In 1953 on the 38th Parallel in the Taebaek Mountains, Americans and South Koreans stood across from a line of exhausted Chinese soldiers wearing pile caps.
There was an oppressive pause. The day before, each side had been attempting to kill the other without any notion of when the fighting would stop. Every combatant had signed a paper swearing not to discharge their rifles. But the armistice did not seem real, somehow, after three years of war.
As the two lines stared wearily across the ravine at each other, no one fired a shot.
Mao and Stalin
By the time Iowa farm boy Dale Spinler arrived in the Korean Peninsula, he was facing off against two of the worst mass murderers in history—the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao, China’s madman.
Mao was in the process of killing more Chinese people than any foreign enemy ever could, as though chasing Stalin’s record of murdering Russians. As Spinler fought his way north, to all of humanity’s fortune, Stalin died in March of 1953.
Though Mao was unwilling to compromise, two weeks after Stalin’s death, Soviet leadership issued a proclamation calling for a swift end to hostilities.
But like a steam engine, it takes time to halt a war.
This year, on July 27 of 2018, veterans of Korea celebrated the 65th anniversary of the ceasefire.
“The day the war was over, they brought a paper around,” Spinler said. “Everyone signed the sheet that you wouldn’t shoot again. The Chinese did the same. They crawled out of their holes, and we crawled out of our holes, and we sat and looked at each other. Nobody shot.
“They were just like us. I didn’t feel hate—you didn’t know anybody. I had seen dead ones, but I’d never talked to any live ones.
“Before that, we didn’t know what was happening. They didn’t tell us about peace talks. One day you’re fighting, and the next day they just shut it off.”
Spinler added with a laugh, “We were kind of glad it was over.”
In September of 1952, Dale Spinler was drafted into the United States Army with a group of 16 boys from his area. Some ended up in Germany. Spinler’s destiny was Korea. He was 21 years old and married with a newborn daughter.
Spinler and his wife wrote each other, but Spinler spared her the details of combat.
He grew up in Tama County, a mile east of the Meskwaki Tribe, and graduated from Toledo High School. His father Charles was a farmer, and his mother Alice taught school to the Native Americans.
“It was a lot different then,” Spinler said of the Meskwaki Settlement. “The Indians were our closest neighbors—I grew up with them. They were good neighbors. They would come to us and buy chickens, eggs and stuff like that. They just survived—hunted and fished. They always had horses.”
After Basic Training in Fort Riley, Kan., Spinler got on a ship in Seattle and got off in Yokohama, Japan, before arriving in Incheon, Korea.
From there it was a journey by train to the frontlines. The first sound was small arms fire.
“The windows were all shot out, and the train was full of bullet holes,” Spinler said. “It was different—.50 caliber machineguns were chattering all the time—you knew where you were.
“It was constant. You never ran out of ammunition—that’s one thing you had plenty of.”
Spinler served in the 3rd Division.
His description of his role in the Korean War is brief and to the point: “We were shooting at each other.
“We had Korean soldiers attached to our division. There were maybe two of three in each company. That was alright. They were good old boys. One night, we were getting all shot at real bad, and a Korean looked at me and said [wryly], ‘What’re you going to do now, G.I.?’ They were good soldiers.”
The Koreans fought side-by-side with the Americans. Later, the South Koreans would fight with U.S. solders in the Vietnam War.
Spinler tried not to make friends with either Americans or Koreans. But sometimes he made that mistake. One day, a buddy could be in the bunker next to you, and the next day he could be dead.
“You don’t want any friends, because something’s going to happen. I lost track of everybody when I got out of the Army. I’ve never talked to anybody else who got a Combat Infantry Badge from the Korean War.”
Spinler said he does not have trouble with PTSD. He fired artillery.
“The good part was I never shot anybody close—I probably shot them a mile away with that big gun.”
There was no training prior to Spinler firing this weapon in Korea, and a soldier had to make sure not to stand behind the cannon when it recoiled.
George Blum of Alabama was right next to Spinler, fingers in ears when they fired a shell.
“He was a pretty heavy guy,” Spinler said. “He told me, ‘If I had a farm in Alabama and a home in Hell, I’d sell my farm and go home.’ He was just BS’ing, but that’s what he thought of his home in Alabama.”
As artillery, they were a main target of the enemy, mostly from .50 caliber rifles.
“Nothing personal,” Spinler said, laughing softly. “You’re shooting at me, and we’re shooting back.
“The worst rank you could get in the Army was Lieutenant. Those guys all got killed. They thought they should be out in front, and that’s right, they should be.”
The most dangerous part of the day was nightfall.
“Someone would holler, ‘The Chinese are in the trenches!’ Then you’d hear a machinegun going over, and that was a little scary.
“The Air Force saved our lives. They’d come in and spray napalm all over those hills. You were glad to see them come before dark—if they came before dark, it’d be a pretty quiet night. But if they didn’t come, you’d expect the enemy. You just tried to stay alive and stay out of trouble.
“We always wore bulletproof vests, though I never got shot. We knew they were pretty good, because you could lay it down on the bank and if you shot it at an angle that bullet would bounce off.
“The Greeks were next to us—they moved out, and we moved in to their section, but I never did talk to any of them.
“It was cold over there, kind of like Iowa at night.”
The 38th Parallel on the Korean Peninsula lines up with northern Missouri except with mountains, moderated by a maritime climate.
It was another use for the bulletproof vests all soldiers wore—to keep warm.
“We had plenty to eat, but they were C-rations, of course. There were sausage things—you had to heat them up to eat them because they were bad cold. You had those little cans of Sterno—it’d burn, and that’s how you heated up your C-rations.”
“I was on the 38th Parallel when the war ended,” Spinler said. “That’s where I lived. They cut our combat pay after the war was over. I didn’t think that was very good. I was there 15 months and 2 weeks altogether.”
In 1954, Spinler left Korea as a sergeant, landing in Fort Lewis, Washington State.
“I was ready to come home.”
After farming with his father near Brooklyn, Iowa, Spinler wanted his own land.
“We bought a farm in this country in 1968, south of Russell about eight miles,” Spinler said. “You could buy 40 acres in Tama County for the same price you could buy 240 acres in Wayne County.
“They were just finishing Lake Rathbun. They shut off [the dam] the next year. Rathbun filled up, we bought a boat, and my kids all learned to waterski.
“My grandkids don’t know anything about Korea.”
Spinler prefers not to talk about nights in those mountains, and his children and grandchildren do not ask. Spinler is fine with that arrangement.
On the day of his interview, with a chance to describe his Korean War experiences, Spinler sits at Wojo’s Restaurant & Lounge in Humeston. Wayne County Veterans Affairs, led by director Joella Perry, and the Humeston American Legion were holding a joint breakfast to inform veterans of Legion, federal, state and county information and benefits that might be available.
“She does a good job,” Spinler said of Perry. “She works at it. She’s been in the Army and been all over—she’s a veteran.”
“The American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary are looking for individuals to be active in efforts to support local veterans,” Perry said.
Part of that support is remembrance—understanding how Mao and Stalin 65 years ago led to Kim Jong-un today.
As well, it is important to recall that July day in the mountains of Korea, when young men with plenty of ammunition could appreciate and embrace a moment of silence.