War stories: Grinnell wins, then loses Silver Star
This is the second part of Dick Grinnell’s story he shared with Village Life. The first part was published on May 25 and can be found on villagelife.com.
Last week we met 75-year-old former U.S. Marine Dick Grinnell, who used a fake birth certificate to enlist at age 16 in 1952, during the Korean War. We followed his progress right up to the rescue mission that would define his unusual career.
Dick Grinnell recovered from injuries inflicted by a “Bouncing Betty” anti-personnel mine and returned to his First Reconnaissance Battalion early in 1953, ready to get back to work.
“I’d never jumped out of an airplane before,” he said. Neither had any of the other six men who volunteered to retrieve an Air Force lieutenant colonel shot down in a tiny reconnaissance plane over North Korea.
“He shouldn’t have been where he was,” said Grinnell. “He had all kinds of intel we didn’t want the Chinese to get, and we knew they’d torture him to death if they had to.”
The team was told to “either get him out of there or put him out of his misery,” said Grinnell.
The Marines parachuted in near the crash site. Four of the seven were shot dead before they hit the ground.
North Korean soldiers immediately captured the three survivors, Grinnell and two privates — Hunter, who was uninjured, and Decker, who was shot in the shoulder.
Grinnell’s lasting recollection of his Korean captors is their youth. “They were just kids, 14- and 15-year-olds.”
The Americans were thrown into an impromptu jail, “a pig sty under a house,” said Grinnell.
In the first bit of good fortune in a theretofore disastrous mission, the colonel they were sent to retrieve was already in the sty, wearing tattered and muddy dress blues. “They’d already pulled out some of his fingernails, and he’d lost his mind,” said Grinnell.
The details and duration of their confinement in the mud beneath that house are either lost to Grinnell or too painful to recount.
They decided to make a break for it before their Korean captors’ Chinese superiors returned. After overpowering their guards in the middle of the night, they set out on foot with the colonel, “still in his tattered dress blues, still out of his mind,” said Grinnell.
The duration of their cross-country trek is similarly hazy. “We spent about three weeks dragging this colonel through Korea, trying to keep out of sight,” he said. They stumbled upon an ammunition depot, broke in and armed themselves. Despite his injury, Decker rigged the depot to blow when the enemy returned.
But it didn’t detonate. Decker returned to the depot to fire it manually. “He didn’t make it out,” said Grinnell. “But he created a diversion that let us get away.”
Food was scarce. As his former CO had predicted, insects were a mainstay.
Three weeks later the trio fell into the arms of a forward American platoon. But because their mission had been secret, and because they’d been gone so long, “They didn’t believe our story,” said Grinnell. “It was like they gave us up for dead.”
Gen. Chesty Puller, who became the most decorated Marine in history, eventually confirmed their story and put Hunter and Grinnell up for a Silver Star. And the colonel? “I got Christmas cards from him for 27 years,” grinned Grinnell from his Serrano patio.
Grinnell and Hunter each got their Silver Stars, but only one got to keep his.
Their story attracted the attention of the “Stars and Stripes” military newspaper. The reporter listened in amazement to Grinnell’s story, and dutifully contacted his mother in Spokane for a comment about her son’s feats of bravery. But she had no idea that he’d enlisted, and immediately hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the Marines for putting her underage son in harm’s way. He confessed to being just 17, and to enlisting with a forged birth certificate.
“After that, everyone came down on me, including the Marines,” he said. “They accused me of fraud and threatened to throw me in jail.”
Except that he was a hero. The Marines had a PR problem.
His mother eventually negotiated a deal that gave her all his back pay, “and every cent I made until I turned 18,” said Grinnell. His military record prior to age 17 was expunged, and his Silver Star rescinded.
Did he have to return the medal? “They’d already sent it to my mother,” said Dick Grinnell. “She eventually hocked it.”
Grinnell remains a proud Marine veteran. He stayed in the service another nine years, and in 1961 went to Laos and Cambodia to distribute old Marine M1 rifles to anti-communist forces.
“A lot of those rifles disappeared into the jungle,” he recalled. “It was clear that it was going to get messy.”
He realized that if he wanted to retire a Marine, he’d end up in the middle of it. Grinnell left the service and spent the next 40 years in the car business. He became part owner of San Jose British Motors.
Grinnell now lives with his wife in Serrano, and has battled cancer for the last 25 years. It recently spread to a kidney, which was removed. He’s currently recovering.
“For years I never talked about any of this,” Grinnell said of his war stories. “You leave it and want to forget everything you’ve done.
“I’m not looking for any recognition, no glory. It’s too late for all that,” he added. “I just want kids to appreciate what we sacrificed to get them where they are. That’s what the veteran’s memorial over in Promontory Park is all about.”