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Les Dienstberger Marine Corps

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Les Dienstberger - 1620 Views
honored by Michael Ford

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Assigned: 7th Marines
Location of Service: Korean War
Gender: male
Basic Training: Paris Island, N.C.
From City: Delphos
From State: Ohio
Current City: Delphos
Current State: Ohio
My War Stories
  1949 (Courtesy Michael Ford, Delphos Herald) Winter nights on Korean War battlefields were cold enough to kill many but were also ablaze with mortar fire, flying bullets and legions of screaming Communists. Les Dienstberger, 78, grew up in a family of Marines. Therefore, when he saw young men around him being drafted, he enlisted to ensure he, too, would be molded by “the corps.” His desire was fulfilled by drill sergeants at Paris Island, N.C., in the summer of 1949. After boot camp, he underwent additional training at Camp Lejeune, NC. He was then shipped to the overseas peninsula for 13 months of hell. He says the Chinese were bent on killing every American there. They charged on freedom’s defenders with nearly half a million soldiers throughout the 3-year war. Dienstberger tells of one of the attacks he experienced: “We were settled in near the Chosin Reservoir. One morning, I crawled out of my foxhole and looked at our mortar section; they were firing in all directions. I told the sergeant they were probably killing some of our troops out there somewhere. He said we were surrounded. That’s when we found out the Chinese had come down with orders to annihilate us; they didn’t even want one man getting out alive. We think they had about 10-12 divisions, so we were outnumbered about 10 to 1.” Dienstberger and the 7th Marines had landed at Inchon harbor on Oct. 16, 1950, just days before the Chinese crossed the Yalu River in to North Korea. The local hero made his way to Seoul by boat before going northeast to Kempo Airfield near the reservoir, which was in the North. The order to cross the 38th Parallel was not supposed to be given. Dienstberger says China’s tactic was to overwhelm the Americans, attacking with 300,000 soldiers on Thanksgiving Day alone. This attack in 1950 was one of the few that corresponded with the sun’s appearing. “The Chinese liked to attack at night and they’d come at us hopped up on some kind of drug yelling, ‘Marine, you die!’ They blew whistles and made a bunch of noise. When the first bunch got killed, more would come in, picking up their weapons and so on,” he said. American presence north of the 38th was a bone of contention between the White House and Army General Douglas MacArthur, as Dienstberger remembers. “MacArthur had decided the troops in South Korea should go from the west coast to the east coast to cut in behind the North Koreans so they couldn’t retreat. However, President Truman told him to just push the North Koreans back over the 38th and not go up there. This was because they figured the Chinese would enter the war if we did. Well, MacArthur went anyway and that’s the big reason Truman called him back to the United States,” he said. After crossing the Yalu, the Chinese advanced rapidly. They entered the South, then took over Seoul in early 1951. However, many died in the process because their Communist leaders callously failed to fit them with adequate footwear. “Winter was really hitting hard. The temperature got as low as 35 below zero and with the wind chill, it was close to 50 below. We started getting a lot of frostbite and I even felt sorry for the Chinese because they were out there in the same temperatures we were but a lot of them had nothing on their feet but tennis shoes. Their feet would get frostbite, swell up and split open. We took prisoners who had their feet wrapped in rags. We had our share of it, too. Some of our guys lost toes and feet,” Dienstberger said. However, the 1947 Jefferson High School graduate came home with all his digits. Not only did he have good boots but he was also equipped with survival know-how and a second pair of socks. “When I was a young kid, growing up around here, I went hunting a lot and I always kept warm enough during the war. If my feet got cold, I’d just stomp them to keep blood flowing. There were times we got stopped by a blockade for a couple of hours and I could get near the exhaust of a truck or a tank to get warm. I always kept dry socks on. I always had an extra pair and I would go behind a tree to get out of the wind and take off my boots and change my socks. I kept the other ones under my arms so they’d dry out. Then, I’d go until the next morning and if the socks I was wearing got damp or sweaty, I’d do it again. A lot of guys lost toes because of frostbite but I didn’t,” he said.
  1949 Dienstberger was trained to operate a flame-thrower but didn’t use it because carrying it up and down hills was impractical. With his issued weapon on a jeep, he made sure to surround himself with riflemen. Though all he was issued was a .45, he often had whatever rifle he picked up from dead Communists, which were piled high on the morning after a battle. “The Chinese attacked at night but we had a lot more firepower. In the morning, there would be a hundred or so dead Chinese laying around but we’d have just one or two wounded. When we were ordered to withdraw, we were one of the last companies to leave the North. The next morning, there were so many dead Chinese that we piled up their bodies for protection from the weather,” he said. American military might included air attacks with napalm, flammable liquid dropped from the sky to light up the enemy like the Fourth of July. Some historical reports estimate the volume of explosives dropped on North Korea rival what had scorched Germany during World War II. The spread of Communism in Asia was hindered by new-found freedom in Japan. With empirical rule ousted, its economy generated $3.5 billion in spending during the Korean War. Communism was also hindered when many Chinese and North Korean soldiers refused to return home after the war. Approximately half of the 130,000 taken prisoner under the United Nations in the South opted to stay. Like Japan, South Korea also experienced economic growth because of American-led reconstruction. Fortunately for Dienstberger, he did not become a prisoner of war. However, he did come close to being killed in action. One of the occasions was when his company came under fire during a march. “We were marching down the road in two columns with ditches on both sides of the road. We got some sniper fire, so I dove in to the ditch but I didn’t have much cover. The lieutenant called me over to him, so I got up and started running across the road. My helmet came off and I thought it was because I was running so fast. I didn’t know it until later but my helmet had picked up a sniper bullet. I was lucky. Everybody who has ever been in combat has had a close call and that was mine,” he said. Dienstberger had another near-miss when his company came under fire after the order to withdraw was issued. “A lot of fire went on when we were on the road after we were ordered to withdraw. Most of it was sniper fire from the hilltops and if the weather was right, we could get air support to drop napalm on those hills,” he said. “If they couldn’t, we’d have to put a detachment together and one time I had to go. The sergeant probably saved my life — 19 of us went up the hill one day to get the snipers and we started getting fired on. Here I am with nothing but a .45 and he saw me, so he got me out of there. He sent me down the hill to get some grenades. I got all the way to the bottom and a colonel was standing there. He said ‘what do you want?’ and I said ‘they’re pinned down up there and need grenades’ and he told me where some were. When I came back, he said ‘you’re not going back up there’ and I said ‘I have to get these grenades back up there.’ He said he had just ordered them back down, so I didn’t have to go back. The sergeant who sent me down never made it off the hill. He had always said that if he were going to ‘get it,’ he wanted it to be quick — right between the eyes. When they found his body, he had one bullet hole; right between the eyes.” Though some did not come home, the war was won because of superior firepower and combat gear. American ingenuity was also a large contributor. “We needed rations ammo, so we called in for it and an air drop came with barbed wire and Tootsie Rolls. There had been a mistake. ‘Tootsie Roll’ was code for mortar ammunition but the person who took the call didn’t know that. Not only did we have to live on Tootsie Rolls but we found out we could use them to plug the holes our Jeeps took in their radiators from sniper fire. The Tootsie Rolls would melt when the engine got warm, so we’d have to do it again but it worked,” he concluded. Dienstberger spent five days in Japan before returning home in October 1952. He went to work as a security officer at the tank depot in Lima and later moved to Arizona. He made a living managing apartment complexes for 22 years before moving back to Delphos in 1994 to be near his family.