Wilbur Bryant can’t help but wonder if his medals for bravery were actually earned for being married 62 years and counting.
He’s joking, of course. A man doesn’t forget the circumstances in which he was awarded the Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts — all in the course of 14 days.
“You wouldn’t believe all the stuff I went through,” the 84-year-old Korean War veteran explained recently.
But for Wilbur and Ermal Bryant, who left Springfield 45 years ago to raise a family in the Clark County countryside, their marriage was tested by the war in Korea.
On June 30, they’ll celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary.
Five days before they exchanged vows in 1950, North Korean communists had streamed across the 38th parallel in a surprise invasion of South Korea.
The war was on.
It was even more of a surprise when a draft notice arrived for newlywed Wilbur Bryant the week before Christmas, 1950.
The couple had been married barely six months. It was their first Christmas together.
“He kept that hid from me until the day after Christmas,” Ermal Bryant, now 82, recalled. “He said he didn’t want to ruin my Christmas.”
He was working a good job — the job he’d eventually retire from — stamping out truck doors and hoods at the local International Harvester plant. She was a clerk at Olan Mills.
“We were so young and so in love,” Ermal Bryant said, “and, doggone, he was jerked away. It was horrible.”
Assigned to the Army’s First Cavalry Division with an M1 rifle, Wilbur Bryant arrived in Korea in the summer of 1951 and was given a machine gun.
“It was hot when I got there,” he said.
Come winter, though, it was a different story. One day, it was 14-below zero. “And that was warm that day,” he remarked.
What Wilbur Bryant did during his time in Korea is a textbook example of someone making the most of a bad situation.
He was scared, yes, “but more mad that I was there,” he said.
It would then appear that he had no other option than to take it out on the opposing Chinese, who had intervened in the fall of 1950 on North Korea’s behalf.
On Oct. 11, 1951, while attacking a hill near Mago-ri in North Korea, Pfc. Wilbur Bryant assumed command of his squad and led them on an assault after their squad leader was wounded. Despite being wounded himself by shrapnel from a grenade, Bryant then refused treatment in order to help evacuate injured men.
He would be awarded a Bronze Star for heroism, and, for his wounds, a Purple Heart.
Just two weeks later, near a place called Chong-dong, the local private first class exposed himself to enemy rounds in order to provide covering fire for his fellow soldiers. Out of ammo and once again banged up by an enemy grenade, Bryant then made a grenade attack on several enemy bunkers.
That act of gallantry resulted in Bryant receiving the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest combat decoration. He would receive a second Purple Heart as well.
What he really treasured were the daily letters from his new wife, Ermal — letters that eventually were destroyed so that no other person could ever lay eyes on them.
“That’s what you lived for,” he said. “That’s all you had to look forward to.”
He couldn’t wait to get home. So much so, in fact, that during a hospital stay to treat his wounds, he was given a choice — either he could accompany the First Cav to the safety of Japan, but have to stay overseas longer, or go back on the line and go home sooner.
Out of love, he chose combat, partly with an Oklahoma National Guard unit.
“That’s the reason we kept them love letters flying,” Ermal Bryant said.
In reality, the First Cav actually went home first. But, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Korea, as Wilbur Bryant describes it, was a hellish place by 1951. Nothing but mud and tree limbs.
“As far as you could see,” he said, “it was just blowed up.”
Not unlike a gory, grown-up version of the childhood game King of the Hill, they’d knock Chinese forces off a hill, then the Chinese would return and take it back.
“We took the same hill half a dozen times,” he said.
“That’s the reason you couldn’t understand the war,” Ermal Bryant added.
“I knew I wasn’t fighting for nothing,” Wilbur Bryant said, “but I don’t know how to explain it.”
By the time the conflict ended in stalemate on July 27, 1953, the total American death toll stood at 36,574. The peninsula technically remains in a state of war.
Now referred to as the “forgotten war,” it wasn’t even on the minds of people at the time, according to Ermal Bryant, who consumed every scrap of news she could get.
“People didn’t realize a war was going on,” she said, “and that was heartbreaking.”
When they weren’t taking hills, Wilbur Bryant and his fellow soldiers hunkered down in foxholes.
“You didn’t hardly talk to the guy in the next hole,” said Wilbur Bryant, whose father had served in World War I, but never spoke about it. “You didn’t stick your head up, either.”
“I don’t know how I stood it,” he added. “I was probably in a hole 10 months out of the year.”
He and Ermal went on to have two children, who in turn gave them four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“We have truly been blessed,” Ermal Bryant said. “Two of the best years of our lives were taken away, but we survived it.”
Still, nothing riles up the 82-year-old Mrs. Bryant quite like seeing North Korea make threats all over again.
“I see that guy from North Korea on TV,” she said, “I’d just like to smack his face real good.”
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