By SHERRY VAN ARSDALL
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — When Phil Whitehead enlisted in September 1951, he was told by the U.S. Army recruiter that he’d never be sent to Korea.
He was 17 at the time.
“After basic training, I was in Korea and driving a tank on my 18th birthday,” said Whitehead, a Goshen native. “I was in Korea from May 1952 to June 1953.”
His mother had to sign for him to be able to enlist with his group of friends, all from Goshen. He was the youngest.
“I felt obligated to do something and my friends had wanted me to join,” Whitehead said. “All five us enlisted together and then they separated us after that.”
Whitehead said he didn’t have a choice in his military training after boot camp.
“They needed people in the area to drive a tank. They pulled a name out of a hat and put us there,” said Whitehead, a member of the 245th Tank Battalion — 45th Infantry Division.
He shared his military experience in four sentences.
“I liked driving the tank,” he explained. “I just drove it. I didn’t have a choice. I was told what to do and I just done it.”
There are stories and experiences that Whitehead encountered in battles like Old Baldy and Heartbreak Ridge, but they remain untold except when he gets together with fellow comrades during a reunion held each year. He says most of what they talk about wouldn’t be good for print. He became aware of the reunions about five or six years ago and has attended each year since then.
“And there’s not many of us left, I’m sorry to say,” he said.
The veteran did share his impressions of the South Koreans.
“The people were poor and destitute in that time,” Whitehead said. “They would beg for candy or anything to eat.”
After his tour in Korea, Whitehead was stationed at Camp Roberts in California as an instructor for four months. He was also stationed in Seattle, Wash., and tested tanks in the Mojave Desert for the rest of his time in the service.
“I thought it would be nice and warm testing tanks in the desert,” he said. “It was cold, not warm at all.”
He was discharged in 1954.
“Back then, if you enlisted, it was for three years and if you were drafted, it was for two years,” he added.
And because he joined the Army at 17, Whitehead never graduated from high school.
It took him 60 years to receive his diploma.
His son, David Whitehead, found out about a program through the Indiana Department of Veterans’ Affairs for issuance of an high school diploma for World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans.
“I got to graduate last year,” Whitehead said, smiling.
Korea has been known and referred to as “The Forgotten War” and Whitehead was asked if he felt that way.
“Yes, I do feel I was forgotten as a vet,” he said, “but nobody speaks about it, amongst us anyway.”
As a member of VFW Post 985 Honor Guard, Whitehead helps honor veterans who have passed away by playing echo taps at graveside services in and around Elkhart County.