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Prescott veteran in D.C. with others to remember ‘Forgotten War’

60th anniversary of Korean armistice marked

WASHINGTON – Bill Cheek was 20 when he shipped out to Korea in 1950, with no clue that he would soon spend nights camped out in subfreezing temperatures or see one of his friend killed in the Korean War.

But Cheek, now 83, did know that he was going to live through the conflict – simply because he was determined to.

“It was my job to do,” the Prescott resident said Friday as he thought back on the war.

The retired Marine joined hundreds of other veterans at a Korean War Veterans Association convention in Washington last week, one of several events to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting.

They included remarks by the president and – the highlight for Cheek – the evening parade Thursday at the Marine Barracks, where the Silent Drill Team and the U.S. Marine Band performed.

President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on Saturday, the actual anniversary of the cease-fire, and commended Korean War veterans for their service in what is often called the “Forgotten War.”

“Listen closely and hear the story of a generation,” Obama said of those soldiers. “Veterans of World War II recalled to duty, husbands kissing their wives goodbye yet again, young men – some just boys, 18, 19, 20 years old – leaving behind everyone they loved to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”

One of those young men was Cheek, who headed to Korea in September 1950. He saw action shortly after landing and spent his 21st birthday that October in a boat heading to North Korea, he recalls.

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Cheek said war is “self-motivating” – the last thing you want is the enemy behind you with a gun.

That motivation, and an obligation to protect their buddies, is what led Cheek and a fellow soldier to take on enemy tanks that were approaching their company of around 200 men on Sept. 20, just five days after Cheek and his company arrived on the Korean peninsula.

The two headed out and watched as several tanks approached in the dark night. Cheek’s comrade, a gunner, hit the first two tanks before a third was abandoned. The mission was successful, but not without some loss, Cheek said. The gunner was killed when the enemy returned gunfire.

Cheek received a Bronze Star with a Combat V, for acts of heroism, for his participation in the mission. After a year in North Korea, he would have six battle stars, one for every engagement he was involved in.

After he returned home in 1951, Cheek became a Marine drill instructor at a base in San Diego, even though he was never a fan of his own drill instructor during his training years earlier.

“Little did I know that three-and-a-half years later I would be one of them,” he said, laughing.

Cheek left the service and attended the University of Oregon, and went on to get a law degree from the University of New Mexico, where he practiced law for several years.

After his time in New Mexico, he spent the next 20 years working for Alaska Airlines in Seattle. He finally ended up in Prescott, teaching aviation law, business law and airline economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Cheek said he retired three years ago, and he began serving at the Department of Arizona Marine Corps League and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Prescott.

He returned to Korea three years ago to mark the beginning of the war. He brought the commemoration full circle with last week’s visit to Washington.

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Most of his reflections last week about the war in Korea centered on the strategies used by top commanders that he said led to many victories. His personal stories are delivered sparingly. When Cheek does talk about the year he spent fighting in the Forgotten War, he speaks briefly and with humility.

“War is hell,” he said simply.

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Emilie Eaton/Cronkite News Service

Bill Cheek, who lives in Prescott, was just 20 years old when he first saw fighting in the Korean War. Now 83, Cheek was in Washington with veterans from around the country to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting in that war.

Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’

The Defense Casualty Analysis System said that 247 Arizonans were killed or presumed dead in the Korean War.

Total numbers of U.S. military who served, and the numbers who were killed, injured or went missing during the Korean War, according to DCAS:

  • 33,739 were killed or declared dead in battle
  • 2,835 deaths were listed as “non-hostile”
  • 103,284 were wounded
  • 7,983 were unaccounted for but declared or presumed dead
  • 1,789,000 served in the Korean theater
  • 5,720,000 served worldwide