Pastor won't forget time in The Forgotten War
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November 10, 2008 - 4:56PM
Keren Rivas / Times-News

Emmett O. Floyd knew he was going into a stress zone when he volunteered to be a U.S. Naval Reserve chaplain in the 1950s.

After all, one of his professors during seminary school had been a Navy chaplain in the Pacific region and had shared many of his experiences with him.

But what the instruction he received could not have prepared him for was the unexpected nature of life in a combat zone.

Then a lieutenant junior grade, Floyd was a Navy chaplain assigned to the 7th Marines, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division during the Korean War. He arrived at Kimpo Airfield in Korea in late March 1953, just months before the truce was signed, and remained there for about a year.

"The intensity of the experience was something I didn't anticipate," Floyd, 80, said thinking back to his days in the combat zone.

He never expected, for instance, a lunch outing to become a dangerous activity. That is exactly what happened one day when he and a couple of other men were going to eat and were suddenly attacked by Chinese mortar fire.

"We all hit the ground to protect ourselves," Floyd recalled. When he got up, one of the Marines in front of him had been hit in the neck by a small piece of shrapnel.

"It was a very tiny wound, but it had severed his jugular vein," Floyd said. "He bled to death before any of us could do anything."

Experiences like this one were not uncommon since Floyd was on the main line of resistance.

Though he was a noncombat officer, he remembers three big engagements at the Vegas and Reno outpost hills, north of Uijeongbu, that the Marines occupied and the Chinese attacked to try to take them.

"It was strange warfare, not too unlike First World War," he said. "It was a relatively stable situation where the UN forces held a line and the Chinese had a ridge line across from that.

"Most of the battles took place in the valley between the two ridge lines," he added.

The Marines were able to hold those lines, but not without losing many men, he said.

THOUGH ON A REGULAR basis Floyd's main duty was to counsel with the men, hold Protestant services and perform baptisms when necessary, his duties during attacks included praying with the men and sometimes saying the Act of Contrition with the Catholic men. He also would attend to the wounded at the battalion aid station.

"When we would get overwhelmed with wounded, I would sort of practice medicine without a license to do what I could to help, mainly giving morphine shots," he said.

He also collected the names and addresses of the wives, mothers and sweethearts of the wounded Marines. He then would write letters to them to assure them that their loved ones were OK, he said.

After any engagement, he also would write another type of letter to the relatives of the Marines who were killed.

"I would try to tell them as much as I could about the circumstances of the death of the Marine," he said. "Sometimes I would stretch the truth a little to say that they died quickly."

Frequently, he said, he would hear back from the relatives thanking him for the letters and also asking him for more details.

"It was a tough job that I really never got used to," he said of writing these letters, adding that sometimes it would be a Marine who he had gotten to know pretty personally.

Because of the his post's proximity to Panmunjom, where the truce talks took place, after armistice was declared Floyd and other Navy chaplains were assigned to Operation Big Switch, the exchange of prisoners.

Floyd happened to be there on duty the day Army Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, the highest-ranking officer captured during the conflict, was released.

"I remember watching his interview with the press and he made the statement, if he ever went into combat again he would carry suicide pills that he would never go through that experience again," he said.

While the Marines around him would unburden their hearts with Floyd, he would rely on his own prayer life for support.

"You ask God to give you the strength you need to help others," he said.

He said he also found encouragement in other chaplains.

He said that while he understands why the conflict is been called "The Forgotten War" by many due to the time in which it occurred, "Over 30,000 Americans lost their lives in the Korean War, so it was not an insignificant experience in American history."

He said that because it was a joined enterprise by the United Nations, there were several enriching experiences in the midst of it all.

"I really feel very privileged to try to do what I could as a chaplain for the Marines," he said.

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The Floyd file

Name: Emmett Owen Floyd

Born: March 21, 1928 (Griffin, Ga.)

Education: Bachelor's degree, Mercer University, Macon, Ga., 1948; Master of Divinity, Southern Seminary, Louisville, Ky., 1951; Master of Arts, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga., 1956; Doctorate in Sacred Theology, San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo, Calif., 1973.

Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve

Service in Korea: Navy chaplain assigned to the 7th Marines, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division. Arrived at Kimpo Airfield in late March 1953 and remained in Korea for a year.

Service anecdote: On his second day in Korea, Floyd was touring the various scattered units along the main line of resistance with a Marine gunnery sergeant. In an effort to be easily identified as a chaplain, Floyd had put white adhesive tape on his helmet in the shape of a cross.

As they moved from one place to another, they took a lot of sniper fire. After a while, they came to the conclusion that the markings on Floyd's helmet may have made the Chinese think that he was an important target. Needless to say, Floyd stopped using the tape and relied on the small black cross on his collar for identification from that point on.

Highest rank: Rear Admiral

Church service: Served parishes in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina; served as conference minister, for the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ in Atlanta, Ga., from July 1980 until 1991, when he retired. He currently attends Elon Community Church in Elon.

Family: He has been married to his wife, Katherine, for 60 years. The couple have five children and 10 grandchildren.

Thoughts on M*A*S*H*: "It's one of my favorite shows, of course," he said. "I watch the reruns too," though Floyd said the show exaggerates things a bit.