Remembering ‘The Forgotten War’ 60 years laterOver the 60 years since B Company was activated for war in Korea, these men and women have continued to sustain one another. The surviving local members of B Company still meet once a month for lunch, and their wives join them every two months.
By: Patra Sevastiades, Budgeteer News
On Aug. 21, 1950, 227 pairs of government-issued boots could be heard moving in lockstep along the streets of Duluth.
The men, clad in green fatigues, whose feet willingly filled the boots, began their march at the intersection of Minnesota Avenue and 13th Street on Park Point, crossed the Aerial Lift Bridge, and made their way north through Canal Park. Two flags fluttered ahead of them.
No bands were playing, no police escort appeared. Cars drove past them. Curious onlookers paused on sidewalks or peeked out of doorways and windows to look at the procession.
The temperature was in the 60s, a sunny day, as they made their way along Lake Avenue. They maintained orderly lines as they neatly made the turn left onto Superior Street, three abreast.
Their commanding officer, driving a Jeep, stayed one block ahead of the procession. As he reached each intersection, he stopped his Jeep, stepped out and gave a smart salute to the approaching American flag. After watching the procession move forward, he jumped back into the Jeep to drive to the next intersection.
The formation walked several blocks west down Superior Street, past family members gathered on the sidewalk, turned south and entered the Union Depot. There, a military train composed of eight Pullman cars was waiting.
The B Company Marine Reservists of Duluth were off to war.
These were regular men, Duluthians who had agreed to become reservists because they had served in World War II, or because the money they could earn by drilling one day a week would come in handy — or both.
“Of course, we didn’t think there would be another war,” Ted Pratchios recalled, smiling. He boarded the train that day.
He was the special weapons platoon sergeant for the reserve.
Their train was scheduled to stop in several places — including Minneapolis; Rockford, Ill.; and St. Louis — to pick up Marine reserve units bound for Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“But,” recalled Bob Pearson, “the rest of the units were not as big as Duluth.”
Bob and his brother, Chuck, were in the procession in Duluth that day.
At 17, Bob had already graduated from high school. He had been in the Marine reserves for six months. Chuck had served in World War II in the Navy and had subsequently signed up for the Marine reserves. The brothers were in the same platoon but different squads.
The Pearson brothers, like all of the Duluth reserves, had learned a month before that B Company would soon be activated.
Bob’s parents did not want him to go to war. And Bob knew that, until his unit was activated, he could choose to quit the reserves. All he had to do was return his uniform and all government-issued gear and he would have no further commitment. Some reservists had done this; it was an option. But for him it was a matter of honor: It did not seem right to take money to be trained as a reservist, only to back out when called to war.
Bob and Chuck’s family was there to see them off to California.
Ted Pratchios marched in the color guard at the head of the procession, carrying the American flag. His wife, Bamy, and their two children, Miste and John, stood looking on. Ted recalled that, although their reserve unit had been activated in response to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, “We never gave it a thought that we would leave California.”
LaVeryn McKeever and son, Michael, also stood on Superior Street watching B Company. Her husband, Ed, was one of the reservists. LaVeryn had given birth to their second child, Patricia, just two weeks before. Like the other families, she and Michael walked to the Depot to say goodbye to Ed and watched the train pull out of the station.
Soon after, Ed called from California. The news was not good.
“They learned they were going overseas,” LaVeryn remembers. “At the time, in my 20s, I didn’t understand the magnitude of war. I was shocked.”
Once they had reached Camp Pendleton, the Marine reservists were assessed. Some battle-ready souls were sent directly to Korea; some who had completed boot camp were retained for further training; and some were assigned to boot camp.
Bob Pearson and Ed McKeever were both sent to boot camp; Bob’s brother, Chuck, went directly into combat in Korea. Ted Pratchios, who had served in World War II in the Pacific Theater as a crackerjack airplane mechanic, was sent to Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan to provide air support for operations against the North Koreans.
Back in Duluth, LaVeryn was worried: she had a toddler, a newborn and not much money, because Congress had not yet appropriated funds for reservists’ families. Her friend, Helen Pearl, whose husband was also in B Company, showed up in a cab, breathless with good news: the Red Cross was going to help the wives left behind pay for groceries and pay the rent.
Gershgol’s grocery store also agreed to help by giving $10 worth of groceries to these military families on a regular basis. Likewise, the First Street department store agreed to provide them with some clothing for free. This community support made a tremendous difference to the families of the B Company men.
When LaVeryn’s military allotment finally did come, it was $75, half of what others received. After dogged persistence and the intervention of Congressman John Blatnik, the problem was sorted out: the Marines thought that LaVeryn was Ed’s mother, not his wife, and they had been sending a mother’s allotment. Finally, in February 1951, she received the regular allotment of $150, as well as a share of Ed’s pay.
And, in an effort to cope with their husbands’ absences, a group of B Company wives formed the Semper Fidelis club. Their gatherings and telephone calls kept LaVeryn and the other wives hopeful.
Bob Pearson was eager to finish boot camp and get to Korea to join his brother. He was disappointed when instead he was assigned to the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow, Calif., where he served as a firefighter. He recognizes that this was the luck of the draw, but says, “I felt like I wasn’t good enough.” This was obviously false: He became a sergeant in less than two years.
While Bob was at Barstow, his brother Chuck endured the nightmare known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir: In late November 1950, 30,000 American and U.N. troops were drawn into the territory around the frozen reservoir and ambushed by 60,000 Chinese troops. More than two weeks of fierce fighting ensued.
Weather conditions on the rugged terrain that winter were unusually brutal, a full 35 degrees below zero. Many of the men’s hands and feet were frozen. Some food rations were rendered inedible.
Finally the American and U.N. forces, having both suffered and inflicted terrible losses, broke free. Chuck Pearson was hit in the face; the lower part of his jaw was blown off. He returned to the U.S. for treatment.
Despite repeated petitions, Bob never served in Korea.
“The important thing to remember about the Korean War,” he observed recently, “is that it was the forgotten war that stopped Communism from spreading in Asia.”
President Harry Truman, in his autobiography, similarly noted, “If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threat and aggression by stronger Communist neighbors.”
Ted Pratchios came home to Duluth from Japan. He stayed in the Marines in a combination of reserve and active duty. After years of living in warmer climates, he returned home to Duluth.
Ed McKeever was ultimately sent to Korea.
He was assigned to headquarters near the Chosin Reservoir. But he did not participate in the battle — he was part of the burial detail, retrieving the bodies of fallen comrades. He returned home on Christmas Eve 1951.
One snowbound day in the 1970s, Ed told LaVeryn that he was determined to have the B Company Marines hold a reunion.
He immediately started making calls. That reunion in 1975 was a success, drawing veterans from around the nation. It was the first of several.
Ed McKeever died in 1987. But nearly four decades later, the surviving local members of B Company still meet once a month for lunch, and their wives join them every two months. Over the 60 years since B Company was activated for war in Korea, these men and women have continued to sustain one another.
Ten of the men from B Company gave the ultimate sacrifice. Killed in action, their names are inscribed on the Korean Veterans Memorial that stands in quiet remembrance along the Lakewalk here in Duluth.
It is worthwhile to visit this majestic black granite repository of memory, not only on the 60th anniversary of B Company’s departure by train from Duluth, but whenever one has the chance. The memorial is located along a paved path designed for pedestrians, reminding us that the men of B Company themselves approached a military train and an uncertain future those many years ago on foot.
Patra Sevastiades last covered the Northland circa 1968 for the Budgeteer. She loves language and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.