LEGACIES OF THE KOREAN WAR: Walter ‘Bud’ Mendenhall
“We were scared all of the time,” said Walter ‘Bud’ Mendenhall of Fort Wayne. During the Korean War, Mendenhall served as a gunner with the U.S. Navy, assigned to a destroyer minesweeper called the USS Carmick (DMS 33). “Many of our ships were hit by the enemy. We prayed a lot.”
Mendenhall was born in 1934 in Chicago. Upon moving to Fort Wayne with his family, Mendenhall attended Elmhurst High School. However, world events would interrupt his education.
In June 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea. Two years later, halfway through his senior year, Mendenhall told his parents he wanted to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
Mendenhall’s parents allowed him to quit school and as he was not yet 18 years of age, they signed papers for him to join the military. Mendenhall later earned his GED. Two brothers also served in the Navy – one as a corpsman in Hawaii and another assigned to a carrier.
Mendenhall was one of a group of 10 local male teens who traveled to Indianapolis to be sworn into the Navy. “We were excited to see the world,” he said.
While half of the group was sent to the marines, the other half went to Great Lakes Naval Training Center for basic training. Mendenhall was in the latter group. After boot camp, he was trained as a gunner mate and shipped from San Diego to Korea aboard the Carmick.
The purpose of a minesweeper was to clear waterways around coasts and harbors for safe patrols by American vessels. As the Carmick patrolled around Wonsan, a port city and naval base located in North Korea, the crew was on alert. “There were a lot of mines there,” said Mendenhall. The largest mines could be seen out of the water, but others hid, ready to detonate unsuspecting visitors.
Being close to the enemy posed constant danger. “We knew we would get fired on, so our captain zigzagged through the water to protect us,” he said. The Carmick could travel 35 knots or approximately 41 miles per hour. Still, the Carmick’s crew of 200 were often were called to general quarters to man five-inch, 44-millimeter, and 20-mm guns.
One night while on patrol, the Carmick became stuck in a mine field when the tide went out. “We couldn’t get out until the next morning when the tide came in,” he said. All night Mendenhall sat on his 40-mm gun. “I thought for sure the enemy would spot us, but they didn’t. God was with us.”
Another time his crew spotted and pinned a Russian sub. “We knew the crew was laying mines but we couldn’t do anything because we were not at war with Russia,” he said. “We let it go but followed the sub back to its base.”
Another task of the Carmick was to protect smaller minesweepers. “We put up smoke screens to help them escape,” he said.
The Carmick shared patrols with another sub. But when the other minesweeper was hit and needed repairs, the Carmick maintained sole vigil for 18 months. “I got no breaks, but there was nowhere to go for fun anyway,” said Mendenhall. Although the Carmick was often in treacherous waters, it was never hit.
The Korean War ended in 1953. A year later, Mendenhall was transferred to the Philippines where he was assigned shore duty until 1956 when he was discharged.
Back in Fort Wayne, Mendenhall worked at General Electric, Lutheran Hospital and other jobs before retiring at age 81. He recently helped establish Franklin Park and is a member of Korean War Veterans Chapter One. He and other Korean War veterans have presented programs about their military service to schools in the Fort Wayne area.
He and his wife Jean became parents to three children. Mendenhall has participated in Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana.
“I’d do my service all over again,” he said. “If the U.S. had not stopped North Korea and China from taking over South Korea, they would have taken Japan and then maybe the U.S.”
Kayleen Reusser is an author who just finished the book “They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans”