Close to 60 years ago, a group of young men across the United States decided to volunteer for the draft in hopes of helping South Korea regain its footing after the end of the Korean War.
What they couldn’t have imagined back then was the friendship they forged while serving from 1954 until 1955 and that same bond they still share today.
Seven men from the 341st/560th division-Bob Strempke of Independence, Iowa; Norman Curnow, of Breckinridge, Mo.; Maury Seger, of Apple Valley, Minn.; Ken Jensen, of Machesney Park. Ill.; Jesse Dedloff, of Valparciso, Ind.; Roy Sauter, of Dexter, N.Y.; and Clayton Kent, of Seward Neb.- reflected on their service and friendship while attending the Iowa Veterans Cemetery in Van Meter last week.
The boys, who were only ages 19 and 20 at the time, quickly became men after signing the draft.
"We felt like we were expected to serve," Jensen said. "I had never been out of the state of Wisconsin, but there I was with 200 guys I didn’t know. I was on my own so I grew up in a hurry."
Jensen wasn’t the only one who had to adjust to life as a solider and the task of taking on new job responsibilities.
"I went into the Army as a photographer and came out a welder," Strempke said. "We were all young, so it was a learning process."
Since the war had just ended, the men were in charge with re-building roads and landscapes around buildings.
"It was quite the culture shock down there," Jensen said. "We saw the devastation first-hand, but we grew used to it."
They also grew used to working 12-hour days and limited food options.
"There were days when it was tiring when we worked from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., but we did get fresh, powdered eggs," Sauter said. "Jesse was our cook and made some pretty good meals."
Although the days were long, the men agreed that letters from their loved ones and family members were a part of what kept them going.
"Our only means of communication were through letters," Sauter said. "There were no text messages or Facebook at the time."
The mail didn’t come every day, only every two weeks, and not always from their loved ones.
"We had some men who received letters from people they had never met before," Sauter said. "I had one gal who requested a few songs in my name, but I never heard a one of them because we didn’t have reception."
Others like Strempke’s wife, Marcella, tried to bake him a cake, but there was a two pound limit in the mail.
"Instead, I had to make cookies," she said. "It broke my heart because I really wanted to send a cake."
Bob Strempke said the cookies sufficed, even if they were only crumbs by the time it reached him.
"Everyone still ate them," he said. "They were gone in only a few minutes."
The Strempke’s also were able to share one phone call, at a cost of $9 a minute, while he was stationed in South Korea.
"We talked for $36 worth, so about 4 minutes, because Marcella was graduating from high school that day," Bob Strempke said.
Ken Jensen’s wife, Glenda, said she kept almost 600 letters that her husband sent to her while overseas.
"They’re good for blackmail," she said, laughing. "I did prove to him later on that he told me in one of those letters that I was perfect. I remind him every now and then."
Even though letters and a phone call from their loved ones helped pass the time, the men agreed they didn’t receive much recognition for their efforts after returning to the states.
"After coming off the boat in the U.S. nobody sang to us or greeted us," Curnow said.
Strempke added, "Back then it was just another day to some degree. We had our loved ones and friends greet us, but there was no fanfare for any of us."
Some, like Sauter, had to hitchhike their way home.
"I had to walk from the airport 90 miles to my home," he said. "Then when I got home, I literally went from wearing an Army uniform to working."
Later, he said, his community started to become thankful for his efforts overseas.
"I had a positive experience after I came back," Sauter said. "I was asked by the rotaries and church organizations to share my experiences with them."
Sharing those experiences is what made this group of men move from strangers to great friends.
"The best part about the whole mission was the friendship that we have made 60 years later," Sauter said. "We were very proud to serve our country, but us staying in touch these past 20 years has been amazing. We came from all walks of life, had to do jobs we never thought we would have to do and made friends we never thought we would have."
Their first reunion took place in Grand Island, Neb. in 1994 with only three members present, but has grown since. The reunion has taken place around Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, New York and Oregon with their last visit to Des Moines in May of this year.
Three men who were unable to attend included Andrew Kmetz from St. John, Ind., Daniel Hoch from Carpentersville, Ill., and Harley Mether from Woodvine, Iowa.