Survival was goal for Korean vet Hambrick

Charles Ray Hambrick coached basketball and taught P.E. at Briarcliff High School, served as an administrator in the Tift County school system, and worked as assistant principal of Rockdale County High School. Students and faculty alike had no idea he was a decorated combat veteran of the Korean War.

A member of the first graduating class of Newton County High School in 1950, his talent in football and basketball earned him a scholarship to West Georgia College, but war delayed his education.

Hambrick volunteered for airborne training at Fort Benning.

"The first time I jumped out of a plane I thought 'Ray, you've made a big mistake,'" he said. "It sure felt better when that chute opened!"

As top graduate, Hambrick was asked to stay on as an instructor.

"I turned them down but that was a big mistake, too," he admitted.

Within two days he was en route to Korea.

After a 27-day seasick voyage to Sasebo, Japan, aboard a WWII-era Liberty ship, Hambrick boarded a flat bottom barge for transport to Korea.

"Another up-chucking voyage," he admitted.

At the port of Pusan in mid-December, 1952, Hambrick boarded a troop train for the South Korean capital of Seoul.

"Seoul was flat, completely destroyed," he said. "It was freezing, but starving children still ran up to our train for handouts with no clothes or shoes on."

Hambrick was assigned to the battle front near the infamous 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea.

"I trudged up a hill in deep snow," he said. "When I got to the top a sergeant told me find a hole and get some sleep. Turns out I slept in a hole used for the ammo dump. I found another hole."

Hambrick's weapon of choice was the legendary M-1 Carbine.

"I used banana clips with 30 rounds. We used a lot of ammo in Korea."

Hambrick said every day and night was the same: staying alive.

"I'm no hero," Hambrick stated. "I'm a survivor."

The brutality of war haunts his memory.

"When the Chinese captured an American, they'd stake him out naked in the freezing weather. We couldn't rescue them; that's tough to forget," he said.

After six months of brutal combat, Hambrick was ordered to report to headquarters command.

"They offered me a deal -- go back to jump school, but extend your enlistment," he said. Hambrick declined the deal and was sent back to the front. "That was probably another mistake," he admitted.

Two days later, he was called back to headquarters.

"They offered me helicopter school and a warrant officer commission," he said. "I refused since my tour was almost up. I guess that was another mistake." Hambrick was ordered back to the front.

Incredibly, with no training, Hambrick and other soldiers were taken off the front and assigned to Koje-Do Island to guard Chinese prisoners of war.

"During a Chinese holiday 3,000 POWs rioted," Hambrick said. "A U.S. Army captain tried three times to quell the riot, but when their leader refused things got out of hand. The captain pulled out his .45 pistol and blew the guy's head off. Then all hell broke loose. I was manning a guard tower and had to cut loose on the Chinese when they charged the tower."

Pausing a second, Hambrick said, "Folks don't understand the lasting effect of taking a human life. It's kill or be killed, but it's still killing."

Hambrick recalls not bathing for three months.

"Sometimes we'd wash with fresh snow, but at 20 degrees below zero it didn't accomplish very much."

Finally sent to the rear area for a hot shower and clean uniforms, he described the trip back to the front.

"We rode back on an Army truck and ran into a blizzard. I put a towel over my head then put my helmet back on, but when we reached the front the towel had frozen solid. I almost pulled my ears off getting free of that towel."

When two soldiers became trapped in a mine field, Hambrick volunteered to get them out.

"That was another mistake," he admitted. "I stepped on a land mine trying to get those boys out. I heard the first 'click' and figured I was dead. For some reason, the second 'click' never happened."God spared Ray Hambrick that day and two frightened soldiers were finally pulled to safety.

When Hambrick returned stateside he trained new recruits at Fort Lee, Va., until receiving orders for Rhein-Main, Germany. As if rewarded for surviving the hell of Korea, Ray Hambrick spent his last year in the military doing what he loved best: playing football and basketball for the United States Army. His athletic propensity helped win a conference championship.

After his discharge, Hambrick returned to West Georgia College for a couple of years on the G.I. Bill where he met his future wife, Jean. A knee injury on the football field kept him from achieving his lifelong dream: playing football between the hedges at the University of Georgia.

Hambrick said he did his duty, came home to teach, and tried to forget a place called Korea. Now retired, he and Jean live in north Rockdale County. He divides his leisure time between golf and fishing.

And though Hambrick said he doesn't want to think about the horrors of the war, he hopes people remember the service done by those who fought there.

"Korea has often been referred to as the 'Forgotten War.' Please do not forget," he said. "If we allow that to happen it will be a tremendous disservice to the thousands and thousands of wonderful young 18- and 19-year-old men who never got a chance to live and enjoy the things that we treasure so much in our everyday lives."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at petemecca@gmail.com.