small huts that were heated using coals under the floor, and men and women carrying heavy loads by hand because vehicles weren’t available.

Several times, Habig said, he’d come up behind someone on the highway and think he was following a wagon of hay. When he passed, however, he’d see that it was one person carrying several hay bales on his or her back.

For Habig, though, the primitive quarters weren’t the hardest part of Korea. The separation from his wife was. She was pregnant and gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Michaela, halfway through his deployment.

“My wife became pregnant on I suppose our honeymoon,” he said. “When she had the baby, I didn’t see my first daughter until she was 9 months old.”

Letters were the only communication Habig had with those back home while on base. Despite what the TV show “MASH” showed, the radios they had on base did not reach the U.S. Still, letters at least kept him up-to-date on his daughter, and Carma sent a few photos along with her letters.

The base did have an En Club, which was a place where the enlisted men could go for a beer and an occasional movie, and that was a highlight of the deployment. Everything was 10 to 15 cents, and the club had beers from all over the world. For Habig, it was fun to try a different beer every time he visited the club. But rest and recuperation time was a treat.

Habig got two weeks during his deployment and went to Japan both times. There, he could call home and get some “food with substance.” He also went to see Japan’s Olympic table tennis team practice, and he learned to play. Often, a game would pop up on base, and Habig continues to play with a group in Jasper.

By the time Habig left Korea, he’d become the equivalent of a first sergeant working in the commander’s office. When he returned to Dubois County in 1956, he went to work at Kimball International. Over his 43-year career, he traveled extensively for business, but he never returned to Korea. He and Carma had two children, Michaela Habig of Loogootee and Teri Zunk of Haubstadt. Carma passed away in February.

Over the years, Habig’s time in Korea has faded in his memory, becoming simply a chapter of his life that he doesn’t dwell on.

“Human nature is kind of kind, I think,” Habig said. “You remember whatever seemed fun or entertaining. You don’t remember that your feet almost froze off or you had to do different things. The bad stuff just kind of melts away in your memories. It does for me at least.”




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