Army Corporal Fred B. McGee will say he’s not brave for his actions during the Korean War, but hearing his story would make anyone think otherwise.
“It wasn’t a picnic, but we survived,” McGee said of his time in combat.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951 and was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for his basic training and then to leadership school. This was also the time when the Army was beginning to integrate, making McGee one of the first African American soldiers to serve in Korea.
After weeks and weeks of training, McGee began his journey to face combat with his fellow troops.
“First day of January, 1952 I landed in Yokohama, Japan,” McGee remembers. “We stayed there a week, two weeks and went over to Inchon, Korea.”
McGee recalls the moment he arrived on the Korean Peninsula.
“They come and picked us up one night and we go to a place,” he continued. “Everybody gets there and they get everybody together and they load you all in trucks. Then they take you from there up as close as they can get, probably get about a mile, half a mile from the front line — Heartbreak Ridge.”
Heartbreak Ridge was where McGee would see combat as a gunner, relieving troops that were already there. He remembers conditions being harsh, temperatures dropping well below zero.
“Put all your clothes on and then put your helmet on, put your rifle here and zip the bag and just lay there and went to sleep,” McGee said. “A lot of guys got caught in their bags. They killed them in their bags. Never got a chance to get out.”
Sometimes McGee said the troops would go days without relief or food.
“The enemy was over here and we was over here and the guys we had white suits on,” he remembered. “All of them would put white suits on the other side and I don’t know how many guys they killed, wounded. They come over that hill, climb up that hill and shot a few of our guys.”
McGee himself had several close brushes with death.
“I was on the outpost one night and something went wooooosh, bullet went right by my head,” McGee recalls. “They was on the upper hill up there. You could see them. Sniper shot at me and just missed me going by.”
At that moment, it all changed.
“He was talking on the radio and that shell landed right in between us and hit him all up through the back because he was on his knees talking on the radio,” McGee said describing his first wound. “I was laying down shooting the a machine gun and I got hit in the leg down through there.”
McGee also found himself forced to take command after his squad leader was wounded and the second in command couldn’t take over.
“The other guy, he’s second, he’s over here and he’s pale he couldn’t’ do nothing, so I had to take over and I took the guys out,” he explained. “We went out further. One guy got killed going out there. One guy got killed once we got there. The captain was out there so I talked to him I said ‘we have to get our of here cause we’re all going to get killed’. We’re out in the open and they’re right on the hill looking down on top of us.”
Then, he got wounded once more.
“I stayed there and I went out again a little further and I got wounded again. Another shell, I saw it coming about that big a mortar shell and I couldn’t move. I just froze and it came right out in front of me and hit me right up through here,” McGee continued, gesturing towards his neck and chest to show where he was wounded the second time.
Despite being wounded, McGee was willing to risk his life to help his fellow soldiers to safety.
“The next one come, the Korean runner was on his knees. He was getting ready to sit up and the next one came up right in between his legs and blowed him up in the air, right by me, and killed him right there,” McGee recalled of another time he was almost killed. “That’s how close I come to being killed two times.”
Despite being injured, he still gave his all to make sure other soldiers would survive.
“I’m carrying this Korean boy on my shoulder and I could only run so far and then I fell down on the ground and he was on top of me, so I rolled his eyes back and told the Captain he was dead,” McGee said.
Then again, he saw another casualty and gave his all to try to ensure their safety.
“Then here comes a big Russian boy on our side,” he continued. “He got hit with something it was a mortar shell or something tore the side of his leg out and he was walking along crying and crying, hollering. Then another soldier come along, had a piece of shrapnel in here so we got between him and helped him back to the line.”
Even while recalling these stories, McGee insists he was just tying to survive.
“No, I’m not brave,” he said. “I just did what was a necessity. You’ve got to stay alive.”
After about a year, McGee was able to leave Korea, spending nearly 20 days on a boat to come back to the United States. He finished his service in Colorado training troops before coming home and going back to work in 1953.
While in Korea, tales of his heroics made it back to the United States, and McGee’s story was the inspiration for a comic book, called “Heroic Comics.”
McGee received the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the Korean Service Medal, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and several other honors and accolades. He’s also a member of the Ohio Military Hall of Fame.
There is one honor Cpl. McGee was promised and never given: the Congressional Medal of Honor. He said is commanding officer wrote a recommendation, but he never received it.
McGee’s family has tried for several years to petition for McGee to receive the medal, but to no avail. Now, they’re making another push to see their hero honored.
7News will be following their efforts and bring you any progress or updates.