Some call it the “Forgotten War.” But for the estimated 2.2 million remaining veterans who battled on the Korean mountains in the early 1950s, sounds, images and feelings of those days are all too easily remembered.
At 85, Purple Heart recipient Ancil Flavius Cave is no exception. The horrors of the Korean War, in particular his encounters on the infamous Heartbreak Ridge, continue to haunt the dreams of the Hart County, Ky., native and U.S. Army veteran. Despite more than 50 years, Cave speaks of the squeaks of enemy sneakers and the sweet smell of hot cocoa by an Asian river like it was yesterday.
“I had a lot of bad experiences in the Korean War,” Cave said from his Clarksville home. “The only ones that know about it are the people that were there ... I’ve got a story to tell and I got to tell it to somebody. That’s why we’re here today, to tell you my story.”
It begins in the rolling bluegrass fields of Kentucky. Farming was a way of life for the boy and his five brothers. After graduating from Cub Run High School in 1947, he and one of his brothers found work at American Standard Company in Louisville.
Four years later, two important events happened in Cave’s life. While out for a drive with his friends, he spotted a car full of girls. After some passing and horn-tooting, the gals pulled over and Cave instantly fell in love with Betty, the “most beautiful girl I ever saw in my life.”
But a war would interrupt the blooming relationship. The draft had already begun for a conflict halfway across the globe. Men younger than Cave continued to be called up, which left the 23-year-old with questions. In fairness, he went and asked. It would turn out that the draft board had misplaced Cave’s file.
“I said, ‘There are younger people going in. I’m older than they are. It’s not right.’ And the first thing I know, they looked into my records and said, ‘My Lord, they were hidden here. You would have never gone in,’” Cave said. “I got my notice the next week to report.”
After completing basic training, Cave made the journey to Pusan, South Korea, with a photo of Betty, a small pocket bible and a $2 bill his father gave him for good luck. In the following months, he would need as much good fortune as possible just to survive.
When Cave entered the frontlines of combat in the summer of 1951, the war in Korea was in full swing. Only in June of 1950 had the Soviet-backed North Koreans invaded neighboring South Korea. America entered the conflict soon after and pushed the advancing North Korean troops back to the 38th parallel, the line that remains today as the border between the two countries. In this region, Cave would spend most of his tour.
The mountains of Korea differ remarkably from the pastureland of Kentucky. From the start, the young soldier would face the stresses of starvation, lack of ammunition and an almost constant barrage of enemy fire. Bullets whistled past the boys as they retreated from skirmishes. Tennis shoes squeaked as the enemy snuck around the American’s camouflaged foxhole. Shrapnel and casings hit the tarp overhead as the soldiers attempted to sleep. Mountains would be ripped open from the attacks. Yet, the sound would somehow become a reassurance to the hunkered-down men.
“As long as you can hear the thing, you’re safe,” said Cave. “If you can’t hear it, you’re dead.”
Food wasn’t always readily available. At one point, his platoon went three weeks without meals. Water, too, could be a problem to find. At times, from utter exhaustion, the men would drink from the muddy rivers. Once, Cave even slept in a stream, unable to go any farther.
With hand-to-hand combat and close quarters a necessity, some men reached their breaking point. One of his friends snapped and shot himself in the leg to get out of the war zone. Cave also recalled an instance where five American soldiers executed seven North Korean prisoners. The memories trouble him still. Out in the mountains and unaware of the men’s names or even rank, he could do little to bring them to justice.
“They must have been on dope or something because they said they were going to kill somebody. ‘We’re going to die. We don’t care. We’ve done made up our mind,’” Cave said. “They had seven men with them, North Koreans they’d captured. And they said, ‘Don’t you all look.’ But they went over there and they fired seven shots and all five of those people walked back.”
Cave, acknowledging the wrongdoing, wondered if he had been captured by the North Koreans would they have treated him the same.
On Sept. 20, 1951, Cave was close to finding out that answer. Only seven days before, the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge had started. French and American troops began running up the eight-mile ridge in an effort to capture the summit. The effort would prove fatal to many, especially in Cave’s 23rd Regiment. After 10 hours of marching, the men encountered unimaginable chaos.
“We’d advance and dig in, advance and dig in as we climbed up the mountain. The North Koreans were a small type individual and they had tunnels dug in at the top and they could just run across and everything,” he said. “When we got to the top, they just opened up on us.”
Although Cave didn’t see the gunner, a bullet from a North Korean 30-caliber machine gun struck the infantryman and shattered his right shoulder. The small bible he carried in his pocket had diverted some shrapnel as well. After his injury, fellow servicemen brought him partially down the steep mountain. Somehow, though, they left him alone. Almost 10 hours later, another platoon found the wounded Cave and carried him down the rest of the way to safety.
“You just didn’t know there at Heartbreak Ridge whether you were going to live or die,” he said. “That’s all you had were God and the ground over there. That’s all you had over there to protect you. And God did his job. He sure did the job.”
Even with arthritis now settling into the injured joint, Cave will tell you he was one of the lucky ones. Of the 12 members in his Army infantry platoon, only six men made it off the hill alive. Throughout the roughly one month battle, more than 3,700 American and French soldiers lost their lives on the hill. In all, 36,574 U.S. soldiers died during the three-year conflict.
Once wounded, Cave healed up in Japan at a military hospital. After returning home to Kentucky, he’d marry his sweetheart Betty the following year and they’d have four children. Cave also returned to his job at American Standard Company where he worked until his retirement in 1983.
Like so many American veterans, Cave waves off any notion that he’s a hero. But the Purple Heart he received for his actions suggests otherwise. So does his willingness to share his story and remind younger generations of the Forgotten War.
“People have forgotten the Korean War. We didn’t wear and tear and raise Cain when we came back. We did our job, came home, went back to work and lived with it,” he said. “I did my job and am proud of it, but I’m no hero.”