Korean War Vet Turns Letters, Photos Into Book
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 3, 2003 Merlin "Mage" Magerkurth got one of the biggest surprises of his life about 15 years ago - scores of letters he'd written to his mother from the battlefields of the Korean War.
Merlin "Mage" Magerkurth and his son, Craig Magerkurth, pose with their book, "Pipeline Korea," during the Department of Defense's recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War armistice last July on the National Mall in Washington. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
His family found a large boxful of letters in his parent's house that his mother had saved for more than 35 years. His four children, three sons and a daughter, urged him to put the letters together for posterity.
"For posterity" became a book entitled, "Pipeline Korea," a non-fiction work based on letters and photographs Magerkurth sent to his parents from the battlefields of Korea with the 7th Infantry Division, 13th Combat Engineers. It also includes letters from his basic training days at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
"When we were at Fort Leonard Wood, all of our orders said, 'Pipeline Korea,'" he said, explaining the book title. "We were headed for Korea, but none of us knew where Korea was."
The book, edited by Mage's son, Craig, a 1992 U.S. Military Academy at West Point graduate, chronicles the elder Magermuth in the Korean War from 1950 to 1952.
On July 20, 2003, Craig and his mother and father were interviewed on a Chicago radio station in commemoration of the 50th anniversary signing of the armistice that ended the war on July 27, 1953. During that interview, Craig explained that his uncle had found an "old dusty box in the attic" of his grandparents' farmhouse about 15 years ago.
"It happened to be all the letters along with color photographs and newspaper articles about the letters and my dad's experiences during the war," Craig said. "My uncle gave the box to my dad, who had also illegally carried a 35 mm camera into combat. He took a lot of nice color photos and shipped the film back home so they were never confiscated.
"He had an amazing collection of about 150 color photos," said Craig, who served eight years on active duty in the Army. "My brothers and my sister talked dad into trying to write a book out of all these letters because the stories were fantastic."
Their mother, Pat, volunteered to key in a verbatim copy of 113 of the letters into a word processor. "As they were completing compiling the material, I asked them to let me take a shot at it," Craig said. "I compiled them all into a word processor format and had the slides digitally reproduced and incorporated them into the book.
"It was two years of typing and three-and-a-half months of editing using various other memoirs and all kinds of books as guides," he said. "We put it into our own format and made a book out of it."
The Mage, who was 22 -years old when he went to war, said, "To start with, my job with the combat engineers was, rifleman, ditch digger, mine clearing, etc. I was promoted into supervisory positions including assistant squad leader, squad leader, platoon leader and first sergeant."
He said he wrote lengthy letters so his parents would know what they were looking at in the 35 mm slides they were receiving. They sent him film for his camera. In those days, developing was part of the cost of the film. Mage mailed the exposed film in for developing with his parent's return address so the Army wouldn't confiscate the pictures.
The book includes the unbelievable story of how Mage nearly lost his sweetheart to an airplane propeller. He wanted to give her an engagement ring before heading off to war, but she wouldn't accept it then.
"When I wrote to her, I didn't know if she was still my girlfriend or whose girlfriend she might have been," Mage said. "It was incredible. We got our mail within four, five and six days. My mother wrote to me every night and I could anticipate a letter every day, so I had to write home.
"I got a letter from my mother saying that Pat had walked into an airplane propeller at the Moline (Ill.) airport," he said. "The propeller went in behind her left eye and took off her left arm. My mother said she knew there wasn't any way she'd make it.
"Then we got a little busy on the frontline and I didn't get any mail," he said. "I just knew she (Pat) was gone. The guys under me said I was really hard to live with - drove everybody pretty hard. They said the Chinese (enemy) had better watch out because I was a little more antagonistic than usual."
But to his pleasant surprise, the next time the mail came, "I got a picture of Pat in a hospital room with a store-bought wig on - really looking great - and a letter written by her nurse," Mage said. "I couldn't believe it!"
Pat said she wouldn't accept the engagement ring because she didn't think they'd been dating long enough to get married.
She said when the accident happened, she was working on the Moline Daily Dispatch between her sophomore and junior year of college at Western Illinois University. After taking a ride on an airplane, she wanted to get a picture of it.
"That's what was on my mind when I jumped forward instead of backwards getting off the plane," she explained. "A doctor at the airport gave me a shot so I wouldn't go into shock. They took me to the hospital and the best neurosurgeon in the country was at a conference and he performed the surgery.
"They said when I was unconscious, the only person I called for was Mage," said Pat, who was 20 years old when the accident happened on July 2, 1951.
She suffered a compound fracture to the skull, left arm, damage to a large section of the brain and a six-inch laceration over her left eye. The surgeon had to remove bone chips driven into her brain by the propeller during the six-hour operation.
Pat said it took more than two years for her to heal and about 15 years to get her body working well. Meanwhile, she and Mage were married and had four children.
In his letters to Pat, Mage told her some of the gory details of war, but didn't include that in letters to his mother. Little did he know that his mother and her future daughter-in-law were sharing the letters.
Mage returned home from Korea in April 1952 and he and Pat were married before he was discharged on Sept. 11, 1952. "My wife didn't like military life and my father was ill on the farm and needed me," he said.
During a visit to the Korean War Memorial on the Washington Mall last July, Mage said the memorial "is a tear-jerker." That's especially true, he said, when you walk away and the look on the face of the last statue in the 19-man platoon looks as if it's saying, "You're leaving us with a job not done!
"I was there for the 1995 dedication of the memorial and felt then like I was leaving without finishing the job," Mage said.