Ratcliffe is June Veteran of the Month

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 31, 2004

Writers Note: Each month members of The American Legion Post 20 honor a different Dallas County area veteran for their service to our country. The honoree for June is Jefferson G. Ratcliffe, U.S. Army,

during WW II and the Korean War.

A young man graduating from Albert G. Parrish High School in 1943 was bombarded with decisions to be made.

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Decisions that could literally effect his longevity on the planet.

The war was on every young man’s mind at the time and most felt a very strong obligation to serve the country.

Most chose to enlist rather than waiting on the draft board to call; it just seemed the patriotic thing to do.

Jefferson G. Ratcliffe made his choice before school ended by signing up for the Aviation Cadets.

A lot of thought had gone into this decision, but the thought of being placed in the infantry and facing a bayonet probably weighed the heaviest.

He could avoid the infantry and the bayonets by entering the Army Air Corps.

In June, 1943 after graduation, Jeff was notified to report for duty.

He began cadet training and eventually landed at Kelly Field, Texas for flight training.

Flying came quickly to Jeff and he excelled at putting the plane through its paces in the air.

Getting the plane back on the ground was a different story and caused more than one instructor heart fibrillations.

When asked about gunnery school as an alternative to becoming a pilot, Jeff, still thinking about the infantry, quickly answered, “yes.”

However, the tooth fairy, or as Jeff explains it, a guardian angel, was looking out for him.

A trip to the base dentist caused him to miss out on gunnery school.

Jeff admits if he had known at the time a third of the planes sent out on bombing runs never returned to base, he probably wouldn’t have been so eager to fly or man a gun on a plane.

The fickle hand of fate landed Jeff in the optical instrument training school.

It seems that the work environment for this type instrument repair required a dust proof climate controlled area.

Upon completing training, Jeff found himself on the high seas headed for Guam and the 25th Air Depot Group.

He probably took more than a little heat from his comrades for reporting to work each day in the only air conditioned hut on Guam.

Jeff speaks about it rather apologetically, but little did he know at the time he would pay his dues at another place and time..

Guam was a B-29 base and planes ferried in and out on bombing missions throughout the Pacific.

In the latter stages of the war, bombing runs were made to the mainland where napalm was dropped causing huge fires.

One one such raid during March, 1945 334 B-29s were sent out from Tinian and Guam resulting in an area of devastation in Tokyo of 16 square miles.

Jeff recalls being under the wing of a P-51 working on the air indicator one day when a jeep came down the runway blowing the horn and announcing we had dropped an atomic bomb on Japan.

All the flight crew looked at one another., “what is an atomic bomb?”

Word spread rather rapidly and a renewed hope an invasion of the mainland might be averted.

Estimates were that a mainland invasion would cost us from 250,000 to a million casualties.

Most by this time, had seen more than enough death and destruction to last a lifetime.

The war ended with the surrender of Japan after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki August 9, 1945.

The official surrender was signed on September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri.

Jeff returned to the United States and was separated from active duty in January, 1946.

Returning to civilian life meant getting a job or going back to school for a degree.

Jeff chose the later and enrolled at Auburn in the School of Pharmacy.

After receiving his degree in pharmacy, someone suggested he could receive a commission in the reserves with a degree.

He applied and was accepted in the Medical Service Corps and placed on inactive reserve status.

The North Koreans swept down across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950.

The 38th had been the separation line between the two Koreas since the end of World War II.

They advanced rapidly taking Seoul and devastating the ill equipped South Korean forces.

American occupational forces from Japan were sent in to slow down the advancing North Koreans.

Army reservists were called up to fill the needs of regular forces.

Jeff received a notice in August, 1950 to report for a physical in Montgomery.

Much to his chagrin, nothing happened after the physical, but a long wait.

He later learned a fire had destroyed the records at Montgomery and it wasn’t until they found duplicates that his name reappeared.

Finally, in June, 1951 another notice arrived to report to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for another physical.

Due to his training in medicine, Jeff was assigned to the Assistant Battalions Surgeons School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

The school was eight weeks in duration and provided the basic training for Army medics.

Upon completion, Jeff was routed to a replacement company in California and from there shipped overseas to Japan.

