Kennedy operated radio in Korea
Fairfield resident Jim Kennedy was one of the first faces some American prisoners of war saw when they were released at the end of the Korean War.
When a ceasefire was called in July 1953, the two sides swapped prisoners. Kennedy was stationed at a base that accepted POWs. The building they were led into was appropriately called “Freedom Village.”
Some of the prisoners needed medical attention, and they were taken to a nearby hospital. They were all de-loused, given a change of clothes and a shower. Kennedy said most of the prisoners were thin, although he added they were likely in better shape than they had been before.
Kennedy said the North Koreans and their Chinese allies had known there would be a prisoner swap for a few months and treated the prisoners better during that time.
Swapping prisoners also meant returning captured North Korean soldiers to their homeland. However, Kennedy said many of them did not want to return home. They wanted to stay in South Korea.
“My opinion is that they were living better in prisoner camps in the south than they were in the north,” he said.
The base was in a city that had been ravaged by the war. Kennedy described it as a place that was “as flat as this floor.” North Korean soldiers had gone through the city once during the initial invasion, and the south had gone through it again when it pushed the North Koreans back.
“By the end there was no city left. It was destroyed,” Kennedy said.
About 10 years ago, Kennedy chatted up a man who came through a carwash in Fairfield. Kennedy asked him what he did for a living and the man replied that he was a schoolteacher in Korea.
Kennedy asked him where in Korea he taught. The man was convinced Kennedy had never heard of the town, but it turned out to be the very place Kennedy had welcomed the prisoners of war. Though devastated by war 60 years ago, the city is now a thriving metropolis.
Kennedy was born and raised in Oxford, west of Iowa City. When he entered the Marine Corps at age 20 in 1952, the Korean War was already two years old.
The Oxford-native trained as an infantryman and went to radio school. It was not necessarily what he wanted to do but he had little choice. He trained as a radio operator for an infantry unit, but when he went to Korea he was reassigned to work for an artillery regiment.
Kennedy’s job was to relay messages from the forward observers and air observers to the artillery crew, which was one-half mile from his radio station. The observers spotted the enemy, and when the enemy was within range of the guns, they called in fire missions on them.
The artillery could shoot 15-20 miles. At that distance, the crew could not see if they were hitting their target, but the observers could. The observers would tell the radio operators to raise or lower the guns, or move them left or right. When the guns hit their target, the observers reported back, “fire for effect.”
The war was winding down when Kennedy was shipped to Korea in April 1953. North Korea had success early in the war during its initial invasion of the South in 1950, but the Americans and South Koreans pushed the North Koreans back nearly to China, at which point the Chinese entered the war and pushed the United Nations forces back.
By 1953, the war was a stalemate and truce talks were underway. Kennedy was stationed six miles from Panmunjom, where the truce talks were being held.
In the early part of the war, the artillery regiment moved along with the infantry’s advance. By the final year of the war, the artillery moved little if at all. Kennedy said a typical battle in 1953 consisted of the Americans taking a hill one day and the Chinese taking it back the next. The reason hills were important was it allowed the occupying power to survey the enemy.
“I was lucky because I was not up on the main line,” Kennedy said. “I know guys who were. One guy had been there for 6-12 months. He looked different, I’ll tell you that.”
A truce was called July 27, 1953. The two Koreas were divided along the same line as when the war began. Kennedy’s work in South Korea would continue for several months until he was discharged in February 1954. During that time, Kennedy patrolled roads and even encountered an Oxford schoolmate during one of his patrols.
Kennedy has remained active in military matters since his discharge. He is the commander of the American Legion Post 47 and the senior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In his respective roles, Kennedy has presided over a number of Veterans Day services at the Fairfield High School. He said he is pleased with the respect shown by the students during the ceremony.