May 22, 2013 - After three years in the battlefields of Korea—Don Kengerski hitchhiked home.
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"Back then, no one welcomed me when I came home from Korea," he said. "I ended up in Detroit taking a street car north on Woodword as far as it went, then got a ride to Warren where I lived with my family. I took off my uniform and went to look for work, but it was tough to find."
Kengerski, a Minnesota native and now a Brandon Township resident, who entered the U.S. Army in March 1951—recalls the battlefields in the North Korean countryside as a 21-year-old machine-gunner in M-Company, 32nd infantry regiment, of the 7th Infantry Division.
"You're moving all the time. Men are scattered everywhere on a battlefield—no one clusters together, and we live and sleep in foxholes."
That's how township Army veteran Kengerski describes the chaos of a battlefield in early 1952 near the cities of Chorwon, Kumwha and Pyongyang, designated as the Iron Triangle near the border of North and South Korea.
Kengerski, a seasoned combat soldier who received 38 pieces of shrapnel in an August 1952 skirmish, continued his duty in North Korea. He returned to the United States and was discharged on March 5, 1954.
"I ended up working as a carpenter making $35 per week. There were no jobs in the auto plants back then. I had healed from my wounds and kept my military insurance until it ran out—it was a struggle for a long time. I lived in the mountains in Korea and all my meals came from a can—I saw men shot-up—things I will never forget. But I moved on, you just have to."
Kengerski, now 83-years-old, is the Ortonville VFW commander.
"Support the young ones when they come home— welcome them," he said. " We'd love to have any veteran in the VFW."
Dennis Hoffman, a 1966 Brandon High School graduate and Ortonville resident drafted into the Army in 1968, faced a similar reception home.
"My friends were going to Vietnam," he said. "My older brother Donald was already in Vietnam when I was drafted. We were ordered to Oakland (Calif.) and they were reading off names and rather than Vietnam I was headed to Korea.
Hoffman's deployment to Korea rather than Vietnam was the result of the capture of the USS "Pueblo," a Navy intelligence ship, and its 83 crewmen by North Korean patrol boats off the coast of North Korea on Jan. 23, 1968. The United States, maintaining that the "Pueblo" had been in international waters, began a military buildup in the area.
"They were worried about escalations of tension along the DMZ in Korea," he said.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula—a buffer zone between North and South Korea which runs along the 38th parallel north.
"We flew to Japan then went by boat to Korea," he said. "Our job was to make sure that the North Koreans did not come through the fence into South (Korea). They were trying to sneak over and assassinate President of South Korea, Park Chung-hee. I was trained as a sniper and would go out from Camp Casey in the woods and watch the North Koreans. I could make shots at 500 yards and was an expert marks in Boot Camp."
Hoffman said that he, along with other US troops, were ambushed during a patrol.
"I was walking the point when the shooting started," he said. "Due to the political nature of the DMZ, the North Koreans were informed where our patrols were all the time. That kind of just left us out there."
Hoffman was discharged after 13 months and 20 days of duty in Korea.
"I was done with the Army when I returned home," he said. "They flew me to Fort Lewis (Washington) southwest of Tacoma," he said. "I was still in my uniform and the Army gave us a ride to the airport to get a flight back to Detroit. Returning military would get a standby flight for a discount, but that was just not happening. I was tired and air sick from a very long flight from Korea and just wanted to get back to Michigan. They kept telling me all the flights are booked and so for three days I just slept there in the airport. People would ask me, 'How many did you kill over there?' or say, 'It's your fault those folks are dying.' It's like they blamed us for the war. I was drafted."
Finally Hoffman changed from his military garb into civilian clothes.
"As soon as I changed, I could buy a ticket home," he said. "When I arrived in Metro (Airport) I caught a ride home from a veteran that had been out for about a year."
Hoffman said despite the unwelcome homecoming he did not carry those feelings with him.
"I just let it go. I remember what happened when I came back from Korea, but just never let it bother me. Many did and suffer from from that today."
"I was in the Teamsters 614 and got my job back as a driver for Pepsi after I came home," he said
"And went on and had a great career as a driver for Cassens Transport based out of Edwardsville, Ill."
Hoffman, 64, is a charter member of the Ortonville VFW.
Lauren Chamberlin, supervisor for Oakland County Veterans' Services who assist veterans and their families obtain and maintain all veterans related benefits from federal, state, and local government agencies, said today people seem to support the soldiers even if they don't support the cause.
"Employment is an issue when soldiers come home," she said. "They are glad to come home to be with friends and family, but they still need health benefits and have many needs getting back in society here. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injuries caused by the great number of IEDS are pretty common among the younger veterans."
By far, the Vietnam era soldiers comprise the greatest number of veterans seeking assistance, she added.
"Still Agent Orange and the related issues including cancers, diabetes are very common," she said.