On July 14, 1953, Russel “Russ” Borchardt of Clear Lake was walking to the officers’ quarters at a camp in Kumsong Valley in Korea when an explosion knocked him flat on the ground.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m dead,’” Borchardt said.
He couldn’t hear, see or move.
“I just laid there for a while,” Borchardt said. “My vision started to come back and I thought ‘guess I’m not dead.’”
Once he could move, he stumbled into the bunker, covered in dirt, thinking he was badly hurt. A medic dusted him off, looking for signs of injury and found none.
“I looked down at my hand and saw a little speck of blood on my finger,” Borchardt said. “I cleaned it and had to pull a pebble out of it. I still have the scar.”
He said he put a Band-Aid on it and that was the extent of his injuries.
The commanding officer told him the explosion was caused by an armor piercing shell that is meant to go through steel armor before exploding. The shell went deep into the ground before exploding so the shrapnel was absorbed in the ground, causing dirt to fly and leaving Borchardt unharmed.
Now, 63 years later, Borchardt feels the effects of those loud explosions he experienced in Korea. He has hearing aids he can control though a remote worn around his neck.
In October 1952, the Cerro Gordo County Draft Board sent 18 men including Borchardt for military service.
One day during his U.S. Army basic training he was told to report to his commanding officer’s office.
Borchardt said he was “shaking in my boots.” The commanding officer handed him a letter from his mother, begging the officer to let Borchardt have some time off to be the best man for his younger sister’s wedding.
“I broke down in tears,” he said.
The officer granted him nine days to go to the wedding. To this day, it still makes him tear up.
On February 20, 1953, his 21st birthday, Borchardt set sail and made several stops before making it to Busan, Korea, on March 17.
He and other troops then boarded a wooden train from Busan to an Army base near Seoul.
“We saw evidence of the war pretty quickly,” Borchardt said. “The further north we traveled the worse it got,” with destroyed homes, burned-out factories and more.
He was assigned to C Battery, 69th Field Artillery Battalion, a mobile unit, on the front lines, and was assigned to the communications squad where he first worked as a telephone switchboard operator then later installing and repairing phone lines.
“Our nickname was Hell on Wheels,” he said. “I can’t say that we were ‘hell on wheels’ but we moved around a lot.”
Borchardt had another close call in June in a location called Mortar Valley. Mortar fire started coming in and one of the phone lines to a large gun was cut. Since he had strung the phone wire he went out to fix it.
He was able to fix the break, but, “as soon as I stood up, the gun a few yards behind me decided to fire and the concussion knocked me to the ground,” Borchardt said.
He was unharmed but it took several days to fully recover his hearing.
Before one large battle, Borchardt remembers four men in his company who comforted them all.
They formed a quartet and sang the hymn, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” at prayer service in the mess hall.
“They were amazing singers,” he said.
Borchardt remembers huddling in heavy overcoats and ponchos with his crew in a ditch. It was cold, dark and raining during mortar fire.
“We were all scared,” he said.
In the night, he could hear a strong voice begin singing the hymn again. Then three others joined him.
“They relaxed us and we weren’t afraid anymore,” Borchardt said. “There were good things that happened, too.”
On April 22, 1954, Borchardt made it back to Mason City with another veteran from Plymouth.
“We took a cab to Park Hospital where my sister worked and surprised her,” he said.
Borchardt grew up in Plymouth and now resides in Clear Lake with his wife, Judy.