NEW CASTLE Brothers' book tells of war duty
The identical twins became Navy corpsmen partially to avoid the life of a combat soldier, but they ended up serving on the 'most dangerous strip of ground on earth.'
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Richard G. and Gerald E. Chappell believed they were heading toward nice, safe, cushy Navy assignments in a hospital someplace.
Instead, the naive Ohio farm boys ended up in Korea for several months, from the end of September 1952 to March 1953, including about six weeks on the front lines, patching up wounded and sick Marines.
Attached to the Marine Corps' 1st Division, 5th Regiment, the Chappell twins, as they were known in Ravenna where they grew up, lived and worked in bunkers, at outposts and on patrols in the cold, stench, filth and danger that was the Main Line of Resistance (MLR).
"The area was called the most dangerous strip of ground on earth," they wrote in their book, "Corpsmen: Letters From Korea," which was published last year during the 50th anniversary of the United States' involvement in the Korean War.
'Lucky': "We were lucky to get out of it in one piece," Gerald, now of Custer, Wis., said during a recent interview at his mother's home in Ravenna.
Dick and Jerry joined the Navy on March 5, 1951, about nine months after the United States got involved in the Korean War on June 25, 1950.
"We may have liked war movies, but we had no desire to become any form of combat soldier," they wrote in their book.
So, they decided it was safe to become corpsmen. Unbeknown to them, Navy corpsmen can be assigned to Marine Corps units in the same capacity as medics in the Army, and can find themselves on the front line, in harm's way.
And that's exactly what happened.
After two months of boot camp in San Diego, Calif., five months of study at Hospital Corps Training School, and nearly eight months of training at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, they received the dreaded assignment to Fleet Marine Force, and soon were on their way to Korea.
Hundreds of letters: During their four-year hitches in the Navy, they wrote hundreds of letters to their parents, telling in great detail about their day-to-day experiences in training, on liberty, in Korea and at other duty stations.
"Hi Mom and Pop," was how Richard started his letters. "Dear Ma and Pa,' Gerald always wrote.
Fifty years later, the more than 300 letters became the basis for their book.
Richard, of New Castle, died of cancer July 21, 1998, before the book was published. But he collaborated with Gerald on virtually all of the writing.
Gerald worked on a computer, but Richard was an "old Royal manual typewriter type of guy," his wife, Janet, said.
Richard had cancer for several years and by the time he and Gerald began writing the book, he was not feeling well.
"The last thing Dick would have wanted was for this to be a story about a dying man who wrote a book. The two events just happened to coincide," Janet said.
Gave him purpose: Still, she said, working on the book gave her husband new purpose in life. It was interesting, challenging and fun.
"It got to a point where his illness could not be ignored. But, as sick as he was, he was persistent in finishing the project ... and lived to see it finished," Janet said.
"That's the way Richard was in life," his wife said. "He wasn't mysterious. He was open, steady and hard working. Both twins were. It was just the way they were brought up."
Mother's memories: Mildred (Ma) Chappell, who still lives on the homestead where she and Walter (Dad) Chappell raised her family, said the twins were "great boys. I don't remember them ever having a fight or giving them a whipping. I was concerned about them in Korea ... but they always found time to write. Sometimes the letters didn't tell all what was going on," she said, proving she saw through their attempts to shield her from some of the worst that was happening.
After the military, Richard and Gerald each received bachelor of science degrees in speech pathology and audiology from Kent State University, where they met their wives.
Gerald worked as a speech therapist in Lisbon and Leetonia after college, and his wife, the former Christine Cook of Jefferson, was a first-grade teacher in Lisbon.
He received a master's degree from Northwestern University in speech pathology, then a doctorate in communicative disorders from the University of Wisconsin. Retired, he is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
Richard received a master's degree in audiology from the University of Maryland and was an audiologist in Toledo before moving to New Castle in 1974. He became executive director of the New Castle Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center and then a representative of Pennsylvania Farmers Insurance.
His wife, the former Janet Cernohorsky of Lyndhurst, retired after teaching English and remedial and special reading for Mercer schools.
Both couples had three children.
Richard had finished compiling the letters for the book. After his death, Gerald said he was "kind of driven" to put the finishing touches on the work and get it published. "It was a project we worked on together. How could I not finish it?" he said.
When they began reading the letters, found in a paper grocery bag in 1997 in their mom's basement after all those years, Janet said she told the twins: "You have a book here."
Janet said her husband was skeptical at first, but the letters reawakened experiences he had not thought much about for 50 years.
"Dick never discussed Korea much. It was a chapter in his life, but not his life," she said.
The book, she said, is a picture of the twins in their youth, a slice of 1950s culture in mid-America and a chronicle of their military and war experiences.