Leaving his love for a combat zone


FERDINAND — Nestled among photo albums filled with pictures from Edgar Vaal’s time in the Army in the 1950s sit two pocket calendars, both with each day carefully crossed out in decades-old ink.

Vaal during service.
Vaal today.

The calendars record each day he and his late wife, then Marion Wendholt, wrote a letter to each other while Vaal was stationed in Korea in 1954 and 1955. At the time, the two were engaged, and Marion was waiting for Vaal to come home. They wrote each other every day.

Vaal, 84, grew up on a farm in St. Meinrad. He graduated from Dale High School in 1952, and he met Marion at a dance in Ferdinand around that time. They got engaged at Christmastime 1953, but Vaal’s draft notice put the wedding on hold in March 1954. By September 1954, Vaal was on his way to Korea for a 16-month tour with his U.S. Army unit. He was 20 years old.

“That was the worst part, being apart from her for that long period of time,” Vaal said. “But she waited for me.”

Although the Korean Armistice Agreement had been signed in July 1953 — more than a year before Vaal arrived in Seoul — Korea was still considered a combat zone. The country was rebuilding after years of war, and although Vaal never saw combat, he and his fellow soldiers were on alert. One black and white photo shows a younger Vaal standing guard outside the gates to his base — a girls’ school turned military installation — on a sunny day, a pistol stowed at his side. Not that it would have done him much good in a fight.

“We didn’t have any ammo in our pistols,” Vaal said. “I don’t know what we would have done if they’d have done something.”

Vaal learned the value of his farm boy upbringing and his high school education when he arrived on base in Korea. He was stationed with a unit that oversaw the train traffic through Korea, which was controlled by the U.S. Army. Most of the men there were trained in teletype systems, which sent messages through an electrical communication system. Vaal was not. He remembers his commanding officer taking his assignment papers when he arrived on base and asking, “What the heck are you doing here?”

“Well sir, I’m a farm boy,” Vaal remembers answering. “I can drive anything you’ve got in the motor pool.”

Vaal also learned how to type in high school, earning him the position of parts clerk in the motor pool. His biggest challenge was locating the parts the mechanics needed to keep all the trucks and machines running. Vaal had to be on top of his game, grabbing the parts as soon as they arrived because some of the Koreans took the parts for themselves. The highlight of working in the motor pool, on the other hand, was getting to drive whatever he wanted and transporting United Service Organization guests who came to perform for the soldiers. He still remembers driving actress Debbie Reynolds. He and his peers were shocked when she said the F-word in her show.

“Everybody said it around the Army, though,” Vaal recalled. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

He also clearly remembers the stink of the rice patties, which were fertilized with human waste. As soon as he stepped off the train, he said, the scent overwhelmed him.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” he recalled. “I was a farm boy, so I was used to an odor like that. But it was totally different.”

Vaal spent most of his time on base. The men were allowed to leave, he said, but there was nothing to do. Seoul was still recovering from the war, and the streets and buildings still bore the damage. He did take a trip up to the demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel to snap a photo, and he took one rest and recuperation trip to Japan. Other than that, he spent most of his free time on base.

Vaal left Korea on Dec. 2, 1955, and was discharged from the Army on Dec. 22. The army transported him from the West Coast to Chicago, but from there he had to use his muster out bonus to get home. He purchased a plane ticket and flew to Louisville, where Marion’s sister lived, and they drove him back to St. Meinrad. He arrived home with only the clothes on his back.

“I didn’t care any way,” he said. “I was just glad to get home.”

He and Marion married in June 1956, and the newlyweds went to Kentucky Lake, a popular honeymoon spot back then. After their honeymoon, they bought some land outside of Ferdinand and built the house Vaal still lives in. The couple had five children — Randy, Bruce, Mike (deceased), Lauren Rickelman and Gina Johnson.

Marion passed away in 2006 at age 72, just after their 50th anniversary. Vaal misses her every day.

“We had a pretty good life. She died too young,” Vaal said, trailing off. “You can’t have everything.”

Marion may have passed, but Vaal is still surrounded by family. All four children live in the area, and he has 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren with two more on the way.

And his time in the Army showed him more of the world than many see. It also got him out of a career on the farm. After their wedding, Vaal said, he and Marion decided together not to take over his family’s farm. Instead, he partnered with some friends on a heating and cooling company, Blue Flame Propane. He also co-owned Ferdinand’s first car wash, Ferdinand Five Minute Car Wash, which opened in 1957.

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