Honoring friends: Poland vet recalls service in Korea

The former tank commander said his ‘miraculous medal’ got him home alive.



POLAND — Korean War veteran Joseph J. Locicero Jr. still can’t watch the “M*A*S*H*” television show.

Even 57 years later, the operating room scenes in the show’s Mobile Army Surgical Hospital are too powerful a reminder of the death and destruction Locicero witnessed during a year of combat as a tank commander.

It’s those people — the ones who were wounded and the ones who didn’t make it back— that Locicero said he wants to recognize and honor by talking about his experience during the Korean War.

Locicero, 81, was drafted into the Army on Sept. 1, 1950, a little more than two months after the war began June 25, 1950, and just two days after he married the former Susan Catullo, a 1944 graduate of East High School.

Locicero grew up on Summit Street and his wife on Albert Street in Youngstown, and they lived on Boston Avenue in that city for 37 years before moving to Poland 15 years ago.

“Looking back, [getting married] was a stupid thing to do because he was going to war and we didn’t know if he would come back. But, it all worked out,” Susan Locicero said.

The couple, now married nearly 57 years, have four children — David, Delores Pitko, Joseph III and Carl, all of Poland — and four grandchildren.

Staying local

Locicero’s football skills at Ursuline High School, from which he graduated in 1945, earned him scholarship offers from several major colleges, including the University of Southern California and the University of Georgia.

However, he decided to stay home and get his degree in education at Youngstown College, where he was a two-way starting lineman for coach Dike Beede’s Penguins.

After the war, the elementary and junior high school teacher taught in the Hubbard and Youngstown public school districts and at St. Mathias School in Youngstown. He retired in 2003 after undergoing two knee and two hip replacement surgeries.

In addition to teaching, Locicero was an assistant coach for Red Angelo at Chaney High School and also coached at Wilson High School when his son was there. For 22 years, he participated in beagle field trials and was a judge at club trials in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Some call the Korean War the “forgotten war,” but for Locicero, it seemed not just forgotten, but a war no one cared or knew about, even while it was being fought.

He said he came to that conclusion when he read a newspaper one of his buddies in Korea had received from back home.

“There was not one word in that paper about the war. I thought, ‘We’re dying like dogs over here and no one back home cares,’” he said.

Locicero sustained a severe concussion when his vehicle set off a land mine.

“I wouldn’t let them send me to the rear because I didn’t want a telegram going home to my family telling them I was in the hospital. So I walked around with bad headaches for almost a month,” he said.

‘Miraculous’ protection

Locicero credits his “miraculous medal,” which depicts the “Blessed Mother,” for getting him home unharmed. He said he found the religious medal on his mother’s altar at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Youngstown and wore it around his neck with his dog tags all through the war.

His unit, the 31st Infantry Regiment Tank Company., was part of the 7th Army Division that occupied and held the Heartbreak Ridge area, a 7-mile series of hills just north of the 38th Parallel in North Korea, after the 2nd Army Division had taken it in brutal fighting.

He was a tank commander and held the rank of sergeant first class when he was discharged June 3, 1952. He was awarded the Korea Service Medal with two bronze stars and the United Nations Service Medal.

The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, so named by American soldiers because of the succession of attacks and counterattacks in which entire companies of 100 to 200 men were wiped out, was fought between Sept. 13 and Oct. 15, 1951.

Some of the bloodiest fighting Locicero saw was when the 31st was involved in capturing a small town in one of the valleys around Heartbreak Ridge in an attempt to cut off supplies to North Korean forces on Heartbreak Ridge.

“Only 10 of my company came back alive,” Locicero said.

Locicero said his outfit was also involved in the Battle of Old Baldy (Hill 266), which refers to a series of five engagements over a period of 10 months in 1952 and 1953.

“We lost our company commander there,” he said.


As he was thumbing through a crumbling scrapbook put together for him by his brother, Pete, Locicero smiled as he pointed out this guy he played football with and that guy he went to war with, one of whom posed with a little North Korean boy.

“We called the boy No. 10. That meant you were no good. He was starving. We took him with us when we went back down south. He was still with the company when I left. I don’t know what happened to him,” Locicero said.

The scrapbook also had some North Korean money in it, part of a large cache of bills Locicero stumbled upon when his foot broke through the ground onto a buried box.

“I was told it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. We used it for toilet paper,” he said.

Examples of propaganda the U.S. printed to give to communist soldiers reminded him of one instance of propaganda the enemy used on American troops.

It was 40 degrees below zero, and leaflets were dropped showing a fat guy in the sun on the beach surrounded by beautiful women. The message was: “Money bags is in Florida lying in the sun. Where are you, Joe.”

“It made me wish I was in Florida, too,” Locicero said with a laugh.

For the most part, however, Korea was nothing to laugh about.

“One minute you’re having a good time with a guy, and then he’s dead,” Locicero said.

When asked if he was sometimes afraid, he said: “What do you mean sometimes? I was scared all the time. But after a while, you figured you were going to die anyway, so why worry about it?”

He said the hardest thing about the war was going to see the families of friends who had died, especially his best friend, Carl, who was from Chicago.

“I still talk to his brother about once a month,” Locicero said.

Locicero said he feels for America’s troops overseas.

“Even if they don’t come back physically wounded, they come back wounded mentally. I pray for them everyday,” he said.

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