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Author William Dannenmaier: 50th anniversary of Korean War

June 13, 2000
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- The Korean War erupted on June 25, 1950. The three years of brutal fighting between the North and South ended in a truce, leaving the two Koreas bitter, armed to the teeth and technically still at war. North Korea today is a communist dictatorship, an isolated, destitute country cut off from modern technology and struggling with severe food shortages. South Korea evolved into a capitalist democracy, a manufacturing dynamo now embracing the digital economy.

William Dannenmaier, author of "We Were Innocents," served in Korea with the U.S. Army’s Fifteenth Infantry Regiment from 1952 to 1954. Dannenmaier was decorated with the Combat Infantryman's Badge for service in Korea. He has taught at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada and now works as a newspaper columnist in Tennessee.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to our Korea Chat series, William Dannenmaier.

William Dannenmaier: Thank you. Just start with the questions!

Chat Moderator: Please tell us about your book, "We Were Innocents."

William Dannenmaier: It is based on, and quotes from, letters I wrote my sister. She saved them over the years. About four years ago, she said, "Come and get em!" And when your older sister says that, you do it!

Her older son had just finished a review of the war literature and he said I should publish them because they were unique. There was nothing like them on the Korean War; they would be important historically. The problem is that sometimes I lied in those letters and, when I was busy, I didn't write! So the book has three elements to it: quotations themselves, unchanged from the letters themselves; then my memories around the letters; thirdly, reflections as a 70-year-old, looking back on what a 22-year-old did.

About the lies in the letters -- I was in the battle for "Outpost Harry," which was really quite interesting. It was the bloodiest battle in the Korean War. My letter said I was going for a shower that day. Really, I started out the first night of the battle in a bunker and was moved forward. I was in the process of moving forward when I wrote the letter!

We tried to keep people from worrying too much.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: Have you heard from other Korean War veterans who have read your book?

William Dannenmaier: A bunch of them! The purpose of the book -- no one is interested in reading about me -- there were 58,000 dead and 100,000 wounded. I wanted the book to represent our lives, not just my life. I've gotten calls from guys picking different places, everywhere from Louisiana to Maine to California. Only two have been on the same subject, and they have been about showers!

We were allocated a shower a month! One fellow called and said he kept track of when they were going home by how many showers they had left! Another caller said, "What's this about showers?" He didn't know about any allowance at all. He arrived in December and had his first bath in April, in a creek! He sent me a picture of them getting a bath with K Company, 15th Infantry.

Question from MaryG: It sounds as if you were totally encouraged by your family. Did you run into any problems from the government or publishers?

William Dannenmaier: Not from the government, but publishers didn't want to touch it. Nobody cared about Korea. My favorite was the one who wrote back and said, "We don't do memoirs of ‘nobodies’!" I figured there were a million of us "nobodies" there and chose the title, "We Were Nobodies." But Illinois would not let me use that title, "We Were Nobodies," so we had to use, "We Were Innocents."

I have a chapter in the book on the battle for "Outpost Harry." A Louisiana caller wanted to know if I knew that it was a classified secret till 1992. I don't know if that is true or not, but I certainly would like to know. It could explain why nobody has ever heard of that bloody battle.

My initial radioman position was back at regimental headquarters. My job was to keep in touch with the different battalions and air support from that central point, using Morse code and voice. But it was very boring, so I volunteered to be a scout. As a scout, our job was to find the enemy, know where they were and capture some of them if possible.

Then there were three types of patrols, three-man patrols. I went on these. We were just looking for what we could find. We would leave our bunker at dark and go to some jump-off point, go to some no-man’s land and go hunting. Sometimes all nine of us went on what were called squad patrols. And sometimes, as a squad, we led an infantry platoon out, trying to stir up trouble. We always found it! I didn't especially like those.

Question from Packerfan: What service were you in, William?

William Dannenmaier: Army. Third Division.

Question from Candyce-CNN: Mr. Dannenmaier, what are your feelings today, so many years after the conflict which affected so many, to finally see a meeting between North and South leaders?

William Dannenmaier: Delighted, absolutely delighted! I have great sympathy for those North Koreans, separated from their homes for so long, and vice versa.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: Mr. Dannenmaier, Vietnam veterans complain a lot because no one thanked them for their service. Did anyone thank you for your service?

William Dannenmaier: No, that's not true! I spent a lot of time teaching and ended up my last ten years doing research for the Army, when I had an opportunity to go to Korea. A Korean man asked me -- with hand signals -- if I had been infantry. When I said, "Yes," he said, "Thank you." To be honest, I cried a little bit.

Question from Susie: Will your book be released in Korea?

William Dannenmaier: I haven't any idea. I think it will also be out in paperback this fall. I don't know.

Question from MaryG: Do Korean War veterans have trouble collecting proper benefits, since that was never declared a true war?

William Dannenmaier: No, we receive all the same. I don't receive any, because I just got in for the action and then got out after two years. Plus I made a mistake. When I came home, my hearing was affected and my teeth were in very bad shape. You could outline my mouth in blood on bread. But when I first arrived at Ft. Carson, they said anyone who had a medical problem had to stay for another month, but if you said you had no problems, then you could go home that day.

So, of the 200 of us from the front line, not one had a medical problem. If I had claimed my hearing at that time, I could have gotten help, but I can't get it now.

Chat Moderator: When you were writing these letters to your sister, did you ever think that you yourself would re-read them?

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William Dannenmaier: No, and I refused to for 40 years. She offered them to me many times, and I turned them down. But when the "command voice" came into play, then I took them! She looks like a frail old lady, but she is tough!

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

William Dannenmaier: Two things. Thanks for the opportunity. But there are four men I have been trying to find: James F. Gay, he married the superintendent of schools in Ohio in ’53 or ’54 and I would love to hear from him again. Stan O’Connor, also from Ohio, my squad leader and the bravest man I've ever known. Ray Barker from the tri-cities in Tennessee. He and I used to irritate members of the squad with our joking. And Red Curry, from Sacramento, who went AWOL from the hospital to come up and join us for the fight for "Harry," because he thought we needed him.

I would love to hear from, or about, any of them. O'Connor owes me $5 if he didn't get married the first year he was home!

Question from Packerfan: I just got out of the Air Force after eight years and, thank God, the worst place I had to go was Bosnia. I salute you, sir. Great job!

William Dannenmaier: Thanks.

Chat Moderator: Thank you very much for joining us today.

William Dannenmaier: It has been my pleasure!

William Dannenmaier joined the Korea Chat by phone from Tennessee. CNN provided a typist for Mr. Dannenmaier. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.

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University of Illinois Press: We Were Innocents

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