The bloody battlefields of the Korean War are something Army veteran Paul Laos has tried a lifetime to forget.
Retired surgeon Dr. Ross Magee understands why Laos doesn’t want to remember “The Forgotten War.” The 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the war’s fighting was July 27.
While Magee cared for wounded soldiers in a field hospital, he worried about the “troops who put up with below-freezing weather, frostbite, and were being shot at and bombed.”
This Veterans Day — as in past patriotic remembrances — decorated veterans Laos, 82, and Magee, 90, will pay their respects to all those who served in the armed forces. This includes Tucsonan Pfc. Richard Barcelo, who by chance also was involved in a fierce battle in 1952.
The incident involving the three young men from Tucson was recounted in local newspaper articles at the time.
King’s Outpost assault
Laos plans to mark the day at his home with his wife, Bonnie, and two of their four sons.
Magee, who is commander of the Edward Rhoads Chapter of Korean War Veterans and a member of the National Korean War Veterans Association, will participate for the first time in today’s Tucson parade. He and his wife, Gail, will ride in a convertible with other veterans, making their six children proud.
As they remembered the war, both Laos and Magee talked about Barcelo, who was Laos’ cousin.
At the time, Staff Sgt. Laos was a platoon leader in Charlie Company of the 7th Infantry Division’s 31st regimental combat team.
It was Laos’ outfit that led the assault to retake King’s Outpost. The troops spent months in battles to take back strategic Korean areas controlled by the communists. The battles were known as Old Baldy, Jane Russell and Triangle Hill.
Laos also fought battles with his outfit, known as the Polar Bear regiment, in an area known as Iron Triangle, including T-Bone and Pork Chop hills.
The troops endured severe bombardment from Chinese heavy-caliber howitzers and hand-to-hand combat.
In the battle on Triangle Hill, Barcelo’s left side was riddled by artillery fire and he fell helpless in mud on a hillside. Laos, who knew his cousin was serving in the area, came upon the wounded Barcelo, picked him up and carried him safely to a stretcher.
Barcelo was taken by train to the 121st Evacuation Hospital near Seoul, where he regained consciousness. It was Magee, also from Tucson, who tended to his battle wounds.
“We got to talking, and he was from Tucson,” recalled Magee, then a first lieutenant. “That’s why I remember him.”
He recalled the shrapnel wounds on Barcelo’s thigh and leg, and injuries to his foot. Barcelo ended up in a Tokyo hospital. He lost two toes and underwent three operations to remove shrapnel, according to a newspaper clipping.
“We worked in primitive circumstances compared to today’s standards,” said Magee, who served in Korea for 18 months. “We had an operating table with an overhead light, and an X-ray machine. We had an adequate drug supply and an adequate blood supply.”
Magee said there were two teams of surgeons and nurses who worked 12-hour shifts. “We received a lot of casualties, a lot of young men,” recalled Magee, who was 29 at the time. “We were supplied by two MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units, and we worked to save lives.”
“All the experiences that I had made me a better surgeon,” said Magee, who specialized in vascular surgery. After he was discharged from the Army, Magee returned to Tucson and was chief of surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital before opening a private practice.
He also became a member of the first heart team at St. Mary’s Hospital in the early 1970s. He retired in 1980.
For Laos, the end of the Korean War also brought him back to Tucson, where in his early 20s he re-enrolled in political science classes at the University of Arizona.
He went to work for the state Democratic Party in Phoenix before returning in the 1960s. He was hired as town manager for South Tucson and in the 1970s moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as president of Rural Development Corp., a nonprofit that built low-income housing.
Laos eventually went into private business as a contractor in Los Angeles, and retired in 2004, moving back to Tucson.
Laos and Magee have never met.
About 10 years ago, Laos went to a reunion of the Polar Bears in Laughlin, Nev. “About a thousand showed up. I met up with a lot of the fellows who I served with, and I still receive Christmas cards from several of them,” Laos said.
Laos plans to remember their lives today, along with that of Barcelo, who after the war worked in international trade on Wall Street. Barcelo retired and moved from New York to Tucson with his family in 1984. He died in 2005.