Pearl Harbor attack boosted a life of military service for Hot Springs Bronze Star recipient
HOT SOURCES – When Ralph King raised his right hand to enlist, he wasn’t sure what exactly he was up to.
Barely out of high school, King and several of his friends had “chewed up” to enlist in the US Marines Corps, but were turned away by recruiting officers who told them there was no room for them.
Eager to enlist, King and his friends consulted with the local selection committee, who told him to enlist at a base in Nebraska.
Not sure exactly if he would have the chance to join the Marines at the base, King was parked in a crowded gymnasium full of recruits where he was asked to raise his hand to take the oath.
After that, King was welcomed into the United States Army.
“They didn’t even know if we raised our hands or repeated the oath,” he said of the men who swore them in.
King, 97, served 21 years in the military, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Today he will lead the Veterans Day Parade in Hot Springs.
King’s Army career took him from the cold, dense forests around Bastogne to the jungles of Laos. He forged a pioneering path in the military, first as a paratrooper, then as a member of the first Special Forces units, serving in the height of the Cold War.
King still keeps his discharge papers, personal statements and photos in a red filing cabinet. They include a signed letter from President Harry Truman, a document showing he had top-secret security clearance and his orders to relocate to Laos as the United States steps up its involvement in Vietnam.
Originally from Dowling, SD, King assumed he would spend his life as a farmer. He had worked in the North Dakota wheat fields and lead and zinc mines near Deadwood, SD
But after Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, King grew impatient to enlist.
After basic training, the army sent him to tank school given his experience working with tractors and combines. But he was removed from his unit for what he believed to be a mild case of measles.
He joined another tank unit, but King had doubts about being a tanker, given the poor quality of American Sherman tanks and the high powered guns available to German Tiger tanks. Instead, he decided to transfer to the airport.
“I think you have a better chance if you surprise [the enemy], Holland is where I jumped, ”King said.
King was posted to the 101st Airborne, 506th Regiment, H Company and arrived in the UK on D-Day.
His first participation in combat did not take place until September 1944, when he fell in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden, an Allied plan to thwart German defenses in the goal of ending the war quickly.
During the fighting around Eindhoven, King was injured by shrapnel from a German tank. The explosion left him with a small wound on his wrist, holes in his field jacket and in the shell butt of his M1 Garand rifle. The shell killed three men from another platoon who were next to King.
“I didn’t even know I was hit until dark [when] I started digging and my wrist was getting stiff, ”King said.
King was sent back to England for medical treatment, but returned to his unit in Europe a few weeks later, just in time for arguably the most famous battle of the 101st Airborne.
Unaware of the existence of a surprise German offensive, King had been drinking the night before he was ordered to go to Bastogne. Drunk on champagne, he said he went to bed in military gear only to wake up around 4 a.m. with orders to move to the Belgian town of Bastogne.
On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched an offensive as a last desperate attempt to gain momentum in the west.
The 101st Airborne was ordered to move towards Bastogne, which was along a critical road junction that would have been a main artery for German tanks. King’s unit had been ordered to attack the village of Foy but had been ordered to fall back on the American lines.
As he was laying a small trench, King heard a German shell entering and took cover. A shrapnel hit his shoulder, injuring him.
Injured men like King could not be evacuated but were sent to a makeshift hospital. The airborne medical company had been captured, so medics had to be content with the few supplies available to treat the wounded.
“We had morphine syrettes in all of our helmets, so we had a lot of pain relievers,” King said. “So that’s what we lived on – and the soup.”
After the war, King returned to the United States and settled in Gary, Indiana, but struggled to find work. He therefore decides to re-enlist in the army and is assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
When the Green Berets were formed in 1953, he was among the first to volunteer. King’s time as a member of the elite unit would take him close to the Iron Curtain across Europe to Laos and the Panama Canal area.
As a member of the Special Forces, he went through one of the most elite training offered by the military and was ready to wage a guerrilla war in Germany if the Cold War with the Soviet Union got hot.
Compared to his experiences in WWII, life in the Cold War military was not so bad.
“It was a good life,” King said of life in the military. “It wasn’t too hard to become a soldier back then, right after the war.”
After 21 years in the military, King retired in 1964 as a command sergeant major. He then moved to Hot Springs where his parents lived and worked at the post office.
Since leaving the service, he has participated in numerous charity events to raise awareness of veterans issues.
King is active in Hot Springs-based Foreign War Veterans Station 2278, where he is a member of the Honor Guard. He lives alone and always drives, although he sometimes complains about his car insurance rates.