More than 1,000 Shasta County residents gathered at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery to mark Veterans Day 2011 with solemn dignity and some laughter as Korean War hero-soldier Jack Tolbert recounted some of his service exploits.
“I never understood why they insisted on calling it the Korean Conflict. After seeing the bodies I’ve seen, it was more like a war than anything else I’ve ever seen,” noted Tolbert, a U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class in 1953 with the 65th Regimental Combat Team. Tolbert was squad leader acting as his unit’s radio operator on Heartbreak Ridge in central South Korea when Chinese soldiers overran his company’s position.
“To me, a conflict is when you have an argument with your wife ... and you lose,” Tolbert said with a grin even as his wife, Gladys, sitting slightly behind her husband’s motorized wheelchair, gave him a poke in the ribs.
To save the men under his command, Tolbert covered a Chinese hand grenade with his lower body and lost both legs as a result of his heroic actions.
Tolbert, now retired, received a Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart, originally the Badge of Military Merit established in 1782 by General George Washington when he was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
Originally trained with the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper prior to going overseas, Tolbert said that experience “made him jump happy.”
“And the extra $50 a month came in handy because that meant I could buy more beer,” Tolbert told the rapt crowd.
Concluding his remarks, Tolbert gave credit to the men and women who brought his wounded body back home.
“I am most grateful for the young corpsmen and other GIs who carried me out of that bunker, the helicopter who flew me to the M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), the doctors, nurses and orderlies who took care of me and brought me home so I could be henpecked,” Tolbert said.
Following a musical interlude of “America, the Beautiful” performed by the Enterprise High School Band, under the direction of Dan Neece, guest speaker William B. Philen, also a highly-decorated Korean combat veteran who was a Gunnery Sgt. with the U.S. Marine Corps, spoke on the significance of Tolbert’s heroism as well as all
those who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Each Purple Heart is an installment payment on what I owe this great country of ours,” said Philen, past commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Jack Tolbert Chapter 2001.
Philen put aside a prepared speech to read a solemn poem by A. Lawrence Vaincourt titled “Just a Common Soldier (A Soldier Died Today).”
Even more poignant, perhaps was the message scrawled anonymously on an ammunition box by a U.S. Marine during the 70-day siege of Khe Sahn during the Vietnam War.
According to Philen, it read, “To have really lived, you must have almost died. To those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.”
The hour-long ceremony began with a flyover of two military jets from Beale Air Force Base and ended “Echo Taps” performed by the Enterprise High School Band and “Amazing Grace” performed by three bagpipers from the Jefferson Pipe Band, led by Robert Skinner.