It’s been 58 years since El Dorado Hills Korean war veteran Dick Grinnell told his story to a reporter. Back then he was lying flat on his back at Balboa Hospital in San Diego, healing from wounds suffered during a heroic rescue mission in what’s now called North Korea.
A grateful military awarded him the nation’s third highest commendation, the Silver Star, for his efforts, then took it back when the reporter discovered Grinnell was just 17 years old when he earned it.
Like many combat veterans, Grinnell isn’t comfortable talking about what he saw and did.
His son, Ed Grinnell, a Naval Academy graduate and Desert Storm pilot only recently got his father to open up to the family about his Korean War experiences.
“We probably still don’t know the whole story,” said Ed, who lives near his parents in Serrano.
Dick Grinnell is 75 years old now and in poor health. He shared his story here in hopes that it will raise awareness of the sacrifices local veterans made, and garner some support for the planned Veterans Memorial Park in El Dorado Hills, and the Fallen Warriors Car Show next weekend in El Dorado Hills Town Center.
In the understated voice of a combat veteran, Grinnell described his childhood in Spokane, Wash., as “tough,” and his mother as “insecure.” His father abandoned the family when he was just 11, leaving behind four children and an emotionally unstable wife, who soon lost custody of her children. The eldest, Dick, was dispatched to live with grandparents in Concord.
The young boy thrived. He worked after school and sent most of his pay back to his mother. But it wasn’t enough. A court ordered his return to his mother.
The now 15-year-old Grinnell began getting into trouble. The situation came to a head when he punched his mom’s boyfriend.
In January 1952, just a couple of days after his 16th birthday, a judge ordered him back to Concord. He was given two days to get a “release” from the prior judge, who had ordered him to Spokane, or get sent to reform school. He recalls standing bewildered in the courthouse, wearing a T-shirt and Levis while the temperature outside was well below zero. “I had no coat, no money, no friends, no nothing,” he said.
His only advocate was a Spokane police officer named “Joe,” who was dating Grinnell’s cousin at the time. Officer Joe put him in the back of a squad car and drove to a friendly printer, handed him a $20 bill and instructed the boy to “tell them you lost your birth certificate.” With a wink he also suggested that the boy might want to subtract a couple of years from his birth date. At 18, boys could enlist in the military without parental consent.
“He dropped me off around noon with ink on that fake birth certificate still wet,” laughed Grinnell, who told the recruiters he was in a big hurry to serve his country.
The war in Korea raged in 1952. The Air Force, Army and Navy were all hiring, but required a couple of weeks to process him in. The Marine recruiter, however, looked at his watch and said “Is 2 p.m. soon enough?”
It was. On Jan. 6, 1952, with the U.S. Marines dug in on the 38th Parallel, Dick Grinnell became a member of the Semper Fidelis brotherhood.
“I was so scared they’d find out I wasn’t 18,” he recalled. “I just kept my mouth shut and did what I was told.”
Five months later he stepped off a troop ship in Pusan, Korea. A sergeant asked Grinnell and his buddy if either could drive. “I saw a chance to stay behind the lines so I volunteered,” he said, thus committing the first significant act of a courageous and sometimes bizarre 11-year military career that was both fulfilling and disappointing.
Grinnell soon learned that he’d volunteered to drive a “flame tank.” Ironically, his friend became the company clerk.
His son Ed described the now obsolete flame tanks as “death traps — rolling napalm bombs,” capable of dispensing one 11-16 second burst of highly volatile and sticky “ammunition.” They were short-range weapons that attracted a lot of enemy fire.
Grinnell ultimately proved tougher than his tanks. He sank the first one in a rice paddy. The crew scrambled out the top hatch just before it went completely under.
A mortar round blew up the turret in his second tank. Grinnell quickly ejected out the bottom. His two crewmen perished. He’d been in Korea three months.
They made him a tank commander and promoted him to “buck sergeant,” which just meant “you had to stick your head up higher in battle.” After he lost a third tank to enemy fire, Grinnell began to wonder how long his luck would last.
Anyone who served in Korea during the winter will testify that the weather was as big a concern to the soldiers as the enemy. As a flame tank commander, Grinnell was exposed to the worst. While grumbling about the cold one day, a warrant officer suggested Grinnell join him in the First Reconnaissance Battalion, “First Recon.” When he requested the transfer, his commanding officer tried to convince him of the deprivations and dangers of recon missions.
“Those guys have to eat bugs,” the C.O. said. “They’ll kill you over there.”
“You’re killing me here,” he replied. “I’ll take my chances.”
He served under Platoon Sergeant and “crazy Texan” J.W. Rabb. Grinnell’s eyes glaze over and he slips into a monotone as he recalls the day he won the first of three Purple Hearts, but lost his teeth and nearly his life.
He’d been on patrol, “on point” for four days straight, he recalled. Weary and distracted, he turned a corner and got the butt of a burp gun squarely in the mouth. A North Korean soldier stood over him and prepared to finish the job, when a shot rang out.
“Several shots actually,” said Grinnell. “J-Rabb got the guy and saved my life.”
His second Purple Heart was earned in December 1952 during the mop-up behind MacArther’s famed Inchon landing.
“We were reclaiming villages one by one,” he said. “It seemed like every window had somebody shooting at us and it was so cold you couldn’t even squeeze the trigger sometimes.”
Only three members of a platoon of 27 men escaped uninjured. Grinnell wasn’t one of them.
“It was a big firefight, real bad,” he said. “You walk along and all the sudden the guy beside you is gone. You don’t even know what got him. That’s hard.
“After the first couple of fire fights you take this attitude that you aren’t coming back anyway, and just want to be there for your buddies and serve honorably,” he continued. When you survive, “You feel guilty because so many of your friends didn’t come back.”
A “Bouncing Betty” antipersonnel mine ripped into his hip, leg and knee that day. He still carries parts of it with him.
With weapons like that in play, “A lot of times it felt like we were just cannon fodder over there,” he said.
Shortly after the casts came off his arm and leg, he rejoined his battalion a “senior guy,” he recalled. He’d just turned 17.
Next week: Eating bugs, earning a Silver Star, then losing it.