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Korean War vet honored, 60 years later
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
On July 13, J.D. Carter was sitting on his walker outside the Veterans Administration hospital in Washington when a man of apparent Asian descent came up and shook his hand.
“He thanked me for what I had done for his country,” the 81-year-old Culpeper resident recalled.
At first, Carter was a bit mystified. But then he realized that he was wearing his Korean War veteran’s cap.
The man thanking him was Sung Choon Park, minister of patriots and veteran affairs for South Korea.
The brief cordial exchange between the two men concluded with Carter receiving an invitation to attend a July 27 ceremony commemorating the 59th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice.
During that ceremony at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel, Carter received the surprise of a lifetime.
“They called out five names and I was shocked when mine was one of them,” said Carter, a former Culpeper County school bus driver. “When I heard the name ‘James Carter’ I was so surprised that I spilled a bottle of water I was drinking down my shirt.”
The Culpeper native and four other men were honored that night with medals and resolutions of appreciation for their efforts during the Korean War, which was fought between 1950 and 1953.
“It was something I never expected,” Carter said.
Sitting in his office surrounded by a lifetime of memorabilia, Carter recalled his six-month tour in Korea at the end of the war.
“It was damp and raw, the coldest place on this Earth,” he remembered.
Carter, who never saw actual combat, had one of the worst jobs in the military.
“My job was to drive around and pick up dead bodies,” he said. “That was tough. Some of those guys were friends, men you were in boot camp with.”
Carter recalled a friend named Danny whom he met soon after he joined the military.
“We were out in the field and we heard that whistling sound,” he said. “They taught you that the first whistling sound was OK because they were just sighting you in, but you’d better take cover before the second one came.
“As soon as the first shell went over, I dived into a ditch and told my buddy Danny to do the same.
‘Aw, they can’t shoot,’ he said. The next instant there was an explosion that threw dirt all over me.
When the air cleared Danny was not there. I picked up a thumb, a foot and a leg. That’s all there was.”
‘YEAH, I SAW THE WORLD’
James D. Carter’s father was a railroad worker who died when his son was only a few years old.
After beginning his education at the Culpeper Training School, J.D. became “a welfare child and I was shipped out” to work on a county farm, where he labored for 10 years. (“The welfare could do anything they wanted with you back then,” he recalled.)
In 1950 he moved to the Washington area, where he found work at a nursery.
“I got all dressed up and went out there to apply and found all this dirt and mud. I told the foreman I thought it was a children’s nursery, but he said it was one where they grew plants. He just laughed and gave me a job as a timekeeper.”
Carter then worked helping build the Shirley Highway, and finally ended up with a job with Washington Gas and Light.
“When a pipe blew up about 50 feet from me, I knew I had had enough of that,” he said. “So I decided to join the Marines and see the world.”
Carter reflected a moment on the battlefield horrors he witnessed. “Yeah, I saw the world.”
In the days immediately preceding his deployment to Korea, Carter said, he stepped out of the “colored” line to get a drink at a “whites-only” water fountain. When a white man told him he couldn’t drink at the fountain, Carter said he replied, “Water has no color.”
“I had my pistol hanging from my shoulder and I told him that I was going to Korea and that I would probably get killed over there,” he said. “I told him I could either get killed over there or I could go to prison here. The man walked away.”
Then there was an incident on the troop ship to Korea.
“They gave me an M1 rifle and told me to stand guard,” Carter said. “‘Guard against what?’ I asked.
‘Submarines,’ the guy said. I told him that if a sub came up and all I had was an M1 rifle, I was going to join them.”
While stationed at Cherry Point, N.C., Carter played baseball on a Marine team.
“One game against Quantico, I was at bat and the manager gave me the bunt sign against this left-handed pitcher,” he recalled. “But that pitch came right over the plate and I couldn’t resist. I nailed it for a home run.”
The manager benched Carter, inserting Charlie Neal. Carter said that when he asked the manager for an explanation, the manager told him Neal had a chance to play pro baseball and he didn’t.
“Why?” Carter asked.
“Because you’re not coachable,” the manager replied.
That manager, Carter said, turned out to be Hall of Famer Ted Williams. And Neal would go on to play second base for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Carter, a longtime Mason and member of Free Union Baptist Church, has plenty more stories to tell, including one about falling from a rope during basic training and injuring a vertebra.
Four operations later, he still has trouble walking long distances. It was this problem that caused him to be sitting on his walker in front of the VA hospital the day Sung Choon Park happened along.
That chance meeting led to the July 27 medal presentation, of which he is exceedingly proud.
“They didn’t give [the medals] to me, I earned them,” Carter said, pausing. “I was just 60 years getting them.”