During his two-year tour on the battlefields and frontlines of the Korean War, Zionsville native Bill Shoemaker witnessed many of the horrors, fears and uncertainties experienced by ordinary men and women in war settings. “You saw some devastating situations,” recalled the 87-year-old Shoemaker during an interview at the Zionsville American Legion Post 79. “Some things that you don’t want to remember.”
Ironically, Shoemaker survived one of the scariest moments of his life in the early morning hours three years ago in his rural Boone County home. While he and his wife were sleeping at 3 a.m., a speeding car slammed into the home’s bedroom pinning a wall against JoAnne Shoemaker and sending a stunned Shoemaker to the hospital with a broken arm in two places. “That was another chapter in my life,” said Shoemaker. “I suffered more injuries that night than I did in Korea.”
The memories of the war are still firmly etched into the thoughts of Shoemaker and the other six million U.S. troops that served in Korea during the three-year conflict between North Korea, China and the Soviet Union against South Korea and the United States. The Korean War exploded in 1950 when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel and attacked South Korea. For Americans, it was a weary return to the battlefield after the recent conclusion of World War II. “Korea was kind of mingled in there,” said Shoemaker. “It was an after-thought to World War II. There were people who thought we shouldn’t be in Korea.”
The United States and allies were in Korea for three years. The 60th Anniversary – July 27, 1953 – of the end of the Korean chapter is approaching. However, the potential of future squabbles between the two Korean countries is still present in 2013. The sparring with North Korea recently resurfaced when Kim Jong Um, the third generation of the dictatorship family of North Korea, threatened atomic bomb strikes on South Korea and the United States.
For Shoemaker, it was a weary rerun of the rants from the North Korean leadership and government. “This is what happens when dictators feel they have to elevate and prove themselves to their people,” Shoemaker said. “He has enough power and he wants to wield his power any way he can. You don’t know what can trigger someone like him.
“War can be a necessary evil, but we can’t always solve these situations with war. We have to coordinate the situation with the right people and avoid military conflict. There are so many chances something bad can happen if you have conflict.”
Shoemaker knows first-hand about the pains of war. After graduating from Zionsville High School in 1943, Shoemaker worked the family farm before enrolling at Purdue. He graduated with an agriculture education degree in 1950. After serving in the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program at Purdue, Shoemaker was ticketed for the U.S. Army and, eventually, to Korea as a first lieutenant. “I got into ROTC because of my brothers,” said Shoemaker, whose father fought in World War I in France, and whose brother, Jim, served under General George Patton in the European Stage in World War II. “They advised me to get into it.”
Before he headed to Korea, Shoemaker and his Boilermaker girlfriend, JoAnne, decided to get married in her hometown, Cleveland. “I didn’t know if I would make it back,” Shoemaker said. “So we decided to get married.”
Indeed, not all Americans returned from the war. More than 33,000 died in military conflict; another 3,000 died from non-battle wounds; and more than 8,000 were reported as MIA (missing in action). “My biggest fear was being captured,” Shoemaker said. “I didn’t think I could survive being captured. I didn’t want to be a hero. I just wanted to get back to Boone County.”
A safe return to Indiana was in the balance during his stay in Korean. As a member of the Second Division for the 37th Field Artillery, Shoemaker was assigned to be a frontline observer. He and two other observers would travel ahead of their troops, scoping and following the advancing positions of the North Koreans. That information would be conveyed to the allied forces who would launch artillery shell attacks on the enemy. The outposts could be up to five miles in front of the friendly troops and the radio signals could be jammed by the opposing forces.
The observers were also targeted by the North Koreans. Thus, there were numerous anxious moments during these forays for Shoemaker and his mates who huddled behind sand bags, slept in sleeping bags and were often too close to the soldiers from the opposing side. One particular situation is still locked into Shoemaker’s recollection of the war. “There were three of us, and before we went to our three different positions, we flipped a coin to see who would be in the middle,” he recalled. “The other two would be on the flanks.” Shoemaker and still-friend, Keith Probst, were assigned the flanks. The soldier in the middle position was soon killed by incoming fire. “I still can’t say his name,” Shoemaker said of his fallen comrade. “It is still hard to think about him.”
Does Shoemaker have other recurring memories of the war? “For a long time I didn’t like to hear screaming,” he said. “It would drive me crazy. I had some bad dreams for a while. My worst nightmare would be about me being captured. It would be bad. My wife would wake up and ask me what happened.”
Eventually, the Korean War reached an uneasy conclusion. The 38th Parallel returned as the official dividing line between South and North Korea. For Shoemaker, the end of the war meant returning to Boone County and pursuing a professional career and family life. He won in both arenas. He and JoAnne welcomed two sets of twins within 16 months of each other, and Shoemaker turned his career from farming to banking. He worked for 25 years at the Boone County Bank and for 10 years at Farmers Bank in Frankfort.
Despite the urgings of former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh to enter politics, Shoemaker chose to remain on the political sidelines. But, there are three other loves that have surfaced for the Korean War veteran. The Shoemakers, married for 62 years, have been elected to the Boone County 4-H Hall of Fame for their service to 4-H; Shoemaker constructed a nine-hole golf course (Hickory Bend) on his farm; and he is a frequent visitor to the American Legion Post in Zionsville where he huddles with friends and other veterans.
Someday, Shoemaker wants to write a book about his life in the military, farming and banking. He has the title: One Lucky Guy. And he has the true stories that impacted that one lucky guy.