By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
“It was a political war,” said Johnny Farr.
On the eve of a dedication of Dade’s portion of I-59 to Korean War veterans, the Sentinel was interviewing Farr, one of a handful of veterans of that war who belong to Trenton’s American Legion Post 106. What was striking from the first was how little he had to say about it.
Farr was comfortable enough discussing Korea in general terms. Not only was it a political war: “It was a bad war, there ain’t no doubt about that,” he said. “There was a lot of people killed in the Korean War, gobs of them. There ain’t no telling how many bodies are still over there in Korea.”
But as far as what it was all about, Farr was harder put to say. “Communists, I guess,” he said. “What did we accomplish in Korea? We didn’t win the war. I think it’s the same way in Vietnam.”
In fact, ambiguity seems to be the Korean War’s byword. It began in 1950 as a civil war between the two halves of a country that had been arbitrarily split in two five years earlier, at the end of World War II. Korea had been ruled by Japan since 1910, and when Japan was defeated in 1945, the victorious Allies – now allied no more – divvied Korea up at the 38th Parallel, U.S. forces occupying the south and Soviet the north. Up top, the USSR fostered a communist government, down below the USA pushed a capitalist system. The Cold War had begun.
It was a different kind of war to the bloody but more clearcut business of World War II. With both sides sponsored by larger countries hostile to, but not fully committed to warring with, each other, the conflict between the two Koreas was what historians call a “proxy war.”
And it was what many consider the first of the United States’ modern, limited-engagement-style wars which are fought not to victory but to stalemate, for purposes not always apparent either to the soldier on the ground or to the historian looking back over the span of decades.
In any case, Johnny Farr, 18 years old at the time, had no clear idea about global politics when, with two buddies, he joined a Naval Reserve unit in Rome in the early ‘50s. “My whole family was in the service on my daddy’s side – on my mama’s side, too,” he said.
For Farr and his friends, though, the Reserve was mostly about making a little extra money. It worked well enough for the two friends – one went on to the University of Georgia, the other to Auburn – but Farr was called up in 1953 and went into the U.S. Navy.
“I couldn’t complain,” he said. “It was my job to go. I was receiving money for it.”
Farr had friends who told him grisly tales of hand-to-hand combat in Korea, the kind of experience that drives soldiers berserk. But his own war was not that bad, he said.
For one thing, it was short. Though Congress later extended the end date of the war to 1955 for benefit purposes, the active part was over in July 1953. When Farr, after 14 weeks of boot camp in Maryland, was sent to join an outfit stationed in Japan, the unit had only three months left in its assignment.
And for another, Farr was never in ground combat – he was an aviation ordnance petty officer in charge of guns and bombs on a P2V airplane. “I was always flying,” he said. “We got shot at but we never did hit the ground.”
The P2V was a patrol bomber with two jets and two propellers, said Farr. “We called it two a’ turnin’ and two a’ burnin’,” he said. He flew up front with the skipper, and the only times he used his weapons were for test shots. “If a MiG started running on us, we’d try to get out over the water, because we didn’t have much of a chance,” he said. The enemy planes were too fast to fight, he explained.
The P2V’s job was to drop not bombs but flares, lighting up the battleground for the ground troops, said Farr. Commanders on the ground would radio their requests for the flares.
After that assignment ended, Farr’s outfit was deployed to Pearl Harbor, then got an assignment even further removed from Korea. “We wound up in Kodiak, Alaska,” said Farr. “The Russians had a big movement going on with submarines up there.”
The Russians, said Farr, shot down a U.S. plane in Alaska while he was there. There were no deaths but there were injuries, and a great deal of commotion. “I don’t know what that was all about but I know we had a bunch of congressmen and senators and all that up there when it took place,” said Farr.
The young soldier didn’t question the strategy that had sent him from tropics to Frozen North, to contain Communism or for whatever ends. Photographs from the time show him and his comrades clowning boyishly with their rifles in their World War II-era barracks. “We about froze to death,” he said.
After his discharge, Farr became a lineman, working at GE and eventually Georgia Power. But once again, he thought joining the Reserve would be an easy way to generate some moonlight income, and he joined a unit in Marietta. “Then this Vietnam mess broke out and the next thing I know I’m getting one of them brown envelopes and going back again,” said Farr.
He was deployed to Cuba during the buildup of hostilities, served without incident, and earned a second honorable discharge in 1966. Looking through the military papers in his scrapbook, Farr can brag, “I’ve got two of everything.”
Later, during the 1970s, Farr’s lineman work took him to Saudi Arabia, where he helped put in the first electric power infrastructure. During one stage of a series of jobs there, he was asked to work under a Korean contractor. “I thought, man, I fought against these people. How in the world am I going to go over there and work for them?” he said.
But he found the Koreans hard workers and loyal friends. “Of course, you can’t tell a North Korean from a South Korean no way,” he said. “But anyway, I had nobody treat me any nicer than them people. I learned to love these people.”
Now, almost 60 years later, Farr’s patriotism remains deep and simple – “The United States is the best country anywhere” – and he thinks military service is good for the young as well for their country. “When you go into the service, you learn how to be disciplined,” he said. “You learn how to be on your own and take orders.”
But his feelings about the Korean War are – well, ambiguous. “I don’t know whether we accomplished anything in Korea,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re accomplishing anything in Afghanistan.”
But that, he says, is not the soldier’s fault. “Korea was about like Vietnam. When we came back, people were kind of down on us,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m in the Legion now. When these kids come back from Iraq, we try to be there for them to welcome them home, because we didn’t get no welcome.”