County veteran remembers Korea experience
Mel Ratzlaff, of rural Hillsboro, keeps a wary eye on the current political atmosphere in and with North Korea.
“It’s a disaster in North Korea,” Ratzlaff said. “When I look at it, I think it’s as big a disaster as Iran. They can wipe out the whole United States.”
Kim Jong-un, chairman of North Korea since 2011, has made repeated threats to use nuclear weapons against the U.S.
Ratzlaff takes a personal interest in what’s going on between North Korea and the U.S. He was 22 in 1963 when he was drafted and sent to serve in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.
Required to register for the draft, as all young men were in that time, Ratzlaff signed up and then waited to find out if he was going to be summoned. Eventually, he grew tired of waiting and went to the McPherson County Courthouse and told them to move his name to the top of the list.
When he was called up to serve, he hoped to go to Germany. Conflict in Vietnam was gathering steam, and he hoped not to be sent there. He soon found it would be the DMZ instead.
He was assigned to duty in a crypto center, where coded messages from one artillery unit were typed into a machine that translated the message into a different code used by another artillery unit. After that, he drove a jeep to the receiving unit and delivered the coded message by hand. Most trips were about three or four miles.
This assignment required top-secret clearance and only four men worked inside the crypto center. The jeep driven by the messengers had a sign instructing military police not to stop the jeep.
Duty was 24 hours working followed by 24 hours off.
He lived in a Quonset hut with seven other soldiers.
“We got very cold in the winter and we had one stove for eight of us,” he said.
Although Ratzlaff was eager to travel outside the United States and see other parts of the world, by no means was everything positive.
Some of the things Ratzlaff saw in Korea linger in his mind, such as the stench of rice paddies fertilized with human feces.
The end of Japanese occupation of Korea and its division into two nations, happening at the end of World War II, was when South Koreans became poor, he said. Each farmer had about an acre and a half of rice paddy to make his family’s living. The families lived in huts with grass roofs.
In temperatures as cold as 10 degrees, children ran around wearing only tiny rubber shoes.
“Children had very little clothing,” Ratzlaff said. The adults wore clothing that looked much like pajamas.
Seoul, the South Korea capital city, had open sewers. Families in North Korea had better living conditions, Ratzlaff said.
“I was over there a little over a year,” Ratzlaff said. “The tour was usually 13 months.” He didn’t want another tour after Korea, though.
“When I was getting out, they asked me to re-up and go to Vietnam,” Ratzlaff said. He declined. He returned to the U.S. and went to work for the ground crew of National Airlines, which became Pan American Airways. While working at the national airport in Washington, District of Columbia, Ratzlaff met his wife of over 50 years, Theresa.
Soon after their first child was born, Ratzlaff was transferred to Tampa, Florida. Later, he transferred to Houston, Texas.
Although Ratzlaff briefly thought about returning to see Korea again, he never went back despite he could have flown free via PanAm. “I never had any desire to go back there,” Ratzlaff said. “I saw enough of it while I was there.”
When Pan Am was going bankrupt in 1983, he retired and returned to Moundridge and worked as a lineman for the city. His second retirement was from Moundridge.
In 1983, he and his wife moved to rural Hillsboro.
Ratzlaff is a member of both American Legion Post 366 in Hillsboro and Veterans of Foreign Wars in Newton.
“I’m just supporting veterans,” Ratzlaff said. “I’ve done a lot of military funerals. I’ve done a lot of Memorial Days.”
His American Legion unit is one of few remaining in the state that can provide the full 13 participants to perform funeral duties, Ratzlaff said.
Looking to today, Ratzlaff said the military needs more support.
“I would want everyone to know out military is depleted,” Ratzlaff said. “Completely depleted.”
The reason that’s bad is because the worldwide situation is horrible right now, he said.
“I think to be strong in this country, you’ve got to have a good military,” Ratzlaff said.
Ratzlaff offers one piece of advice for fellow citizens in today’s unstable world politics: Keep faith in God.
“I don’t know what to think about this,” Ratzlaff said. “Whatever happens, I’m ready to go. I tell all the gun people that if they want to come take me, I’m ready to go.”