WATERLOO — Dwight Clark had a surprise for Gene Holmes under an olive-drab blanket.
It was something he hadn’t seen since he lugged one around in Korea in 1951. It was a flamethrower.
“Remember how much it weighed loaded?” Clark asked Holmes.
“Seventy-two pounds,” Holmes said, without hesitation.
“Oh boy. I hadn’t seen one of those on a long time,” Holmes said later.
Holmes served in a Marine unit in Korea. Clark served in the Marines in Vietnam. Both are part of the planning for a Korean War exhibit at the Grout Museum scheduled to open in July on the 64th anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 war — where forces on both sides are lined up across the 38th parallel from each other to this day.
The exhibit will occupy much of the same space as a recent Vietnam exhibit.
Major elements of the exhibit are still being formulated, but it will include a “Faces of the Fallen” display with names and photos of Iowans killed in the war.
Clark trades and accumulates war equipment memorabilia and is helping the Grout accumulate items for the Korean War exhibit, as he did for a year-long Vietnam War exhibit, which ran through last July.
Among the items Clark has available for display, in addition to the flame thrower, are a mortar, a light machine gun and and an M-1 military rifle.
But the exhibit will be about more than weaponry. It’ll be about the people, specifically Iowans, who served in what is still known today as “The Forgotten War.”
“That’s kind of our focus — the troops’ story, particularly Iowa troops,” said Erin Dawson, Grout exhibits curator.”We are trying to pick out individuals.”
“We really, really want to place a larger emphasis on individuals, on Iowa veterans’ stories to tell the story,” said Chris Shackelford, historic content and program developer for the Grout district.
The museum district will rely on the veterans on its planning committee, video-recorded oral histories of veterans and their photo albums, diaries and artifacts they bring in from their service to be displayed.
There are historical and news service photos available, Shackelford said, However, “There’s something about seeing a photograph an Iowan took, seeing it literally through their eyes, this photograph that is passed on. It’s amazing how many of them have it. In the 1950s cameras were a lot more available to the general public.”
“A lot of these pictures, composition-wise, are amazing,” Dawson said. “It’s really nice, to hear at least from the vets on the committee, their experiences during the war. What the temperature was like, whether it was hot or cold. What the rice paddies smelled like. Everything.”
“I was there during the winter, during the monsoon, and during summer,”Holmes said. “The winters — they talk about the Chosin guys. Boy, those guys were something else.” He recalls, in winter, eating fried eggs that were frozen to his mess kit by the time he finished them.
“It’s a much more human experience than reading it out of a textbook,” Shackelford said.
Gene Holmes said he became involved because he served with the father of retired Grout exhibits curator Robin Venter. Holmes was in the Reserves when the war started.
“I got called back in by Uncle Harry — (President) Truman,” he joked. “I was one of the replacements for the boys who were at the Chosin,” relieving Marines encircled at the Chosin Reservoir, who fought their way through Chinese Communist forces in bitter winter conditions to the port of Hungnam and safety. Many local Marines served in that campaign. He’d been married four months when called up for Korea.
Holmes, a retired John Deere worker, had previously contributed items to the permanent Korean War section of the Grout’s Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum.
“It’s been a good experience,” Holmes said of planning the exhibit.”It’s a real hoot to be with these guys (Grout staff) who know what they’re doing and plan the exhibit.”
The contributions of Holmes and his fellow veterans are crucial, Dawson and Shackelford said.
“To me it’s invaluable,” Dawson said. “There’s no way we would understand the perspectives of anybody over there.”
“It’s indispensable,” Schackelford said. “It’s magnificent these gentlemen (and women) are around.” Given the attrition rate of surviving Korean War veterans, now in their 80s, “it’s imperative this be done now, instead of 10 years from now.
“The input of these gentlemen is exactly what we need to complete this project.”
“Most of us are old duffers,” said Holmes, who turned 89 in January. He’s already brought in some of his old uniforms. “The field shoes still have Korean dust on them,” he said.
Planning committee member Sid Morris of Cedar Falls, former head of the Tallcorn Chapter of Iowa Korean War veterans, is especially fond of one decoration he received from the Korean government on the war’s 60th anniversary, made from fence from the 38th parallel dividing South and North Korea.
“I slept under that damn fence,” said Morris, an Army veteran who served in the 31st Field Artillery regiment of the 7th Infantry Division. He served, at times, as a forward observer.
“I was on Old Baldy and Pork Chop Hill,” Morris said.
“I’m very honored they’re doing this for the Korean War,” Morris said of the exhibit, “because the Korean war did have, I think, a major impact on this country. It’s called ‘The Forgotten war,’ but it was the first war to stop the spread of communism. And that, I think is very important.”
The differences between the South and North, Korean economies and government are significant, Morris noted.
“That’s the best example I know of what freedom can do,” Morris said. The conflict is still significant and relevant today in light of the heightened tensions involving North Korea.
For more information about the exhibit and its planning, call the Grout at 319-234-6357.