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When they were soldiers


Local veterans recall three decades of war



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Michael Berg, James Cummings and Richard Horton (click for larger version)
November 06, 2013 - Three veterans, three wars.

To commemorate Veteran's Day, Nov.11, three area veteran shared their war time experiences, together spanning more than three decades.

From Europe in World War II to Korea to Southeast Asia, the soldiers recalled their battlefield efforts, along with their enlistment and their return home.

Vietnam veteran Michael Berg is now a 67-year-old Atlas Township resident.

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After graduating Goodrich High School in 1964 Berg enrolled at Flint Junior College.

"I was working 60 hours a week at a gas station at the time," he said. "I had 12 credit hours and the rule was changed to 15 (credits) for a college deferment from the draft. I did not have ample time to add more classes—so I was prime for the draft."

In Berg's case he had qualified before for a student deferment since he was a full-time student making satisfactory progress toward a degree. According to government reports, between 1964 and 1973 there were 26.8 million men who reached draft age and 60 percent did not serve in the military. Of those, legal exemptions including student deferments and conscientious objectors exempted 96 percent (15.4 million).

"So in November 1965 I drove down to the Marine headquarters in Flint," he said. "Southeast Asia was really heating up about then, so I signed up for a two year special enlistment deal with the Marines—it was a shorter time in service than other branches."

Berg was trained at Marine Corps Base Camp, Pendleton, Calif.and Marine Corps Recruit Camp, San Diego. He was assigned to Battalion Fifth Marines, Special Landing Forces.

"We sailed to Hawaii on three large ships for jungle training," he said. "I was trained as a 'Forward Air Controller,' my job was to call in air strikes."

Berg called in air drops of napalm, a mixture of plastic polystyrene and gasoline. The mixture creates a jelly-like substance that, when ignited, sticks to practically anything and burns up to ten minutes. The bombs also included Agent Orange, a toxic chemical herbicide that was spread over jungle areas, forests and fields as a defoliant.

"When we landed in Vietnam it was our job to go into the jungle and clear an area," he said. "We'd fight our way into a region and stay out there for weeks or months at a time. We lost a lot of men—so many they could not train them fast enough to replace us. We went out ahead of the troops and called in the air strikes."

Berg said the North Vietnamese were aware of the anti-war protests in the United States.

"They (North Vietnamese) would, through the radio propaganda of Hanoi Hannah and other means, tell us that back home (in the United States) they hated us and did not support this war. I always knew a major assault would follow the propaganda.."

Berg served 17 months in Vietnam and came back to the United States in September 1967. He arrived at El Toro Marine Air Station in Irvine, Calif. He then went by bus to Los Angeles International Airport.

"It was a culture shock at first (when I left the base)," he said. "A lot changed while I was gone to war in Southeast Asia. There were protestors at the airport yelling,'Baby killers' or 'You're not welcome here.' The cops just ignored it. When we arrived at the airport (LAX) there were about 20 hippies protesting inside the airport—one guy in particular had sandals on with no socks, wire-rimmed glasses holding a flower. He was harassing me, so I hit him in the face—sending the guy backwards down an escalator on his back. The cop came running over and went to the hippie's aid. I just left."

Berg stayed in Los Angeles for a few days, where he bought a car and drove home to Michigan with a friend from the Marines. A few months later he was formally discharged from a Marine base in South Carolina.

Berg left the military at 21-years-old with few health issues. However, years later in the 1980s, his health began deteriorating.

"My blood sugar level began rising," he said. "I started getting sick and in the 1990s was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes due to the Agent Orange I was exposed to while in Vietnam. Looking back while I never was actually sprayed with the defoliant, I did walk through the sticky chemicals in the jungle."

"We never did get the heroes welcome like the World War II veterans did when we got home," he said. "It seems like it was not until we sent soldiers to Iraq and the Middle East did attitudes change. The military were heroes once again."

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Today, Korean War veteran James Cummings is an 81-year-old Atlas Township resident.

"I was a kid during World War II—I played soldier with my friends as we pretended to fight the Germans," said Cummings, who attended Goodrich High School until 1949 when he joined the Army at 17-years-old.

"I had to just get away," he said. "I quit school and due to my age, Dad signed off on me to go. Honestly, when I joined there was no war going on—I did not plan on going to Korea. I had no idea where that country was on a map."

Cummings was assigned to the Army 24th Division, 21st Infantry regiment, 3rd Battalion. He traveled by bus to Detroit then by train to Oakland, Calif. and then sailed from San Francisco.

"We were the first ship heading west to Korea as the war was escalating," he said. "Our first stop was Japan, then on to Korea."

On June 25, 1950 North Korean forces invaded South Korea. The 38th parallel became a political border between the two Korean states. Cross-border skirmishes escalated into open warfare.

"I didn't get excited about the whole war thing until I had to make out my will," laughed Cummings. "We were on a ship heading to Pusan, Korea. We got off the ship and they handed us a rifle and a bandoleer of ammunition—I thought, 'Oh, sh--!' We camped in an apple orchard that first night in a small pup tent, me and another soldier. We kept having this really bad smell—we blamed each other for having gas. In reality there were dead Koreans scattered around the orchard. We realized that in the morning."

Cummings was assigned to a medical company.

"My medic company were non-combatants," he said. "Our guns were taken away and we had red crosses on our sleeves and helmets. No one was supposed to shoot at us. Yet I soon found out that they (North Koreans) made targets out of us. We finally put mud on our helmets to cover the red cross and tore our arm bands off."

