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Veteran pays his respects

May 29, 2000|By JOSH POLTILOVE

The First Marine Division was surrounded four-to-one by communist soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir. It was a lost cause and Bill Hiser knew he was going to die.

Pinned at a mountain pass, his battalion huddled in the 40-below-zero weather, he tried to be strong despite his freezing legs.

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Fearful of enemy snipers and constant attacks, Hiser, a machine gunner, barely crawled. Though supplies diminished, temperatures worsened and half his division was killed during the three-month conflict, he was lucky.

Now living with blocked arteries in both legs because of frostbite, Hiser remains haunted by war memories. But every Memorial Day the Hagerstown native comes to a graveyard and pays tribute to his fallen friends from the Korean War.

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Monday, he remembered them at Rest Haven Cemetery.

"I'm here for my friends that never came back with me ," said Hiser, 65. "I do it for them. I think I owe them that.

"We all knew weren't coming home but the gung-ho part of us said, 'Retreat, hell! We're going to attack them in another direction,' and I'm proud of it."

Hiser tries not to think about his lost friends and innocence.

He tries not to think about the cold or how he couldn't build a fire at night because if the enemy saw you, you'd be dead.

He tries not to think about incoming artillery, but his Martinsburg, W.Va., home is near an air base and every time a plane takes off he worries, he said.

Sometimes he goes out by himself and looks for a place to set up a machine gun. He thinks about which way an enemy would attack, he said.

He tries not to think about his legs.

"There's tingling, burning, itching, blistering," said John Jackson, Hiser's friend who also sustained frostbite in the Korean cold. "It's sensitive to cold and hot weather. You never get rid of the pain."

Hiser worked a while for the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a member of the burial squad. His last funeral was for a Vietnam vet. He gave it up after presenting the flag to the man's 17-year-old daughter because he couldn't take it anymore. He was around death too much.

His worst war memories came back recently when he went to the Korean Memorial in Washington. There he recalled all the people he will never see again.

"I try to keep my mind occupied and to not think about it, but it keeps coming back," Hiser said. "I remember the faces. I forget the names but I remember the faces. I see the faces in the (Korean Monument) wall, and it brings back some memories, memories you don't want to remember."

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