Wilbur Snyder dropped out of Hagerstown High School in the ninth grade and went to work for the railroad.
On May 7, 1951, he was drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Camp Gordon, Ga., to be a signalman.
But when he was sent to Korea later that year, his military occupational specialty changed.
“They handed me an M-1 (rifle) and said you’re an infantryman,” the 82-year-old Snyder said recently at his Funkstown home. “I had to get on-the-job training.”
The Korean War had been raging for about nine months before Snyder arrived at Pusan in March 1951. Shortly thereafter, he said, his unit, the 31st Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division, was put on a train and sent north to flush out guerillas near the 38th parallel.
“I didn’t have any training,” Snyder said.
He recalled his squad going to a house that was believed to be a guerilla stronghold. Snyder said the soldiers fired at the building, but later discovered no one was inside.
“We found out an earlier patrol took them out,” he said.
The U.S. Army’s mission at the time was to keep the Chinese and North Korean forces from coming across the 38th parallel to attack South Korea, Snyder said. On occasion, the Americans would advance about eight or nine miles north of the parallel, then withdraw to their camp.
Snyder said he was wounded in the elbow on Oct. 15, 1951, when he tripped a booby trap.
“I didn’t see it and set it off,” he said. “When I got hit, I didn’t know it. It was so hot and fast. The way I knew, there was blood coming out of my jacket.”
Snyder said he walked back to his unit and was taken to a hospital to have shrapnel removed from his left arm. He said he stayed there for about three weeks before he returned to the front.
“It took me six years to get my Purple Heart,” he said. “Someone goofed it.”
Snyder said he cheated death three times in Korea. The most memorable, he said, was when he was sitting on a rock and a sniper fired at him.
He said he had just gotten up when a bullet hit the rock.
“It was like a split second,” Snyder said. “He would have got me.”
Snyder said he was discharged from the Army in March 1953. He returned to Hagerstown and worked for the railroad for a few more years, then got a job at the former Statton Furniture, where he set the springs on furniture. He said he retired after working at Statton for 34 years.
Snyder, now a gray-haired grandfather, said he recently returned to South Korea with some other local veterans at the invitation of a Korean church.
The country has changed over the years, he said. What once were dirt roads are now sprawling highways, and skyscrapers have risen from barren lands.
“They appreciate what we did for them,” he said. “I think it was worth the sacrifice. I hope I did my part. I hope I did.”
Snyder said he can’t remember a lot about Korea, and sometimes has difficulty remembering the names of some of his friends who died.
“It was a long time ago,” he said. “They were the heroes, the ones who didn’t come back.”