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Korean War veteran visits memorials in nation's capital

The Korean War, as depicted above, was one of the most hard fought in U.S. history. During its relatively short duration, 36,574 Americans died in hostile action. Veteran Jake Yliniemi was among the soldiers returning from the front lines. (Submitted Photo)

Sixty-four years after departing Korea, Army veteran Jake Yliniemi received a heartfelt “welcome home.”

Sunday, Jake and son Jody boarded the WDAY Honor Flight from Fargo to Washington, D.C., members of the National Guard, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the State Patrol bidding them farewell. A band played patriotic tunes as they departed.

Arriving at Dulles International, they were again met by a band performing in their honor, Jake greeted with a kiss on the cheek from a young woman, expressing gratitude for his military service.

In two days’ time, the Yliniemis visited Arlington National Cemetery, viewing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watching the changing of the guards. They toured the National Archives, holding historic documents the military has fought to defend. They viewed the Franklin Delano Roosevelt monument, as well as World War II, Vietnam, the Battle of Iwo Jima and Korean War Memorials.

“At all the memorials, people came up to shake our hands,” Jake said, “saying thanks for saving our country. Even little kids…

“I think this is the best thing they can do for vets,” he said Tuesday. “We got recognition.”

For many, at last.

‘Got my baptism first day’

Elmer “Jake” Ylininiemi, now 89 and a resident of Park Rapids, entered the Army Oct. 16, 1950. He and Madeline were married a week previous to his departure. 

“I cried when he left,” Madeline recalls. “My mom cried when I got married.” As the second oldest of 12 children, she had played a key role in the Frazee household. “I was the workhorse.”

The Korean War had begun in June when North Korea invaded South Korea. China and the Soviet Union came to the aid of North Korea. The United Nations, with the United States as the principal force, came to the aid of South Korea.

Jake was initially sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., where his duties involved cleaning barracks and upgrading roads.

“They put us on a train to Fort Pickett” near Richmond, Va., Jake said. Madeline arrived at Christmastime with the intent of finding a room to rent. “But when they saw the uniform, they wanted no part of us.”

People with daughters did not look fondly on soldiers, Madeline explained. She returned home to Frazee.

In February, Jake boarded a train for San Francisco and was soon sailing across the Pacific to Japan, arriving Feb. 17. The soldiers were flown to Pusan, Korea, landing in the middle of the night. They boarded a truck and were “hauled off to Company B of the 5th RCT” (Regimental Combat Team).

He recalls entering his tent after midnight, and “a young fellow asking if he would be his assistant BAR man” - carry a Browning Automatic Rifle.

Although he’d had no training for the role, Jake accepted. “Give me a gun and I can hit anything,” he reckoned. At 3 a.m. he was awakened to learn they were moving the troops.

“I got my baptism the first day,” he said of being on the frontline, shot at on the initial day of his three-month deployment - that would ultimately come to an end after more than a year.

“The Army didn’t take care of us,” he said of having no winter coats, no long johns, sleeping curled in a horse blanket on snow and in mud - when the monsoon arrived. Socks were sent from home; of the four pair arriving, three were stolen.

The standard advice to remedy cold feet was to “wiggle your toes.”

“His toes wiggled for years,” his family recalls.

Initially, they had insufficient ammunition, and were told to make every shot count.

“I have seen horrible things, everything,” he said, citing FDR’s famous quote:

“I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea, blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line - the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”

“I hate war,” Jake agreed.

“He saw all of that in 13 months,” Jody said.

“The (Korean) soldiers were 15 years old,” Jake recalled. “That’s the hardest thing in the world. I went through hell…”

When he left Korea, he endured three delousings. He’d lost more than 35 pounds from chronic diarrhea.

And when he arrived back in Seattle, “there was not a soul there,” Jake said of greetings for returning soldiers.

“There was no welcome. Not ’til I came home.”

If mail man was honking…

Jake would arrive back in Frazee March 22, 1952, daughter Connie (Henderson) having made her debut on the planet six months earlier.

Because there was no phone service, Madeline had not been apprised of his impending arrival.

Jake had been writing almost daily, but the letters would arrive 10 or 12 at a time.

“If the mailman came over the hill honking his horn, I knew I had a letter,” she said. “But sometimes there was no letter for a long, long time.”

The delay was reciprocal.

When Connie was born, Madeline assumed a telegram via Western Union would be the most expeditious means of communication. But a letter with the news, arriving two weeks after posting, beat the telegram by a day.

Arriving in Frazee, Jake headed to the creamery. “Wilbert,” he told his brother, “I need a ride.”

Spotting the milk truck with two men on board, Madeline hair in rollers, dashed upstairs to the boudoir. She raced downstairs, babe in arms, to meet Jake.

“She knew her dad,” Madeline said of Connie’s reaction. “There was no getting acquainted. It was as if she’d known him forever.”

Jake would return to civilian life in July 1952, having been stationed in Camp (now Fort) McCoy in Wisconsin after returning from Korea. In the years that followed, the atrocities he experienced during his tour of duty would haunt him.

Madeline’s questions would be met with silence – and a request: “Promise me you will not ask me what happened in Korea.”

“I had PTSD before it was diagnosed,” he said of the mental health condition triggered by a terrifying experience. “I’d be the biggest drunk in the world if it hadn’t been for my wife and baby.”

Four hours of sleep is a “good night,” Jake said. “I get up, go to the chair and read…

“I hope God forgives me for what I had to do.”

Although he had a book with names and addresses of the soldiers with whom he’d served, year after year, Jake chose not to send Christmas cards. “We had seen horrible things.”

But his reservations would abate after a reunion with members of the 5th RCT in Texas a few years ago.

Madeline recalls a man grabbing Jake, telling him, “Jakey, Jakey, you saved me! If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here!”

Jake, Madeline would learn, had dragged the man, who’d been shot in the knee, off the field during combat.

The reunion proved cathartic. “After that, he began talking about Korea. It was good for all of them,” Madeline said.

‘Every veteran should go’

Initially, Jake had been reluctant to board the Honor Flight plane and head to the nation’s capital. He’d flown to Korea on a cargo plane, sans seats. On another flight, the pilot had nearly missed the runway.

But he succumbed to family persuasion, Connie at the helm.

“Every veteran should go,” he said Tuesday, wearing his “got freedom?” T-shirt and jacket.

He was surprised by three generations of Yliniemis greeting him at the Fargo Hector Airport on his return Tuesday.

“Anyone who’s served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam should go. It’s worth the trip.”