Korean War vet recalls injury, below-zero temperatures

Rio Rancho resident and Korean War veteran Chancen “Chance” Smith shoots pool, one of his frequent activities, at Meadowlark Senior Center recently. He received a Purple Heart in the war, serving in the Army.

The Korean War has often been termed the “forgotten war,” so it’s understandable that a local veteran could also have forgotten some of the things he did and saw while there almost 70 years ago.

About 66 or so years after he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea, Chancen “Chance” Smith says if he had the opportunity to do it all over again, there’s no way he would.

He earned a Purple Heart while there, and that tale in itself made for the start of an interesting interview recently at Meadowlark Senior Center, where Smith often goes to play pool and have lunch.

Growing up on “Island 18” and in New Madrid, Mo., on the Mississippi River, he said he was basically raised by his great-grandmother.

“It was quite exciting when I was a youngster,” he said.

“She was the midwife,” he said. “My mother had 25 kids.”

An older brother served in World War II and a younger brother served in Vietnam. He remembered receiving letters from that brother, and literally seeing blood on them.

Born April 1, 1934 — maybe we should get a hint of his authenticity from his birthday — Smith said he educated himself and decided to enlist in the U.S. Army at the age of 17.

“I can’t remember the year; I was living in St. Louis, and they signed the papers in Ft. Wayne,” he recalled. “I went to Ft. Bliss for basic training.”

When it came time to go overseas, he said, “I refused to fly,” and instead was transported by ship. On the ocean, “That boat (survived) tornados and whales as big as the boat itself.”

Eventually, he arrived in Japan, and while there saw what was left of Hiroshima, before being sent to Pusan, Korea.

“We were building Quonset huts, living in mud huts with snakes — it was terrible,” he recalled. “(Then) we went to North Korea, the coldest place in the world.”

How cold was it? An internet search pulls up 42 degrees below zero.

“The company next to us froze to death in their sleeping bags,” he said, thinking it may have been near the Yalu River. “I came in afterward; I helped put ’em in boxes and send ’em back to the U.S.”

“When ya gotta go, ya gotta go”

Smith said he was awarded the Purple Heart for an unusual “wound.”

One night when he was seated in an outhouse, a U.S. Army 18-ton tractor hit the structure. He survived and was knocked in the “Japanese Ocean.”

“I was a good swimmer,” he said, no doubt having to battle the current and being injured. “I swam to shore and hobbled around. … I knew where the company was. I was sent to a British hospital in North Korea and they wanted to give me a new knee.”

Smith said he’s had three operations — on his knee, back and butt — to cure those injuries from the tractor mishap. He uses an electric wheelchair to get around now, but has no problem moving into position around a pool table.

Following that stint in Korea, he fulfilled his three-year army obligation in Ft. Wayne, where he was with the Army Reserves, training soldiers.

Smith later traveled to Albuquerque, “a village then of 4,000 to 5,000 people,” he recalled.

Here’s where it gets even murkier: “I was charged with murder,” Smith said. “I saw it happen – I still got sent to jail. It was at Leonard Grossman’s restaurant – I was a chef and looking in the window and saw him stabbed. They arrested me.”

Smith said during his time, first in jail and then prison — “I was locked up for three or four years,” he says — he cut hair, including the warden’s.

While in New Mexico, he said, he learned the heating and air-conditioning trade at Parks College, was injured while falling from a ladder during an earthquake in Colorado and even spent time as a school teacher in Santa Fe.

He returned to Indiana, where he opened a restaurant — and later, expanded to a location in California — even manufacturing his own sauce that he sold throughout the Midwest.

To be sure, it’s been a colorful life Smith talks about, his mind wandering at times as he tried to recall events from as far back as 70 years.

Parting the 30-minute interview at MSC, the Observer was sure to thank him for his service … and his unique life story.