‘For it is in giving that we receive’

Published 3:44 pm Friday, February 8, 2019

Editor’s Note: Students from Elizabethton High School recently worked on a project in which they had to write profile pieces on local veterans in the community. The Elizabethton Star will be publishing one piece a day, highlighting both the work these veterans have put into their communities and the students who have spent time and energy telling their stories.

Rachel Turner

EHS Student

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“One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, one nation evermore!” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

I see this sense of patriotism in the stranger saluting the American flag in the Big Lots parking lot. I see this in the high school graduates who join the military. I see this in the warm eyes of John Wiggins, an ordinary citizen at first glance. Sadly, nowadays things are lost and forgotten because no one took the time to take a second glance. That ordinary citizen is in fact an extraordinary veteran of the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars. And it is thanks to the “Save Our Stories” project that I was able to take that second glance.

On Monday, October 22, 2018, I was welcomed into the quaint home of John Wiggins. Almost immediately, my nerves disappeared as I looked around the house. Pictures are placed by the door along with his wife’s fall decorations. John, true to his nature, opens up with a light-hearted joke, making everyone laugh. And thus our interview began: John Wiggins was born in Lenoir City, Tennessee in 1933. The Great Depression swept over the country at this time, leaving most families with little to live off of. John’s family operated a farm and was able to make it through the Depression with the produce they grew and raised themselves. But like many families at the time, they did not have extra money to spend on luxuries. But judging by his spirited nature and his humor, I believe that John always made the most out of a bad situation. Much like during the war, remaining hopeful helped John to see forward into a brighter future. Not only that, but growing up in a large family taught John the importance of responsibility and teamwork which would later help him in his military career.

After graduating from high school, John joined the National Guard in hopes of avoiding the draft and going on to college at the University of Tennessee. John had a passion for math and wanted to pursue this passion beyond high school and on into college. In September of 1950, just three months after graduating from high school, John was called up from the National Guard to join the Infantry Company. John was sent to Fort Devens, Massachusetts to complete his basic training. His involvement in the Korean War began there and would continue for another three years. John’s company was the best they had around, so they were selected to go to West Point Military Academy in New York to train the freshman military officers. This kept him out of the Korean war for two summers where the intense fighting was continuing to change hands. In September, John and his company were called up to Fort Drum, New York where they began more intense training that would simulate the conditions present in Korea: temperatures of twenty and twenty-five below, snowstorms, little shelter, and rarely any heat. “We slept in tents with a single heater and our breath was about as hot as the heater.” That is how John spent his 18th birthday. Oftentimes the snow at Fort Drum got so bad that the soldiers had to stop their training and go dig out people who had gotten stranded on the roadways.

On other days, the Infantry Company ran invasion drills on the New York-Canada border. The unit would start in Canada and would act as if they were invading the United States. These dry runs included the use of the 82nd Airborne as well. Although many of the soldiers in John’s company never set foot in Korea, they knew what conditions faced their fellow soldiers based on the training they were going through. “We knew what the conditions in Korea were like: cold and miserable.” John was involved in the Korean War from September of 1950 to April of 1953. He thought about the war a lot and tried to stay hopeful that it would soon resolve. The American Military General at that time, General Douglas MacArthur, feared an attack from the Chinese just across the border of North Korea. In order to prevent the Chinese from entering the war, MacArthur wanted to drop the atomic bomb on China. However, President Harry S. Truman did not want to take any sort of action that could thrust the world into its third world war. As a result, Truman dismissed General Douglas MacArthur from the front lines of the Korean War when he continued to campaign for the use of the atomic bomb.

Directly after that in November of 1950 the Chinese crossed the Yalu River and became involved in the war, and the American soldiers began to lose hope that the war would never reach a breaking point. I watch as John sighs heavily and rubs his forehead, “That was terrible when the Chinese got involved; they just came in and started pushing the Americans back. They had more people, more humans: I think the Chinese had half a million people when they invaded.” Not only were the American soldiers outnumbered, but they were also using World War II equipment and clothing which proved to be ineffective against the brutal Korean weather. The Marines on the front lines, dubbed “The Frozen Chosen,” were rescued by military Chips when the Chinese invaded and the savage hand of mother nature refused to relent her assault of snowstorm after snowstorm. “MacArthur would have bombed those Chinese; he would have stopped them someway.”

With North Korea backed by the Chinese forces and South Korea backed by the United Nations, the back and forth fighting style became prevalent in Korea. The American and South Korean forces would capture the North Korean capital and hold it for a day or so before the Chinese and North Koreans pushed them back across the 38th parallel. This style of fighting lead John to believe that Korea, like many other wars, was a battle of politics. “We didn’t settle anything with all the fighting. It started on the 38th parallel and ended at the 38th parallel.” But nevertheless, John remained loyal to his president and his country. The Korean War was a war fought against the spread of communism from the North into the South. Although the UN and South Korean forces did prevent the spread of communism into the South, the North would remain a unitary government system ruled by a single dictator. Not only would the North hold grudges over the South for years to come, but also the effects of this war would kickstart the Cold War. “I believe the Cold War was tighter after the Korean War,” John says when asked about the Korean War’s influence on the Cold War. 

Although John stayed in the U.S. and operated out of Fort Drum, he knew what dangers would await him if he was called out onto active duty. “If they needed you in combat they’d call your MOS number. There was one officer, I really was close to him, that went over there, and he was on a patrol with twenty-seven other men and they disappeared. And to this day they don’t know what happened to them. They couldn’t find them.” No matter where you were, the war affected you. But as many people as this war affected, there are thousands of people today who have never even heard of the Korean War. Thus the war is labeled The Forgotten War by many historians today. “It was a war that didn’t get much representation until much later.”

John remained in the Korean War until April of 1953, just three months before the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, that ended the fighting on both sides. After the Korean War, John got a job working at Oak Ridge in the K-25 plant. The K-25 plant produced enriched uranium for atomic bombs in Kingston, Tennessee. John also remained in the National Guard working for the supply lines in Vietnam and becoming an active member of Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War. “I really enjoyed the military,” John says when asked about his military experience. John’s military involvement did not adversely affect him when he came home, allowing him to adjust to everyday life easier than other soldiers. John held on to his faith and hope after his military involvement, remaining a true man of God. John married his first wife in 1955, two years after the armistice was signed in Korea. He had three sons and was remarried in 1981. John felt that his service in the military was a good experience. He has no regrets from his war involvement and believes he did his duty the best he could.

Looking at this generous man with the laugh lines carved into his face, I see a person who was meant to change the world. He continues to talk with me after the interview questions are finished and even shows me a few pictures from Korea and the Gulf War. He tells me about the routines he had in the Gulf War which attest to his faith, “They didn’t want us to have a Christmas service, but we went ahead and had one anyway.”

John is a person who is affable and modest with much love to share. His willingness and patience to give me this interview inspire me to be open-minded and see the world with a bright eye. Throughout my life, I hope to follow in the footsteps of a man that never stops giving: “Thank you, John Wiggins.”