Korean War oral history interview
Date: July 31, 2001
Veteran: Dr. Richard Connors
US Army, 453rd Engineer Battalion, Construction
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Richard Connors was born in Newark, New Jersey in September, 1928, one of three children. He attended Seton Hall Preparatory school and was drafted into the army in February, 1946. He subsequently attended basic training, advanced combat engineer training, Noncommissioned Officer School, and Officer Candidate School (OCS), receiving a commission as a second lieutenant. Following his active duty service Connors returned to civilian life and worked a midnight to dawn shift at the Pabst Brewery on South Orange Avenue in Newark while attending college. In the summer of 1950 he traveled in Europe and, on his return, enrolled in Columbia University’s graduate school, majoring in social studies, with hopes of becoming a teacher.
In the fall of 1950 Lieutenant Connors was recalled to active duty. The army allowed him to finish the fall semester of graduate school at Columbia and then sent him to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he served as an instructor at the Engineer School from January through the summer of 1951, when he received assignment orders for Germany. Shortly afterwards, however, those orders were cancelled, and he was sent to South Korea instead.
Upon arrival in South Korea Connors was assigned to the 453rd Engineer Battalion, Construction, which was attached to the Eighth Army. He recalled that the 453rd was “…an equipment intensive unit with bulldozers, cranes, graders, dump trucks, etc.” and that “parts of the battalion were sent all over the peninsula as needed.” One of the battalion’s companies spent the entire war on Cheju-do, an island off South Korea’s south coast.
Connors’ unit was assigned to build a railroad bridge across the Han River, outside of Seoul, and was then sent further north to rebuild the railroad from Yonchon to Chorwon, just behind the front lines. His detachment of the 453rd was encamped next to a 155mm artillery unit. Connors made several trips across the mountains to the fighting front. On one occasion the visit proved tragic. He recalled that he “…brought a fellow with me to visit his brother, only to find that the young man had been killed the night before.” Connors said that he had recently seen the man’s name in computerized casualty records he reviewed at the Korean War memorial in Washington, DC.
Except for being strafed by a US Navy jet which mistook his unit for the enemy, and having some Chinese artillery shells fired at the 155 battery land “uncomfortably close” to his position, Connors’ unit fared well in its assignment near the front and suffered no casualties.
In December of 1951 the 453rd was shipped from Inchon by LST (Landing Ship, Tank) to Koje-do, an island south of Pusan which was the site of the major US/UN prisoner of war (POW) camp. When Lieutenant Connors came to Koje-do, the camp held an estimated 130,000 North Korean and Chinese POWs. He spent the next ten months on the island, and the 453rd constructed a dam for a reservoir, maintained roads and bridges and supplied water and electricity.
Koje-do was constantly in the news because of violence between groups of North Korean and Chinese prisoners. Some remained loyal to the Communists but others wanted to be repatriated to North Korea or China at the end of the war. In an attempt to embarrass American negotiators at the ongoing peace talks at Panmunjon, Chinese and North Korean agents fomented an uprising at Koje-do, which was eventually put down by US paratroopers.
Connors recalled that during his service on Koje-do, “The treatment and fate of the POWs was a major subject at the Peace Conferences at Panmunjon. Riots, demonstrations, the capture of the camp’s commanding general by the POWs, the repatriation of POWs who volunteered to join the ROK [Republic of Korea] army, the forceful dissolution of the large POW compounds, construction of dozens of smaller ones; all of these ensured that life was not too dull.”
While on Koje-do, Connors became battalion S-4 (supply officer) and was responsible for unloading and distributing shiploads of lumber, barbed wire, Quonset huts (corrugated sheet metal shelters built on a framework of semi-circular steel ribs) and other goods required for rebuilding the POW compounds. He remembered it as “a busy time.”
In the fall of 1952, the 453rd was transferred to the South Korean mainland, where it again engaged in general engineering work. In early December Connors returned home to South Orange, New Jersey where he appeared at his parents’ doorstep “in well worn fatigues, on the evening of December 23.”
Over the more than fifty years since he left Korea, Dr. Connors maintained contact with his houseboy, Pak In Hyo, and his interpreter, Kim Jae Yoon. Both men have visited Connors in New Jersey, but Connors has never returned to Korea.
A collection of Dr. Connors’ photographs from Korea is part of the NJNGMM archives collection.