With Veterans Day approaching, I wanted to prepare a series of articles about veterans in Catawba County. I called VFW Post 5305 and talked to friend, former post commander, and Vietnam War veteran Larry “Moon” Teague. Larry graciously agreed to round up some veterans.
On Oct. 13, Larry along with Bobby Pope, current Post 5305 commander and Vietnam War veteran; Neal Caldwell, Cold War veteran who completed two operations in Korea (post Korean War); and Kevin Killian, Iraq War veteran talked at length — hours of recollections and observations that, according to Neal, “were good therapy for all of us.”
Today’s focus is on Neal. Kevin will be highlighted on Oct. 25, followed by Bobby on Nov. 1 and then Larry on Nov. 8.
Like Larry, Bobby, and Kevin, Neal, who lives in the Maiden area, served in the U.S. Army. Trained in Hawaii, Neal was part of the 25th Infantry Division – Company C 121, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry from 1979 to 1982. The motto of the 25th, known as the Tropic Lightning Division, was “Ready to Strike Anywhere, Anytime.” They received a variety of training — POW, chemical warfare, jungle, spotting the enemy, etc. — in preparation to go anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Two of those notices came for Neal — both to South Korea and both in the field up to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) or 38th Parallel, a buffer zone between North and South Korea.
Neal, a specialist fourth class -- special weapons platoon, was part of Operation Team Spirit. His first operation lasted from February 1980 to June 1980; the second from February 1982 to July 1982. Both were “in country,” meaning in the field, living in foxholes and bunkers, and not at bases longer than to get assignments and collect supplies and equipment before heading up to the DMZ. Between operations, Neal returned to Hawaii for more training.
Before leaving Hawaii the first time, “they put our personal belongings in a cardboard box with our home address on it in case you didn’t make it back,” Neal shared.
Arriving in South Korea, Neal’s first task, which took two weeks to complete, was to join fellow Operation Team Spirit guys and hide in abandoned warehouses in the port city of Buson, coming out during the night to unload equipment — tanks, helicopters, trucks, food, water, ammunition, and so forth — from Merchant Marine ships. “A huge military show of force came in,” Neal explained. These were pieces of equipment and supplies that Neal’s platoon would use.
“We were the guys in the shadows, unloading at night and putting it on a [train] to send up to base camp.” The goal: not to be noticed by North Koreans, who likely were in the area, infiltrators observing everything the Americans were doing.
Once finished, said Neal, “I got to ride that train all the way up.” His destination was Camp Page (closed in 2005) in Chuncheon, 13 miles from the DMZ, Neal pointed out, and about 60 miles from the North Korean border. During Neal’s second operation in Korea, base camp was in Uijeongbu, the camp “like a MASH unit setting inside a valley,” Neal described.
That first train trip up left Neal with an unshakable image: so many happy mounds, the name American soldiers gave Korean burial mounds, which are much more elevated than U.S. burial plots. Not only did the burial sites signify an enormous loss of life — likely in big part due to the Korean War, but the aggregated knolls provided excellent cover for North Korean infiltrators.
Those infiltrators, like the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, were called Charlies by Neal and fellow soldiers. As Neal suggested, one didn’t know when a Charlie was around. To Americans, a North Korean looked like a South Korean.
Besides the incessant worry that a Charlie was in the midst, there was the 24/7 fear of booby traps while in the field — along trails, mountain cliffs. And, there were the Korean War leftover explosives that could be anywhere. Neal talked about eating, sleeping, and breathing the dread that “at any minute it’s all over.” A soldier had to be on constant alert.
At this point, Neal shared what he described as “the funny part,” which occurred during his second operation. “A buddy came in from Oklahoma. I woke him up for guard duty. I told him, ‘Charlie could be in the area. We just got word.’ He got up and said, ‘Charlie who?’”
Shaken, Neal told the new guy that he was going to get everyone killed and then joined him all night on guard duty. “I baby-sat him,” said Neal.
A trick Neal and others employed in case infiltrators came around when the American soldiers were trying to sleep was to “take an empty C-ration can, put it on a string, put some rocks in it, and tie it to your boot and to a tree,” Neal described. It was also a practice of American soldiers in Vietnam, Larry offered.
Working in the field, Neal was “with three different sets of Rangers: Australian, South Korean — the Rock Rangers, and American,” said Neal. “We trained with Rock Rangers. They stayed in the field their whole tours, three years at a time.”
“We rotated out American divisions, so they could come back out of the field,” Neal continued. “That was our mission. To this day, it’s hostile over there. You have to keep someone on the DMZ 24/7 to the end of time basically.”
A typical day? “Cold, dreary, tense the whole time,” Neal responded. “We didn’t know if we were going to make it back or not.” When I asked if he’d captured or killed any infiltrators — any Charlies — he said that particular information was still classified. He did say he was close to losing his life every minute and didn’t have R&R.
The objective was “to keep the North Koreans from entering South Korea,” said Neal, who was combat job status in a special weapons platoon. “I carried an M16 with an M203 grenade launcher attached to it, a 45-caliber pistol, piano wire, a bayonet, grenades and claymore mines if needed on operations, and a field pack that contained a sleeping bag, food, water, whatever I’d need.”
“I also carried the tube, the mortar tube,” said Neal, explaining it was what the mortar round was put into. Another guy carried the base plate and tripod, a third man three mortar rounds, and a fourth guy was the gunner. Neal said his squad had its own motto: “While you were sleeping, we were creeping.”
If you’re like me and have limited combat knowledge, you may have gotten stuck on the words “piano wire.” Neal said the 25th Infantry Division was in Vietnam and the men training him in Hawaii were Vietnam War veterans who shared many tricks, including the use of piano wire to set traps or serve as a garrote. “I carried piano wire just like they did in Vietnam for protection,” Neal shared.
Then you come home and try to blend in and live normal lives, Neal offered. Not so easy to do after wondering every moment of every day for many months if the Army was going to have to mail that package of personal belongings for you. Neal, who was the fourth member of his family to go to Korea (His father, the late Arnold Caldwell of Maiden, served during the Korean War), worked as an explosives expert for the NCDOT for 33 years. He’s retired now and thankful to be a part of VFW Post 5305. It is in the company of fellow veterans that a man or woman finds understanding, encouragement, and respect.
Thank you for your service, Neal.
Share story ideas with Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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