By DAN DEARTH
The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown
MAUGANSVILLE, Md. (AP) — Ralph Hoover spent the same amount of time in combat as it takes most people to earn a college degree.
In his 23 years of military service, he spent four years on the battlefields of Korea and the South Pacific, Hoover said.
“I’ve been fired at and missed and fired at and hit,” the 87-year-old Hoover recently said from his Maugansville home. “Have you seen the movies when they have machine gun bullets hitting at their feet? I’ve been there.”
Hoover said he has seen just about everything associated with war, including the death of friends and atrocities committed by the Japanese.
The Army drafted Hoover in 1943 while his family worked the former Kennedy farm in southern Washington County. It was on that farm nearly nine decades earlier that abolitionist John Brown staged his men before leading an ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Hoover said he asked to serve in the Air Corps, but the Army assigned him to the infantry instead.
He completed 16 weeks of basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala., then departed on a journey over land and sea that would take him, among other places, to the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines.
“The training was tough,” he said. “I never regretted it when I got to where the real action was.”
In December 1943, Pfc. Hoover’s unit, the 6th Infantry Division, hit the shores of New Guinea. The men remained near the beach for several months, then ventured inland toward the Japanese lines. On June 22, 1944, Hoover was shot in the left hip by a Japanese sniper.
“I was the first man in the company to get hit,” he said. “A sniper didn’t like me.”
Hoover said he walked to a nearby aid station. About a week later, he was flown to a hospital after the wound became infected.
“Things get infected fast when you’re in the jungle,” he said.
Following a hospital stay and the Japanese defeat in New Guinea in 1944, Hoover steamed north to take part in the invasion of the Philippines.
Hoover was in the first wave to land at Luzon on Jan. 9, 1945.
He said he was assigned with three other soldiers to guard Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
In 1942, MacArthur had left the Philippines and fled to Australia before the Japanese overran the islands and forced the surrender of thousands of American defenders.
A participant in one of the great prison camp rescues in military history, Hoover helped set up an ambush to prevent Japanese reinforcements from attacking U.S. Army Rangers after they liberated the Cabanatuan prisoner of war camp on Jan. 30, 1945.
The Rangers attacked the Japanese guards, then led more than 500 Allied prisoners — some too ill to walk — dozens of miles to friendly lines.
After that operation, Hoover’s unit ended up east of Manila, where he said he “tangled” with a Japanese officer who was preparing to throw a grenade at an American patrol.
“They let you go by as a scout and then threw grenades as the rest of the patrol went by,” Hoover said. “I was firing from the hip. I hit him six times out of six.”
He said he talked to Americans in the Philippines who had been POWs to find out if they knew Hagerstown resident Harold Hart, whom Hoover knew before the war and who was captured by the invading Japanese.
Hart was among 75,000 American and Filipino POWs who were forced to endure the infamous Bataan Death March.
“I knew him. He was a very good person,” Hoover said of Hart. “The Americans said he was moved to Japan.”
Hart survived the war and returned to Maryland. He died in 2004.
Hoover said he was discharged from the Army when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. He came home and worked as a paint salesman until 1948.
Hoover said he re-enlisted and was assigned to escort World War II dead who were disinterred from their graves in Europe for burial in the United States.
He served stateside until August 1950, when he was sent to Korea after Communist forces from the north attacked its neighbors in the south.
The combat-hardened Hoover said he saw a lot of young officers get killed because of inexperience.
“The Class of 1950 from West Point took one helluva beating,” he said. “They were thrown right into the fray.”
Hoover said he was part of the United Nations force that pushed the North Koreans to the Yalu River in the winter of 1950. He said the Americans had advanced so far that they could see campfires burning to the north in Manchuria.
Those fires were set by hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were preparing to launch an offensive, he said.
American commanders pulled Hoover’s unit back just before the Chinese attacked, he said.
Only a small percentage of the men managed to escape.
Hoover said many of the soldiers and Marines were critical of the American commanders, including MacArthur and Maj. Gen. Edward Almond, who advanced too far north in brutally cold weather and ignored intelligence reports about the vast numbers of Chinese troops amassing to the north.
“Why in the hell did they do something so stupid?” Hoover said. “Why didn’t they learn from World War II when the Germans attacked the Russians?”
Hoover said it was on the spring of 1951 that he devised a plan to capture 320 North Koreans without firing a shot.
Because the Americans knew the North Koreans were ill-equipped and starving, he said he suggested to an officer that they cook two large pots of rice out in the open and invite the enemy to a meal.
“We had the interpreters come out and yell `food,”‘ Hover said. “They weren’t going to shoot. They were too … hungry.”
Hoover, who never made it past the eighth grade in school, earned his general equivalency degree in the Army and eventually attained the rank of major. He retired in 1966.
Information from: The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md.,
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)