My Word: My baptism under fire -- the night of the outbreak of the Korean War, 60 years ago

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By The Staff

The year was 1950, and I was 19 years old, having just completed my sophomore year at the University of Kentucky, majoring in journalism. I was home for the summer, working on my hometown newspaper, The Gleaner, in Henderson.


Let me tell you first of all that working for a newspaper was not at all like newspaper work today. We had type that was cast from molten lead in the composing room where our union force was working. There was almost no such thing as air conditioning in those days 60 years ago, and certainly not at our office at The Gleaner.

We did have large fans blowing, but in the summer with the molten lead, it was a pretty sweaty business. Up in the newsroom, where my desk was in front of the clackety-clack of the teletype machine, it was also very noisy. And with all the paper involved, we couldn't have any fan blowing.

June 24, a Saturday night, I had been given the task – for the first time ever – of editing the paper for the next morning. In other words, it was mine alone. I was the only editorial employee on duty.

My job was to monitor the teletype and select the "articles" that would appear on the front page, with space on the back page for continued articles and items such as obituaries.

I sat at this wide green-topped desk, Underwood typewriter at my side, using the flat lead "rule" the width of the teletype paper to tear off the "copy" to paste up, edit and spike on the hook with the headlines typed to go with each story.

In the back in the composing room, the Linotype operators would be setting the articles, which would be stacked in "galleys." The men working the floor would ink the galleys and roll a "proof" that would be brought to me to proofread for corrections.

It was all a matter of deadlines, each story destined to go in the paper carefully keeping pace with the time-sensitive production of the morning paper.

Any unnecessary delay would mean that the circulation workers might not get the papers to the trains on time. The morning paper was hand -delivered in town, but out in the county, the papers went to rural carriers, and the rest was distributed by mail to all parts of the nation.

Important stuff, believe me!

You had better make the deadlines, or if missed, a great number of mail subscribers would not get The Gleaner.  

Probably by 9:30 that night, I had selected the major stories to be set for the front page, and was moving on schedule when a story moved across the teletype, heralding an airplane crash somewhere that was the biggest loss of life – ever.

No question, I had to remake the front page, move the airline crash to the top story on Page 1.

I can still remember the grumbling that came from the union typographers over that delay. Never mind that, I knew what I had to do.

With the crash story headed for the Linotypes, I drew up the "dummy," showing where the stories were to go on Page 1. No sooner had I spiked that layout on the copy hook, finally drawing an easy breath, than the telephone rang in the newsroom.

Because I was alone, not even a sports writer or proofreader there to help, I picked up on the ring.

"Hello," said a woman's voice, "is this The Gleaner?"

Where else? "Yes it is," I answered.

"Is it true?" she asked, "Is there war in Korea?"

"Where did you get that information," I replied, as politely as you please.

"I heard it on the radio," she replied. "Oh," I said, that means it came over United Press, and they seldom get anything right."

(We, of course, were charter members of The Associated Press in Kentucky; we always had it right the first time!)

Not more than a moment passed before my teletype machine began ringing like crazy. I looked, and the first bulletin was moving on the wire, marked "95," reserved for news such as The End of The World.  

I watched as the first paragraphs moved on the teletype – my heart sank!

The North Koreans had attacked across the line, and – in fact – the radio story had not been wrong!

Now crowding what anyone would know was the 11th hour, I jerked up my phone and dialed the home of Don Pepper, who then was city editor and my first line of defense.

"Don," I gasped into the receiver, "you've got to come to the office. This is more than I can handle!"

"Don't get all excited," he said calmly, "what seems to be the problem? Be calm. This is something you can do."

"War has broken out in Korea," I gasped, "and I don't even know where Korea is! You've got to help!"

(I had a great geography teacher at Jefferson Street School, but I don't think the subject of Korea ever made the list.)

I don't remember what Don Pepper replied, but it wasn't much. Thank goodness he wasn't more than a few blocks away and came in a hurry to pick up the confused pieces that were just too much for me.

Whatever happened after that, I don't recall. I don't know if we missed the mails that night, but it didn't matter.

We had opened the first page to the start of the Korean War, thanks to the help of Don Pepper.

Four years later, as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force, I did ship over the Pacific, landing at Haneda Airport in Tokyo and continuing on to Korean duty.

I shall never forget my first assignment, working as wing information officer for the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing at Suwon Air Base, Korea.

My commander was a person unknown to me then but who has since become the first general officer in the U.S. Air Force, the famous "Tuskegee Airmen" commander, Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

Gen. Davis was the first African American cadet at West Point, who was cruelly "shunned" by all of the other members of the cadet corps. He eventually was awarded the fourth star of full general.

Those are my memories of the Korean War. Okay, call it the Korean Conflict, but it lives in my memory still.

Especially that fateful night June 24, 1950, when I first "rode the desk" at the Henderson Gleaner.  

Don Pepper moved to The Paducah Sun-Democrat not too many years later, retiring as an editorial writer several decades ago. I'm sure he since has died, but not in my memory, where he will live as long as I draw a breath.  


Don Armstrong is a resident of Shelby County. He can be reached at DandyMame@aol.com.