"One of my first nights in Korea an old sergeant took me aside and told me the combat soldiers would ask me to go on patrol with them," said Cummings. "I really did not have to go, but he encouraged me to go on patrol with them—so I did. From that point on they called me 'Doc,' it was a way to see what I was made out of in combat."

Cummings recalls life on the battlefield.

"I was on the front line for six months. Sometimes I slept on the ground, or if I was lucky, I'd walk to the aid station and get a blanket and stretcher to sleep on. At first I never slept, but you get to a point when you somehow do drift off. As a medic I spent my time applying compresses and bandages on wounds mostly to stop the blood flow. And morphine—lots of morphine—if soldiers were too bad we'd just fill them up with morphine."

After several months in the Korean battlefields, Cummings contracted encephalitis, a rare brain inflammation caused by a virus.

"I was lying in a battlefield—then I woke up in a hospital in Japan. I stayed for a few weeks," he said. "I could have returned to the United States and back home, but I tried to go back to Korea. They would not let me go back. I stayed in the Army and had limited duty to do blood tests for soldiers coming in."

Cummings served two-and-a-half years in the Army. He returned home in 1953.

"It was not good in Seattle when I came back to the United States," he said. "When I returned to the Flint area I went to work for AC. The economy was booming, but people treated me like I did not exist. It was really bad for soldiers then, at least for me. The World War II guys wanted nothing to do with us. So I left Michigan to get away and moved to Florida where I studied to be a barber. I cut hair for 17 years."

Cummings married Joyce in 1954 and the couple had four children, Diane, Susan, Michael and Nadine.

"I still suffer nightmares—no one understands that," he said. "I still think about those guys out there in the battlefields of Korea."

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Goodrich native Richard Horton, now 94-years-old, learned to operate tractors and heavy trucks—fairly routine for a young man working on a farm during the 1930s.

However, those skills learned as a teen would pay big dividends for thousands of Allied prisoners of war held deep behind German lines near the end of World War II.

Born at Wheelock Hospital Nov. 5, 1921, Horton graduated from Goodrich High School in 1940. He was employed by Michigan Bell telephone company after school, and married Goodrich resident Barbara Scranton in 1942, six weeks after she graduated from GHS.

Following the United States' entrance into WWII in 1941, Horton enlisted in the Army Signal Corps and over the next year-and-a-half was stationed at numerous encampments including Camp Crowder, Mo., Camp Barkeley, Texas, Fort Polk, La. and Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. He also spent a year in the Army specialized training program at the University of Cincinnati, learning math skills.

"They sent me back to the troops assigned to the 14th Armored Division in Fort Cambell, Ky. I was glad to get out of Cincinnati, " he said. "I told them I would not mind being in a tank since I drove a gravel truck back in Goodrich before the war. The next thing I knew, I was driving a Sherman (tank). I thought, 'What the hell am I doing in this tank?'"

Horton went on to the east coast near Camp Shanks, N.Y., where he departed for France on a small merchant ship, the Santa Rosa.

In November 1944, Horton, along with the 14th Armor, moved north from the area of Marseilles to Epinal, France via the railroad. Assigned to the M4 Sherman tank, Horton and a crew of five were heading east toward Germany and the Rhine River.

In January 1945, Horton was part of the Battle of Hatten-Rittershoffen in two small villages in France at the center of Hitler's Operation Northwind—his last attempt to halt the Allied advancement.

"There was not a whole lot of combat until Hatten," said Horton. "I knew it was getting serious then—we lost 47 tanks in our division. I had two tanks I was driving destroyed during that battle, which lasted about two weeks. It was very cold, and after the battle the town was flattened. We had the Germans on the run after that."

On Easter Sunday, April 1,1945, the 14th Armored Division moved across the Rhine River on a pontoon bridge into Wurms, Germany, and continued pursuit of the retreating Nazi troops through Lohr, Gemunden, Neustadt, and Hammelburg.

"We rolled into Hammelburg (Germany). I was ordered to crash over a fence and berm into an area of buildings that looked like barracks. It was an Allied prisoner of war camp—all these POWs rushed out toward my tank—Poles, Americans, Brits—they were freed. I remember the cheers. Someone told us the Germans heard us coming down the road and took off running. Many were ready to surrender at that point."

The division earned the nickname, "Liberators," during the last days of WWII when they liberated some 200,000 Allied prisoners of war from German prison camps. Among those liberated were approximately 20,000 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen, as well as an estimated 40,000 troops from the UK and Commonwealth.

"As we moved across Germany I saw Nazi soldiers dead along the road—some were just kids, maybe 12-years-old. The war was over, I don't know why Hitler did not just quit. We liberated a POW camp located just north of the town of Moosburg in southern Bavaria, Germany at the end of April in 1945. There had to be 100,000 prisoners in there. One POW I spoke with said they boiled grass in water to eat—he told me he'd lost 70 pounds since he'd been in there."

Horton was in Muldorf, Germany when the war ended, and returned home in November 1945.

"I came home on a Greyhound bus," said Horton. "When the bus stopped my wife and son, Rick, then ll-months-old were waiting there for me. I was just treated so good. So after I got home I went back to the Bell telephone office in Flint where I had worked until I left for the war. I remember my boss telling me I'd been gone for almost four years and I'd get all my seniority plus three weeks vacation that was accumulated. So I had three weeks paid (vacation) after I got home."

Since the war, Horton returned twice to the towns of Hatten-Rittershoffen and to France for a reunion visit.

"A day does not go by that I don't think about my friends that survived the war and those that did not," he said.

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