There he endured another replacement company, drew field gear and supplies, stored footlockers and boarded a C-47 transport plane headed for Korea.

At Taegu, Korea, the war began to take on an ominous reality.

Troops were sent back to the front through Taegu after being patched up by doctors in Japan.

Jeff observed some returnees with their shirts removed showing shrapnel and bullet scars much like tattoos on their torsos.

From Taegu, it was a train and truck ride to Oijongbu.

North of Seoul in North Korea, Oijongbu was the stopping off place before the front lines.

Jeff was still thinking of a nice field hospital setting someplace taking care of the wounded.

It was not to be; even having a Georgia Tech grad for an assignment officer who attended school with a Selma friend didn’t prove to be of any use.

The need for “bodies” on the front lines as the assignment officer explained placed Jeff in the 25th Infantry Division.

The ride up to battalion headquarters was a reality check, this was war.

The guns grew louder as the jeep drew nearer headquarters.

Battery upon battery of artillery were dug in near the roadways firing over our positions at an unseen enemy miles away.

After reporting, Jeff was introduced to his commanding officer and the battalion surgeon who incidentally was a pediatrician in civilian life.

The 2nd Battalion was in reserve status and a holding or blocking position waiting on orders.

The noise was horrendous with the artillery batteries firing around the clock, and sleep was out of the question the first few nights.

About the third day there, Jeff along with other officers were summoned to battalion and briefed on the assault on Hill 717.

They were to relieve units of the 3rd Battalion who had taken a beating and many casualties.

Jeff was to set up a forward aid station to treat wounded soldiers from the assault.

This was the first time out for Jeff and he had never set up a forward aid station.

Efforts to get assistance proved futile as short timers weren’t willing to risk their necks to go back on the front.

Therefore, it was a learning process along with all the other concerns of taking enemy fire and the endless stream of casualties during an assault.

Red Cross bands weren’t worn because the North Koreans and Chinese paid no attention to provisions of the Geneva Convention.

Jeff’s job as assistant battalion surgeon was to give first aid and move the wounded to a clearing station farther back out of harms way for better treatment.

It was mostly a judgment call as to who would live and who wouldn’t as some were dying or dead on arrival at the aid station.

There were bodies brought in with every imaginable wound from punctures with bayonets to massive wounds from machine gun fire and mortar rounds. Shrapnel from hand grenades, artillery rounds and mortars were the most common injuries treated at the aid station.

One soldier came in with a huge piece of his thigh blown away exposing the bone.

The wound was so large Jeff didn’t have a bandage large enough to cover it.

Although it was raining and cold, he removed his own jacket and covered the wound and sent him down..

Hill 717 was wrestled from the hands of the Chinese by units of the 2nd Battalion after a bloody fight.

Two days after taking the hill, the division commander ordered them to abandon their positions.

The Chinese were not far away and probably reoccupied Hill 717 the next day.

There was plenty more to come, more hills, more assualts, and more casualties.

Kumhwa, called the Iron Triangle and Hill 1062, (Papa-San) deemed, wisely, too costly in human lives to take. Heartbreak Ridge, so named because of the heavy casualties and loss of life in taking it, was so steep a tram ran from the bottom ot the top carrying supplies and ammunitiion to the men in the trenches.

The wounded and dead were strapped to a basket and brought down by the tram on the return trip to the bottom.

The Punch Bowl was trench warfare with each side slugging it out with mortars, artillery, machine gun and small arms fire.

The only way up the mountain was at night while the roads were frozen.

During the daylight thaw, they were almost impassable.

Jeff served at all these places risking life and limb on the front line caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves.

He saw all the carnage through the eyes of a caregiver for the battle weary soldiers fighting a war for the high ground.

I dare say there are many 2nd Battalion and enemy soldier alike sent through the forward aid station who recalls the tall lanky lieutenant who treated them.

They would tell you he was caring, compassionate, kind and gentle.

Some would even say he was responsible for their being here today.

What greater compliment is there than being credited for saving a life?

After nine months on the front lines of Korea, Jeff was offered a job in Japan.

Finally, he was going to an Army hospital to finish out his commitment in a clean sterile environment with beds, showers and hot food.