BAXTER, Minn. -- After 70 years, Harley Laflin doesn’t want anyone to forget.
June 25, 2020, marked the 70th anniversary of North Korea invading its southern neighbor, beginning the three-year long Korean War in 1950.
Laflin was about 18 or 19 when he joined the efforts in the United States Air Force. He wrote letters to the editor for the Brainerd Dispatch on the 50th and 60th anniversaries, but now at 88, that just wasn’t feasible for the Baxter resident this year. So Laflin spoke to the Dispatch on the anniversary to share his story and make sure the date is remembered.
“I’m so concerned that people will forget because just recently I heard — or read — that the Korean War had dropped into the black hole of history,” Laflin said. “And I’m here to resurrect it for one day, at least.”
At 17 years old, Laflin left his home in Backus, bound for Brainerd to enlist in the military in 1949. He was in the midst of his tactical training in Wichita Falls, Texas, when the Korean War began. He served at O’Hare Airfield in Chicago before shipping out overseas.
Laflin served in Korea for about a year with the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, flying a North American F-86 Sabre. The unit fought against Russian-flown MiG jets.
“The outfit that I was in had the highest kill rate in combat with the MiG jets,” he said. “In fact, our ratio overall was 13:1. For every Sabre jet we lost, the communists lost 13 of theirs. So it was a very good outfit.”
When talking about his time in Korea, Laflin totes around a book called “F-86 Sabres of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing.” Published in 2002, the book profiles Air Force pilots like Laflin. Or more accurately, it profiles Air Force pilots including Laflin.
Upon receiving his copy of the book, he flipped through the pages and stopped at page 48. The top half of the page is a full-color image of a young Laflin kneeling in front of his jet.
“There’s my name on the side of the airplane,” he said pointing to the picture.
“Needless to say, I was very, very excited,” he added.
As Laflin recalls his time fighting in the Korean War, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones.
For decades after the war, the U.S. Department of Defense reported more than 54,000 American casualties. The number has since been amended to just over 34,000 in the three years of combat. Either way, there were a lot of soldiers who didn’t make it home.
“We hear a whole lot about Vietnam, but we don’t ever hear about Korea,” Laflin said. “And those men and women, they meant so much. And I came back. You might say I lived happily ever after with a beautiful wife and family, serving the Lord as I could. And they never knew what it was to hold their wife in their arms.”
Laflin lost his wife, Merilyn, to breast cancer last year. They were married for more than 66 years and grew their family to include two children, nine grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren and — come September — one great-great-grandchild.
But he’ll always remember those who lost their lives in the war and didn’t get to come home and have those families. He especially praised the Marines for the part they played in Korea.
“I can’t forget,” he said. “I don’t want to forget.”