This is the second in a series of weekly feature stories on West Side veterans. Gustine resident John McCarthy, a U.S. Army veteran of the Korean War, is featured. The series continues through Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
GUSTINE - Military duty called John McCarthy when he was 21 years of age, sending him off to Korea as a member of an Army counter-intelligence unit.
McCarthy’s responsibilities involved interrogating North Korean prisoners-of-war who occupied and basically controlled the compounds in which they were housed by the thousands.
His two years of service to country started with a draft notice, which was not unexpected.
In McCarthy’s case, there was actually a family tie to the process. His father, John D. McCarthy Sr., was Gustine’s registrar.
“When you turned 18 you had to register for the draft. He was a man who did that in Gustine for a community service,” McCarthy related. “I registered for the draft with him.”
McCarthy reported to Fort Ord for boot camp in April 1951. The base at the time was a major training facility for the Army.
He was not entirely unprepared for the experience, McCarthy recalled, as while a member of the Cadet Corps in high school he had taken part in a week-long at Ford Ord which involved maneuvers and basic elements of training.
Among completion of basic training, McCarthy was assigned to counter-intelligence training at Fort Holabird in Maryland, where he completed a four-month school and was promptly shipped off to Korea.
He remembers his arrival, clamoring down rope ladders on the side of the transport ship and aboard barges to be taken ashore.
In Korea, McCarthy shared, his small unit of 15 or so soldiers had comfortable housing and often free rein to move about as they saw fit.
Typically, his role involved questioning prisoners to learn about their background and whether they wished to return home.
“Most of them were not communists. They were just foot soldiers who were conscripted into service,” McCarthy explained. “Most of them just wanted to return home. They had no idea why they were there or why they were fighting.
“It was unfortunate that we talked to so many guys who we just couldn’t help,” he added.
McCarthy said the counter-intelligence unit would also pass along any information to superiors which they felt might be of benefit, including insights into how prisoners communicated from one compound to the next.
One word of advice he shared was that U.S forces, particularly those of higher ranks, should not venture into the compounds, where the prisoners essentially had free run.
“We advised nobody to go in there at all, because you didn’t know what they would do. To go into a compound, you were taking your life into your hands, really,” McCarthy shared. “They were prisoners, but they really weren’t.”
Prisoners being questioned were brought out to the counter-intelligence personnel, he added.
Through most of his 13 months in Korea, McCarthy said, the unit was housed in a villa with its own indigenous help.
“Sometimes we were kind of on our own, and we had a good interpreter to go with us out into the field. We got a chance to get out in the country quite a bit,” he said.
One of the few drawbacks to that, he added, was having to be vigilant for roving gangs of guerrillas who would take a shot at the Americans.
As military assignments go, McCarthy acknowledged, his was a “good deal.”
But it was not without its trade-offs.
Insignia worn by those in the unit granted unquestioned access to officer’s clubs and high-ranking personnel.
“I was really privileged to have that, because you could talk to anybody,” McCarthy reflected. “There was no rank involved at all. We could talk to generals or to privates.”
But at the same time, he said, he graduated his training as a private first class and left the military holding the same rank.
“We had a good deal, but never advanced through the ranks,” McCarthy explained.
In civilian life, McCarthy pursued a career in the insurance industry and was a local judge in Gustine for about 15 years.
“I really kind of liked it,” he said of military life. “I think I grew up quite a bit over there, no question about that.”
A lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, McCarthy proudly served his country.
“It is your duty to serve your country. If you can do it, do it the best you can,” he remarked.”Just remember that you are lucky to be here in this country.”