Army Staff Sgt. Mel Lisher was in uniform when he stepped off a Greyhound bus in downtown Lawrence, slid into a taxi and gave the driver his parents’ address.
“I told him I’d been in Korea,” Lisher said, to which the cabbie replied, “What’s going on over there?”
That was 1953. What’s been called the “Forgotten War” had been raging for three years, and Lisher had been on the ground fighting in it for one.
The cab driver took him home for free.
This summer, Lisher, 79, and fellow Lawrence Korean War veteran Leo Langlois, 83, met more fanfare when the Honor Flight Network took them on a trip to Washington, D.C. The nonprofit organization raises money and organizes trips for veterans to see the national war memorials.
The Honor Flight Kansas Student Edition — a hub of the organization inaugurated by Lyndon High School — was short on area World War II veterans to fill its June trip and opened it to Korean War vets, Lisher said.
Each of the nearly 30 veterans had his own high school student guardian on the trip, Lisher and Langlois said. A group of active military members applauded them when they got off the plane. Strangers and students visiting the monuments shook their hands and thanked them for their service. The Patriot Guard Riders’ motorcycles rumbled to greet them when they arrived home.
“The respect shown to veterans and the patriotism every place you went ... really got me,” Lisher said.
Soldiers’ homecomings from the Korean War weren’t met with complete indifference, Langlois said. But he certainly doesn’t remember any parades.
“It wasn’t Vietnam, that’s for sure. And it wasn’t World War II,” Langlois said. “It was kind of ho-hum, another war.”
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 33,600 service members died in battle in Korea. Regardless of the public’s interest in the war, veterans such as Lisher and Langlois did their jobs there, as they put it, and it was dangerous work.
‘Little white fib’
Medals, patches and a folded flag fill a shadowbox in Lisher’s home. In the center is a portrait of a decidedly baby-faced soldier who couldn’t have been but 18.
“I was 16,” Lisher said, explaining he convinced his mother to sign for him to join the Army instead of going on to his junior year of high school. “You call it a little white fib.”
Lisher said he was getting wild, getting in trouble and knew he was “on the wrong trail.” He saw enlisting in the Army as a way to get straight. The Korean War had already begun, but Lisher said the possibility of going there and getting killed didn’t cross his mind.
“I just figured wherever I went, I went,” he said.
Within days, Lisher left Lawrence for basic training. By September 1951, he was on the ground fighting the Chinese in Korea.
Lisher was trained as a tank operator, but there was a big problem — a single main road flanked by rice paddies and other impassable terrain made tanks ineffective, so he was assigned to infantry instead.
For months, Lisher’s company pushed enemy forces northward through sub-freezing mountainous terrain. He said soldiers wore their sleeping bags while standing guard overnight and had only trenches for cover — no campfires allowed.
“You had no place to get warm,” he said. “It was tough duty, but you knew there was guys had it a lot tougher than we did.”
By the time it was pulled out of Korea, Lisher’s 140-man company had only about 50 soldiers left. He said the whole division had similar casualties.
After 11 months stationed in Japan, Lisher went back to Korea for another six months — this time in a tank. With terrain frozen, tanks could venture off the main road, but the going was still treacherous. Think iced-over hairpin curves on the side of a mountain, Lisher said, “just like being in a sled.”
When he became a tank commander, Lisher was 18.
Lisher left Korea in May 1953. Back home in Lawrence, he asked out a girl he remembered meeting before the war and married her on Valentine’s Day 1954. Lisher later started Mel Lisher Electric, which his son now owns. He and his “Valentine,” Becky, are still married.
‘Periods of stark terror’
A 20-year-old Langlois was working at a supermarket in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., when he got wind from a friend who knew someone on the draft board that his number was coming up.
Langlois chose to beat the draft and enlist in the Air Force, figuring, “I’d rather four years in the air than two in the foxhole.”
Langlois’ mother was upset — his older brother, an Air Force member, had been killed in a training exercise during World War II — but supported his decision anyway, he said. Langlois started training in 1951 and learned to man the guns on a B-29 bomber before shipping out.
He described his time fighting the Korean War this way: “Long periods of boredom interspersed by short periods of stark terror.”
Based in Okinawa, Langlois and his crew flew bombing missions over Korea, targeting enemy encampments, bridges, roads and rail yards. He said their goal was to slow down or eliminate the enemy’s ability to fight.
The United States controlled the skies, Langlois said, but the enemy had spotlights and guns powerful enough to take down planes flying at 20,000 feet or more.
“They could pick us out, and pick us off,” Langlois said. “Every time you go up, you think, ‘Is this going to be it?’ You start counting the missions and say, ‘My luck’s going to run out.’”
He was glad when his tour was up.
“When somebody comes up and says, ‘Langlois, you’re going home,’ I didn’t ask questions,” he said.
After serving out his four years in the Air Force, Langlois, like Lisher, started a new life.
Langlois graduated from Washburn University. He and his wife, Mona, settled in Lawrence when he took a job as associate comptroller in the business office at Kansas University, where he retired.
The war he served in may be dubbed by some as “forgotten” or “unknown,” and Langlois said that’s OK.
“It was a job,” he said, “and we did it.”