Carl McVicker was on a hill somewhere above the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, working his .30-caliber machine gun against the forces of communism, when the first Chinese mortar came in.
It landed too far in front of him.
A second one landed too far behind him.
But now they had him — this teenage kid from Ohio who’d lied about his age to get into the Army — and they had him dead on.
“They know you are in the middle,” McVicker recalled. “There’s nowhere to run, no place to go. You’ve got to stay there.
“All you could do,” he added, “was lay there and pray to God.”
McVicker is now 81, and the first thing you notice about the Springfield resident is how firm his handshake is — especially for a man missing two fingers.
Shrapnel from that third mortar cost McVicker fingers on his right hand, and he also carries deep scarring on his torso from the bullet that tried to finish him off as he crawled away, but his prayers were apparently answered that night in 1951 atop a hill during the Korean War.
“I made a lot of money off of that hand,” he said.
As a matter of fact, the right-handed McVicker went on to build and renovate hundreds of houses in central Ohio years after the war as a contractor, boasting that he could drive a 16-penny spike with two hits.
“That was a long time ago,” his wife, 80-year-old Violet, tried clarifying recently.
“I bet I could still do it,” McVicker replied. “You give me my old 22-ounce hammer and we’ll see.”
It’s now been 60 years since McVicker’s war ended with the signing of an armistice that still barely keeps the Koreas — the communist North and the democratic South — from going at it.
It’s been called the “forgotten war,” even though it claimed 36,574 American lives, and McVicker agrees.
Sitting opposite from each other in their living room, Violet looked to her husband of 37 years.
“You sure won’t forget it, will you?” she asked.
Even worse, Carl McVicker for decades felt like a forgotten part of a forgotten war, until a local nephew, Bob Bivens, helped get his uncle the Bronze Star that eluded him.
“I felt like I was pushed back in the corner and forgotten about,” McVicker said.
Part of the problem is that his decorations have been slow to trickle in, if at all.
He received one Purple Heart while still in uniform. Then, 36 years later, the second one unexpectedly arrived in the mail with a note that essentially said, “Oops, we forgot.”
McVicker hasn’t forgotten the feeling of hot shrapnel peppering the back of his neck.
The Bronze Star arrived in 2007 after Bivens, who works in maintenance at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, brought it to a colonel’s attention.
The shadowbox Bivens built that’s now hanging on the McVickers’ wall looks complete, but Bivens has said he’ll have to construct a new one if the Silver Star ever arrives.
McVicker was a 17-year-old from Guernsey County when he enlisted in the Army, telling them he was 18.
“I figured it was my duty,” he said.
He celebrated Christmas 1950 with a bologna sandwich and a boiled egg aboard an airplane to Korea, and when his boots hit the ground at Busan, he clearly knew his objective.
“We were fighting communists,” he said.
But when the bullets started flying, “I realized then what I’d got myself into,” McVicker recalled.
McVicker has held onto mementos of his own all these years, like a tobacco pouch with a bullet hole in it.
A sniper took a shot at him one night, but McVicker unknowingly bent down at the right time — the bullet went right through the pocket of his field jacket, piercing the pouch that held his pipe tobacco.
He didn’t even hear the shot.
“They were slick, buddy,” McVicker said.
And if the snipers weren’t bad enough, they had to endure the cold. Temperatures hit 50-below zero.
“And you slept in it,” he said.
Still, McVicker said he’d take a Korean winter over an Ohio winter because winters here produce a “wet” cold. But it’s doubtful anyone would want to see for themselves.
“That cold over there will creep up on you,” he explained. “That’s what happened with my feet. When I pulled off my socks, the ends of my toes came off
They were ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and once a month, Springfield News-Sun military reporter Andrew McGinn sits down with a local veteran to explore their story.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured — all eras of military service are welcome — email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 937-328-0352.