According to his wife, Lucille, Al Duckworth survived the Korean War because of three miracles.
Last fall, another little miracle took Duckworth back to his war experiences: He received a Korean War Service Medal and a letter from Kim Dae-jung, president of South Korea.
He's not sure why he got the medal, but he's put it with his other Korean War memorabilia. Duckworth said he hasn't met anyone else who has received the medal.
"At the VA, none of the vets that I've talked to have got one," he said.
But they may be receiving one in the future.
Duckworth is one of about 115,000 veterans who have received the medal, but all 1.8 million American servicemen and women who served in the conflict are eligible.
The medal must be applied for through the Air Force, but Air Force officials said many veterans like Duckworth are receiving them by surprise because several veterans organizations have been applying for their eligible members.
The medals were first offered to Korean War veterans in 1951 as a token of appreciation from the Korean government, but U.S. military personnel were not allowed to receive them because of a law prohibiting American soldiers from wearing medals issued by foreign governments. In 1998, the South Korean government renewed its offer.
Though the letter to Duckworth was dated June 25, 2000 the 50th anniversary of the start of the war the package found Duckworth in October 2001 after being routed through various Air Force and Army bases.
Duckworth, 72, of rural Jefferson County, grew up in Texas and joined the Navy in 1946 at age 16 because he wanted to be like his two older brothers who were in the Army. His father signed papers saying his son was 17, the legal age to enlist. Because the Navy had a lot of recruits, he was transferred to the Army and then sent to Korea to help remove the Japanese army after World War II.
In 1947, Duckworth was sent to Panama, but soon after the Korean War broke out in 1950, he was transferred back to the Korean Peninsula.
Upon arrival in Korea, Duckworth was sent with 22 soldiers to join the 196th Field Artillery. Only two of those soldiers, including Duckworth, returned home.
"I lost a lot of good buddies over there," Duckworth said.
During the war, Duckworth received two Bronze Stars for participating in the battles of Bloody Ridge and Pork Chop Hill. He was also to receive a Purple Heart for a shrapnel injury, he said, but the Army lost his medical records.
He still has two pieces of shrapnel in his body from an artillery shell that hit nearby and threw him to the ground.
About those miracles
Surviving the shrapnel isn't even counted in the family lore as one of Duckworth's "miracles" in the Korean War, events that his wife, children and grandchildren all easily recount.
The first was when he was bumped off a flight to Japan by a superior officer. Duckworth had been headed out on leave. The plane went down in the ocean, killing all aboard.
A second miracle also involved a flight to Japan. Duckworth was on an airplane that took off from Seoul, South Korea, in frigid winter conditions. At 3,000 feet, the plane's wings were covered in ice, and the weight drove the plane down. But as the plane dropped, it hit a warm current of air that melted the ice.
"We were almost into the water when the ice started breaking up," Duckworth said. "It looked like you could reach out and touch the water."
The third miracle, as the family tells it, happened when Duckworth's crew of artillery men began setting up their 13-ton, 155 mm artillery gun. Just as they were about to load the gun with a 95-pound shell and fire it, a crew of minesweepers ran up and said they hadn't inspected the site yet. Underneath the gun, they found an anti-tank mine, which would have exploded from the impact of firing.
"I think God was watching over him," 70-year-old Lucille Duckworth said.
After the war, Duckworth, by then a tech sergeant in the Army, moved to California where he married Lucille, who is from McLouth. He worked construction in California until 1973, when they moved to Jefferson County. He opened Al's 4x4 Salvage, and though he's now retired, he still goes with his son Wayne to bid on cars, trucks and antique tractors, which he collects.
The last thing on his mind is the Korean War.
"I never dreamed they were going to send me anything after 50 years," he said. "What a big surprise."
Veterans who think they are eligible for the medal can apply by contacting the Awards and Decoration Section of the U.S. Air Force at 210-565-2432 or by the Internet at www.afpc.randolph.af.mil/awards/