The nicest sight that Cecil Kimrey remembers about South Korea was a tree with an American flag flying on top.
Aside from that, it was mostly barren hills that Kimrey’s 1st Raider Company traversed for eight months during the Korean War, starting in 1950. Kimrey’s unit gathered secretive information to pass along to their allies.
Kimrey was only about two weeks away from avoiding missions where he slept two hours a night, occasionally in sub-zero temperatures.
After joining the Army at 17, a year after his father died, Kimrey left Hillsborough for eight weeks of training in Fort Jackson, SC. Traveling from Seattle via banana boat, Kimrey arrived 16 days later in Yokohama, Japan, which was still occupied by American soldiers five years after World War II.
Kimrey was assigned to the honor guard of General McArthur.
At the time, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials was in progress after General McArthur ordered the arrests of members of General Hideki Tojo’s war cabinet. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East was comprised of 12 judges, and Kimrey was ordered to serve as the driver for Lord William Patrick of Great Britain. After Patrick’s departure, he drove for Judge Henri Bernard of France.
After the tribunal sentenced Tojo to death, Kimrey began driving for General Patrick Fox, who would eventually become the father-in-law to Alexander Haig, the future Secretary of State under President Reagan.
Originally, Kimrey had a 24 month tour of duty. By the time Fox had been reassigned, Kimrey had served 23 months and two weeks. Fox asked Kimrey to return stateside with him to Fort Lebonworth, Kansas. Assuming his time abroad would soon be in the rear view mirror, Kimrey wrote a letter to his mother in Hillsborough saying he had packed his bags and on his way home.
Then North Korea launched a series of attacks on American-backed Seoul, South Korea on June 25, 1950.
Fox informed Kimrey that their trip home would be delayed.
As hostilities intensified, McArthur decided to form a Special Operations Unit, similar to one utilized in World War II to conduct long-range intelligence-gathering patrols. Kimrey was among 800 who volunteered, but only 115 would be selected.
“I figured that would be the quickest way home,” Kimrey said. “Once I got to Korea, when that’s all over, I’ll go home.”
After two months of rigorous training at Camp McGill 80 miles south of Tokyo along the Japanese coast, Kimrey was selected to serve with five other men in his unit. Arriving inside a rubber boat to the shores of Kunsan, their first mission was on September 12, 1950, three days before the Battle of Inchon which started the Korean War where the North Koreans captured Seoul.
Kimrey’s unit worked mainly at night. Working alongside the calvary, the 8th Army and the Marines, the Raiders would conduct intelligence gathering to pass along to their colleagues.
The winter of 1950 was the ultimate test of their will.
By foot, the Raiders got closer to North Korea, where temperatures dipped as low to minus-50 degrees.
“They say it was the coldest winter in history, on record,” Kimrey said. “I was told it got down to 60-degrees below zero. I never could tell the difference between 30-below and 60-below.”
With no transportation, the Raiders slept in foxholes, or as much of a hole as they could muster.
“When it’s 30-below zero, you don’t do much digging,” Kimrey said. “You just look for a hole in the ground where we could put down a sleeping bag. If you were on a mission, you didn’t sleep very much. Usually, you slept two hours on and two hours off. You slept when you could in the daytime.”
Kimrey thought his time with the Raiders would last only a few weeks, possibly a month at month.
It wound up lasting eight months. During that span, Kimrey says he enjoyed two hot meals. One at Thanksgiving and the other at Christmas.
“The rest of the time, we had sea rations,” Kimrey said. “That was spaghetti, hamburger, pork and beans. It was a little warm if you were the first in line. After about a month, it didn’t make a difference between once we got to North Korea, we were frozen anyway.”
Once he returned home, he was diagnosed with arthritis at the age of 20. Reflecting back at his home in Hillsborough on Memorial Day, Kimrey is reminded of the other beautiful sight he enjoyed when he came home.
“That’s when I met my wife,” Kimrey said.